We cannot defeat racism without decolonisation

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Political Capital
Nic Cheeseman
By Nic Cheeseman

Every month 'Political Capital' tracks which leaders' political stock is rising, who is on the slide, and what this means for democracy and development. Focusing on the trends behind the headlines, Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) highlights the political power plays and events that will shape the future of Africa. He is Professor of Democracy at University of Birmingham and Author of 'How to Rig an Election'. Founder of www.democracyinafrica.org. Co-producer of Resistance Bureau.

Posted on Friday, 23 July 2021 14:30
Mandatory Credit: Photo by Joel Goodman/LNP/Shutterstock

It has been a depressing month to be English. The defeat to Italy in the final of the UEFA European Championship was the latest in a string of famous losses.

Worse still, three black English players who missed penalties in the decisive shoot-out suffered racist abuse. Almost as soon as the final whistle was blown, pride at what the players had accomplished – not just in reaching the final, but also by taking the knee and building a team that anti-racist citizens of all backgrounds could believe in – was combined with sadness, anger and, for many people I know, a deep sense of shame.

Shame that people in our community hold such abhorrent views. Shame at the offence caused to our friends, not just in the UK, but also in Africa, and around the world.

In the past, I have tended not to write about racism myself and instead to share the work of colleagues such as Simukai Chigudu who have greater knowledge and deeper insights. As a straight white man, I have not experienced prejudice and it felt more appropriate to support the analysis of those who have.

I changed my mind when a Twitter follower asked why I had not written about English racism when so many of my readers are black Africans. His question made me realise that such an approach could all too easily be interpreted as indifference.

My anonymous correspondent also offered a suggestion of what to write about: “Why don’t you tell us why your people are still racist in 2021?”

This was good advice, I decided. The one thing I can claim to have some insight into is the thoughts and beliefs of white English men. And that experience suggests that Alcinda Honwana is completely right to argue that we cannot successfully combat racism without taking seriously the need for decolonisation.

It’s not just a tiny minority

Let’s get one thing straight from the start. As much as it may comfort celebrities to think so, the problem isn’t a “tiny minority”. Framing things in this way is problematic because it plays into the hands of right-wing commentators who want to downplay the issue and encourage everyone to simply “move on”.

You cannot overcome a problem if you routinely underestimate how big it is. It is true that the number of racist messages sent to English players was dwarfed by the positive messages sent in the days that followed. And it is true that the graffiti defacing a mural celebrating Marcus Rashford was quickly covered by hundreds of messages of love and solidarity. This response was something to be proud of, and something to build on moving forwards.

But the defacing of murals and the sending of racist messages on social media is only the tip of the iceberg. These are high profile actions that come with a risk of being caught and prosecuted. To use Instagram messages and the defacing of murals as a way to measure English racism is to overlook the everyday experience of non-white members of our community.

What about the people who suffered racist comments from strangers during the Brexit referendum, when police reported a fivefold increase in hate crimes? What about the sportspeople who regularly receive racist abuse from the crowd while doing their jobs? What about the teenagers who experience racism at school from both other pupils and teachers?

The reality is that there are still a lot of white English men and women who hold racist beliefs and assumptions. A survey conducted for the BBC back in 2002 found that only 67% of white respondents would be “happy if people from another race moved in next door”.

In the same study, only 46% of white respondents said they would marry or have a relationship with someone of a different race. Things have changed for the better since then.

An Ipsos-MORI poll in 2020 found that “the British public have become avowedly more open-minded in their attitudes towards race”.

Yet despite this improvement, 7% did not disagree that “to be truly British you have to be white”. Just to put that in context, 7% of the British adult population is 3,775,134 people. That is a minority, but it is far from a tiny one.

The need for decolonisation

The persistence of racist views should not be surprising. Homa Khaleeli has documented how some political leaders played on popular fears of migration to advance their own careers while rallying support for Brexit. In 2016, Nigel Farage – whose party was at one point supported by 9% of the British people – suggested that migrants put women in the UK at a greater danger of sexual attack.

Racism is also fostered in much less obvious ways. A white school friend of mine once wrote an essay on prejudice that began with the sentence “I may be subtly racist but I wish not to be”.

What he meant was that although his parents were avowedly anti-racist, the cultural environment in which we grew up actively fostered racist assumptions, and this process was especially pernicious because it was often subconscious.

White people were the heroes in movies, saving the world. White people dominated the front pages of newspapers, running the planet.

According to most of the “best of” lists of the time, white people had written pretty much all of the most important books and directed the “must-see” movies.

Our school and its brilliant teachers did a great job of encouraging us to question who wrote history, and what viewpoint they did so from. But most of what my generation was taught was written by white people about the achievements (and sometimes failings) of white people. When we went to university, the eminent figures honoured through statues, paintings and buildings were all white.

Meanwhile, a 2011 report found that the “dominant discourse surrounding black young men and boys in the news media links them with violent crime”.

The notion of white superiority was reinforced from multiple directions. Charity fundraising and British government aid to countries in Africa, while well-meaning, were shot through with images that emphasised the disparity between white wealth and black poverty. In doing so they played into false imaginaries of the achievements and legacy of the British empire that elide both human rights abuses and the achievements of other civilizations. Through this process, colonial myths are not left in the past but constantly brought life for new generations.

The cumulative effect of these mutually reinforcing messages, together with sustained economic inequalities between ethnic groups, is to foster the assumption that non-white people are inferior. In turn, these subconscious expectations can distort how we interpret the news and the behaviour of others – even for those who think they are not prejudiced – creating a fertile ground for the emergence of racist beliefs.

As Kehinde Andrews has argued, defeating racism requires a multipronged approach over many years. Changing the misleading way in which we currently depict the world is only one element of this fight but is nonetheless a crucial one. It is therefore vitally important to continue the work that has been done in recent years to challenge racial assumptions and bias in our media, education system, and entertainment.

Understood in this way, decolonisation is not a form of anti-white discrimination, as sensationalist tabloids would have it. Rather, it is a process of undoing the harm that centuries of misrepresenting ourselves and others has done to society.

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