It’s become clear since I moved back to London that most white British people have absolutely no idea what racism is. They persist in lumping it together with any other form of name-calling, and denounce any attempt to clamp down on it as “political correctness.”

A few examples from the last couple of days, although sadly I could have written this post at pretty much any time and had equally relevant examples to hand. First the BBC writes a piece of absolute garbage entitled “Is gingerism as bad as racism?” Please don’t actually read this article, as it will drive you insane. The gist is that a number of red-haired people are quoted saying they’ve been called names, for example journalist Sharon Jaffa says “attacking someone on the basis of their hair colour can be every bit as damaging as persecuting someone for their race or religion, and therefore, in some cases, needs to be taken just as seriously.”

OK, now for part two. Reality TV show Big Brother kicks out a white contestant (Emily Parr, pictured above) for calling another housemate a “nigger.” Channel 4, which runs the show, gets 922 complaints from viewers, not angry that it showed the offensive clip in an apparent attempt to boost ratings, but angry that the poor white girl was evicted for such a harmless “joke” and accusing the station of bowing to – yes, you’ve guessed it – political correctness gone mad.
Now anyone with a rudimentary grasp of the meaning of racism can skip this paragraph. But any ignorant white Brits who have strayed onto this site having Googled “political correctness gone mad” or “gingerism is as bad as racism” should pay attention. Racism is not name-calling. Racism is the modern manifestation of a system of oppression that stretches back for centuries. Racism blunts the life chances of millions of people around the world. Racism is about wealth distribution, job opportunities, housing, healthcare. It affects people’s lives, in fact it destroys people’s lives. The general rule of thumb seems to be that one white life equals approximately a hundred “other” lives. In Vietnam, for example, 50,000 US soldiers died, so roughly 5 million Vietnamese civilians had to be slaughtered to make up for it. In the most recent “war on terror”, 3,000 Americans died on 9/11 and another 3,500 have died in the Iraq war; more than 600,000 Iraqi civilians have paid the price. Being called a “ginger nut” kind of pales in comparison, doesn’t it? The people who suffer from racism can be African, Asian, Latino, or one of any number of indigenous peoples around the world. But those people are never white. White people, as the architects of the system, are never its victims. We might get the name-calling sometimes – “cracker” or “honkie” in America, or maybe just “white boy.” Boo hoo. Get over it. Having white skin will never restrict your life chances in any meaningful way. That’s why it’s OK for Chris Rock to poke fun at white people, but it’s not OK for a white comedian, or reality TV contestant, to poke fun at black people. When they do it to us, it’s a harmless insult. When we do it to them, it’s part of something much, much bigger.

OK, lesson over. To me, the reason why British people are so ignorant is very clear. The history that white British people need to know in order to function in the modern world is simply not taught. I studied history all the way from GCSE through ‘A’-level up to a history degree at Oxford University, and not once did I learn about slavery. At Oxford I even focused on 18th-century British history, with a tutor who had written one of the definitive books on the period, called “A Polite and Commercial People” (!). Yet the fact that during the 18th century Britain went from being a piss-poor rock on the edge of Europe to a predominant world power, basically because of the enormous amounts of wealth extracted from the Empire at untold human cost, was kind of glossed over. We learned about nascent industrialisation, improvements in agriculture, the effect of the spinning jenny on the textile industry, etc etc. But exploitation on a scale never before seen? Millions of people worked to death on West Indian sugar plantations, whipped, beaten, raped, tortured, thrown off slave ships, dying in their own vomit while shackled together in the dark fetid hold of a ship for months on end? Not deemed worthy of serious study.

The result is mass ignorance. White British people are simply ill-equipped for a world in which the people they have got used to oppressing so casually are now demanding to be treated like human beings. So we moan about political correctness and the flood of immigrants and the danger of radical Muslims and the threat of black crime and the ridiculous tolerance of those terrible headscarves. And we have no clue why “political correctness” is necessary, or why some people might be radically against us, or why people are “flooding” to our country (hint: in many cases, we kind of screwed up theirs already). So we take refuge in anger, incomprehension and misplaced nostalgia, reading the Daily Mail and throwing our arms up in indignation at the latest ridiculous piece of pandering, then sitting back and pining for the good old days when people were polite, and you could leave your door unlocked, and neighbours would help each other out, and the rape and torture and bloodshed took place at a nice, safe, discreet distance.

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There are 5 comments

  1. Yet, from a distance, I will argue that britain is far better than rest of Europe. and it has far greater tolerance in general. (It has far better understanding of Islam and it’s tenets, as an example.)

    Maybe it will horror you but that is because of the ideological revolution that took place during Renneissance (and that is another thing that many need to learn a lot). And the resulting breakaway from the Catholic Churches.

    Such events go a long way- we see that in Britain, some people arguing that multiculturalism must stay. In France, the argument is why should the French government tolerate other cultures.

    You see, in France, and in most of Europe, mutliculturalism is on the backfoot.

  2. My english is sometimes horrible. So please overlook that.

    Corrected Second Para-
    Maybe you will be horrified to hear, but in my opinion, that is because of the ideological revolution that took place during Renneissance (and that is another thing that many need to learn a lot). And the resulting breakaway from the Catholic Churches.

  3. Very, very good post.

    I studied slavery at school too, but I learned far more from reading Pride magazine than I ever did from my teacher, who only ever talked about the dreadlocked men she used to date.

    Anyway, just wanted to say I agree with everything you said – you hit the nail on the head in the first paragraph, and your articulation of why jokes about white people by black comedians are more acceptable than jokes about black people by white comedians was spot on. I’d always known that, but watch a Chris Rock show, then a dvd of ‘Blue Collar Comedy’ and note the glaring difference in material.

    (btw I’m going to ‘Stumbleupon’ this post as I think it deserves to be read by as many people as possible.)

  4. Thanks for the comments. I’m glad to hear that other people attended more progressive schools than I did. Perhaps, then, the issue is more than just formal education. Perhaps it’s more a matter of personal choices. After all, learning doesn’t stop at school. Information is freely available. Some people choose to inform themselves, others don’t. (Talking of informing yourself, any confused white people who have made it this far should definitely check out china blue’s excellent Q&A on usage of the n-word.)

    I can certainly understand why people might choose to keep their head in the sand. It was very hard for me to deal with the fact that my place in the world is not what I thought it was. The reading I have done over the last five or ten years has contradicted all the certainties I was brought up with, all the comforting illusions that surrounded me for the first 20 years of my life. It would certainly have been easier just to go to the pub and watch reality TV and talk about football and pretend nothing was wrong. It’s not a choice I can possibly agree with, but I suppose it would explain a lot of the cluelessness I come across.

    And manas, thanks for the perspective. I suppose because I live in England its faults are clearer to me than those of other nations. You’re right, at least (for now) we allow some amount of multiculturalism, such as letting people wear what they want. The huge support Jack Straw got last year when he “spoke out” against the veil, however, suggests to me that our tolerance doesn’t run very deep. I think it’s only the tireless efforts of civil liberties and anti-racism groups that keep us from even more draconian measures. Perhaps as a backlash against so-called “political correctness”, the bigots seem to be becoming more emboldened to “speak out” against anyone who looks a bit different. And I get the sense that the majority of the population would go along with just about anything, as long as it was being perpetrated against someone else.

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