Two hours after the launch of The Independent Group on Monday, founding member Angela Smith found herself at the centre of racism accusations.
The obligatory apology followed but in the subsequent media storm around Shamima Begum, Smith’s comments have been left largely un-interrogated by our mainstream media. But what if her ‘mis-speak’ has exposed a feature of British politics, our wider society, and our relationship with race?
It seems that while we have many uncomfortable questions to confront, we would prefer not to give them a name.
In Smith’s case, fumbling for the acronym BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) somehow morphed into the phrase ‘funny tin-’? Whether the word she belatedly cut short was ‘tinge’ or ‘tint’ doesn’t really matter. This was an insulting and revealing turn of phrase that exposed an underlying arrogance about race that I only ever encounter in White people.
Our attitude often seems to be that race doesn’t affect our day to day lives, so why should we be expected to engage in a conversation about it? Why should we know the ‘right words’ and why shouldn’t we demand understanding and forgiveness when we get it wrong? The ways in which White people prioritise our own feelings in conversations about race and racism are infinite.
Part of my privilege as a White person is that it is easy for me to make allowances for Average Cathy off the street who might be engaging in a conversation about race for the first time. I’m not directly impacted by any mistakes she might make so it is easier for me not to be offended and to undertake the labour of explaining a different way of looking at it. Essentially, we all start from different places of awareness.
But Angela Smith is a politician. Isn’t it her job to be informed?
Isn’t is her job to represent people who are not like her?
And how well can we assume she is doing this job when she made her remarks as part of a BBC Politics Live discussion around how gender or race might put a person at a disadvantage?
The idea that Smith considered herself qualified to discuss these issues is mind-bending. Her ‘mis-speak’ exposed a lack of engagement with any issues around race at all. It perhaps also betrays just how dominant whiteness is in her life, and how normative it is in her world-view.
I remain unconvinced by the anti-racist credentials she claims for herself in her apology. But when you reflect that 14% of the British population is from a BAME background, compared to just 8% of MPs, it is a pattern of complacent paternalism that is repeated over and over again.
But does this expose her as a raging racist? It’s not as though she used the N-word, the P-word or talked about walking the streets looking for anyone a “funny tinge” to beat up and murder is it…? But therein lies one of the biggest misconceptions about what racism actually is.
There is a widely held view that racism is only racism when it is explicit and malicious: the insults in the street, the dog excrement through the door, the slurs daubed across the front of the house…
But the inequalities evident in maternal mortality rates (Black women are five times more likely, and Asian women are twice as likely, than White women to die from pregnancy related causes), and representation in rooms of power and influence from university classrooms (just 0.6% of professors at UK universities are Black) to business boardrooms (8% of the directors of top firms are from ethnic minorities, but UK citizens from such backgrounds account for just 2% of roles, despite making up 14% of the population), are just some of those often shrugged off as nothing to do with skin colour.
Structural and institutional racism is not accompanied by the shaven-headed, flag-waving, yellow-jacket-wearing, hollering hallmarks of “real” racism that make it easy to identify and condemn. Rather, it occurs in the streets, buildings, and workplaces that many of us occupy. To acknowledge its existence requires us to interrogate the ways in which we might be complicit. It requires us to accept accountability.
This is hard. It disrupts the idea most of us hold about ourselves that we are ‘Good People’ who ‘don’t think like that’, so more often than not we don’t do it.
We do not talk about the centuries of conditioning that have taken place before us. We deny that all of us have been marinated in a system that encourages us to subconsciously attribute groups of people with varying degrees of status, intelligence, worthiness, beauty, honesty, integrity, and work ethic on the basis of skin colour.
When the system at play is then identified as White Supremacy, we White people hear the call of our ego and retreat into defence. We fail to acknowledge the damage that is being done. We become unable to challenge how this conditioning manifests itself in our own lives.
We would rather say we’re not racist… we don’t see colour… we’re all members of the same race – the human race… along with a multitude of other well-intentioned but ultimately meaningless platitudes.
We stumble over the words Black and Brown; the phrase People of Colour perhaps feels too American and carries its own set of limitations (not all ‘People of Colour’ will have the same experiences, for starters); even the soulless acronym BAME has been sanitised further by a habit of pronouncing it “Bay-me” in certain circles.
We White people can’t quite seem to get to grips with talking about skin colour. Perhaps deep down we see naming our differences as Step One of having to confront difficult questions of how those differences affect our lives. After all, once we start down that road, who knows where it might take us…
When Smith landed on the phrase ‘funny tin-’ at first it seemed incomprehensible to me. A few minutes spent scrolling Twitter and it became clear that encountering this struggle with simple adjectives is a daily occurance for People of Colour.
Angela Smith may have ‘mis-spoken’; her choice of words is certainly evidence of her own unconscious bias and lack of engagement with race; but it is also symptomatic of something bigger.
It tells us about a country whose discomfort at talking about skin colour is profoundly indicative of our failure to deal with a problem that is much more than skin deep. A problem that needs to be called by its given name: Racism.
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