Divide and Conquer

The human animal appears to be attuned to threat, so it’s much easier to make somebody feel alienated than included. We’ve touched on this before. I guess if you’ve experienced racism in the past, you’re likely to be highly sensitive, even over-sensitive, to it ever after. And the more often you encounter it, the more you’ll come to expect it. We also have a biological tendency to generalise and assume – to simplify highly complex issues to one single causal factor, so we can understand it, and then tell ourselves that it is “the key issue”.

In addition, the internet, through its protection and fostering of like-minded ideological bubbles, has made stubborn confrontation the standard discourse of the age. If people feel they are fighting a pitched battle against dreadful foes, you cannot blame them for using whatever weapons come to hand.  Including accusations of racism, which our supposedly liberal societies have made highly potent.

The media further stokes this atmosphere of confrontation and conflict because it helps to sell their products. In the service of balance, they will seek out commentators and journalists who specialise in denouncing racism, to respond to any controversial, possibly racist incident, like that of Meghan Markle vs. The Crown. In fact, Afua Hirsch tells us that she’s been fielding hundreds of requests to comment on this very issue, and, last Sunday, in The Observer, the historian David Olusoga was enticed into writing on it, which, I think gives it far more gravitas than it deserves. 

Thus, also, Candice Braithwaite in the Guardian, reporting how she “lost out on hosting a documentary to a lighter-skinned black woman”, even though the subject was one she is at the forefront of bringing to public attention: the much higher rate of mortality in childbirth among black women in the UK. The woman who is now to host it is a “light-skinned, mixed race popstar.” 

Meanwhile, In the Waitrose food magazine (for Christ Sake!) Zoe Adjonyoh was complaining about Cultural Appropriation in the British food and Catering industry, because white chefs want to use exotic ethnic minority cuisines in their own successful ventures, passing it “through a white filter, for white consumption with white profit”. For example, she has repeatedly been offered unpaid internships by white chefs so they could use her expertise to expand their West African food repertoire. 

I suspect, that, in each case the writer was approached by an editor and asked to comment on these topical issues. (Certainly, Zoe Adjonyoh’s contribution was part of a whole spread on Cultural Appropriation.) They are expected to do their thing and get the red-faced, colonial, tory-voting pensioners nicely riled up, ready to say something stupid and racist.  Everyone would be thoroughly disappointed if the writers of colour said, “well, these are complicated issues…”

Yet they are. The Meghan Markle commentators are ignoring the extent that her treatment is typical of the cruelty meted out by tabloids to all celebrities, of all colour, which seems to feed a toxic envy in their readers. Candice Braithwaite’s comments ignore, as she admits, any other factors that led to the producer’s decision, such as the potential pulling power of a pop star host. (Although, admittedly, that star’s success may be laced with colourism.)  Zoe Adjonyoh’s point ignores the awful, predatory exploitation of absolutely everybody in the restaurant and food industry.   

By denying their complexity, these writers are reducing the scope and depth of the injustices they are identifying, including their true relationship with racist bias. They find it difficult to explain how so many people of colour can achieve success, despite such racism, or why so many white people also seem to be disadvantaged. They make it more difficult to identify and explain the all-too-common situation where racially inequality occurs, even though nobody involved is racist.

By making claims that are easily challenged, they are enabling Right-Wing commentators to dismiss all our claims as foolish, intemperate first-world liberalism, what they call “Wokery”. 

More importantly, by simplifying these issues to one accusation of endemic racism, and by implying this is driven by racist bias in the individual members of our immediate communities, they are driving wedges between groups who should be uniting to combat injustice.  “White” people, who also feel badly used by society, feel rejected and insulted by the idea they are wallowing in “white privilege”, especially as it is usually the most successful people of colour who are lecturing them on their advantages. People of colour are encouraged into a paranoid belief that they are surrounded by hostility and hatred. We give people the false choice between two extremes; if they question any of the fundamentalist beliefs of their own racial or political group they are classified as race or political traitors. They become outcasts from their own people, denied their identities. This is almost impossible to withstand, so groups draw further apart, begin to view each other with resentment and suspicion. 

Unequal treatment is unjust precisely because we are all, in essence, equally valuable. By emphasising our differences and different experiences without also drawing attention to our essential similarities and common experiences, we drive people apart, and into the arms of intransigent extremist groups. we create the situation we condemn.   

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