Being Black and Brown in Britain

Racism, the point where power meets prejudice, is something we shy away from discussing in Britain, but it is a lived reality for millions on a day-to-day basis, a one-way stream of continued offense on varying scales.

Photograph: Gideon Mendel/Corbis

What was implicitly imparted to my black brother when he was consistently pulled out of classes or the playground and called into the headmaster's office, accused of consuming drugs, selling drugs or stealing phones until his mother was forced to come in and raise the issue of racism? Black and brown bodies are entering and exiting an educational environment rife with privilege, one which encouraged my maths teacher to laugh at my aspirations of a redbrick university.

Being white in the UK is complemented by a profound psychological privilege. What is implicitly imparted to a white youth passing through an educational environment continuing practices such as "setting, coaching and examination tiering (which) cumulatively disadvantage black pupils"? An educational environment that teaches a selective history, absent of moral duty; of colonialism as adventure and conquest as board play, of white as superior and colored as dominated.

The most recent British Social Attitudes survey showed that the last decade has seen a steady rise to the point where 30% of the population says they harbor some racial prejudice. Dr. Grace Lordan's research of BSA statistics since 1983 has revealed that the group that recorded the biggest rise in racial prejudice was white, professional, highly educated and well-paid men between the ages of 35 and 64.

The constant fear and threat to personal safety experienced by black and brown bodies in the UK are a form of continued state terrorism. Unless drastic action is taken immediately to address this upward trend of terror, we will only create a runaway environment of increasing violence. Since no individual is born prejudiced, one must take a deep look at society to fathom why, in 2013 and 2014, there were 37,484 racially motivated hate crimes, of which 40% led to violence and/or criminal damage and arson.

What is it that empowers a person to commit these atrocities? How much longer can we turn a blind eye while a machete-wielding youth slices a Sikh man in Tesco's crying "White power"?

Britain's colonial legacy is a living one; no one is born prejudiced, but in Britain all of us are born into racism. The state apparatus have never ceased the subversive encouragement of racism and the perpetuation of white privilege. Racism in Britain is infrastructural and institutional; it is a form of state terrorism. State terrorism looks like 105 racially motivated deaths since Stephen Lawrence. State terrorism looks like a 28 times higher likelihood to be confronted by UK police for being black or brown. Being black and brown in Britain, especially if you're a woman, means living in a justice vacuum and on an uneven playing field.

For several decades now our post-World War II military might has been directed primarily at black and brown bodies in foreign lands. This follows hundreds of years of depicting and treating these bodies as culturally inferior via slavery, scientific racism and other socially accepted means. These actions are compacted by a continued rhetoric of blame and shame by both politicians and the mainstream media toward black and brown bodies. Seeing things in this light we come closer to understanding race relations in the UK.

Just a few days ago I was told by a passerby in the street that there is "no way I'm your f***** brother, you're one of them head-chopping Muslims." I'm agnostic, but colored. We spoke for an hour and half in bitterly cold Leicester Square. We spoke of shared experiences, of outrage at the creeping decay of society's safety nets. He told me that he and many friends, "can't help swinging center right and blaming the immigrants, it's just that what we read... all the papers, and when we watch the all gets to us."

A family member of mine was recently physically assaulted at work by her white colleague (who continues to be on the job beside her) after he screamed at her to leave and "go back to where..." before stopping short of embarrassing himself. He went on to shove her several times. She feels uncomfortable in her work place because all of the white colleagues (eight out of 10) have taken his side, ostracized her and chosen to deny they were witnesses.

Photograph: Newham Monitoring Project

Race is of course a construct: invented by influential white supremacists in order to grant the privilege of whiteness to working class whites, creating an effective buffer between them and black minority ethnic (BME) working class people. It is both a horror and a shame that the majority of violence toward black and brown bodies is perpetrated by white working class people - themselves a victim of state terrorism in the form of structural violence.

Racism, the point where power meets prejudice, is something we shy away from discussing in Britain, but it is a lived reality for millions on a day-to-day basis, a one-way stream of continued offense on varying scales. Fear and loathing, overt or not, of BME groups in the U.K. remains a hallmark of so much of our societal interactions. As Alison Park, co-author of London School of Economics-based research into racial prejudice in Britain said, "Racial prejudice, in whatever guise, is undoubtedly still part of the national psyche." It is a wound that until healed will continue to poison the nation and terrorize minorities.

For many white Britons, addressing racism is deemed irrelevant now that we are effectively in a (fictitious) "post-racial" and "colourblind" era. An unsanitized Martin Luther King, Jr. is a bitter pill for many whites to swallow, as opposed to the squeaky clean version we are patronizingly taught at school in black history month: "Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to re-educate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe that they have so little to learn." There is much hard truth in this.

The was a recent open discussion on violence against BME bodies at the Brick Lane debates. This space was but one exemplary departure point of the conversation necessary to heal these wounds. Over 100 of us in a room hearing about what it means to lose a sibling to police violence and discussing the avenues by which we can overcome the systems of oppression in place. We must all bear witness in these tumultuous times. Silence is an offense and enough of it may mean that we miss the final opportunity to embrace justice and turn the tides on unaccountable power.

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