When I was at school, my friends and I went through a phase of demanding, “Is it ‘cuz I’m brown?” in answer to most questions.
At the time it seemed funny; it felt powerful and comic to disarm people. But looking back, there’s probably something there worth unpacking.
At that point in my life, in the late noughties, I was the most entrenched in white privilege that I’d ever been – and totally unaware that some of my experiences were indeed a result of being brown. At my mostly-white private school, I didn’t give a second’s thought to the things that were happening to people less privileged than me as a result of their non-whiteness, nor even to those who were darker skinned than me and discriminated against within the school. I thought of my race as a card to play. The illustrious race card.
The reasons for this, I now realise, were probably internalised racism – the fact that I hadn’t yet recognised or attributed any setbacks to not being white, certainly, but also the unconscious fear of being perceived as an angry Black girl.
Now, this is not to say that I was any less representative of my race when I was in school, despite the fact us brown folk were often described as “coconuts”. But my lack of awareness of the racial landscape outside my own privilege meant I wasn’t in a position to judge what were and weren’t acceptable jokes to make. Much, we might argue, like the authors of the government’s race report – a group of people who don’t believe in institutional racism and have thus concluded it does not exist.
The race report
A lot has changed in the years since I was at school, and never faster than in the last twelve months. Following the murder of George Floyd in the US in May 2020, the worldwide anti-racism movement erupted, with thousands taking to the streets in the UK in solidarity against police brutality in a series of Black Lives Matter protests. It was off the back of this that the government launched its Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, tasking ten government commissioners with investigating institutional racism, discrimination and disadvantage in Britain.
The report was published this week, and to say there’s a lot to unpack in it would be an understatement – at over 200 pages long, I can only pick out a few ‘highlights’, though if you want to see it in all its glory, take a look here.
Discrimination by design
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the report’s general conclusion is that Britain is, in fact, not racist. Instead we are an exemplar on the world stage of white-majority countries. The reason that racism seems like a big deal in the current climate of disproportionate unemployment and COVID-19 deaths among ethnic minorities, you see, is that there’s a misunderstanding of the definition of systemic racism.
The term is now so broadly defined that its credibility has been diluted and “undermined [in] its seriousness”. The definition that we should refer to, the report explains, is one coined back in 1999 by Sir William Macpherson, the judge in the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. Yes, it’s 20 years old and was used in a pre-social media and mainstream internet age. But perhaps that’s inconsequential?
The report does concede that the term BAME is no longer useful, and agrees that there can be “lived realities, and sometimes trauma, of racial disadvantage”. But it explains that this is a result of factors outside racism. “The idea that all ethnic minority people suffer a common fate and a shared disadvantage is an anachronism,” the report states. Basically, systemic racism is an old-fashioned myth, and the statistical disparities between races in Britain “do not come about by design, and are certainly not deliberately targeted.”
All of which begs the question: If an issue is neither a systemic design flaw nor a result of malicious intent, doesn’t that only leave those suffering the disparities to foot the blame?
As British as Bond
As concerning as the above is, the report’s headline-grabbing dismissal of systemic racism wasn’t the only thing I found uncomfortable when reading. No, there were quite a few more moments that raised my eyebrows.
Take the way in which the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony was used to illustrate Britain’s greatness when united. “It not only featured British icons like James Bond and the monarchy,” the report says, gleefully. “There was also a joyful expression of the contribution made by the Windrush generation, as well as the working class contribution to the country’s history and industrial might.”
Now, to compare a fictitious misogynist and the privileged by birth royals to a “contribution” made by the Windrush generation and the working class is deeply revealing, not only showing an othering mentality, but a lack of awareness of the proportionally unheralded work of the latter that created the might of the country we still dine on today.
Then there’s the claim “13 per cent of White people say they have been subject to racist or prejudiced insults on social media, the figure rises to 19 per cent for people from the Pakistani ethnic group and 22 per cent for Black people.” I wonder here what examples were given of racist insults and whether ‘White people’ – their capital W, not mine – were sub-categorised into white British, white Polish, white Irish or simply included as one homogenised group? This feels important, given that one of the major points made in the report is that our existing definitions of racism are too broad.
Sunder Katwala, the head of the British Future think tank, said that “The problem is that the race discourse is dominated by people who spend all their time on it. We don’t hear enough from people who just get on with their everyday lives and are not defined by race.” But that’s neatly skipping over the fact it is a privilege to not be defined by race, and it makes an assumption that those talking about racism are doing so out of a desire to dominate discourse, rather than through a desire for change.
It’s not enough to just say no
To use an analogy given to me by my boyfriend, if you’re asked by someone to fix a big plumbing leak but, on arrival at their house, you decide that it’s more of a trickle, you are not negating the problem. Whatever language you use to describe the issue, the leak still exists. The person whose house it is still has to inhabit their space with that drip drip, whether it becomes a flood or not. However the situation looks from the outside, it is not the same as living it. Irrespective of everything else, the leak still needs to be dealt with, and language alone isn’t enough to sort that problem.
Think back to Prince William after the Meghan and Harry interview with Oprah. His assurances that the royal family is “very much not racist” didn’t quite hit the mark for exactly that reason. In the absence of evidence, consideration or argument, it simply isn’t good enough for your defence to be denying the problem’s existence – especially not if you’re denying it purely because you haven’t experienced it yourself.
Similarly, it’s not enough for this government-appointed commission to explain that the issue of racial disparity doesn’t come from systemic racism. Explaining that our definition is wrong doesn’t change the fact that the issue exists. Instead, it gaslights us by removing the language that we rely on to navigate the landscape of racial discrimination in Britain.
Is it cuz I’m brown?
Back when I was at school, the late noughties offered a good sandpit in which to throw rebuttals like, “Is it cuz I’m brown?”. Coming out of Blair’s Britain, being seen to lack political correctness was a prevalent fear for so many. People didn’t want to argue back with me, because I looked like I represented the voice of those oppressed. But as a privately educated, middle class teenager who believed that racism didn’t exist anymore, I had no business being an authority on these issues.
Similarly, today we’ve reached a point in society where it should be clear that sending a group of middle-aged, privileged, Conservative-leaning people to investigate reports of racism in Britain isn’t appropriate – even if they’re Black and brown middle-aged, privileged, Conservative-leaning people. Because the main issue is not optics, and that’s why the Race and Ethnic Disparities Commission misses the mark. It doesn’t matter that its members aren’t white. What matters is that they need to embody the experiences of those on whom they’re reporting.
Perhaps the biggest lesson we can all take from this futile exercise is that optics alone are not enough to legitimise the commission’s findings. Because the assumption that your brownness gives you sufficient authority to decide what is and isn’t racist is a very dangerous line to take – and the fact Britain took it says more about our outlook than this report ever could…