British racism is only subtle insofar as it is left unspoken, forgotten and tolerated.
By Rami Yasir
In an episode of The Grapevine, Saïe, a musician going by @theafroromantic online, compares the experience of Black Americans and Black British people, “In America… you guys get stabbed in the front,” she says, “we get stabbed in the back. Either way, we both get stabbed.” Racism in Britain has a history of being ”subtle,” if no less violent. It hides away behind politeness and denial while hate crimes rise and police brutality affects Black youth across the country. For those who have experienced it, there is no question of racism in this country. And yet it remains unspoken, bubbling just underneath the surface. There is something about the structure of Britain which strives to conceal racism, turning a blind eye to the real experiences faced by thousands of people across the country.
The image of Britain that exists in the national consciousness never really acknowledges race or racism, other than a passing reference to multiculturalism or the denial of any problem to begin with. Instead, there is a dream of this country, a fetishization of a yesteryear that never existed. There is the countryside nanny biking through lush fields, on her way to a pleasant home where sunlight filters onto teapots and sewing kits. In the cities and seaports, hard workers pour sweat onto the clothes they weave and dockworkers brace hard muscles against cargo. And in the stately homes of aristocracy, cityside or country, there lives a quiet dignity in the face of drama. Britain exists proudly, a tiny island that relies on the might of its people to be great.
This is a dream acted out in the media of our time. The Crown, Downton Abbey, Peaky Blinders, Call the Midwife, the nostalgia for a lost Britain, independent and dignified, is palpable. But where did the tea the nanny drinks come from? And the cotton the workers weave? Did the cargo the dockworkers unload appear magically on the horizon? This dream of Britain, where everyone earned their keep and everyone got along, what is it built on? The colonial origin of Britain’s wealth and power is consistently forgotten; to remember it would be to acknowledge that Britain has never been independent. It is a reminder of the debt this country owes.
This dream of a great (white) past is by no means exclusive to the UK, it only changes its form depending on the context. In the US, for example, the phrase “Make America Great Again” occupies a similar space as the rhetoric of “taking back control” which certain racist Brexiteers continue to dredge up in Britain. Both call back to the past and cast it as the future and, whether knowingly or not, accept the racism endemic to such a position. The difference, though, is that the inherent white supremacy of that idea cannot be hidden so well in America. The long history of genocide, slavery, and Jim Crow is soaked into every inch of American soil, it bleeds from history books, it sits in the European heritage of each settler. The settler-colonial context of the USA makes the history of white supremacy harder (but by no means impossible) to ignore. In Britain, however, the history of colonized and enslaved people can be rendered invisible far more easily, and the spoils of exploitation enjoyed with only a fraction of the guilt. After all, it always took place “over there,” in Africa, in Asia, in the Caribbean. Even despite the fact that Black people have lived on this island for hundreds of years, there is a refusal to weave their lives into the fabric of Britain.
British culture is one of selective memory. We learn of William Wilberforce but not Ottobah Cugoano, Olauduh Equiano, and the Sons of Africa, a group of African abolitionists in 18th Century London. We remember T. E. Lawrence’s role in the Arab revolt against the Ottoman empire, but not his knowledge of the Sykes-Picot agreement to carve up the Middle East between Britain and France. The histories taught in school tell us that it was the British who gave colonized and enslaved people their humanity, not that it had to be fought for after the British took that humanity away in the first place. This, like so many other things, has been forgotten.
As Britain’s imperial history is erased and sanitized it is replaced with a new idea: tolerance. The direct consequences of imperialism are reconfigured as gracious acts of open-mindedness on the part of the United Kingdom. Immigrants from the Windrush generation, for example, did not come because Britain had siphoned off their home country’s labour and wealth, or because it desperately needed workers to aid in post-war reconstruction and to work in the newly formed National Health Service. They came looking for jobs, and Britain tolerated it. Even now, when residents of countries still dealing with the effects of British colonialism and intervention attempt to make a home here, the complexity of the issue is whittled down into something easily digestible.
When British values are brought up, tolerance invariably forms a cornerstone. Government guidance on the issue suggests that those with different faiths or beliefs should be “accepted and tolerated.” But it is no accident that these values were first laid out clearly with Prevent, part of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy. Prevent was not a very tolerant policy, in fact, it targeted young Muslims and people of colour, encouraging the miasma of fear that follows any mention of Islam in the West. In order to square the circle of an intolerant policy eschewing tolerance as a core belief, history has to be rewritten. Or, more accurately, forgotten.
Tolerance in the context of Britain is a word that obscures; it suggests that any and all beliefs are equal, that there is no history behind why some are more prevalent, some less, some celebrated, and some targeted. In a tolerant Britain, the far-right’s belief that people of colour are inherently inferior is as valid as any other. Of course, very sensible and kind people know that belief is a monstrous one, but they tolerate it, and they forget that Britain is a country founded on those beliefs. They have not suddenly appeared out of the ether, they are woven into the fabric of our country.
British racism is only subtle insofar as it is left unspoken, forgotten and tolerated. Its violence, though, is not subtle. Britain continued to benefit from American slavery until the American civil war and continues to benefit from colonialism in other countries. During the race riots of 1919 Black, Arab and Asian people were blamed for ”taking our jobs” in exactly the same way they are now. There was the eugenics movement of the 30s and 40s, during which Marie Stopes argued that mixed race children should be sterilized at birth. Britain’s violence continues through the disgusting treatment of the Windrush generation with policies like Theresa May’s “hostile environment,” and others which target Black men, imprisoned in the UK at a proportionally higher rate than in the US. Oppression in the forms of stop and search, increasing segregation, and conditions in which people of colour are far more likely to live in poverty than white people continue to permeate the nation. All of this is forgotten and obscured to support a fantasy version of Britain, an independent, tolerant, just Britain.
If the American dream is always focused on an impossible future, then the British dream is always focused on an impossible past. Just like the American dream, the British one exists less as a goal and more as a subtle piece of propaganda; it is there to promote an unequal unity in which everything is in its right place, everyone does their job and we all get along. But plenty of people refuse to accept this vision of Britain. Reni Eddo-Lodge‘s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race flies in the face of the idea of a tolerant Britain, and Travis Alabanza‘s Burgerz centres around an act of hate and the tolerance towards that hate. Black women and transfeminine people lead the charge against the silence surrounding racism in this country. We should follow them.
Rami Yasir is a writer, poet and illustrator based in Manchester, UK. Their writing has been featured in Gal-dem, Wear Your Voice, and The Baffler, and they have contributed a chapter to the book The Emergence of Trans. Their work focuses on examining race, gender, sexuality and whiteness, questions of home and the nation, and any other interesting thoughts that pop into their head. Their upcoming chapbook of poetry and art, How to be Okay, will be released in late September, 2019. They’re very good. You should book them.