Race Matters

Challenging Whiteness

You’re not racist, so…

It is shocking that when we talk to people about racism, many assume that we mean incidents of physical and verbal violence, rather than institutional structures that maintain systems of racial inequality.

A large part of what I do is talk to people about racism in the UK. For many, because they can’t see it, and because they benefit (albeit often unwittingly and unintentionally) from its systems of privilege they are almost offended by the suggestion it exists. I’m then in turn upset by their insistence that we’re all competing on a level playing field, and that personal failing is the reason why many people of colour don’t achieve quite what they set out to.

And there are those who are puzzled when I ask them to join an anti-racism campaign because ‘that sort of thing doesn’t happen here.’ To some, the job’s done, there are laws to protect people from discrimination, and after all they are not racist, so what can they do?

But racism means so much more than the obvious, headline-grabbing incidents. And there’s so much more that all of us can do to address racial inequality. But to start with, people need to think about structural racism. There needs to be an examination of how some people are in positions of privilege and how that creates disadvantage. Everyone needs to think about what it means to be white.

If you don't experience or suffer from structural racism, you might not see it. You might go further and deny its existence and try to justify the inequality through something else. But it is there. Structural racism sits quietly, working to maintain the status quo and continuing a system of white privilege.

Structural racism perpetuates stereotypes. It institutionalizes myths and untruths, repackaging the lies so that they appear, at first glance, to be rational assumptions.

For example, structural racism means the statistics for stop and search remain stubbornly disproportionate. It’s structural racism that leads to the same drug offences being treated differently because of the colour of your skin. Black Londoners are charged five times the rate of white Londoners for cannabis possession. Black people are six times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs than white people, despite being half as likely to use drugs. In sentencing black and Asian defendants are almost 20 per cent more likely to be sent to jail than those who are white. The average prison sentence given to Caucasian criminals by courts in England and Wales is seven months shorter than those given to Afro-Caribbean offenders.

In this way, the whole of the criminal justice system is stacked against black citizens and structural racism works to justify its own assumptions. 'More black people are in prison, therefore more black people commit crime, thus it's reasonable that more black people are targeted in stop and search.' In truth, more black people are in prison, because they are disadvantaged at every stage in the criminal justice system - from stop and search to sentencing - as a result of stereotypes perpetuated by structural racism.

Structural racism means that, even now, we get told we have to work twice as hard to be seen 'as good as'. Structural racism means that if your name is not traditionally English, you will have to submit nearly twice as many job applications just to get an interview. And when we do get a job, our qualifications and competence are more likely to be called into question.

So, it you’re reading this and you’re white, try to consider what your whiteness means for your life experiences. Consider what it might be like to have almost every new person you meet imply that you don’t belong here when they ask, ‘yes, but where are you really from’. Consider what it might be like to do your job knowing that there are strangers expecting you not to be able to do it just because of the colour of your skin. Consider what it might be like to have every policeman think that you’ve probably stolen your car or are carrying guns, even if you are a member of the establishment.  And imagine how much harder it would be to find somewhere to live if private landlords and letting agents colluded to operate a ‘no whites’ policy.

Then think what you could do to play your part in dismantling structural racism. Remember, no-one’s calling you a racist; this is about the system not the individual. But as an individual you do have it in your power to help change the system, taking action beyond the legal safeguards that already exist. Without structural inequality we’ll all be better off, so why not make a change?

Sondhya Gupta is the Campaign Officer for End Racism This Generation. She is on Twitter @sondhyagupta.

Photo Credit: Flickr/Askal Bosch

See what other people are doing to tackle racism and racial inequality at www.endracism.org, and make your pledge for action so that our children will not have their life chances affected by racism.
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