OPINION: Britain’s baggage: The 'least racist' is still racist

Friday, 5 June 2020 10:27 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The systemic racism that lead to George Floyd’s death is not only an American problem

Lola-Rose Avery is a pupil barrister specialising in family law

George Floyd’s death has sent shockwaves around the world, including in Britain. By now, we’ve all seen at least one of the images or videos of his killing. It was shocking. It’s hard to imagine anyone could see what happened and not be horrified.

As Brits have taken to the streets in protest, many have been vocally disdainful about it because, in their eyes, we don’t have the problem with racism that America has.

Ironically, a lot of people have been angry about the anger. Others have likely acknowledged the injustices quietly to themselves but decided not to speak out at all.

A study published in 2019 in the journal Frontiers in Sociology suggested that Britain is one of the least racist countries in Europe.

But as the rapper Dave said during his performance at the Brit Awards in February 2020, referencing the study: “the least racist is still racist”. He received widespread backlash from furious viewers who said he was wrong and ungrateful.

He’s a black man performing on a British show, therefore Britain’s not racist, the argument went. He’s had success as a music artist in Britain, so Britain’s definitely not racist. He’s earned a lot of money from fans in this country. We can’t be racist. Right?

The first time I ever went to Eastern Europe, I had names shouted at me every time I left my hotel room, so I am not sure that being the “least racist” country in Europe is exactly a glowing recommendation - the bar is not especially high.

I am a pupil barrister. This means that I am in the final stage of training before becoming a fully-fledged, qualified and practising barrister - almost like an apprenticeship.

It is one of the most coveted and competitive positions there is in this country. People, I am sure, would also look at me and say, “She is a black woman and she has done it. That wouldn’t be possible if racism was still an issue in this country”.

But I have managed this despite racism, not because of its absence.

The truth is that I have experienced racism at every stage of my life. My earliest memories of this are from as young as three years old.

This continued into my school years, where increased vocabulary meant that the name-calling ramped up a gear and I was called things such as “Lola the black cola” as well as being kicked and punched on the playground and around my neighbourhood at home.

There is a long history of black people being compared to dark-coloured animals. I had my turn when I was compared to a horse on multiple occasions by a group of people whilst I was at university.

Social media was established by that point and this meant people could also create fake accounts, anonymously messaging me more extreme racial abuse.

When I attended law school, the more covert racism I had experienced in the past transformed into microaggressions: subtle but offensive comments directed at a minority, often unintentionally or unconsciously reinforcing a stereotype.

When I was referred to as “aggressive” after a group exercise, a tutor had to state that she had heard the discussion for herself and that I was not aggressive, but assertive. Later, I was called “ghetto” by another student.

Recently I seem to have woken a lot of people up by sharing on Twitter some examples of my experiences, which were previously unthinkable to them; though it’s been my mundane reality since forever and many black people are able to relate all too well. 

My experiences are a microcosm of the racism we have here in Britain: the blatant, yes, but also the more subtle, which insidiously infiltrates every aspect of our society and which can go unseen by anyone who is not on the receiving end, anyone who is not a black or minority ethnic person.

The systemic racism that lead to George Floyd’s death is also at our doorstep. It’s not an American problem. It’s not isolated incidents.

Being quietly ‘not racist’ is not enough. White people, who are the beneficiaries of this system, must educate themselves as to how and to call it out with the same vehemence as black and minority ethnic people if it is to be dismantled. Silence is complicity.

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