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Racism is pandemic, not an epidemic

June 5, 2020
We are not born racist. It’s learned behaviour.

This is probably not a bad time to dust down something I wrote three years ago about racism. The point I was trying to make at the time was that racism is not binary. It’s multi-dimensional. It exists in many parts of the world where people are not protesting or rioting because for one reason or another they can’t. I have seen it in action in South-East Asia, where I’ve travelled extensively, in Saudi Arabia, where I lived for several years, in parts of Africa, and, of course in my own country and the US.

Here’s the piece, which appears under the heading of Racism in the UK – let he who is without sin cast the first stone? Sorry, not good enough.

It speaks for itself, and I still stand by everything I said at the time:

“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 woman 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 colleagues in Jeddah, 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.”

So back to the present. For me, it goes without saying that Black Lives Matter. But while we’re focused on what’s happening on the streets of Washington DC, Minnesota, London and Paris, let’s also remember that the problem is much, much bigger. Let’s not forget the Rohingya in Burma, the Uyghurs in China and the aborigines in Australia, as well as the construction workers, housemaids and street cleaners in the Middle East. Them, and many more who are discriminated against on grounds of ethnicity.

It’s a global problem, folks.

  1. Andrew Robinson permalink

    Wow. The “teacher told us not to be afraid” – he/she was a bit short of vocabulary. I hope it wasn’t a fee-paying school.

    As someone who shared your multi-nationality, multi-ethnic, Saudi work experience, I would suggest that perhaps the motto should be:
    “I’m guilty of xenophobia*/racism, but I’m working on it.”

    (*The average insular British person is more xenophobic in the head, I would contend; but still racist “in the knees”…the jerk.)

    A French passport doesn’t make me French French (although everyone I know is pleased); because I have an accent, which I tell everyone is an “English-teacher job-requirement” as is my 21-year-old, inherited, RHD VW.

    One thing I DO believe in is “European values” in Europe, the adoption of which would render so many accusations of “racism” null and void.

    When we lived in Saudi Arabia, we didn’t respect the local culture and woe betide us if the bottle of “Chateau Nada Village” for the hostess was found on a spot-check (as a few have found out).

    Not sure how good your French is but this Belgian judge evokes this theme when a Belgian born-and-bred wifebeater of Turkish origin says “In our culture”……

    “You have chosen to live in Belgium…so it is Belgian culture that you must adhere to.” Champion (by gum!), but let he who is without sin…etc.

    • Thanks Andrew. All interesting stuff. I agree with you on the knee-jerk theory, as well as European values. Have you read Tom Holland’s Dominion? An interesting history of Christianity in which he argues that whether we are believers or not, our values are fundamentally Christian. A good read.

      • Andrew Robinson permalink

        I’ll have a look. Amazon was shut in France and I’m still waiting for my new Beatles book from Amazon UK – due to arrive a week ago.

      • Not here, it’s busier than ever.

  2. As an aside, it has recently been discovered that 95% of dementia patients over the age of 75 in the UK are convinced that George Floyd knew their father.

  3. Andrew Robinson permalink

    Maybe a bit soon? (lol)

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