Race ‘science’ is so engrained in our thinking that we fail to challenge bad science. Angela Saini’s new book ‘Superior’ helps explode some enduring myths.“There is not just simply a long history of prejudice. It is also because “race”, defined in terms of skin colour or facial features, was and sometimes still is a rough-and-ready clue to culture: language, cuisine, perhaps religion and shared moral values.”
Accordingly, no one can fail to notice how often people prefix ‘values’ with national identity as if there a hierarchy of superior values over and above another nation’s values such as: ‘British-Values’ or ‘American-Values’ compared to PTOS Trump’s sentiments “Shit-hole countrys’ values (aka countries with people with a ‘#FunnyTinge’)”; whilst forgetting national boundaries are in themselves social constructs arising from land grabs, wars, annexations, unifications, a long shared history of colonialism, slavery and indentured labour moving populations across continents. Movement of people is across land and sea is the essence of the humankind’s development across the millennia through the sharing of ideas, food, language, science, culture, art, music, etc – so you can’s simply: “Send them back!” without sending these things of value back too (wherever ‘back to’ is) or as if Western governments can dictate to non-Western countries they must take back their people when they had been moved by force in the first place or invited them to help build/re-build after world wars and other disasters. Places like New Zealand, America and Australia would empty rapidly if this sentiment was carried to its natural conclusion. Even if not practical to implement, words matter when they cause division and a sense of threat to those being marginalised for pursing the same rights to equality and fairness.
It seems beyond the reach of some to embrace the concept of simple, #UniversalValues such as respect, dignity, fairness, inclusion, humanity, kindness, friendliness, accountability, honesty, integrity, professionalism and the favourite one of ‘tolerance’. Universal values are the basis on which we should seek to connect with each other, not social constructs of race and vague notions of ‘national identity’ defined by skin colour. An example of how claiming national superiority over ‘values’ operates, is from when I was living in a little village outside Winchester, Hampshire. I got invited to a garden party held in a quintessentially English thatched cottage one June summer’s day, belonging to a neighbour with the local great and good in attendance. The local vicar came up to me and introduced himself (although I had seen him out and about before, he is likely to have considered me a visitor as did a ‘concerned’ couple who asked whilst I was out for a walk in my boots and barber jacket – “Are you lost?”.
The first question this English vicar asked in his posh accent was: “Do you find the people in this village tolerant?” (note: I had been living there c7 years of my 14 by then and this was my first garden party invite). Puzzled, by why I had been singled out for such a question, I forced him with the turn of my head to watch me scan the room (I was the only person of colour in the room as well as knowing I was the only one in 800 in the village apart from my children – my husband being white-British). I returned to look him in the eye and ask “What is it about me that has to be ‘tolerated’ by my neighbours?” he literally choked on his strawberry jam scone as the penny dropped and made a rapid exit without replying, such was the discomfort for him. His exit meant, we both missed out on an opportunity to explore his curiosity further, learn more about each other and for me to feel a sense of belonging as his other white parishioners did. The key lesson here is to question the assumption that BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) people should somehow be ‘grateful’ they are ‘tolerated’ as opposed to being celebrated for their differences in language, culture, food, music, art, resilience, vibrancy and contribution they make to evolving Britain or any new home country they move to, to create sustainable and healthy communities with shared, universal values that transcend national boundaries. It should not matter where someone came from – it’s where they are, where they are heading and life choices, they make that should be the subject of curiosity. My advice is don’t ask unless you are prepared to also explore your own inter-generational origins, since if you go back far enough most of us (especially in America, ‘the land of the free – to roam’) were immigrants somewhere along the line.
A recent Guardian article provides an excellent synopsis of some of the central themes in Saini’s race science myth busting book which helps us develop further context for why #racism persists: https://amp.theguardian.com/books/2019/jul/03/superior-by-angela-raini-review?CMP=share_btn_tw&__twitter_impression=true
Even good intentions about race science can go array be it in the NHS or USA healthcare provisions, Saini adds: “US medical researchers studying people’s responses to drugs in 2003 routinely used racial groupings to categorise and analyse their subjects – and yet none could say quite how they defined race, retreating into embarrassed laughs. Even where “race differences” in health and medicine have been identified, such as the increased risk of high blood pressure for African Americans, the default assumption has been to see this as innately biological rather than cultural and socio-economic, so that the alternatives aren’t carefully checked. The problem with scientists, Saini says, is that they too often assume they are above racism and so fail to engage with the history, politics and lived experience of race.” This makes scientists (amongst other ‘professions’) complicit in #InstitutionalRacism as it shapes how ideas, notions of what is knowledge (clearly not ‘lived experience’ and resources are prioritised, and policies are designed and enacted through a particular exclusive rather than inclusive lens.
Saini explains: “Genetics has also given racists a new place to claim validation of what they want: proof of their superiority.” By way of example, last year after I posted on Face Book two excellent BBC videos showing how casual ‘othering’ occurs when white people invariably ask a person of colour “Where are you from?”. [I will return to what happened after I posted the BBC video]. An ‘innocent’ question at face value which what could initially be interpreted as natural human curiosity and desire to connect.
However, it’s a question that has to be reflected on when it is too often posed on a selective basis of skin colour (to darker skinned people) by an invariably white questioners. In the BBC video it’s the recruitment interviewer asking this of an Asian female candidate. However, it’s when the first, second and then third answers (such as “I was born in UK, xyz hospital to be precise; or my parents were born in Yorkshire, etc)” are deemed not to be the ‘correct’ answers that the selective questioning persists so that the original neutral premise reveals an underlying racial intent to make the both the original and persistent questioning problematic. The bottom-line question is: “No, where are you and your people really from? “ . The questioner is finally satisfied with a sense of relief once the answer comes when the dark skinned person twigs or gives up trying to avoid answering the hidden question: “Oh, my grandparents were born in India, Pakistan, Uganda, etc.” [aka that’s why I am brown and here as the #FirstOnlyLast]. The sigh of relief comes because the white person was spared the discomfort of acknowledging they do after all notice skin colour of the brown person (not their own), despite assertions of ‘colour blindness’, to mask their real unasked question, namely: “Why are you, as a brown person here ( in a country of indigenously white skinned people)?”. Of course, if they read their shared world history they would know “We are here, because you were there” as famously written by the late ‘Siva’ (Ambalavener Sivandan, Director of Institute of Race Relations – a native from Sri Lanka, formally named by the British colonial powers, as Ceylon). Siva was tireless in his pursuit to explain the connections between class, race, imperialism and colonialism. Supported by that perceived to be ‘dangerous’ concept coined 30 years ago: #Intersectionality by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw.
Regardless of intent, the effect of such selective and persistent questioning is invariably one of ‘othering’ based on the inference the darker skinned person does not naturally belong and must explain their origins and lineage so they cannot claim native belonging rights which is assumed of white skinned people who have no accent or anglicised name that gives them away.
The BBC video used a ‘light touch approach’ to illustrate the pain ‘othering’ causes to #BAME people. After posting the video, a white ex-NHS #HR colleague who had emigrated to #NZ some 18 years ago randomly shared in response to the post “I had my DNA tested and I am definitely from Europe!” (aka 100% white!) – no sharing of insights about ‘othering’ were forthcoming such was the blind privilege of not having to explain your origins repeatedly on sight or sound. She made this response having 18 years ago emigrated to New Zealand after having been embroiled for her part in a disgracefully mis-handled #NHS race discrimination case that had profound consequences for the victim and me as the appeal hearing advisor. I was curious to know how she had reflected on her part, but she refused then and now to discuss it. I asked myself what her motive was to firstly, undergo a DNA test (after leaving Europe for a former colony where brown people were decimated, and personally having historical links to Ireland). Secondly, why disclose it to me as a BAME in the context of a BBC video to illustrate the effects of ‘othering’ of people of colour (and a second video what it might be like if the boot was on the other foot – which also received no comment from her) and in the context of the race discrimination case – so it remains unfinished business, brushed under the carpet to happen again and again as we see in the NHS and other sectors who look to it as the biggest employer in Europe to be a model employer.
Make what you will of the ex-HR colleague needing to share her DNA results in the way she did and refusing to discuss her part in race discrimination case and racism per se. She like many readily agree in the abstract to the wickedness of racism but never if it is brought close to home. Answers on a post card please as I am genuinely interested to know the explanation.
I hope you have found this article has broadened your understanding, triggered your curiosity and it was not been too ‘uncomfortable’ so you still feel encouraged to continue exploring the theme of the origins of racism and why it persists. BAME have had to develop the resilience, ‘thick skin’ if you like, to talk about racism because they don’t have the luxury not to. Their skin colour is the basis for their less favourable treatment including acts of omission. This is evidenced by mountains of racial disparity data which is readily available to those who see being anti-racists as a proactive moral duty not a passive bystander who says under their breath ‘nothing to do with me’ – ‘it’s just wallpaper I walk past it’; far too busy.
My only wish is, you do not place the burden of dismantling #InstitutationalRacism on the shoulders of a few, especially BAME; that you exercise some humility in appreciating the way you experience the world and organisational policies and practices is not the way others different to you in visible and non-visible ways experience them regardless of ‘good’ intentions; that you reach out with empathy and open mindedness to have honest conversations and not run away when things get a little ‘uncomfortable’ when you are prompted to revaluate your individual and collective group memberships’ beliefs and assumptions.
Remember we are all on a journey and some of us need to take personal accountability for catching up – it’s not rocket science, but it is more complex that wading in blindly without having read and reflected that you have an automatic licence, with little or no lived experience of racism to wade into this space to tell BAME what is or what is not racism. This is something we see in the media on a ritually daily basis ask any BAME with a public profile how much resilience they have to have to continuing doing their jobs despite the constant undermining (Afua Hirsh, David Lammy, Dawn Butler, Diane Abbott, Sadiq Khan, and the multiple examples of ordinary citizens who have been effected by #BrexitRacism).
Every time one person faces racism (and many more cases go unreported), it has a psychological ripple effect on others like them. The #MentalHealth and #Wellbeing effects of racism are totally under-estimated and misunderstood – it’s like death by a thousand cuts when also faced with a culture of disbelief.
Racism de-humanises both the victim and perpetrator so we need to see this as a joint responsibility to work on it together, every day to save each other from this inherited legacy of privilege and disadvantage. Racism does not take a summer holiday. Nevertheless, enjoy the sunshine and smile at your fellow citizens as you count your blessings.
Author: Safia Boot – Founder Respect at Work Limited
Originally Published Linkedin: 25 July 2019
Re-published: 17 August 2019
Follow me on Twitter: @respectatworkuk