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 racist is often treated as being worse than racism itself). This is what Gloria Wekker calls white innocence: racism is seen as inadvertent, accidental or contained within just a few “bad apples.”
This position is produced by a lack of engagement with the history of racism and colonialism, which makes it particularly damaging. If current racial inequalities—like in the legal system, the labour market or poverty rates—aren’t seen as a product of historical and contemporary institutional racism, then racial hierarchies are implicitly assumed to be natural: applicants are assumed to be less hireable, black women less deserving of employment and poverty a result of individual failings. The dismissal of racism implicitly perpetuates racist logics.
What’s more, if we only talk about racism as an individual character flaw then we can pretend it can be rooted out and solved, swiftly and easily. The image of the UK as a “progressive” and “tolerant” nation can remain intact.
If there were to be a thorough analysis of how racism structures the UK, we’d have to engage with this country’s bloody and exploitative history of Empire and the way the racial hierarchy was created to justify this—as well as thinking about the ongoing legacies of colonialism that are bound up with inequality and racism. It would mean making sense of the ways racism is very real but race itself is constructed. And critically, it would necessitate unpicking the idea that is central to how some understand this country: that the UK “developed” itself due to some innate genius. Tied up in whiteness, this retelling erases the colonial exploitation and the extraction that powered this “development.”
As an academic who works on understanding processes of racialisation, part of my job is to explain how race functions in society. Despite being overt and self-evident, forms of racialisation—including whiteness—can be slippery and hard to pin down. The media could play a useful role here. Instead of focussing on one public figure, or making someone who experiences racism debate someone who seems to deny its existence at almost every turn—as journalists of colour can attest to—more space could be given to analysing and unpacking racism as a structure. That would allow you to think about how to really challenge it.
Ask most people what they think of racism and they’ll condemn it. But some of those same people will deny its existence when they’re provided with examples of racism. This contradiction is facilitated by a reductive way of understanding racism. We have to think beyond individuals like Meghan Markle and realise this is about systems of power. Otherwise, we’re just going round in circles.