‘Am I racist? Of course I am ... ‘

COLUMN: The View from the Hills by Gareth James

Sunday 8th May 2022 12:59 pm
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That infamous Jamaican bobsleigh incident from Aberaeron Carnival...
That infamous Jamaican bobsleigh incident from Aberaeron Carnival... (Unknown )

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SOME years ago, I worked with former England and Wales cricket captain Michael Vaughan. So, I watched on with interest as a Yorkshire teammate, Azeem Rafiq, accused my former client of making racist comments. Though Rafiq’s claims have been subsequently corroborated, Vaughan still denies ever saying anything racist, but is ‘sorry for all the hurt’ experienced by his former colleague. I would have advised Michael to respond differently. But the reflex is defence.

A family member worked for many years within the Royal Household at Windsor Castle, so I read on when Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, reported members of the Royal Family had made racist comments about the colour of their first-born child. Prince William’s response was to invalidate, to assert the royals are ‘very much not a racist family’. His Royal Highness’s statement surprised me, suggests he never met Prince Phillip, for so much of my life a celebrated figurehead for our nation’s casual racism.

The Aberaeron Carnival debacle of a few years ago, in which the ‘Jamaican bobsleigh’ float thought it appropriate to black up, demonstrated this defensive instinct locally and personally. Flabbergasted to witness this throwback to permissive racism, staggered that such a distasteful gesture could have been developed with no-one highlighting how offensive, ignorant, and in no least part shameful to Aberaeron the idea would be, I took to Facebook to express my outrage. I expected some support.

Yes, but they’re not racists, shot back a full-throated ambush, they’re just our lads. And anyway, in spite of its appalling history, blackface isn’t really racist, continued the nonsense, it’s more like banter, a tribute even.

It is no more appropriate for white Wales to define what racism looks like than it is for a mugger to explain to victims how pain-free the punches are. And asserting our words and actions are not motivated by prejudice is no excuse for racist behaviour; self-identifying as non-racist just because we don’t like to be called racist, is not a defence.

Similarly, presuming the black man to be hospitality staff on ‘a regular-enough basis’, as Vaughan Gething tactfully describes his experience as Welsh Minister for Economy, should not be dismissed as a series of misunderstandings but recognised for what it is, as widespread racial bias.

The truth should shock no one. A procession of well-intentioned but dusty enquiries informs those who care that our United Kingdom has a significant way to go on matters of racial bias. Unfortunately, a collective blind spot develops when the British public is asked whether we do anything racist. All but the swivel-eyed feel obliged to defend; of course not, we will splutter; perhaps adding that this friend or that relative is a Person of Colour, hoping the detail might inoculate against all risk of being considered racist.

So, in reality we are content to define racism as awful things others do, such as hurling abuse and physical assault, but when our everyday actions can be called into question, we would rather know nothing about it.

Inconveniently, racially motivated assault does not typify racism. Making an example of one racist drunk serves justice, when that happens, but does little to change the discriminatory environment from which such attacks manifest. Racially motivated abuse is the vicious tip of a racist iceberg.

The scale of the iceberg is revealed in repeated studies showing white members of our community are less likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, and for the same offences, be imprisoned less often and receive shorter sentences. Job interviews are less likely for applicants with names indicating non-white heritage. When interviewed, panels sit closer and maintain more eye contact with white applicants. In hospital emergency rooms, black patients are offered significantly less pain relief. And you know I could go on.

Engrained day-to-day racial disparity characterises racism; bias measured again and again across establishments and systems including justice, health, education, sport, and reflected in diminished career opportunities for the non-white population. We’re all at it, we must be. Yet so defensive is the posture set against accusations of racism that discussing the reality of even the most obvious racial bias has become heretical to some. But it is dull headed to deny harsh prejudices exist. Far better to recognise the handicap, get over the sensibilities and think around our biases.

So let us take this less-travelled road. Am I racist? Of course I am. I leap into every encounter with preconceptions, biases, unflattering stereotypes, all contained within a trainload of cultural baggage forged in traditions trailing back centuries. How could I not be a bit racist? I recognise this without the need to feel defensive. I love my country and am well versed in our world-beating ways, but I am not responsible for historical context nor negative aspects of the rich culture into which I am rooted. However, in respecting a complex, often imperfect British backstory, I can make efforts to abandon our more toxic traditions. Forgive me if I slip sometimes, get my words wrong on occasion.

So, if informed that what I just said, or did, was a bit racist, (or sexist, or homophobic, or even transphobic!) rather than feel mortified, rather than fall into a predictably defensive posture, let us listen a moment, seek progress. Sorry, we might respond. I did not mean to offend, we may add. I have learned something and won’t do that again, we can concede with a wry smile. And suddenly, everyone’s a winner!

To fight our biases, we first need to see racism for what it is. We then need to accept ourselves, and so finally each other.

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