If anything sums up my increasing weariness at even talking about racism, it’s wondering whether I should even listen to Afua Hirsch’s clip on the Pledge where she tries to talk about racism to two white women.
For a lot of us her conversation is an echo of the million discussions we’ve had to the point where it feels almost boring and time-consuming to continue talking about racism. Let’s move on, find a new topic. What’s the point of continuously trying to explain it to well-intentioned white liberals who simply don’t understand it?
Racism isn’t just the prejudice you encounter on the streets. Framing it like that has allowed society to create a false equivalence where we can argue that prejudice affects minorities and white people equally – when in reality it doesn’t. Racism is also institutional and psychological, as Afua Hirsch tried to explain. Tellingly, her voice was drowned out even as she tried to explain it.
But then on the same day the Labour trade unionist and Leave supporter Paul Embery, a man seemingly determined to repackage the working-class as white, sneered at media schemes that try to increase BAME representation, regarding it as racism towards white people. Never mind that these schemes exist because of racism towards people of BAME backgrounds.
The discussions on racism just haven’t moved forward since the last century. Our understandings on how racism operates on an institutional level remains hugely incomplete and it’s left to the mental stamina of minorities to explain it, when we shouldn’t be forced to do so.
The term “white privilege” gets thrown about a lot but it applies to someone when they say that they do not “see race” or when someone shouts down Black Lives Matter by arguing “all lives matter”. There’s a privilege in not needing to talk about race and ignoring it because it just doesn’t affect you. It’s easy to call out prejudice that occurs on the streets but far harder to dismantle the institutional bigotry that lurks within society and that white people simply put, benefit handsomely from.
The complicity doesn’t come in not knowing about it, and quite often arguments about institutional racism and white privilege are often the first time many people hear about them – which in itself is another indicator of privilege – but it comes in refusing to tackle these systems by arguing that racism doesn’t exist anymore. It doesn’t mean that institutional racism explains everything and quite often it won’t. Nor does it mean that a white working-class person hasn’t suffered in their life, when they clearly have been oppressed by free-market capitalism. White privilege has become misconstrued as though saying white people have had it easy, when all it means is there are certain experiences that white people just don’t face on the scale minorities do. Sometimes this is lost in the arguments.
To critique what the likes of Paul Embery believe in, you only have to look at the vast statistics that show that minorities face heavy discrimination across universities, top jobs, housing, media as well as law. There is often a disproportionately low number of minorities in many job places and whilst that can be attributed to a number of factors, including cultural stigmas within the minority community, we should talk about the racist stereotypes that hinder people.
This is what Afua Hirsch was talking about when she says she encounters racism on a daily basis. When a white liberal says they don’t see race that’s because society reflects them and only conceptualise an identity for something that is different. White is the norm so it’s not seen, but everything else is different and has a label. And with it has a different experience.
Our identity is what defines us as different to someone else, what we are treated and mistreated upon. The argument of not seeing race is the utopia we all want to be living in. But you don’t end racism by refusing to see race. You end it by seeing the different treatments different minorities get.