Race Matters

Talking about Race

With a central picture of Mark Duggan surrounded by other black people who have died at the hands of the police or in police custody, the front page of The Voice newspaper (16-23 January issue) asked ‘Who is next?

[caption id="attachment_198" align="aligncenter" width="360"]The Voice newspaper (16-23 January issue) The Voice newspaper (16-23 January issue)[/caption]

While it might be expected that a ‘Black’ newspaper would splash on the story of the inquest decision of lawful killing in the Mark Duggan case, the story spread further, and has featured widely in the national and international press. Even before the inquest began The Independent published a front page in 2012, showing pictures of 50 black people who have died in police custody. No police officers have been prosecuted for any of these cases.

Over the past few decades, the issue of the policing of black communities has consistently been in the news. This coverage contributes to a growing paradox, of race disappearing from the equality agenda politically, whilst being discussed on an almost daily basis in the media.

We need to examine this and look at how we are talking, and not talking, about race and racism. Two incidents from late 2013 typify this. One  arises from the remark of Havering Councillor, Jeffrey Tucker, who claimed that Havering's predominantly white workforce would find it "awkward and uncomfortable" to work with the ethnically diverse workforce in Newham. He said that it would be like, "an African team and an English team together". When challenged on this Tucker responded, almost inevitably, by saying:  "I'm not a racist, I have good friends that are black and anyone that knows me knows I'm not like that."

The other was when Roy Hodgson, the Manager of the England football team, used of the term "space monkey" in a remark directed at the Tottenham player Andros Townsend. While Townsend himself tweeted to say that he had not been offended, someone in the dressing room presumably was, which is how it came into public attention at all. In this case there is a remarkable closure around any accusation of racism: the incident was treated as trivial and nothing to do with race, merely a joke taken out of context. Indeed it was those who were offended by the remarks who were seen as the problem. They were seen as the 'political correctness police', who were taking an insignificant matter out of context as a result of oversensitivity. This outlook individualises racism as a matter of inter-personal communication, which is open to occasional miscommunication.

While there are significant differences between these two examples, what links them is the emphasis on the denial and the deniability of racism. Racism, as it has been widely observed, is something that very few people are 'proud' to proclaim any longer. However there is a continued interest in looking after one's "own kind", the preservation of "national culture", or a  "way of life".  These themes are not new, in many ways the infamous 'Rivers of Blood' speech from the 1960s drew on the same tropes.

But even beyond that, someone like Tucker can make remarks about how Black and White people can't work together, and air his concerns around the dirt and "filth" of the streets of Newham while seeking to evade accusations of racism through declaring he has black friends, a familiar get-out-of jail free card.

Race-talk, or sometimes racist-talk can be spoken "innocently" because the speaker apparently didn't really mean it, or can't be racist because s/he has black friends. Or, they are just voicing 'common sense', as in Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn’s depiction of Duggan’s aunt as someone with "a severe council estate face lift" who speaks in a “curious hybrid accent”.

Exposing how language works, as well as the too-often repeatability of stock responses to racism takes us some way to understanding how this situation recurs; the further challenge is to find ways to talk about race and racism in ways that address its everyday forms. By addressing these we can challenge 'good' people with good intentions and Black friends who may find themselves speaking in ways that reference and sometimes reinforce forms of racist language and power structures.

Karim Murji is a Senior Lecturer at the Open University
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