Let’s start with a quiz:

  • When you want to join a prestigious social club, do you wonder if your ‘race’ will make it difficult for you to join?
  • When you show feelings, do you wonder if you will be classed as someone with no emotional control or is too sensitive, both of which form a persistent and negative stereotype of your ‘race’?
  • When you go shopping alone at a nice store, do you worry that you will be followed or harassed?
  • When you turn on mainstream TV or open a mainstream newspaper, do you expect to find mostly people of another ‘race’?
  • Do you worry that your children will not have books and school materials that are about people of their own ‘race’?
  • When you apply for a bank loan, do you worry that, because of your ‘race’, you might be seen as financially unreliable?
  • If you swear, or dress shabbily, do you think that people might say this is because of the bad morals or the poverty or the illiteracy of your ‘race’?
  • If you do well in a situation, do you expect to be called a credit to your ‘race’? Or to be described as ‘different’ from the majority of your ‘race’?
  • If you criticise the government, do you worry that you might be seen as a cultural outsider?
  • When asked where you come from, after giving an answer, are you then pushed for a further response by the statement, ‘no, where do you really come from?’ Or, ‘Where does your family come from?’ Or that you might be asked to ‘go back to X,’ X being somewhere not in Britain?
  • If you take a job/speaking engagement with an employer/organisation with a very clear statement on diversity, do you worry that your co-workers/conference attendees will think you are unqualified and were hired only because of your ‘race’?
  • If you want to move to a nice neighbourhood, do you worry that you might not be welcome because of the colour of your skin?
  • When you use the ‘nude’ or colour of underwear and Band-Aids, do you already know that it will not match your skin?”

The above questions, adapted from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book Americanah, and originally written by Peggy McIntosh, serve to highlight how privilege works in relation to ‘race’.  The purpose of using them is not get people to ‘check their privilege’, which can be an unhelpful phrase, but to comprehend something more profound; tackling social inequality demands a recognition of lived experience and empirical evidence. Without it, we will continue to talk past each other and demean what we want to profess about ourselves and the common thread that drives our work as educators; our common humanity.

If you didn’t have to say yes to the majority of the questions above, you already know privilege.  It is the privilege, for example, of never having to answer what I’ve now come to call ‘the BBQ question’. When meeting friends of friends at a BBQ, I always get asked where I am from. My answer of Hackney does not seem to cut it, and always leads to the inevitable ‘but where originally?’ (or the variation, ‘where are your family from?’) . It is the privilege of never having your daughter turned away from the same hair salon as her mother because they do not do ‘ethnic hair’. It is the privilege of never being followed in a local bookshop and having the till closely monitored in case you planned to go for the contents (my blonde wife, strangely enough, did not receive the same treatment when she went to pay for her books a minute later). It is the privilege of never being told that you are ‘playing the race card’ if you choose to raise an issue. It is the privilege of never being mistaken for the cleaner/waiter/intruder at your holiday resort/restaurant/conference.  Misunderstandings, gaffes, and incidents relating to the colour of my skin may have provided me with a number of funny after-dinner anecdotes, but they also highlight something far bigger. That the world is unequal and it provides certain benefits to those who possess certain physical characteristics which translate into social, economic and status privilege.

Recognising that there is inequality is one thing, but increasing our understanding of the terms that helps us comprehend the inequality is another. The common sense understanding and use of the term racism is that of a binary: you’re either racist or you’re not. Despite our fondness for binaries in debates about education (‘traditional’ v ‘progressive’, anyone?!), social relations are a little more complex. You can love your partner and still be negative about their inability to clear up. You can value the company that you work for and still loathe aspects of it at the same time. You can make it clear that you support equality for women but don’t change your pay system. You can be avowedly anti-racist and still use the reasoning of racism.

We like to believe that on the whole, racism exists somewhere else. It exists in men marching in parks and shouting slogans whilst carrying torches. This is an obvious sign of racism and it is one that makes the news, but it is not the only form. Technology is (in my view, often mistakenly) seen as great leveller, but it reveals that although overt displays of racism are rare, the thinking of ‘race’ and associated ideas of superiority and inferiority are surprisingly commonplace. One study found that the mere glimpse of a ‘black’ hand in the picture of the product to be sold, had the following effect:

Black sellers do worse than white sellers on a variety of market outcome measures: they receive 13% fewer responses and 17% fewer offers. These effects are strongest in the Northeast, and are similar in magnitude to those associated with the display of a wrist tattoo. Conditional on receiving at least one offer, black sellers also receive 2–4% lower offers, despite the self- selected—and presumably less biased—pool of buyers. In addition, buyers corresponding with black sellers exhibit lower trust: they are 17% less likely to include their name in e-mails, 44% less likely to accept delivery by mail, and 56% more likely to express concern about making a long-distance payment.

Another example can be found in the job application process. Even when qualifications and experience are equal, it is easier to get an interview if your name is Adam instead of Mohamed or Mariam. We have good, and replicated, research on this phenomenon but very few employers, and even fewer schools, use ‘blind’ applications. Yet when the figures on the teaching workforce are released and we have the recurring media articles about the lack of diversity in school leadership teams and staff rooms, no-one mentions this. If names are taken as a proxy for ‘race’, people are denied the opportunity of even being in the room.

This is not the racism of the neo-nazis in the USA, with their overt displays of force and derogatory language. This is the very modern banal racism, cloaked in the forms of bureaucracy, technology, politeness and in the grind of the everyday; dating, renting accommodation, applying for jobs. This form of racism works in a subtle way, imperceptible on the surface, and is only verified after it has done its work. Racism, therefore, is not just a state of being or not being a racist. This problem — and this complexity — must be grasped and understood if we are to move from an uneasy social order to one that has justice as a guiding light.

As I was reflecting on the tweets, blog posts and accusations of witch hunts/smear campaigns, I was reminded of the incident between the footballers Patrice Evra of Manchester United and Luis Suarez of Liverpool. In October 2011, Evra and Suarez had clashed during the game and Evra stated that Suarez had used a certain word. Suarez denied this and stated via Facebook:

I’m upset by the accusations of racism. I can only say that I have always respected and respect everybody. We are all the same. I go to the field with the maximum illusion of a little child who enjoys what he does, not to create conflicts.

Liverpool rallied around Suarez and said they would back him through the upcoming investigation. The outcome of the investigation led to Suarez being fined £40,000 and suspended for eight matches. Liverpool disagreed with the outcome and sought to undermine Evra as someone who was wiling to ‘play the ‘race’ card’ and in the game after the initial judgment was reached, the Liverpool team warmed up wearing t-shirts bearing Suarez’s name and picture to show solidarity. Suarez was now the victim and the origin of the whole incident was ignored. Unfortunately, when published, the report was clear that Suarez had used a racist term, but he was not ‘a racist’.   The matter seemed to be closed until the next meeting between the clubs. As Evra lined up for the normal exchange of handshakes with the opposing team, Suarez refused the offer. This was because he was upset and had his feelings hurt by the whole process. As an Arsenal fan, I have no love for Evra. But in that moment, I was gobsmacked; Evra was painted as the bully because he had identified an injustice in the first place.

The parallels between this incident and what has happened over the last week have been striking. Denials, statements about hurt feelings, and widespread accusations of reducing free thought. There have been claims of closing down intellectual discussion and deliberate silence from some of my fellow educators (pleasingly, no one had any t-shirts printed…that I know of). This is what happens when you question poorly researched ideas and highlight the existence of racism. There is still an opportunity to move beyond the reductive reasoning and posturing, but only if there is a commitment to understanding.


Further/additional reading

Backlash over BBC’s low-paid minority ethnic staff https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/jul/22/scandal-of-bbc-low-paid-ethnic-minority-staff-creating-as-much-anger-as-sexism

The Visible Hand: Race and Online Market Outcomes http://www.frbsf.org/economic-research/files/VisibleHand_Doleac.pdf

It is easier to get a job if you’re Adam or Mohamed? http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-38751307

Racial Discrimination in the Sharing Economy: Evidence from a Field Experiment http://www.benedelman.org/publications/airbnb-guest-discrimination-2016-09-16.pdf

A test for racial discrimination in recruitment practice in British cities, Department for Work and Pensions, 2009 http://www.natcen.ac.uk/media/20541/test-for-racial-discrimination.pdf

Airbnb hosts discriminate against black guests based on names, study suggests https://www.theverge.com/2015/12/10/9885826/airbnb-guests-discrimination-race-study

Study says black Airbnb hosts earn less than their white counterparts https://www.theverge.com/2014/1/21/5331106/study-says-black-hosts-earn-12-percent-less-than-white-hosts-on-airbnb

Anonymous recruitment aims to stamp out bias, but can it prevent discrimination? https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/jul/05/blind-recruitment-aims-to-stamp-out-bias-but-can-it-prevent-discrimination

White privilege – unpacking the invisible knapsack https://nationalseedproject.org/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack 


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