How can we speak out against racism?

This is a blog post that has been partly written in my mind for quite some time and I’m sure parts of it are already out in the public domain as comments on other blogs, responses to reader comments on this blog or half-formed thoughts on blog posts stretching back over the last year or so – not that this or any blog post I write is anything more than a series of whispering thoughts partially collected and imperfectly recorded. The question I have been pondering is the title of this blog post: how can we speak out against racism? We are supposedly moving away from living in a racist society and bigotry in general is supposed to be the preserve of those old enough to be excused. Then why is it that I still encounter racism in every age group I engage with?

Encountering racism is one problem, challenging it is the next, far bigger dilemma. I wonder how many people reading this post have been in groups, around the partners of family members, in work or in any other social environment and encountered casual racism. Perhaps someone mentioned the ‘paki’ shop or referred to an Asian person as a ‘paki’ or complained about the ‘bloody ethnics taking over the country’. You might sense that they do not neccesarily mean it in an offensive way, but it is offensive and you want to say something, but you don’t know how.

The trouble is – it seems to me – that very few people do challenge casual racism like this. It seems to me that we have developed a rather skewered sense of social politeness where it is not socially acceptable to point out that someone is being offensive or racist. To be the one person in the group who speaks up you make yourself an instant outcast, you are the one making an accusation that is out of order – you are immediately tarred with the media brush of the ‘PC brigade’, infringing someone’s right to use a word they have always used. What is worse – so the logic goes – is that I’m not even black or Asian, so why am I even complaining, since I surely cannot be offended by the term?

If the tabloid media have achieved one thing in their interaction with the ongoing social problem of racism, they have made it extremely difficult for anyone to challenge racist language or engage in any real debate. They have taken ownership of the language of racism and the debates surrounding racism and distorted them so that it is the white man that is the victim; whilst the black man is the perpetrator of false victimhood. Instead of genuine racism we now have ethnic minorities ‘playing the race card’. Instead of offensive racist language we now have ‘political correctness gone mad’, it is no longer the language that is the real offence, but the person or society that challenges it. If anyone attempts to engage with other ethnic minorities or worse still, understand their culture or needs then they are ‘pandering’ to the evil doctrine of ‘diversity’ or ‘multi-culturalism’.

What kind of person challenges racism? Well, the most evil person of all: the liberal. Sadly we live in a society that freely uses the word liberal as a catch-all insult; a really hearty term of abuse designed to shut down debate. You can try and tackle any issue using rational arguments, studies or science and if your ideology does not match conventional conservatism: you are an evil liberal. You are the sort of person who is ‘soft on crime’ and would see killers put back on the streets – even if you are just arguing that looking at the offending rates suggests prison is not a deterrent and looking at the reoffending rate it is not a cure either. You might be suggesting that tackling the root causes of criminal behaviour is the real key to reducing crime in the long run; but you’re easily dismissed as a daft liberal when the real answer is simply to lock up more people for longer (even though the same person then complains about hight taxes and their irrational belief in the current system just serves to keep them that way). You become a ‘friend of the criminal’, rather than someone merely suggesting their might be a better way of reducing crime – and you would think that reducing crime would be something the conservative would support.

You also the sort of person who is likely to be ‘pandering to diversity’ or insistant on spreading the evil doctrine of multi-culturalism. You’re easily dismissed as a ‘pant-wetting Guardian reader’, without the need for the person to even engage with any arguments you put forward. In short: you are despicable and wrong.

And so it comes to challenging casual racism, where you face the full wrath of your peers if you break the unwritten rule of polite silence in the face of a racial slur. We might content ourselves with platitudes that it is simply a generational thing, that it will die out and we will all start using more acceptable terms to describe people who are not as white as us. Yet I have no doubt that this is an unfounded assumption. Casual racism lives on and it gains in strength with each dishonest tabloid article on ‘the PC brigade’ banning something else we cannot do or say in case it offends an ethnic minority (you become as laughable as the ‘PC zealot’ ‘banning’ spotted dick). Each article makes it difficult for anyone to tackle racism without instantly being dismissed as a ‘PC zealot’ or part of some big evil plot to overthrow the white man and replace him with women with covered heads.

I’m not a PC zealot, I’m just a person who believes that it really isn’t acceptable to refer to someone as a ‘paki’ or ‘nigger’ and I really do not want you to use such terms in my presence. One day I might even grow a pair and challenge you, accepting that I’ll be seen as the bad guy in the situation, the one who is out of order and making things awkward. But, perhaps one day, I’ll be the outcast if I don’t stand up and say something. Now that will be the day when racism really can be discarded as no longer a real issue. Until then, headlines like we saw in the Express and Star today* will be acceptable to far too many people and rarely challenged in ‘polite’ conversations.

A blog post rounding up the best blog posts on this topic will follow.

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