A simple goal was set by the Commission for Racial Equality pledge: To attempt to reduce the harassment and problems that the Black community face every time that a Politician makes dangerous comments. Somehow though, we'll always end up feeling sorry for the white victims...
The unseemly row about signing the CRE pact/pledge about using ‘race’ in electioneering is instructive for several reason. As a Black person I want to draw attention to a well recognised and common phenomenon in matters of ‘race’. It is when complaint of racism is made by a Black person, and before you know it, the White person plays the victim or injured party. A recent example involving Ted Wragg, the professor of education, who writes regularly in the Times Educational Supplement, will serve as a concrete example. He wrote a short piece about how to interpret/use pictures in the classroom. The picture was what he claimed was Aghanistani women wearing hijab that covered their faces. The accompanying guidance given was entirely eurocentric, and of course went into the issue of the rights of women (from a western perspective and as if gender inequality has been solved in the west!) My partner wrote to him pointing out the difficulties with such an approach, not least, with Ted Wragg’s advice to deal with the matter ‘sensitively’. The first line of reply, was not to deal with the educational implications of what dealing with the matter sensitively means, but to claim he was hurt by my partner’s brief letter. A Black Muslim women was offended and concerned by the approach a senior educationist gave, but all of a sudden Ted Wragg had become the injured party! Examples like these are commonplace in the lives of Black people. Politicians like Portillo claim the CRE pledge infringes their rights to speak freely. It is somehow they who are the victims of a witchhunt! Apparently, the right of some White politicians to speak your mind is more important than the physical safety and rights of Black citizens.
The CRE pledge was essentially about reducing the stress and harassment faced by Black communities every time a politician makes a racist pronouncement. Each time politicians make such statements racial attacks on Black communities and their properties increase. (Some Black communities also paid the price for the Gulf War and the reporting of the Rushdie affair.) We as Black people pay the price of a so-called democracy that then denies us equality. Freedom of speech – a much cherished notion, is not enshrined in law and never has been in this country. Indeed there are laws seriously limiting what a person can say. There is a law against sedition, which means that if you are a peace activist, you cannot attempt to persuade anyone from the armed forces to give up their job or refuse to do it. Equally, there is the law against ‘incitement to riot’, ‘incitement to racial hatred’, and there are laws regarding the use of foul language in public places. In any case, freedom is not the same as licence. Freedom is associated with moral responsibility, licence is not.
Despite the apologist views of Tories attempting to defend William Hague over his ‘Britain becoming a foreign land’ speech, on the grounds that the Tory Leader was speaking about EU interventions, it ought to be recognised that the coded language also echoed racist sentiments about the nature of British society. This Tory theme is an old one that has surfaced regularly over the past 30-40 years. The MP Townend who claims unapologetically that Britain is becoming a ‘mongrel’ race and that the notion of a ‘multicultural society’ is a bad idea, is saying what many Tories and (not a few Labourites) have maintained for a long time. It is slightly less respectable to say these things publicly. However, if Townend and his ilk consider a multicultural society to be a bad idea, perhaps they should not have had an empire that ruled Black people and taught them about how wonderful the ‘Motherland’ was. (In any case, the Black presence in Britain is older than the Angles & Saxons!) When in the 1950s Britain was suffering from a labour shortage, perhaps Tory ministers like Enoch Powell should not have taken out adverts to entice African-Caribbeans and Indians to do the ‘shit-work’ that White people didn’t want to do. The unpalatable fact is that it is the British who are the ‘mongrel’ race. The very history curriculum that the Tories imposed through the national curriculum teaches of the Romans, Vikings and other invaders and settlers who came to Britain. The Angles themselves were German immigrants who did not get on particularly well with the Saxons. Then of course there were the original Celts, the Picts etc. (Kenneth Baker, the architect of the national curriculum tried to ban the Institute of Race Relations cartoon book, ‘How Racism Came To Britain’ because it told a different story.) The British are a product of these various communities interbreeding. There is nothing ‘pure’ about the British – in fact the genetic mix is a strength, not a weakness. However, the Townend comment about ‘mongrel’ is again an old theme. It is based upon the notion of ‘miscegenation’ – something deplored and discouraged since the days of slavery. The English diarist Samuel Pepys wrote scathing of the White women who bred with Black men; not only were these White women letting down the English race, but these women were now considered no longer suitable for breeding the English race i.e. they were tainted. The animosity and often hatred of Black men having sexual relations with White women is a powerful theme running through racism and empire and the idea is still strong among many White people. Black men have frequently and consistently been accused of stealing White people’s jobs and women.
The row over the CRE pledge demonstrates that despite the claim of Britain as a fair and tolerant society, just how close to the surface racism really is. Despite the plethora of data demonstrating the racism of British society, politicians and significant sections of the public continue to live in their ‘idealised’ Britain where everyone is free, treated fairly and the empire was but a remote dream, sanitised of its exploitation and brutality. (By the way, some British colonies did not gain independence until the 1960s!)
This brings me neatly to my last point. Have you noticed how White people are good at labelling themselves as ‘not racist’ or better still, ‘antiracist’. We had Townend on the TV news on Friday claiming he was not racist. I could frivolously say, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck – it is a duck! In a similar fashion, when Portillo’s refusal to sign the pledge was being broadcast on TV, the news reporters claimed that Portillo had good antiracist credentials. What?! Is this not the Tory minister that applauded and added to the racist rhetoric at the Party Conference a few years ago when the speakers were railing against ‘immigrant’, scroungers on the state benefits etc.? Wearing a shervani to an Indian function where the rich sahibs pretend they’re chummy with White politicians may generate votes but most certainly does not generate antiracist credentials. It is not for White people to tell us they are antiracist. Black people will be the judge of that and we will judge people on what they do, as opposed to what they say. (Interesting how it much rarer for men to label themselves as anti-sexist.) And in the row over the matter of the CRE pledge, we all have taken our eye off the ball. Yet again, a government minister (- Robin Cook, this time-) deprecates racism but talks of firm but fair immigration controls. This mantra common to both Labour and Tories for more than a 30 years, is a lie. We have clearly racist immigration laws, directed specifically at Black immigrants while White immigrants come and go fairly freely. The other mantra, by the way, is that tight immigration leads to good race relations but is disproved daily. The racial attacks are running at 30,000 per year (according to The British crime Survey), discrimination in employment is rife, the government acknowledges the extent of institutional racism through amending the Race Relations Act and sets targets for the police and civil service – and then of course, there were 30 British cities burning during the uprisings..
Shahid Ashrif is a lecturer, trainer and inspector in the field of anti-oppressive practice. Please contact him for any suggested reading materials.
© Student Youth Work Online 2001
This comment was published on 29/04/2001