Yesterday I went along to a lecture/seminar discussion, held by Dr Ben Gidley, at the University of East London, with a couple of my friends. It was an illuminating lecture which discussed the current political climate and negative rhetoric surrounding migrants, asylum seekers, refugees and people of colour. The seminar opened up many channels of thought which were both insightful and left me feeling reflective.
On my way home, I couldn’t help but think about two main points which had been brought up:
1. That being called a racist is worse than actually saying and committing racist statements/actions. Dr Gidley spoke about how being labelled a racist makes people feel like a moral failure and this makes racist people reluctant to admit that they are racist.
2. That prejudice is not an individual failing but a wider structural problem in our society which many are in denial about.
I focused more on the first point and I recalled an incident that happened to me last summer. I was on an internship when one of my work colleagues came over to me to talk about a ‘dodgy Indian on LinkedIn who wanted a job.’ Those were his exact words; I kid you not. To this day, I’m still not too sure why he felt the need to share this with me. It wasn’t like I would sit there, slap my knee and roar with laughter saying: “Oh my god! I know right? They’re all so dodgy!” Why would I participate, when my physical appearance and full name ties to me that region?
“I’m not a racist person, it was just a bit of banter.”
I remember feeling shocked and outraged: I didn’t expect someone as well spoken, senior and seemingly educated to come out with such statements. Thankfully I followed my gut instinct and told him that although I had the same accent as him, as an Indian woman, I found his statement inappropriate in a work environment and racist. Moments later, he turned up at my desk scared and sheepishly apologised by saying: “I’m not a racist person, it was just a bit of banter.”
It led me to consider a point made during the lecture; many believe that such attitudes and behaviour are exclusive to white working class people. Granted, that’s a nasty stereotype, but whenever we think about racist people who hate foreigners, we usually conjure up an image of someone wearing trackies and who has dropped out of school. Our language changes if the same attitude comes from a man (or woman) who’s smartly dressed and is successful; they’re called bigots.
Prejudice goes across the board and is not exclusive to a particular segment of British society or ethnic group. This is where the second point comes in: it’s a structural issue. The reason why I felt shocked by my work colleague’s comments was because I didn’t expect it from someone like him: white, middle class, educated, self employed and brought up in London.
Thanks to various (and hyperbolic) images of racism we think of rowdy, unemployed people who are angry at everything and everyone. Many of us, including myself, tend to associate aspiration, wealth and levels of education with higher rates of tolerance, liberal thinking as well as greater acceptance of other cultures and lifestyles. While this holds some truth, it’s not as straight forward as we would like to think.
Why would I participate, when my physical appearance and full name ties to me that region?
In our society’s quest to find some sort of balance, we’ve flitted to an era of political correctness which currently borders on being ridiculous. Instead of providing a safety net for those who are more susceptible to prejudice and discrimination, we’ve ended up creating a massive smoke screen, which has only exacerbated the issues at hand.
That day I was offended by my colleague’s words, but another work colleague might have laughed and joined in with the ‘banter.’ Another is the whole issue surrounding culture appropriation; I detest festival goers who wear the bindi as a fashion accessory without understanding the turbulent context attached to it.
It results in the following: “What counts as being racist?” and “How do we go about defining what attitudes, actions and thoughts are deemed to be racist in a climate where nobody wants to be labelled a racist without being vilified?”