Tuesday 10 January 2012

Racism, prejudice and me...

Recent events have driven racism back to the top of the news agenda once again.

The conviction of 2 of Stephen Lawrence's racist murderers has attracted most attention, but alongside it, football has seen a flurry of activity with 2 men arrested this week for racially abusing players on the pitch and via Twitter.

Nor are politicians immune with Diane Abbott MP (Britain's first black woman MP) forced to apologise last week after tweeting that "White people love playing divide and rule".
The truth is that while stories such as these hit the headlines, there is some prejudice in all of us, however hard we may try to hide it.  Like alcoholism and drug addiction, owning up to it is actually the first step to addressing it.

What is more, prejudice within us feeds wider societal prejudice, which in turn feeds our personal prejudice, and so on... allowing institutional prejudice to survive and flourish.

I was a curate not far from the spot where Stephen Lawrence was brutally murdered in 1993.  Stephen was still a sixth form student at Blackheath Bluecoats School where I was also a year chaplain.  He had been in school on the day he was murdered, and I saw at first hand the effect that his senseless death had on the students there, black and white.

I was also a member of the Police Community Consultative Group for the area and saw well-meaning senior police officers undermined by the institutional racism which was identified in the Macpherson report five years later.  Such institutional racism had allowed some of the officers attending the murder scene to dismiss it as just another case of black gang violence, and led to accusations that the detectives who initially investigated the murder were less than committed in their actions to bring the murderers to justice.
As such I am deeply relieved that Doreen and Neville Lawrence have finally seen some justice after all these years.  Their dignity, commitment and forbearance is beyond words when we consider that for the last 18 years, they and everyone else who lived in the area have known exactly who murdered their son.

But I also remember an occasion when I found myself caught out, and my own prejudices were exposed despite my commitment to opposing racism.
Around the time of Stephen's murder, our clergy chapter welcomed two speakers from a race awareness team to talk to us about racism.  Both our guest speakers were black and as we sat there, one of them  told us what had happened to his son after being arrested by police in Tottenham some years before.

On learning from a friend that his son had been arrested on some very minor and dubious charge, he went to the police station where he knew his son was being held.  He asked for information and was given none.  He persisted and was finally told that yes, his son was there.   Over the next 18 hours, he then sat at the police station, while all the rights and procedures  his son was entitled to were denied him.
Finally in the early hours of the next day, the father went once more to the desk sergeant and said "As a magistrate, I hope that you won't be bringing my son before me in court in the morning - because if you do, I will have no option but to point out all the ways in which you have denied him his rights and call you to account."

The effect was almost instantaneous and his son was released without charge, but the effect of the story on me was equally profound.
You see - when this quietly spoken, middle aged Jamaican man was speaking, it had never occurred to me that he could be a magistrate!  My experience of meeting magistrates up until then had been exclusively white, and deep down a part of me was shocked (as the police clearly were when he revealed his identity) to learn that he was a magistrate!  A part of me had seen this man in a way which displayed "processes, attitudes, and behaviour, which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping, which disadvantages minority ethnic people"  (quoted from the definition of Institutional Racism in the Macpherson Report).

And prejudice is what prejudice does...
So as racism tops the news agenda once again, it would do us no harm to examine our own hearts and minds.  Prejudice is not just found in football grounds and on the streets - it is there in our hearts, homes and pews - anywhere where we prejudge people because of their colour, culture, gender, sexuality, politics or disability.

In recent years, racial prejudice in the Church has been widely addressed (although there is still a long way to go) but prejudice based on gender or sexuality has been allowed to continue unabated.  Until we face up to our prejudices, whatever they may be, we will continue to fall short of the command of God to love our neighbour as ourselves.


  1. I think you're very right to point this out, Benny. I recognise unwarranted stereotyping in myself every time I notice when a posh car is being driven by a black person but I never particularly notice a white driver.

    The question is how to overcome this prejudice? I think exposure to other people is the real clue here.
    After I'd lived in Japan I never again judged Japanese people by any of the stereotypes I'd unwittingly used before. I just see them as individuals.

    There are very very few black people where we live, so genuine exposure and a genuine melting of pre-judgements will be harder.

  2. I agree Erika. Exposure is indeed a real and potent catalyst for change provided that our hearts are open... I had a similar far east experience living in Hong Kong. It is difficult if we are not immersed in a multi-cultural context... but then there is always social netowrking!?!

  3. Benny, yes, there is social networking. And I have genuine black friends. They're then firmly in the "friends" part of my thinking and I no longer notice their colour at all. But it's not enough to normalise all attitudes.

    It's the difference between having a few gay friends but little knowledge about the life of most gay people, or really no longer noticing the difference.

  4. The issue of racism has been approached from several ideological paradigms. The Left is tinged with Marxist and structural arguments - particularly concerning Britain’s Colonial heritage. It is this that I believe can be the most destructive and unhelpful, because it relies on a pathology that frequently deposits the blame for the ills of all non-white people firmly at the feet of whites. It has an over reliance on historical narratives, that are simplistic and present non-white peoples as passive or weak. A typical example of this is any discussion of slavery. Slavery was alive and well long before a white man set foot in Africa. All Europeans did was make use of an existing trade - but there is rarely a mention of this – or of the culpability of black societies in the slave trade. I don’t want to get into a discussion about slavery here, all I am pointing out is that history has been skewed, seeing black people as the hapless victims of white domination – when the truth is a little more complicated. Certainly there was a domination of black people by European and colonial societies – yet it is also fair to note that there was a systematic domination of the lower classes within these same societies that had many kinships with slavery (the freed slave, Olaudah Equiano, writing in 1789, relates how sailors suffered similar punishments and curtailment of their freedom than black slaves). The white working class has far more in common with the black experience of history – and I would argue, the present (notice how the Royle Family, Little Britain etc. sneer at white sub-culture!).

    When I was training as a social worker in the early 90s we were force-fed the white domination narrative – we were also taught to see racism as something white people do to black people: which again is a gross over simplification and in effect diminishes the humanity of the black person, because racism and prejudice is a burden we all carry. In my first year social work placement, working as an Education Welfare officers in Manchester, I was teamed up with a young, Muslim teaching assistant, of Pakistani origin. One of the more tedious jobs was trawling the class registers looking for patterns of absence. It was several months before I noticed that whenever I queried a pupil’s absence, my colleague always sang the praises of children with Urdu names (thus of Pakistani origin) and was condemnatory towards children with Bengali names (i.e. Bangladeshi origin). This same worker also said I was racist when one day he kept calling into question the way I pronounced a pupil’s Urdu name – and after several corrections I politely mentioned that HE didn’t pronounce my name correctly, because of his heavy Urdu accent. In this man’s worldview, the onus of accommodation was all mine – and I think this example well illustrates the folly of the ‘pathology’ paradigm of racism. It creates hierarchies of oppression, that become internalised and veer towards reasons becoming excuses. Moreover they have a tendency to emphasise difference and ‘specialness’ which results in ghettos and a failure to assimilate into mainstream British culture.

    What I find curious is how the Lawrence affair has again presented black communities as passive victims. Neville Lawrence has recently stated that he feels safer in Jamaica and fears for his grandchildren in the UK, because of racism. The irony is that Mr Lawrence is at far, far greater risk of injury or murder at the hands of his fellow Jamaicans than he would be in the UK. And London A&Es rarely have a day goes by without several admissions of black youths stabbed or shot by fellow black youths. But it is a preoccupation of ourselves to look elsewhere for the real problems: weeks of coverage concerning the Lawrence stabbing – yet stabbings of black youths by black youths are so common they are rarely reported in London.

    The way forward, I believe, is to acknowledge racism IS a human property and not just of one group over another. Alas, until it is a subject we all own there is no remedy!

  5. Thank you Peter for such a full comment.

    Indeed you are right that white people do not have a monopoly on rascism. Having lived in a Chinese home in Hong Kong and having ministered for several years in Brixton and Peckham, I know that there are many manifestations of racism from all groups, nationalities and cultures.

    And I too have been accused of being racist (and indeed homophobic) in contexts and situations where I was being neither.

    However, what we can all do, is to examine our own hearts. That works for us all whatever colour or culture we come from.

    In Steven Lawrence's case I saw the failings of the Police and the dignity of the Lawrence's at first hand. That does not make me conclude that all police are racist or that all black people are saints, but it does make me recommit myself to strive to treat all people with the love and respect that I would like to be treated with.