The media focus on whether individual figures have experienced racism is a way of obscuring the uncomfortable truth about how inequality worksby Maya Goodfellow / January 17, 2020 / Leave a comment
The ‘debate’ about Meghan Markle isn’t really just about her at all. You might think that I would say that as a republican who can both see Markle has been subject to racism but isn’t so interested in the ins and outs of the Royal Family beyond that. But it’s also because focussing on this one person is a convenient way of avoiding thinking about the way how and why racism is dismissed in the UK.
So much of the public discussion about race in this country is boiled down to whether a particular comment, or a single specific politician, is racist. In this overly-simplistic telling, racism is an individual flaw that only reveals itself in flagrantly racist language or actions.
It’s not that none of this should be of concern to us. The words we use matter. How the press describes figures like Meghan Markle shapes the way people understand her, confirming racialised biases or producing new ones —as has been well-documented by others.
But there’s a problem with the way the discussion is too often set up. Racism in the media is reduced down to individual utterances—but in reality, it’s a system of control and oppression. The logics of racism structure the world we live in: it means the ratio of CVs sent to interviews offered is dependent on your surname, and that unemployment rates among women of colour have been consistently higher than among their white counterparts since the 1980s. The existing way racism is talked about in public debate obscures discussion of how racism is structural, and how individual acts are related to that structure.
The individualisation of racism serves a few purposes. It allows people to divide up the population into “knuckle-dragging racists” vs. everyone else—respectable, well-meaning people who “don’t have a racist bone in their body.” This is not to say that everyone is the same, of course: violently racist far-right thinking, for instance, is distinct and dangerous in a particular way. But in a society that’s structurally racist, people aren’t easily divided into racists and non-racists.
When racism is consistently boiled down to the individual level you always come across someone who’s excusing what’s happened: “They didn’t mean it that way,” “this isn’t really racism” or “They didn’t know it was racist.” (Being called a…