Mona Chalabi’s Is Britain Racist? (BBC 3) was most entertaining and raised some interesting questions. As someone who has been a sociologist of race and racism for a long time, little was new to me but it’s good to see it done in a way that a non-expert public can relate to, and also without the over-the-top doom-mongering that some pop-TV approaches have taken. It pointed out that perhaps everyone carries around racial stereotypes, and so is then ‘a little bit racist’, and did this without condemning the public.
This was particularly effective when the presenter herself found that the Implicit Association Test showed she had a slight preference for ‘white’ faces over ‘black’, despite her own skin. When this upset her, being surprised that societal images had moulded her own mind, I laughed as me and my colleagues would expect exactly that. Indeed, in some studies even those who are ‘black’ are found to be racist (in one way or another) against others who are ‘black'.
This then raises the question, implicit in the title, of what exactly we mean by racist. Others (in particular see Back, Crabbe and Solomos on the racist/hooligan couplet, 1999) have pointed out that seeing racism as something that only exists in particular deviant groups is a gross simplification that ignores wider societal issues. I’ve also argues that this conveniently gives the dominant culture, whatever that is, a pass: ‘we’re not racist because it’s the BNP/ skinheads/ the white working class (delete as appropriate) who are racist’. Given that the facts on the ground have never supported this, accusations of racism can be just another stick to beat marginalised people. But to say that racism is everywhere (including in minorities) can then be interpreted as though it were a natural fact of life, and either no-ones fault, or inevitable, and no-one population is more likely to be victimised or victimising.
Thus a question like ‘Is Britain Racist?’ is much the same as the question ‘Is Britain Wet?’. To some extent, humans hold racial stereotypes and prejudices, some act on them and some do not. As Mona points out, we are products of our cultural surroundings. Britain is populated by humans, therefore… The real question, though, is what does this mean, both in terms of texture and trends, and this is exactly where some of the experiments done on the show, and the other data mentioned, actually shows something interesting. So we see that a ‘black’ young man gets stopped by shop security more than others, because society prejudges that a female in a hijab wouldn’t steal from Boots. When the female dons a face covering she gets random abuse from strangers. And even the liberal young people of the Pub on the Park (one of my favourite places) come up as having some prejudice in the IAT. But what does this add up to? What are the trends?
Thus, it’s important to note that, while there is a background of pervasive societal racism(s) – including positive prejudices, what happens is a result of the individual actions that result. We have to think about motive, contexts, actions, and impacts. There’s a difference between a deeply held racist mindset resulting in an attack, and an unthinking prejudging that results in a faux pas. Indeed, racist incidents need not be motivated by racism. Bernard Guerin shows how even a well-meaning decision to challenge prejudice can end up as a racist event: one example would be not offering a hand to a woman who you have prejudged to not want a handshake, where in order to avoid awkwardness (i.e. taking her feelings into account) it ends up as a discriminatory act (Guerin 2006). Positive stereotypes – a group is better at sport, maths, whatever – are still discriminatory. An assessment of British racism needs to be a full picture of all the incidents, with different forms of racism present, even including those prejudices against dominant groups, while keeping in mind that this is all structured by a national culture (itself varying across time and space).
And it is this last point that points to the most important question. We can assume that culture and society changes over time, through the population changing (births, deaths, migrations) and through individual change. This change need not be linear and straightforward: there is nothing contradictory about a society where the average level of tolerance for others seen as being of another kind is increasing, but racist attacks are also increasing. If 80% of people have become less racist (but would never have been obviously racist anyway) but 20% of people have become more racist, we will get indicators going in opposite directions. Any analysis like this has to be comparative too: hence Is Britain Still Racist? is really a question about whether Britain is less racist or more racist than other places, or other times.
The most interesting part for me, however, was about the way that individual experience can create change. So Mona Chalabi spent some time imagining she was black, and then was tested as having a lower unconscious racial bias. Her final point was that thinking about how racism works, being more honest about how much it pervades social life, and so talking about behaviour and behaviour change might make people think differently. On this, I wholeheartedly agree but know that it takes effort. Furthermore, and returning to Bernard Guerin, this needs to be done by noting racist incidents without assuming ‘racists’ (stereotyped as unreformable, beyond-the-pale individuals) and ‘racism’ (as an accusation to be made at parts of society the powerful don’t like). Only with goodwill and trust will people be willing to admit problems and not be resistant to change.