Earlier this week a group of football thugs pushed a black man off a train in Paris and chanted “We’re racist. We’re racist and that’s the way we like it.” The Guardian newspaper tracked down one of the men on the carriage. His response was classic. He said that the incident wasn’t racist; the black man had been pushed off the train because the carriage was full, the man was rude and they could tell that he was a supporter of the opposite team. He also claimed that the song was about John Terry getting banned, it had nothing to do with the man.
Clearly this is all bullshit. I don’t even need to ridicule the powers of perception which enabled the group to discern that the man was a PSG supporter when he was dressed for work and carrying a briefcase, or go into the possible benefits for trains in Britain if we adopted the policy of pushing every rude person out of our carriages.
What makes the response classic for me is the way that the British will go to any lengths to deny that an incident is racist. “Maybe he didn’t see you”, “Perhaps he thought you were being rude”, “She probably didn’t understand your accent”, or “She probably thought you were a teenager”. These are all things which have been said to R when she has experienced yet another example of racist behaviour. It’s all bullshit. People treat R badly because they are racist, not because they are having bad days.
I’ve recently read a thread on a chat site where a white mother asked if she should get upset because a barber refused to cut her mixed son’s hair. She wanted to know if people thought the incident was racist. The barber told her that he didn’t cut children’s hair on the weekend when she first went. So she came back during the week, when he told her that he couldn’t cut her son’s hair because of its texture. The general response from other posters was that the woman didn’t need to get upset because the man wasn’t racist, the barber probably had that policy and black hair can be intimidating if you haven’t cut it before. The mother agreed with the general interpretation. Yes, she had been too sensitive; no, it probably wasn’t anything to worry about.
I have never heard of any barber saying that he didn’t cut kids’ hair on the weekend, and texture has nothing to do with running a pair of clippers over a kid’s head. It’s bullshit. The man didn’t want to cut this woman’s son’s hair because he (the barber) is racist. I am left wondering how this woman’s child will make sense of the world around him, when he is taught not to recognise the hostility of racist people.
The witness on the train in Paris was trying to excuse an overtly aggressive act of racism, but most of the incidents of racism People of Colour experience in England are passive aggressive. They are hostile, but if challenged, racist intent can be denied. What is both typical and worrying is the general move to support that plausible deniability, to collude in the denial of racist actions.
Attempts to excuse passive aggressive racism have a devastating effect on the victim. If the victim accepts the excuses for the behaviour, then they are the ones at fault; the child’s hair is the wrong texture for a haircut, R is too short and too American for good service, the man on the Paris subway shouldn’t attempt to get on crowded trains on the way to work. If they name the behaviour as racism (as R generally does), they are the still the ones at fault, this time because they are reading too much into an action. They are simultaneously too sensitive and too aggressive. The solution isn’t to look to the victim at all, but to look back at the perpetrator and call bullshit.
The Paris attack: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BgbYBmW1wGY