We must broaden the conversation about fighting racism

Ashna Ahmad 9 June 2020
Image Credit: Pixabay

The past two weeks have put into perspective how much work the anti-racist movement has to do and how much injustice black people still face around the world. This explosion of racial tensions marks a critical juncture. We could either take this opportunity to have productive conversations about racism or society could spiral further into intractable division and polarisation, torn apart by our different responses to last week’s events. The fact that we are teetering on the edge of such a precipice is deeply unsettling to me and I cannot imagine how much worse it must feel for those who have been personally affected by institutionalised, anti-black racism.

It can be insensitive to intellectualise racism. People need space to grieve without having their emotional responses dissected by armchair commentators on Camfess. Having been one of these armchair commentators myself, I completely acknowledge this. I also acknowledge that it is nobody´s place to tell anyone else how they ‘should’ feel about a personal experience of racism; indeed, the downplaying and dismissal of these experiences has been a significant contributor to systemic racism. However, it’s also vital to ensure that reminders of the urgency of fighting racism translate into lasting, positive results.

To this end, we must root out subconscious bias – bias which is inherently mysterious and difficult to detect – and enact policies and social change across society. None of this is possible without open, inclusive dialogue. Conversations which allow everyone to be exposed to alternative viewpoints, refine their own ideas and weigh up all of the complex variables involved in good policy are an integral part of democratic decision-making. When it comes to discussions of racism, there has been a tendency to shut down these conversations rather than engaging with them and I believe this tendency will ultimately do more harm than good to the anti-racist movement.

It’s crucial for the voices of minorities to be given the platform and the respect which they have lacked for centuries. While people of colour should not be obliged to explain racism to others, anti-racists should listen to their experiences and these experiences should inform the movement as a whole. Yet there is a fundamental difference between an individual’s experience of racism and the systemic racism which exists on a society-wide level. An individual has complete authority over their own lived experience; systemic racism, however, is a broader social trend which anyone is free to analyse (you don’t have to be divorced to make legitimate observations about divorce rates, or be a victim of knife crime to discuss knife crime meaningfully).

Some people suggest that POCs have exclusive authority to give legitimate opinions on systemic racism because only they have invariably been victims of it. Systemic racism manifests itself when the  inherent prejudices of an institutionally racist society filter  into how people think, causing unequal treatment. When we describe a certain instance of systemic racism, we are making an assertion about the impact of societal prejudice on people’s psychological motivations. Any claim to know why someone thinks the way they do is incredibly hard to substantiate; we cannot determine the precise motivation for people’s actions in every possible scenario. This is not to say that analyses of systemic racism are useless. For example, the disproportionate incarceration of black people cannot be explained by their crime rates, so in a case like this systemic racism is an effective explanation.

The statement ‘every POC experiences the consequences of systemic racism’, unlike the claim that black people are disproportionately incarcerated due to systemic racism, is not rooted in a specific instance of inequality. An idea with such hazy foundations should not be used as a basis to give one group exclusive legitimacy and exclude all others from dialogue on racism.

This is all the more important because no one has all the answers on how to fight racism and it is impossible to conduct a democratic policy discussion without allowing everyone in society an equal say. Many measures intended to fight racism have wider costs and benefits which play out across the whole of society, so they have to be discussed, analysed and improved on by everyone as much as possible.

Let’s say I support quotas for POC representation in business. Quotas have many benefits but they are not an unquestionably essential part of fighting racism simply because I, as a member of a minority group with one of the highest unemployment rates in the UK, say so. Some people who oppose quotas might be racist but they are not all racist simply by virtue of disagreeing with a POC on the best way to combat racism. The question of balancing the need to correct subconscious bias in hiring and the need to offer jobs to only the most skilled candidates, does not have a clear answer. Our best hope to find an adequate answer is through open dialogue between everyone affected: prospective employers and employees across society, beyond minority communities.

True equality of opportunity is in everyone’s interests. White people have already lost some relative privilege as the UK slowly becomes more equal: they now have the lowest entry rates into higher education and earn around the same as or less than many minority groups. But this loss of relative privilege does not change the fact that ensuring equal opportunity, and eradicating discrimination, creates a society with the most competent workers and the most deserving leaders. A society like this would benefit everyone overall, and we must include everyone in the conversations necessary to achieve it.