I recall telling my father, rather fervently, that, in my defence to pursue English Literature as a degree, that things had changed; we were no longer second class citizens, that everyone was more or less equal now. He laughed, told me I had forgotten my place, and that things had not changed as much as I thought. Four years after this exchange, it is with great regret (and I hate admitting that my father isn’t wrong) that my Dad’s sentiments, while perhaps misplaced in what degree I wanted to choose, were in the right place; things had changed, but we were in no way close to equality.
The start of the decade has proven to be no more positive than the latter years of the last. In just over a month, Britain has left the EU, the royal family have lost two of their most popular members, and Donald Trump has cleared his impeachment trial; in other words, a former coloniser got her own ‘independence day,’ the royal family shoved out its only black member, and the personification of white privilege got off scot-free because of, well…white privilege.
However, in spite of the clear running theme of the aforementioned events, I want to bring your attention to the same theme but of three different events; three events that I cannot quite believe I am writing about in the dawn of the new decade.
Firstly, the tragic loss of Kobe Bryant, and his thirteen year old daughter, in a devastating helicopter crash. Kobe Bryant was not only a successful basketball player in the United States, but an international star renowned for his graceful conduct and generosity; however, unfortunately this was not enough for the BBC, who decided to play footage of a different black basketball player altogether in their report. It’s just a one-time mistake, you say? Unfortunately not. This is not the first time the BBC mixed up people of colour so effortlessly; when Bollywood star Shashi Kapoor died in 2017, the channel played footage of two other major Bollywood stars – Rishi Kapoor and Amitabh Bachan – instead. What does this prove? That people of colour are interchangeable to white people.
Secondly, the viral picture of a poster put up in a residents home in Winchester, titled ‘Happy Brexit Day,’ which flat out told residents to either speak the Queen’s English or leave, despite the fact that language on the poster itself has appallingly bad grammar; where on earth are the commas? The message, however, is nonetheless scathingly clear to them, immigrants had “infected” the country and, if they were not willing to completely integrate, would be asked to leave. This brings me to my second point: migrants are always seen as “taking up space” and are held to a completely different standard; can you imagine if someone from a different country had written a poster say, for example, on calling out racism – and the amount of flack they would get for bad English? The double standards for migrants are extraordinary.
I am aware that this poster also includes white migrants from the EU as part of their target, and not just people of colour; however, I want to make it clear that there is a distinction to be made here. The correct term for prejudice directed towards this group would be xenophobia, which is defined as disliking someone from any other country; racism, on the other hand, is not only the belief that one’s race is superior to another, but also involves the institutional structures in society that are built to work against people of different races; not simply those of different nationalities. I am in no way trying to delegitimise xenophobia, but am simply trying to outline the differences – the two have completely different backgrounds and histories, that must not be confused.
Thirdly, pop singer Katy Perry has been appointed an ambassador for the British Asian trust by Prince Charles, despite being neither Asian…or British. Perry said she hoped to “shine her white” – sorry – “light” – on the work of the trust. I can only hope that the upset of Prince Harry’s exit, the Prince of Wales’ second son, along with his daughter-in-law, has clouded the judgement of the heir to the British throne. I have no doubt that the pop singer has good intentions; she appears to be familiar with India and has done great work in the country. However, Asia does not just consist of India; and I can’t help but think of the other huge global Asian stars they could have appointed, who have also done great work while still being familiar with the intricate and complexities of the racial barriers that come into play in day to day life. What about Riz Ahmed? Or Priyanka Chopra? This brings me to my third and final point: people of colour are replaceable with white people, who are the natural default.
It would be wrong to say that things haven’t changed at all; my parents have had experiences that I never will encounter myself, and I am aware of my own privilege being part of a “model minority”. Nonetheless, brash statements such as “racism is over” or “class is the real problem,” are not only problematic, but extremely naïve. They ignore the intricate nuisances and complex history that surrounds race and the discrimination that occurs alongside it. The triad of events above show that society has progressed, but racism has run a dangerous parallel; it’s no longer just verbal abuse on the streets or physical assault; instead it’s the constant interchangeability, double standards and outright replaceability of people of colour, no matter how successful they are.
So what do we do about it? Here, my white friends, is where I pass the baton to you. People have often asked me “isn’t it your job to speak out for your people?”. No, it is not. It’s bad enough we have to go through all the crap you throw at us, don’t give us an extra burden. Go and educate yourself, it’s the very least you can do; and never, ever tell a person of colour that racism is “over”.
Image: Garry Knight via Flickr