Examining the ‘racial code’
Academic, author and consultant Professor Nicola Rollock’s new book, The Racial Code, explores the ‘subtle forms of racism’ that govern our lives but often slip under the radar. She talks to Shafik Meghji about using fictional stories rooted in fact to illuminate everyday racism, offering readers fresh perspectives, and the importance of self-care.
What was the inspiration for the book?
[The Racial Code is] about subtle forms of racism. That’s not to underplay the fact that there are more explicit and overt forms, which are more widely understood. But my thinking is that we – when I say we, I'm talking about white mainstream society, but also some racially minoritised groups – don’t necessarily understand or are not necessarily able to define the more subtle forms of racism that sometimes go under the radar, but, nonetheless, are pervasive, insidious and form part of the fabric of everyday society.
I’m fascinated by how racially minoritised groups navigate and survive racism. And that's formed part of my scholarship, as an academic. The inspiration for writing the book in the way that I have – because it’s a particular format that one perhaps wouldn’t associate with an academic – is because I think sometimes we as academics can be a little bit dry and alienating in the types of language we use and the ways in which we make use of theory.
And as a Black female scholar, specialising in racial justice, it doesn't really make sense to me to only speak back to other scholars… I wanted to write a book that drew on and was informed by academic arguments, thoughts and analysis, but would appeal to a broader mainstream audience.
Can you tell us about how you use the fictional stories rooted in rooted in fact to shed light on incidents of everyday racism?
I’m using a tool from a theory that has been much maligned on both sides of the Atlantic, and that in the UK has been misunderstood to quite a dangerous degree by certain politicians, which is Critical Race Theory (CRT).
One of the tools is known as ‘counternarrative’ or ‘chronicling’. I’ve looked at the research evidence, statistics, data, reports and reviews, pulled all of them together and extracted key themes. It might be around social class, about my own sector, about trying to secure a job, [about] policing, and I've crafted stories around each of those things.
Putting CRT to one side for a moment, my view is that stories can be a compelling way to engage a broad readership. Forget that it’s a contentious subject area. The hook for me is the story-telling element. I wanted to connect people [with this issue] in a way that was about feeling... That's why I've gone with this series of short scenarios.
There are also footnotes, should the reader wish to go into more depth, explaining where some of the arguments and ideas have come from.
‘While statistics are useful for helping one make an argument to certain audiences, sometimes they can create a distancing effect’
Your book really humanised issues that can often feel abstract…
Some people who’ve read the book have said, ‘I knew the headline data and statistics. But [the book] helped me’ – I'm talking about white people here – ‘to go behind that and understand how it feels and what the day to day experiences are like.’
Because while statistics are useful for helping one make an argument to certain audiences, sometimes they can create a distancing effect, whereas what I wanted was to drive home in a very real sense what’s going on at a macro level…
Racially minoritised communities still have to find a way to navigate an existence that is about race and racism. And that’s what I wanted to foreground in the book.
What do you hope readers will take from the book?
Different people take different things, depending on where they are in their journey around the subject. But I would say for white people… [I’m inviting them] to imagine that they have been living their lives looking at a huge painting and that they've always stood in the same place.
What I'm inviting them to do through the book and through some of the arguments and experiences of the characters – some are Black, some are white – is to understand there’s a different way of viewing that painting… It's about [providing] a different perspective or a change in perspective...
For racially minoritised groups, the same point holds, in terms of it depends where they are in the knowledge on the subject. But I’m hoping the book will offer them a language and vocabulary through which to articulate and refine their experiences.
‘I think the ways in which racism plays out are more nuanced, more subtle’
In the introduction, you discuss the role the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the subsequent Macpherson report played in your life and career. Thirty years on, and in light of the recent Casey review, does it feel like progress has been made?
The short answer is no. There are people who would say to me, ‘Well Nicola, you're being ridiculous. Of course, progress has been made, things aren't as bad as they once were.’ But I recently gave the Bernie Grant Memorial Lecture and in thinking about that very question I reflected on the fact people often come to me and say, ‘But you know, we're not called the N word when walking down the street anymore.’
For me, that feels like a somewhat unhopeful baseline. So yes, that might be true [that we're not necessarily called the N word while walking down the street]. But I think the ways in which racism plays out now are more nuanced, more subtle. Just because you aren’t getting called something explicit doesn’t mean that someone’s not thinking about it while they're interviewing you for a job and treating you accordingly.
So my benchmarks for progress are quite clear: it’s about outcomes – there must be a closing of the differences in outcomes for racial minoritised groups and, closely alongside that, our experiences must also improve.
I want to be able to know that I can take my son to school and [know] he’s not going to be more likely to be excluded from school than his white counterparts. I want to be able to walk through life knowing that I'm not more likely to die in childbirth than my white female counterparts. So unless we are in a society where those issues are addressed head on, I don’t know that I can say with confidence we’re making progress.
What are you working on next?
If you’d asked me a few weeks ago, I’d have said what I'm working on next is going on holiday. But in a serious way, to be a woman of colour – and a professor – specialising in racial justice comes with challenges. If you’re working in this sphere where you are not outside of the issues, self-care is absolutely essential. And looking after one’s mental health is absolutely essential.
I don’t hear enough conversations, in terms of my generation, about self-care. I think we hear it increasingly within younger generations, but there is a sense amongst older generations that to talk about the trauma and burden racial inequality imposes is somehow special pleading or luxuriating in racial trauma. I think that is deeply problematic – it prevents us from healing and connecting with one another.
So what I’m working on next: one is a project around white allyship and developing a training tool for businesses around allyship. But I’m also really clear that in order to do this work you have to look after yourself and prioritise self-care.
An award-winning academic, author and consultant specialising in racial justice in education and the workplace, Nicola Rollock is a professor of social policy and race at King’s College London and a distinguished fellow in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge. The Racial Code: Tales of Resistance and Survival is out now.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Runnymede Trust.
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