Are we all ‘ists’ practicing ‘isms’?

There has been worldwide reaction to the illegal killing of an African/American (George Floyd) by police in Minneapolis. In ordering my own thoughts about this issue, and the current unrest in and on behalf of the BAME communities about it, I have come to the troubling conclusion that I am an ‘ist’, or at least guilty of ‘ist’ behaviours – or ‘isms’. This realisation has helped me to understand, I hope to some extent, the institutional and inherent racism in my own country.

The manner of George Floyd’s killing, by a police officer kneeling on his neck for almost 9 minutes, could not have been more calculated to evoke the history of black slavery in the Americas. However, not all of the understandable reaction has been well intentioned. While it has given people from ethnic minorities a focus around which to express their anger over past and present injustices, it has also provided opportunities for “racists” to promote their views during demonstrations against them. It has also provided opportunities for those who benefit from creating and maintaining division, in society more generally, to exploit the situation by provocation.

The event sparked the creation of a movement (fuelled and fanned by social media) that self-identified as “#BlackLivesMatter”. Curiously in the UK (so far) #BlackLivesMatter has not appeared to focus much on similar events in the UK. In other words it does not appear to be using the George Floyd incident to draw attention to occurrences of UK people, often young male people of ‘colour’, dying while in British police custody.

In the immediate upwelling of protest, some individuals defaced or destroyed statues, and other memorials, of historical people with links to slavery, the British Empire’s colonial past, or believed to be associated with support for historically contentious figures like Mussolini and Hitler. In passing it made me wonder whether, across the former British Empire, in fact all of the former Empires of European nations, similar things are happening? Are statues being torn down in the former African colonies of Belgium or Germany, the French colonies of north Africa and South-east Asia, the Far East colonies of the Netherlands, the Portuguese and Spanish colonies of South and Central America?

In the fairly recent past of other nations, effigies of world-influencing people have disappeared from view. In the former Soviet Union, once replete with images and statues of Stalin Marx, Lenin, Engels etc., such are hard to find except in museums, while those of pre-Soviet personalities are reappearing and revered. Iraq and Libya have seen statues of former dictators torn down after regime change; the same happened in Cambodia, Romania and many more.

For what my opinion is worth I think we’ll have to reconsider how, and where, we ‘memorialise’ people in future, but I’m happy to think of existing statues being moved to a “walk through history” sculpture park – not a theme park, but somewhere that allowed space for interpretation, information, and context. Where exisitng statues of contentious individuals cannot be moved, why not add some interpretative panels nearby or even erect another statue adjacent which depicts another part of their story? I believe we have to face up to our past, and through education learn from it, not try to expunge or edit it. To do so is to deny their context: a context that seeks to explain, not excuse. Otherwise we are no different than those who seek to deny the reality of the WW2 Holocaust, and murder of 6 million Jews by the Fascist Nazis.

Naturally as a person with some Jewish heritage and DNA, I have a reaction to this last point in particular, and it’s visceral. A novella by John Buchan, “The Thirty Nine Steps”, is a favourite story of mine but there are profoundly, and explicitly, antisemitic passages in it which I really struggle with. I have to skip past them in order to read the rest of the book, but I couldn’t burn it. Antisemitism is not part of my direct experience: I’ve never been abused, called a ‘Yid’ or a ‘Jew boy’ (not to my face) so my response is taught, learned and passed on, inherited. I am a white, middleclass, well educated and, I like to think, ‘liberal’ person and yet I have a direct instinctive response to an indirect stimulus: I am preconditioned by my environment (upbringing) to not have a rascist bone in my body and yet, and yet, I find myself admitting to prejudice about people I have never met.

In considering the undoubted rascism experienced by our BAME citizens, and trying to imagine how people of those communities must feel, really feel, I tried to put myself in their shoes. Of course that’s impossible, but in my head I tried to go through some benign scenarios, such as how would I react to people of different appearance, dress, skin colour, race, ‘presentation’, turning up unannounced at my door, say to conduct a survey. I had to admit I might be, probably would be, instinctively more wary of a young black man in a ‘hoodie’, and talking in ‘urban patois’, than I would a white middle-aged man in a suit. That is prejudice. That is racism. And there is nothing in my direct experience that leads me to this, quite the opposite, so it must be environmental. I must have been insidiously exposed to imagery and attitudes in various ways, some so subtle that they have been un-noticed, that I have formed some underlying attitudes to stereotypes. I suspect most of us have, and so it is entirely understandable that for some people, without the priviledges of a good education, sound upbringing, decent housing and work opportuities, these prejudices are nearer the surface than in others.

I recently undertook a DNA-based exploration of my family history. There were few surprises: I expected my genetic makeup to be mostly Celtic and European (Ashkenazy) Jewish, and it is. However, I also had a few ‘outlier’ strands, some from north and west Africa. I wonder if some of the Nazi-saluting fascist thugs who counter-demonstrate #BlackLivesMatter gatherings might be similarly surprised to find how cross-cultural their DNA is? Those who parade proudly under the cross of St. George or Union Flag, and proclaim themselves thoroughly English or British, might be surprised just how polyglot they are.

When I lived in Scotland, from where my Celtic DNA derives, my wife experienced occasional low level anti-English bigotry. She is not identifiable as being from a particular racial group, or origin, until she speaks. At that point, some deep seated stereotyped response was triggered in some people she met. Not based on who she was, or on appearance, skin colour, attitude or behaviour, she was made to feel unwelcome. That was 30 years ago, and yet it has coloured her feelings about the Scots ever since. She knows that this is irrational, but her slight experience has created an emotional ‘trigger’ in her. How do we expect people of BAME origin in the UK feel, when they are individually and collectively subjected to much more overt, systemic, and frankly nastier, abuse?

The unpalatable truth, as I see it, is that humankind is tribal. It is complex and multi-layered, but we have an animal need to belong. Whether that be defined by race, religion, politics, profession, class, sporting affiliation, age, gender, neighbourhood (and sometimes several of these) we seem to need the safety of our ‘clan’. In times of societal stress, whether that be caused by a pandemic, a financial crash, or even a war, we fall back on the instinct of what makes us fit in with our group to feel safe. We are frightened, especially just now, and frightened people are often irrational.

And so I would ask that we self-examine our motivations, and feelings about #BlackLivesMatter, both for and against, and whether over this or other things, we are also ‘ists’ and practice ‘ism’s. I know I do, and it’s not a very comfortable place to be.

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