We need to talk about structural racism

The ‘not all white people’ defence is narcissistic defensiveness that upholds a structurally unequal status quo.  Treating those who accurately identify the problem of racism as though they themselves are ‘the problem’ leaves racism itself to fester.

Reni Eddo-Lodge
5 May 2014

 ‘Not all white people’ is the rallying warrior cry that can be found whenever a conversation about racism and white people happens in public.

What happens next is a phenomenon that occurs on such a regular basis, it upholds a structurally unequal status quo. Even if the issue doesn’t directly implicate them, the person in question might feel indignant, or attacked. Perhaps they feel that a description of racism is, in itself, racism against white people. Then follows anger. The person of colour in question is almost always the target of this anger. As articulated perfectly by feminist academic Sara Ahmed in her work Feminist Killjoys, those who name the problem become the problem.

‘Not all white people’ is about a number of things, the most pertinent being that the speaker of this sentence hopes to absolve them from any complicity in an oppressive structure. Furthermore, it displays a dogged reluctance to examine who has the power in this situation, because that could unearth some nasty truths, and reveal a widespread complicity in the whole charade.  ‘Not all white people’ exists in an entitled, narcissistic state, believing that conversations amongst people of colour about race and racism exist solely to make Good White People feel bad. Worse still, ‘not all white people’ occurs at a high frequency in circles that consider themselves to be progressive.

 On the Left, the bad racists are Over There. The Bad Racists have their acts or words framed as moral aberrations rather than symptomatic of a structurally unjust state of affairs. The latest is the BBC’s Jeremy Clarkson, who has begged for forgiveness after being exposed by The Mirror allegedly using the N word in an unaired clip of Top Gear. This is the kind of aberration progressives love to condemn, whilst working in overwhelmingly white offices that are most likely cleaned by people of colour.

The truth is that nobody stands outside an oppressive structure, and those who feel they are untouched by it are fooling themselves. By existing in a structurally racist society, we are all implicated. In her TED talk ‘We need to talk about racism’, South African scholar Dr Gillian Schutte says ‘many of us prefer to see it in other people… But I’ve come to understand, in this process, that we belong, as white people, to a global system that favours whiteness over blackness at any given turn. It is also a system that bestows privileges that are unearned, onto white people, simply because of the colour of our skin.’  

The racial politics of South Africa may seem to be an extreme example, but it is from the most maligned fringes that we can learn from and expose the pre-existing biases in the UK. Gillian is of course right- the problem is global. The devaluing of black bodies and black humanity is what allows racism to thrive.

This global dehumanisation is complicated, messy, and is permeates all of our consciousness. It’s the reason why, as a child, I asked my mum when I would turn white. All the good people on TV were white and all the bad people were black and brown.  It’s the reason why black women in particular are subject to unattainable standards of beauty and femininity both informed by white supremacist ideals of what it means to be a woman, and it’s the reason why the skin bleaching industry is worth millions of pounds. Before we recognise it, we’ve internalised it. Unlearning is a life-long process.

Perhaps the most well-known definition of racism is often repeated but rarely explored in depth. The Macpherson Report of 1999 declared London’s Metropolitan Police institutionally racist. Authored after the death of teenager Stephen Lawrence in an unprovoked racist attack, the Macpherson Report uncovered a series of failings by the police investigating the case. The Met Police have been trying to shake off the unsavoury tag of institutionally racist ever since.  According to the Macpherson Report, institutional racism ‘…can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.’

A form of collective behaviour, then, illustrated by ignorant biases and racist stereotyping, backed up by structural power, and, more often than not, excused by authorities. Never as overt as the racism of days gone by – these days people of colour more likely to have a job application discarded by a potential employer because of a foreign sounding name and the racist stereotyping that informs that prejudice. 

The police’s institutional racism doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  Racism nowadays manifests itself less in racist attacks – they are reserved for the most immediately reviled by our press, like Muslim communities. Racism nowadays manifest itself in coded language and collective behaviour, quietly sweeping away dissent, embroiling itself in the myth of meritocracy whilst power remains pale, male and stale. Nobody wants to talk about structural racism, but ignoring it won’t make it go away. As a friend of mine once put it, structures are made out of people. We’re all implicated.

That’s why flimsy ‘not all white people’ get out clauses do nothing to remove anyone, least of all white people, from the realities of an unjust status quo.  The reality is, ‘not all white people’ misdirects anger at those raising the problem, exposing unhappiness at the fact that it’s being brought to light. There is an alternative for those who feel a stab of indignation whenever the topic of racism comes up. Take that passion and talk to your white friends about the insidious effects of structural racism until ‘not all white people’ becomes ‘no white people’.  ‘Not all white people’ is angry at the people exposing the racism. Not the racism itself. 

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