Cambridge isn’t as far from Ferguson as you think

Audrey Sebatindira 3 September 2014

Deep-seated racism appears to be the one thing that the murder of an unarmed Black teenager in his own neighbourhood, his subsequent and unjustifiable vilification by American mainstream media, and the violent mistreatment of those who protest his death at the hands of the police all have in common. Yet many Americans don’t see this, deluding themselves that they live in a "post-racial" society.

With open racism no longer socially acceptable and various measures, legislative and otherwise, having been taken to combat overt racial discrimination, it’s understandable, to an extent. When you remember that Barack Obama, a Black politician, is currently occupying the highest office in American government, racism does seem to be dead.

But what this delusion actually reflects is a lack of understanding as to what racism actually is. To use an analogy given by Omowale Akintunde, too many people view racism the way they see murder: the concept exists but someone has to commit it in order for it to happen.  As a result of this analogy, systematic subjugation of ethnic minorities through political, legal and social institutions is ignored because, in our eyes, racism has not been ‘committed’.

Audre Lorde gave a more accurate definition of racism.  She described it as "the belief in the inherent superiority of one race over all others and thereby the right to dominance".  This argument should be noted in particular for how it underlies patterns of discrimination that we have institutionalised as "normal".   It recognises that many manifestations of racism are not conscious or even intended by any one person, but are incredibly damaging nonetheless.

It’s a lack of understanding that poses a serious problem as, for obvious reasons, it will hinder attempts to achieve justice for Michael Brown's murder in Ferguson. But what relevance does this have for life in Cambridge? Regardless of whether or not we can define it, racism appears to have no place in the general culture in the bubble. Indeed, if asked most of us would vehemently reject any claim that one race is "inherently superior", and as young and well-educated individuals, we are statistically more likely to be tolerant.

Yet racial tension still remains. It's the jokes made at the expense of people of colour that are expected to be brushed off as "banter". The friend who you know to be a decent person but uses racial slurs while drunk. Such casual racism is usually defended by empty excuses that the offender didn't actually mean what they said, or that the comment was meant to be ironic. What is most troubling, though, is when incidents like these aren't recognised as having an equally damaging effect as "real" racism, which supposedly is something along the lines of actions or comments actively directed towards an identified group or individual that clearly stem from racial hatred.

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Claims such as these are founded on the same misunderstanding shown by Americans as to the definition of racism. And while they do not lead to consequences as extreme as those in Ferguson and across North America, it does lead to otherwise avoidable racial tension. The false belief that microaggressions don't constitute racism leads to the expectation that POCs should simply shrug them off, as they're not regarded as genuinely damaging. But jokes that validate negative racial stereotypes, regardless of the motivations behind them, are socially destructive and are racist because they perpetuate and are symptomatic of institutional racism.

Moreover, this lack of understanding can prevent people from empathising with their peers when they're discussing their own experiences of prejudice. Without a proper understanding of what racism is, it's all too easy to gaslight POCs, that is to wrongly dismiss their belief that something racist has been said or done, thereby causing damaging self-doubt and further alienation.

It may seem odd that race would still be an issue at an institution like Cambridge.  After all, surely we should know better? Again, in a handful of cases, an explanation can be found by looking at the correct definition of racism. The institutional aspect of the phenomenon, which has made it so widespread and enduring, has also made it unavoidable. When racism forms part of a culture's social structure, it doesn't matter how much you may abhor the concept of racial supremacy; it doesn't just taint your views of other people, those tainted views are reinforced every time you interact with the world.

This is seen in the fact that Asians and Blacks are two to six times more likely than Whites to be stopped and searched by police in England and Wales. That periods of recession see more people admitting to being racially prejudiced and ethnic minorities disproportionately suffering in the job market. And ultimately that the latest British Social Attitudes survey has found that almost a third of Britons admit to being “very” or “a little” racially prejudiced, and given the fact that there are studies that show many liberal-minded people aren’t fully aware of their own prejudices, this figure is likely much higher in reality. More worrying than the statistics themselves is the fact most people will find them neither shocking nor particularly troubling.

So, like it or not, as a result of systemic racism, we all hold certain judgments about others, judgments often informed by race, though of course differences in gender, class, sexuality, religion (anything really) can play their part as well. Most of us are working against our cultural conditioning with varying degrees of success, but it's not enough to just have a vague idea that racial prejudice is problematic and should be avoided.

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When racism is so pervasive that it makes its way into the language of people who consciously believe themselves to be tolerant, it’s clear that it is endemic in our culture and won’t go away simply because we refuse to believe it actually exists. Racism needs to be confronted head-on; we can't grow complacent in our knowledge that we have moved a great deal beyond the bigotry of the past. The best thing you can do is listen to the experiences that POCs might choose to share with you, be it through campaigns like “I, Too, Am Cambridge” or in general discussions within friendship groups. Ultimately, listening alone won't be enough – you have to act on what you learn – but what's needed from all of us is a proper understanding of what racism is and a full acknowledgment of its existence before we can begin to move towards a truly post-racial world.