Over this summer we’ve all had to face the challenging uncertainties and anxieties surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic. But as many have said, we’re also coming to terms with the age-old “pandemic of racism” that has yet to be cured. Having watched in horror and disbelief at the flurry of violent incidents between the police and Black people in America, including the shocking death of an unarmed man, George Floyd, I considered the type of pandemic we really have in the UK.
George Floyd’s death was a wake-up call for many of us. This statement itself is both positive and truly sad. I regret that whilst I have always been against racism, I had not been actively anti-racist until now. I was and probably still am ignorant in many ways to the issues facing the Black community. However, the difference now is that I am actively trying to learn, educate, discuss, and reflect on what I can do, and how I am part of the problem.
A powerful article by The Cambridge Tab titled, ‘To be Asian is not to be anti-racist’ struck a chord within me. It shone a light on how complacent and passive other ethnic minority communities can be in supporting Black people. As an Indian myself I think back angrily now to all the “fair and lovely” ads I’ve seen countless times during family trips to India. Insidiously the message that ‘fair is better’ is perpetuated by such adverts, impacting everything from relationships to work. Prospective in-laws look for a ‘fair’ daughter-in-law whilst actresses in Indian cinema continue to be as close to white in complexion as possible, ignoring the evolutionary reasons for our brown colour. Colourism is deeply entrenched in Indian communities, a mark of the complex and somewhat toxic relationship left between India and Britain in a post-colonial world.
Looking beyond community-specific problems and reflecting on the conversations I’ve had with close friends, I’ve felt shocked, disappointed and frustrated by the discussions or the lack thereof. I myself have felt shy or conscious to post on social media and can understand the feeling of not wanting to speak up out of fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. I realise now, having read articles on what we can and should do to show support, that this is something we cannot hide behind. Fear can lead to ignorance and complacency. Simple things like looking for petitions to sign, donating, buying from Black-owned bookstores and widening our reading and understanding are all things we can do.
Despite this, the defensiveness and ignorance out of fear that I was met with saddened me. A reluctance to just listen and acknowledge the atrocities of history and the injustices still present today is shocking. Verging on a ‘White lives matter too’ sentiment, countering trans-Atlantic slavery with Victorian workhouses in a ‘who has suffered more’ type of battle made me reflect on the unwillingness to listen that seems to have gripped England. Over the summer, I commented on an article written by Boris Johnson for The Telegraph in which he condemned protestors attacking a statue of Winston Churchill. I replied to someone who downplayed the death of George Floyd by describing him as a “career criminal” justifying his brutal killing. I naively thought I would be met with support from other readers but instead received replies telling me to look at the Gov.UK statistics on crimes and ethnicity as a justification of the ‘fair’ policing going on in England. Implying that the arrests are disproportionately high for Black and Asian people because they simply commit more crimes. It dawned on me that people refuse to look at what came first, in a ‘chicken and egg’ type problem. “The crime rates are higher in areas with predominantly minority ethnic groups, therefore that race has a higher propensity for crime and we have the statistics to back it up”. And so, the cycle continues, and nothing changes.
Why is no one asking about the funding levels for areas such as Luton, Bradford, East Ham, Brixton, Whitechapel, Birmingham, Newham etc? Nor is anyone questioning how they end up with large ethnic minority populations as opposed to the South-East, Covent Garden and parts of Kensington. London is hugely diverse, but that doesn’t mean it’s an equal playing field. There have been countless reports published on inequality and structural racism such as the Covid-19 report on the disproportionately high number of BAME deaths, but the action is yet to come. A BBC interview at a BLM protest highlighted people’s frustration with one person stating, “I’m tired of reports, we have enough of them, I want action’“
For how long, can we ignore a problem that’s right in front of us and blindly state there are no racial barriers to the achievement of Black and Brown people in this country? Like the issue of crime and policing, are we to just assume that a Black student is 6 times less likely to achieve a First Class degree because ‘that race has a lower propensity for academics’? And why do we extrapolate and correlate things with race when race is a human construct? There is nothing in DNA that says, ‘I am Asian therefore I like maths not art’. I watched a documentary titled ‘Baltimore Rising’ and something said stuck with me, ‘If your surroundings tell you you’re worthless and not worth investing in, how can you be expected to achieve’. I would argue that this problem of unequal investment between predominantly White and non-White areas is common to both America and England.
The ‘model minority’ myth was another thing I discovered through reading The Cambridge Tab. It’s the well-known idea of looking at all minorities and their problems as the same and asking, ‘if the other can do it, why can’t you?’. For example, the NHS is propped up by huge numbers of foreign staff and British non-White workers. But looking at the ethnic diversity at different levels is telling. Nuffield 2018 statistics showed that at every level of training for doctors, there were more Asian than Black doctors. Similarly, statistics show there are more Asian than Black senior managers and staff. I learnt that this “smokescreen” that is used disadvantages one ethnicity more, whilst dangling a carrot in front of the other. Foreign Asian doctors are quickly given locum positions and “trained on the job” because of staff shortages, but are unlikely to be given a permanent contract or enabled to progress in their careers because the extra funding is reserved for “home grown” medical students and doctors. In this way you have one minority thinking they’re being treated equally and another which is still underrepresented at the highest levels.
I don’t want this to be a bleak outlook on the progress we can make together but I do think there are facts and difficult, uncomfortable questions that we are all ignoring. There is privilege, there is inequality and there is injustice still. Simply looking at America from afar and being grateful we don’t have guns and therefore no problem is papering over a crack which is ever widening. It is everyone’s responsibility to reflect, educate and learn.
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt, it’s that we should listen to every story without offering a rebuttal or downplaying the severity. In the same way the #MeToo movement said we should believe anyone who comes forward, I strongly feel that the same ‘approach with belief’ is missing from the BLM movement in England. If we approach with caution, a sense of discomfort and a ‘that was in the past’ attitude, we’re never going to get anywhere with this particular pandemic.