Dr Neil Thompson FRSA has extensive experience in education, consultancy and publishing of working to address racism. He welcomes the renewed pressure to deal with systemic racism but warns that over-simplification can backfire.
I am at the tail end of my career, so I can remember when anti-racism started to be taken much more seriously in public services in the 1980s. The subject was embraced with quite some zeal by many people; and overzealously by some who adopted a very simplistic approach to some highly complex issues (particularly around language and what came to be known as ‘political correctness’).
At that time a common saying often heard was: ‘Racism is a white person’s problem’. This was certainly not meant to imply that racism affects White people more than Black people. The point that was being made was that everyone, whether Black or White or of any ethnic group, has a responsibility to be playing a part in challenging and, ultimately, eradicating racism.
Unfortunately, one of the consequences of the oversimplified approach to anti-racism that emerged in the 1980s (and is still with us to this day, albeit not so strongly) was defensiveness, what I have often referred to as a ‘walking on eggshells’ culture. ‘I didn’t want to say the wrong thing, so I felt it was wise to steer well clear and say nothing’ was the sort of comment I regularly came across on training courses I ran. This contributed towards what came to be known as ‘dumping’: it is up to Black people to tackle racism; it is up to women to tackle sexism; it is up to gay people to tackle homophobia, and so on. Of course, this thinking was rarely voiced openly, but it was none the less there and very strongly so.
Indeed, a common comment at the beginning of anti-racism courses I ran was that participants had expected the trainer to be Black. From an educational point of view, this was a gift to me as a trainer, as it enabled me to then question why they were assuming White people have no role to play in promoting anti-racism. In every case, this led to White participants acknowledging that they had been operating on the basis that they would be trained in how to avoid being actively racist (i.e. non-racist), but it had not occurred to them that they would be expected to be actively anti-racist. In particular, I remember one White woman saying that she had long operated on the basis that men have a part to play in dismantling sexism, but it had never occurred to her that the same logic applied to anti-racism (and, indeed, any form of discrimination).
In recent times, it has been heartening to see a renewed emphasis on anti-racism (but disheartening to note the reasons; the death of George Floyd, for example). While it is a development I have very much welcomed, at the same time, I have been concerned to see some of the old oversimplifications come creeping back in.
The main source of oversimplification would appear to be the tendency to think of racism in narrow psychological terms; that is, as mainly a matter of personal prejudice. This has contributed to defensiveness and avoidance: ‘I am not prejudiced, so racism isn’t an issue for me’. My work has emphasised the need to think more holistically about racism and understand it from a sociological point of view as a reflection of cultural and structural factors as well as personal ones.
For example, a major part of my training has involved helping people to realise that, while they may not have a prejudiced bone in their body, they may still be contributing unwittingly to racism by relying on racist cultural assumptions and stereotypes and/or reinforcing social structures that serve to reserve positions of power mainly for White people (and White men at that). An oversimplified psychological approach that stops short at looking at the wider picture is at best misleading and, at worst, a significant obstacle to pushing for the wider changes that are needed.
Like other forms of discrimination, racism is a highly complex phenomenon and anti-racism is even more complex, given that it involves competing theoretical and political perspectives on how best to address the problems involved. Simplistic or ill-thought-through approaches can be highly dangerous and therefore have the potential to do more harm than good.
As a result of this new surge of attention in anti-racism, I have been busy highlighting the importance of taking anti-racism very seriously, while also warning of the oversimplifications that have played a part in discrediting anti-racist efforts in the past by giving ammunition to opponents who want to dismiss it all as 'political correctness gone mad'.
It is not necessary to be an expert in critical race theory to be an effective anti-racist. But, it is wise to make sure that we are aware – and able to steer clear – of steps that fail to do justice to the complexities involved. For example, language plays a significant role in racism, as in other forms of discrimination, but simply banning certain words without educating people about what is problematic about them tends to create confusion and generate resistance. A much more sophisticated approach is called for.
I want to make people aware of just how destructive and crushing racism can be, while also emphasising the need for a well-thought-out approach that does not take us back to such simplistic notions as ‘If you are white, you must be racist’, ‘I believe in equality, I believe in treating everybody the same’ or ‘Black people don’t need welfare services, they look after their own’.
Talking about promoting social justice is important, but it is not enough on its own. We also have to take concrete steps, individually and collectively. The more we support one another in this, the more effective we can be.
Neil is an independent writer, educator and adviser and a visiting professor in the School of Health, Wellbeing and Social Care at the Open University. His website, with free learning resources and his acclaimed Manifesto for Making a Difference, is at www.NeilThompson.info. His book, Anti-racism for Beginners, published by Avenue Media Solutions, is available now.
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