The Blog

On Not Being Racist

Racism is not something we get to fix, once and for all. Racism is not something we get to opt out of. To imagine it is is to vastly underestimate the way in which our culture is steeped in bigotry.

Video footage has emerged of a man with a heavy Irish accent racially abusing another passenger on a London-to-Brighton train. It seems the incident took place on Sunday the 26th of May, and British Transport Police are investigating the case. The video, which has been viewed close to 40,000 times, shows the man, who appears to be intoxicated, threatening to kill a black passenger with a glass bottle and referring to him as a 'monkey' and a 'mongrel'.

The description on the video alleges that the inebriated man had fallen asleep on the shoulder of a black passenger. When that passenger moved him so that he could get off at his Brighton stop, the awoken man took offence.

While this is obviously an appalling incident, there are some surprisingly heartening aspects. While the self-identified Irish man's behaviour was very aggressive, the other passengers were united in their defiance and courage. The man to whom his abuse was directed stood his ground without engaging. A number of other passengers stepped in to challenge the aggressor, telling him to sit down and be quiet. There is no question that this guy was alone in his backward views.

It has been reported that target of these attacks chose not to press charges. Obviously he has his own reasons, but it is perhaps a nice illustration of how racism loses its power when it is in the minority. The Irish man's intent was to intimidate and he failed. Elsewhere and in recent times outbursts like this would be far more frightening due to the prevalence of such attitudes - it can be hard to guess whether your fellow travellers will have your back if things get messy, or if they might instead join in the abuse. In this case, however, pressing charges might have seemed unnecessary. The aggressor is seen as an outlier and a drunken fool. Without the weight of majority opinion he is impotent.

One of the funnier aspects of the offending monologue came towards the end when the Irish man quietly claimed, "I'm not a racist". I can imagine most viewers scoffing a little at this point, since his behaviour is a textbook example of what we expect racism to look like. It's straightforward, brash and unprovoked.

Which is why I think it's important to look at this case in tandem with another that some might see as more 'complicated'. It's when the variables are altered that we can see the real nuance these cases bring to light.

In the case I witnessed the aggressor was an Irish, middle-class woman. She did not use racist language. Her dispute was with a black lady, possibly French, who some would argue provoked the altercation. We were on the bus from Dublin to Cork, and this lady had been on her phone for most of the journey. I thought she was speaking at a regular conversational volume, and it seemed like completely reasonable behaviour to me (surely talking is not forbidden on buses). The Irish lady sitting behind her did not agree, and decided to ask the woman to keep it down.

So far, so good. Grown adults can have discussions and disagreements regarding etiquette in public places without being disrespectful. To me, being respectful just means treating others as intelligent adults with reasons for their behaviour.

Instead, the Irish woman spoke to the black lady as though she were a naughty teenager. She loudly chastised her for her behaviour for all the bus to hear, informing her that it was "really inconsiderate." She presumed a position of authority to school this adult on decorum in a way that might have been appropriate, if not exactly pleasant, if the woman were a child.

To assume such a position of authority over another adult, especially one who is part of a traditionally marginalised and subordinated ethnic group, is grossly disrespectful. Not once did she apologise for interrupting the conversation, or make any attempt to find out whether the woman had an overriding reason for the call - for all we knew it was something incredibly important that really couldn't be left till later.

I don't doubt that the Irish woman would have treated other marginalised groups with similar disrespect - if the woman had been an Irish traveller or an obviously working class individual she would have probably behaved identically. If it had been a white, middle-class woman or a man she would have most likely spoken with respect, or even deference. This wasn't a question purely of race, but of social power generally.

The black woman responded exactly as you would expect someone who deals with disrespect all the time would. She emphasised that she was not shouting, that there were no rules against talking on one's phone on the bus and that she had paid her fare. She had clearly put some thought into this and was not going to let some white lady casually trample on her autonomy. The complainant was amusingly shocked to be disobeyed.

What's particularly striking about this situation is that no one on that bus came to the target's defence, in clear contrast to the passengers on the Brighton train. I'm ashamed that I said nothing, even when I was sure I'd heard the Irish woman advise her "You should know your place." When I later repeated this to my mother, who had been sitting separately, she assured me I must have misheard or misunderstood. If the Irish woman had really meant it the way I thought she did then that would make her a Racist - that monstrous, outdated villain, fundamentally different to you and I. We would have known upon boarding that there was a Racist on the bus because she would have immediately identified herself by an incessant stream of racist slurs and demands that people go back to their own countries. In short, she would have behaved like the Irish man above.

This view of racism, and prejudice generally, is one that really worries me. By focusing on outlandishly obvious incidents, the really damaging everyday cases slip under the radar. We learn that bigotry is a binary condition - there are those who are racists and those who are not - and there is no room for examining the mundane ways in which it is really perpetuated.

Racism is not something we get to fix, once and for all. Racism is not something we get to opt out of. To imagine it is is to vastly underestimate the way in which our culture is steeped in bigotry. "You should know your place" is the sentiment that underpinned this woman's attitude throughout. That would still have been the case if she had not verbalised it explicitly, and it does not make her some sort of outlier. She's just less tactful. She hasn't learned by heart the rules the rest of us have so as to avoid the label, and this discussion.

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