Racism is not my only issue with race
Race may be bad science but the idea still has a vice-like grip on our imaginations. We must liberate ourselves from it if diversity is to be seen as an asset, not a target
Kurt Barling: In order to liberate people of colour from the oppression induced by past racial categories, activists needed to embrace those categories
We must liberate ourselves from the mythology and language of “race” if we are to conquer the scourge of racism so our societies can become truly diverse. Where that diversity is valued as an asset and not regarded as a target.
Some years ago I travelled to Mullingar. It was a kind of pilgrimage to my maternal roots. When I arrived in the town with its imposing white cathedral high on the hill, I felt about as far from home as I could get. The Celtic blood coursing through my veins wasn’t easily reflected or recognised by looking at me. The inhabitants of Mullingar were mostly amused and some bemused by the idea that my grandmother had until the mid-1920s been one of them. Funny old world. My sense of brotherhood muted because my African heritage had mixed so visibly with my Irishness.
This book is about what lies beneath the skin. How do we get at that in a world still so full of mythology about race and riven with anxiety about racism? It was a curious thing for the Irish to be so conscious of injustice perpetrated by the English and yet not quite comfortable themselves with this otherness reflected by skin colour. Even more curious given that in the early twentieth century in America, the Irish were often described as Black. Indeed they were often portrayed in newspaper cartoons as bearing a resemblance to “inferior” African-Americans as a way of cementing their status, locked out of the Waspish world of rights and privileges. The St Patrick’s Day pageants down Broadway are evidence of how the myths of race can be transformed in a generation.
Theodor Adorno said that people love what is like themselves and hate what is different. It’s a theme I have wrestled with since I was about three, even if I have learned to weigh the hyperbole in this statement a little more carefully.
At nursery school I must have become conscious of my difference to others embodied quite literally by skin colour. This is an externally inspired route to identity that most people of colour experience when their lives go public, leaving the sanctity of home. It is my view that it is impossible or at least improbable that children of three or four create a self-referencing set of categories based on skin colouring. One of my students, who has African heritage, has a daughter who worships Rapunzel. I think these fairy tale myths are more in line with how we see ourselves at that age. It won’t be long before someone disabuses that happy child of her innocence.
In the child seat on the back of my mother’s bike about 50 years ago I experienced that kind of epiphany. A young “friend” from nursery was walking with his mother and I tried to call out to him several times. He refused to acknowledge me and my mother has a clear recollection of me muttering under my breath, “he doesn’t like me because of the colour of my skin”. Not long after this I started to alarm my Anglo-Irish mother by asking why “I wasn’t white and called John”.
The issue in a nutshell is I had just discovered my “wogness” and the weight of historical myth that dictates the way so many people see others through the prism of race. Racism begat race. The fear of the other is both an elemental psychological and practical struggle that has exercised the passions, pretensions and politics of man for an eternity. It is certainly not irrational although most would willingly now accept it is wrong.
No idea is perfectly formed in isolation from others. So it was for race. As enlightenment science strove to explain the word beyond our limited biblical understanding it developed categories as a means of measuring and qualifying the natural world. The British Museum’s welcome displays adequately reflect this early scientific method of classification. Humankind was not exempted and race became the way the great thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries began to codify planetary diversity. The philosophers like Hume and Kant became the “spin doctors” of the day to racial science and embedded in the European way of thinking the idea that race mattered. Accept a hierarchical taxonomy; do not mix; if you are African, or part thereof, consider yourself bottom of the pile.
As a consequence I would argue that “race” remains an idea with a vice-like grip on our imaginations – we can’t just wish it away. Plenty of people have tried, on the basis of more rigorous science that has shown in recent years that race is simply bad science. There is nothing useful about the category scientifically to help us explain differences between people of a variety of skin tones.
Some years ago I made a film for the BBC called The Faster Race. It challenged the idea that black men ran faster than white men. I argued that we were looking at the wrong determining variable. Some black men run fast. Many don’t, at least not faster than their white counterparts. Particular population groups, however, may show signs of genetic variation. But the reality is of the one billion Africans it would be a mistake to seem them all as genetically similar. There is more variation in Africa among the human gene pool than there is elsewhere.
However, my film was met with a howl of protest from some black people, who felt I was stripping them of an inherited badge of excellence. A reminder that on both sides of the colour line there remains a deterministic attachment to skin colour, even when the science tells us it doesn’t make a shred of difference.
Britain is a very different place to when I was growing up, and I know that Ireland too has changed. I have found sufficient evidence in the data available, for example on education, employment, business growth and other areas to show that there has been a seismic shift in the opportunities for people of colour. That is not to say there is no racism. But the colour of a person’s skin is less and less an effective discriminatory barrier to social advancement. I quote the figures from British universities where about 356,000 students are currently from BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) backgrounds. This is a tsunami of graduate change waiting to alter the face of decision-making across our islands.
Of course, educational achievement doesn’t always immunise you against ignorance, but it can protect you against employment racism. When I joined the BBC in 1989 someone took it upon themselves to investigate the authenticity of my qualifications. After several days of anxiety at having been singled out I discovered it was a hoax thought up by a manager who thought it was a joking matter. I never laughed once. My authentic qualification protected me from slander but not prejudice. I remained at the BBC for a quarter of a century.
In dealing with race this has left us in a kind of political no-man’s-land. In order to liberate people of colour from the oppression induced by past racial categories, activists needed to embrace those categories. To change the system from within, using politics and the parliamentary process, the arguments needed to be made that inequality and injustice were rooted in the way in which categories positively encouraged prejudice and underpinned discrimination based on visible racial differences. In uniting around the notion of “Blackness” a huge amount of political capital has been invested in this opaque linguistic construct.
Under the rule of law we can aspire to the goal of inclusivity, where talent is not colour-coded and opportunity to exercise and harness that talent is not thwarted by cultural racism. Where the access is open and judgement and progression are based upon principles that can be upheld.
Kurt Barling is Professor of Journalism at Middlesex University, London.
The R Word is published by Biteback Books, £10