Why we don't always know we're being racist

Most racism does not consist of gross acts of discrimination or verbal abuse
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The Independent Culture
TODAY IS Windrush Day. Unless you've failed to read a newspaper or see any TV at all for the past few weeks, you will know that last night marked the fiftieth anniversary of the landing of the ship that symbolises the start of the post-war migration that has changed Britain almost beyond recognition; and that the next day the men and women who founded the modern black community set foot on British soil.

By the way, let's clear up one small inconsistency. Was it 500 or 492? It was, in fact, 500, but there were (it is believed by those who were there) eight stowaways. The calypsonian Lord Kitchener recalls looking over the rail of the ship and seeing some of them swimming for dear life through the muddy brown waters of Tilbury harbour; he says he hoped the alligators didn't get them, as that colour water normally signified hostile animal life in the Caribbean.

The alligators didn't show up, but the sharks did. The Windrush generation survived Teddy-boy assaults, Rachmanism, Powellism, riots, crime, three major recessions and countless humiliations with a grace and absence of bitterness that defies belief. They protected their children against the worst excesses of racism for many years, until those children could cope for themselves. But even their own accounts of the racism they faced may be incomplete, for one reason: in many cases they may never have realised they were being discriminated against.

It is the bane of all those who write legislation to guard against discrimination on the basis of race, gender or disability. What happens if the discrimination is so subtle that the victim does not realise what is going on?

Some years ago, as part of a TV investigation, we sent two students - one black, one white - looking for jobs. The inevitable happened; the black student was rejected seven times out of 10 when the white candidate was offered an interview, or even a job. Again and again, the young black man would come out of an encounter convinced the potential employer was genuinely regretful, and that there had been no discrimination. And you could see why - the smiles looked warm, the language comforting. But they hid the truth; the young man, by no means a nervous type, was so shattered by the experience that we had to offer him counselling.

But there is another side to this story. Do people who discriminate always know that they're doing it?

On the Today programme last week, John Humphrys asked with an air of astonishment: "But surely people know when they're being racist?" It's a reasonable question, to which the answer is certainly "no".

Most racism does not consist of gross acts of discrimination or verbal abuse, though heaven knows there's enough of that: the Policy Studies Institute reckoned that one in eight black or Asian people experienced some kind of racial assault in a single year. But over and beyond that kind of horror lies a sea of petty thoughtless remarks and actions that daily humiliate black people.

This was so from the start. The Reverend Sybil Phoenix recalls that when she first came to England in the Fifties, she found a home in a converted coal cellar, for which she was grateful. The kitchen was under a grating, so that, when she cooked her first Christmas dinner, she had to put up an umbrella over the stove to prevent the rain coming in. Her fellow church members said, with tears in their eyes, how sorry they were - but that none of them could house her because their neighbours might not like it. Another landlady made her black tenants leave home early and come back late so that no-one would notice them; on one occasion, she made Rev Phoenix wait in the road because she had friends at home. And these people thought they were being nice; and they were to some extent being courageous.

Today, we are more careful about our language, and such behaviour towards a black family would be next to unthinkable. Yet we heard last week of new outrages to add to the long list that were visited on the family of Stephen Lawrence.

What is most disheartening is that the police officers who failed the Lawrences will never be persuaded that their actions stemmed from any kind of racial bias. Carelessness, incompetence, neglect even; but they are clearly baffled by the suggestion that their behaviour might have been affected in any way by the colour of the victim.

From the outside and with hindsight, it is hard to draw any other conclusion, but the hardest task we face is convincing the perpetrators - I mean the police, not the murderers - of their own unconscious prejudice. Otherwise, why should they not repeat their mistakes?

The Lawrence case is in itself a tragic echo of an earlier outrage against another group of black families from south-east London.

In January 1981, 13 black teenagers perished in a house fire after a birthday party in Deptford. The incident was serious enough, but there was little doubt that the reaction to it by the rest of British society led directly to the rage and frustration that triggered nationwide rioting four months later. I say reaction; what I mean is non-reaction.

First, the police treated the whole affair casually - the impression given was of yet another dispute among drug dealers that got out of hand. Just as in the Lawrence case, they started with the assumption that the children concerned had been up to no good. Under pressure to find a culprit, they interrogated the survivors remorselessly, including the all-night questioning of an 11-year-old girl, to try to force an admission from her that the fire had been caused by a fight.

But the most spectacular example of the thoughtlessness that characterises British racism was the attitude of the authorities; that is to say, they ignored the Deptford tragedy. Ironically, at the same time, a similar fire had occurred in Dublin, in a nightclub. The Prime Minister sympathised publicly; the Queen sent a message of condolence. To date, none of the Deptford families has ever had any such recognition.

This week, the Home Secretary launches his new Race Relations Forum, and the Prince of Wales throws a reception in honour of the Windrush voyagers. There will be a great deal of chatter, and many fine speeches. Would it not be fitting , in the midst of all the celebratory talk, for everyone to take a minute's silence at these events to reflect on what we lost in Deptford in 1981? That could be the start of a badly needed healing process, and a recognition that Britain is prepared to repair the years of neglect.

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