When I was 13, a classmate revealed to me that his parents were German and that he had spent several years growing up in Germany. In my surprise at discovering his heritage, I jokingly exclaimed, “oh, so you’re a Nazi!”
I had only been living in the UK for a few months at that point and in my ignorance of the new culture I now inhabited, I lacked the context to appreciate the seriousness in how my statement landed. Growing up with a lack of proximity to western European culture ensured that my only reference points for Nazis were old Sunday afternoon matinees on TV which focused on the indominable British spirit, and Allo’ Allo’.
Obviously, he did not find my statement funny and summarily informed the teacher.
It certainly was not my intention to cause offence, but I absolutely had caused offence. And I didn’t only offend my classmate, I offended an entire class of individuals who were born and raised in this country. Many of whom will have had grandparents and great grandparents who were directly affected by the war. My statement not only made light of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis and the solemnity of the countless memorials to the fallen erected all over Europe, but it also pointed the finger at my classmate as somehow being tainted by that history simply on account of his ancestry.
In response, I could have insisted that my words were not intended to cause offence, that I was not trying to be insensitive to race, and that freedom of speech ensured I had the right to voice my unfiltered thoughts as they popped into my head. Or, I could have listened as the victim of my ill-considered verbiage expressed his hurt, apologise unreservedly and set out to educate myself as to why my actions were wholly inappropriate.
I think you know which of those would be the correct option to choose…
This past week saw the release of Harry & Meghan’s ‘tell-all’ interview with Oprah Winfrey. And among the many revelations to come out of it was the allegation that when Meghan was pregnant with Archie, a senior member of the royal family expressed concern to Harry over what skin tone their unborn child would have. Visibly shocked and mouth agape, Oprah recoiled in horror at the assertion and after an unsuccessful attempt to unearth the identity of the person who said it, the interview continued.
In the aftermath of that interview, I have seen countless posts on social media, listened to and watched heated debates on radio and TV, and read numerous articles in the newspapers which sought to unpick the veracity of that comment as racist or not. They all had a common theme – was it “…blatant racism or dumb question?“, why didn’t Oprah push harder to get the “context” in which it was said, and the royal family “is very much not a racist family.”
*insert eye-roll here*
I am tired of seeing white commentators and journalists try to assert that remarks and actions which cast negative aspersions on people in connection with their race (however subtle, and especially when it targets black people), need context before we can even dare to consider it problematic. Why do we insist on all the mental gymnastics to ensure the bar is set so high that we can never actually achieve consensus on whether a thing was indeed racist?
We don’t do that with antisemitism…
According to ADL.org, a “leading anti-hate organisation” whose “mission is to stop the defamation of the Jewish people”, antisemitism could simply include “stereotyped views about Jews.”
Let that sink in. All it takes to be labelled antisemitic is the mere regurgitation of harmful stereotyped views. How many harmful stereotyped views of black people do we see get trafficked as the main narrative all the time? Single moms? Absent fathers? Excess criminality? Poverty-stricken African countries? Teenage delinquency and gang violence? Reliance on athleticism or musical ability for success? I could go on. We set the threshold for clearly identifying other forms of discrimination so low, and rightly so. But when it comes to black folk, we behave as though only videotaped evidence of someone using the n-word will suffice. And even then, we justify it by saying ‘black people get to say the n-word all the time’, so context, right?
Last night my wife asked me if a black person had made the comment about having concerns about an unborn child’s skin tone, would it still be racist? I answered, “absolutely.” And here is the sad reality… This is a conversation black people have ALL THE TIME. We talk about not wanting our children to be too dark-skinned, or we look at the tips of new-borns’ ears so we can judge what their ‘final colour’ might be. Some people even select partners specifically because of their hair texture or skin-tone so they can pass on the favourable genetic traits and weed out the African ones. There is a whole flipping hashtag fetishizing bi-racial children and swirl relationships on Instagram! And at the other extreme of the spectrum, we have the hyper-sexualisation of dark-skinned women as though buxom lips and mind-bending hip-to-waist ratios offer the perfect response to colourism and an affirmation of their beauty.
The heart-breaking truth of the matter is that people of all races perpetuate white supremacy, and this is a conversation that black people are thoroughly familiar with. Colourism is one of the ways in which the legacy of white supremacy manifests within black communities. Oprah didn’t need to ask any further questions for context, because like myself and many other black people, she already knew the context intimately.
So, I cringed when I read some of the idiotic things written defending the British monarchy against claims of institutional racism. Leaving aside the history of empire and colonialism for a moment, I think people believe we are fixated on imagining the Queen shuffling around Windsor Castle with a cuppa mumbling to herself, ‘bloody immigrants!’ Nevermind the now banned video of the Queen calling the US Ambassador a Gorilla, is it completely out of the realms of possibility to believe that a historically white, elite ruling class may have some deep-seated prejudicial attitudes?
Racism does not always look like vein-bulging skinheads shouting the n-word in the street, it can look like ignorance too. It can look exactly like when I linked my classmate’s intrinsic identity to the worst parts of Germany’s history without taking the time to learn more about his actual heritage. It can look like rallying to the defence of the person who said or did the racially insensitive thing, while minimising the experience of the person who endured the trauma of having it hurled at them. And most insidious of all, it can look like the rabid insistence on painting racism as isolated incidents carried out by lone individuals on the fringes of society, and a refusal to consider that it could be evidence of a wider systemic cancer.
It is this cancer which leads an entire society into reacting defensively and unleashing its venom on anyone who dares to try and call out the issue of racism. You don’t need to look any further than the comments section of a Daily Mail article for evidence of exactly this kind of vitriol.
Earlier, I asked, why do people dismiss allegations of racism against black people so easily? It is because we would need to honestly confront Britain’s leading role in taking a benign concept such as the variations in skin colour across the human race, refining false narratives on how it either diminishes or enhances an individual’s intrinsic humanity and then using it to justify the destruction of entire civilisations. We are happy to support the fight against things like antisemitism because we largely see ourselves as having been on the right side of history in that conflict. But daring to challenge the virtue of the empire, colonialism and the industrial revolution, all aspects of British history many people retain a certain level of nostalgia about, is a direct assault on their heritage. Nobody wants to hear they are the bad guy in the story.
So, we sweep the scandalous parts of the story under the rug where we don’t have to deal with it. It’s a bit like when you ignore your slightly dementing nan who makes the odd racist joke at Christmas because she’s had a drink or two. Or when you laugh off the uncomfortable stories your uncle tells every now and then about how different things used to be back in his day.
And herein lies the issue… we are all affected by this blight and carry with us internally held prejudices about certain groups of people. Some of us are more significantly impacted by these prejudices than others, and the sooner we can acknowledge that is the sooner we can start having real conversations about what to do about it.
I have been so disappointed by the discourse that has taken place in the embers of what came out of Harry & Meghan’s appearance with Oprah. We have spurned every opportunity to have the genuine and necessary conversations about the issues raised. Instead, we reduced it to a debate on whether the Sussexes are lying, the appropriateness of the timing of their interview and whether the revelations were led by motivations to kickstart post-royal careers in the media.
Is it completely unfathomable that maybe we are not actually a post-racial utopia, and that deep-rooted issues on discrimination in society never actually went away but simply became less overt while we got better at justifying their existence?
I’ll leave you to answer that one on your own.
Photo by Ferdinand Stöhr on Unsplash