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.