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Racism in the UK – let he who is without sin cast the first stone? Sorry, not good enough

September 3, 2017

So let’s talk about racism, particularly in the light of the row Sarah Champion, Member of Parliament for Rotherham, ignited when she published an article about the recent criminal prosecutions of gangs of Asian origin for grooming and sexually abusing young white girls.

She was accused by many in the Labour Party of making a racist comment, and fired from her position in the Shadow Cabinet. In yesterday’s London Times she defends herself, making the point that provincial towns and cities in Britain are very different from London, which she claims is Labour’s centre of gravity. In towns like Rotherham, which she represents, there are cultural and ethnic enclaves far more pronounced than any in London, and it’s in those enclaves that such criminality has sprung up. There have been no prosecutions of gangs of abusers in the capital.

We’ll stop there for a moment. Either now or later please visit Margo Catts’ blog, in which she writes about racist attitudes in the United States. Timely really, in the light of the comment by a policeman in Georgia who was attempting to reassure a white whose companion he was arresting for drink driving: “don’t worry, we only shoot black people”.

Margo, like me, spent time in Saudi Arabia, a country where a multitude of nationalities earn their living side by side. You want to see racism in action? Go to Saudi Arabia, where just about every ethnic group looks down on another.

If you’re British, you might remember a sketch from the sixties lampooning the class system, in which there are three guys lined up, one tall, one medium height and one short. The tall one says “I’m upper class. I look down on him because….” And so on.

In Saudi Arabia, you’d need a three-dimensional version. Whites call the Arabs ragheads. Arabs call whites kuffurs. Egyptians think Saudis are stupid. Pakistanis think Arabs are stupid. Arabs think Bangladeshis are dishonest. And people from just about every ethnic group dump their prejudices on those at the bottom of the pay scale: Yemenis, Somalis, Filipinos, Baluchis – the folks who build their tower blocks, clean the streets, change the children’s nappies and kill the cockroaches.

Note that I’m not saying “the whites” and “the Arabs”. That would be a gross generalisation, and unfair to a lot of people who respect their neighbours regardless of their ethnicity and occupation. But racism is there, in attitude and behaviour. And it’s so prevalent that if you’ve lived there for a while you don’t notice it until you stop and think.

Which brings us back to Margo’s article. She makes the point that we are not born racist. Racism is learned behaviour. She goes on to say:

Accepting racism is racist. Refusing to talk about racism is racist. Pushing racism off as a problem that happens in some other segment of society or geography is racist. It’s way past time for white people to stop telling people of other races that we’re not racist, and start talking honestly with each other about how we actually are. Start making it clear that we won’t accept it from each other. In exactly the same way we ask Muslim communities to police themselves for potential radicals, it’s time for polite, don’t-be-political white people to start making it clear that we won’t tolerate racist thinking or expression in our own ranks.

Absolutely right, in my opinion. But she’s not just talking about whites. She tells the story of her bus in Riyadh, full of white women, being stoned by a bunch of Saudi kids just out of school. Racism isn’t a one-way street. It’s not just about the most socially and economically powerful discriminating against the less powerful. It happens between peer groups. It happens up and down whatever scale you chose to use.

Is Britain any different? We all, to a greater or lesser extent, have learned prejudices, gained from childhood or from our experiences – or other people’s experiences – later in life.

I don’t consider myself to be racist, yet in Margo’s terms, I probably am. One of my earliest memories is of sitting in nursery class at the age of five. A black guy came into the classroom, and the teacher told us not to be afraid. It was the first time I had ever seen a black person. I was fascinated, not afraid. But looking back, being told not to be afraid might have made me afraid. Might the teacher’s concern have instilled the first germs of racism in me?

Maybe, but twenty-five years later, the experience of Saudi Arabia actually did the opposite. Far from shutting myself away from contact with other ethnic groups, and calling my hosts ragheads, I went the other way. I took an interest in those around me who didn’t share my culture, religion and skin colour. I talked to Saudis, Pakistanis, Indians, Sudanese and Filipinos about themselves, their lives in their home countries, their likes and dislikes. And the more I talked and listened, the more I found I had in common with them.

My workmates in 1985 – 12 nationalities!

When I came home to the British workplace, I felt I was far better equipped than some of my colleagues to function effectively in a multinational workplace. Yet I’d be lying if I said that I’d never, perhaps in a moment of irritation, generalised about a race or a nationality. It’s when we start thinking or talking in a disparaging way about “the Germans”, “the Pakistanis” and “the Japanese”, that we stray into racist territory. It’s a short step from there to “the Jews” and “the Muslims”, except that those who hold a grudge against them are accused of being anti-Semitic or Islamophobic. But for me, it’s the same currency.

So was Sarah Champion being racist when she was referring to gangs of sex abusers of Pakistani origin? If she was failing to highlight gangs of white people – Latvians, Brits and  Albanians perhaps – who have also been prosecuted for similar organised crimes, then possibly yes, by singling out a specific ethnic group and ignoring others. But to my knowledge, no other gangs predominantly from a different ethnic group have been prosecuted in recent years.

Were her remarks a slander against the entire British-Pakistani community? No more, I believe, than singling out white football hooligans who chant racist slogans at football matches is a slander against the entire white English population, from the Archbishop of Canterbury through to the fishermen of Cornwall.

Likewise, is it a slander on our Egyptian, Sudanese and Somali communities to allege that female genital mutilation is still widespread within those groups?

As for the gangs of abusers in Rotherham, Oxford and other British cities, would we not describe them as racist if their excuse for their behaviour – behaviour, by the way, that might be considered by some of their peers as an honour crime if they tried to practise it on women within their own ethnic group – was that white girls were “easy meat”, “fair game” or “have loose morals”?

My point is that we live in a racist, phobic society, just as do the Saudis. None of us is entirely immune. Not Guardian readers in the home counties, not taxi drivers in Rotherham, not little old ladies in Cheltenham, not fruit-pickers in Norfolk. Racism is not just vertical. It’s horizontal. It’s diagonal. And it’s pervasive.

It’s easy to say “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”. But that won’t do, I’m afraid. Recognising our own prejudices, be they mild or extreme, should not stop us from calling out gross criminal behaviour such as grooming, drugging and gang-raping young teenage girls, and – if it helps us better understand and deal with the problem – from identifying the ethnic origin of the perpetrators.

When Sarah Champion said “Britain has a problem with British Pakistani men raping and exploiting white girls”, she was referring to a specific phenomenon that occurred in her city and several others. If she had said, “Britain has a problem with men sexually exploiting women”, she would have been immune to criticism by her own party, but open to ridicule for stating the obvious.

Yes, she may have strayed close to the line of generalisation that she could have avoided if she’d said “gangs of British Pakistani men…”. But was she wrong in identifying the phenomenon, even if her concern was awkwardly expressed? That’s for you to judge.

I for one believe that, as a woman who spent four years as the chief executive of a children’s hospice in Rotherham, and as the leading light behind a website ( dedicated to fighting child abuse in all of its forms, Sarah Champion deserves the benefit of the doubt.

As for the rest of us, we need to recognise the awful truth about the world in front of us, including the world we see when we look in the mirror.

Perhaps when we stop saying “I’m not a racist, but…” we will be making progress.

  1. It’s not racist to point out widespread cultural behaviours ‘female genital mutilation is widespread in Egypt’. Nor to hold discriminitory views, such as your outlined in Saudi Arabia. Racism is acting on these views, would you slap someone for being black? Or hang them for fun?

  2. Depends what you mean by acting on views. Failing to act can also be racist. Not protesting at racist behaviour, laws or court judgements. Not hiring someone on grounds of race, or voting for a candidate in elections on grounds of race. Racism can be passive as well as active. Either way, it’s corrosive.

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