Bias is alive and well. Now we have proof, we need to act

The Guardian - Journal - - Front page - Afua Hirsch

What does racial prej­u­dice mean in Britain to­day? Is it, as one woman told me as I toured the UK to talk about my book Brit(ish), some­thing we no longer fight against, dis­tracted by other, seem­ingly mod­ern ideas? “Di­ver­sity,” she told me, “has killed anti-racism.” Is it, as the aca­demic Paul Gil­roy has said, a drama with which we have on some pro­found level be­come ob­sessed and de­pen­dent upon? “The na­tion’s in­ter­mit­tent racial tragedies,” he wrote in an up­dated edi­tion of his sem­i­nal book Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, “punc­tu­ate the chronic bore­dom of na­tional de­cline with a func­tional an­guish.”

Has it evolved into some­thing hid­den by the po­lite­ness of well-mean­ing British be­hav­iour? What I call “the ques­tion”, for ex­am­ple: the con­stant sin­gling out of peo­ple of colour in or­der to ask: “Where are you from?” And to keep on ask­ing, un­til in­for­ma­tion about some sup­pos­edly ex­otic coun­try of ori­gin is de­liv­ered. The kindly claim by a friend that you are fine, be­cause “we don’t re­ally see you as black”, or the pa­tient ex­pla­na­tion de­liv­ered by a col­league: “I’m not be­ing racist, you just can’t get a job around here any more if you’re white.” Even the “hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment” im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy that leaves you help­less as black British peo­ple you love are de­ported to a coun­try they don’t know doesn’t ac­tu­ally say racism on the sticker.

There is still plenty that does say racism on the sticker, of course. In my book, I re­call go­ing into a high-end shop on my lo­cal high street, for ex­am­ple, only to be told I wasn’t wel­come be­cause “the black girls steal”. And the mo­ment I re­alised my part­ner re­fused point-blank to en­ter shops of that na­ture in the first place, ex­hausted by the in­evitable sus­pi­cion and hos­til­ity.

The launch to­day of the Guardian’s Bias in Britain re­port­ing re­veals, in many cases for the first time, these ex­pe­ri­ences as more than just anec­dote.

I now know for ex­am­ple, that, from a rep­re­sen­ta­tive sam­ple of 1,000 black and mi­nor­ity eth­nic (BAME) peo­ple across Britain, 38% have been wrongly sus­pected of shoplift­ing in the past five years, com­pared with 14% of white peo­ple. I can tell you that 12% of BAME peo­ple have had racist lan­guage di­rected at them in the past month, ris­ing to 43% in the past five years.

We can now look prop­erly at the prac­ti­cal ef­fects of bias on life in the work­place. Con­trary to the per­cep­tion that be­ing a mem­ber of an eth­nic mi­nor­ity is an ad­van­tage in com­pa­nies seek­ing to prove their di­ver­sity cre­den­tials, the data re­veals that 43% of BAME peo­ple feel that they been over­looked for a job or pro­mo­tion in a man­ner that felt un­fair in the past five years, more than dou­ble the pro­por­tion of white British peo­ple.

And we can an­a­lyse some of the emo­tional ef­fects of bias – some­times con­scious, of­ten un­con­scious – in­clud­ing the daily as­sump­tion that we are not ac­tu­ally British. Now my ex­pe­ri­ence of “the ques­tion” is laid bare in the data: within the last month alone, one in five BAME peo­ple has had some­one as­sume they aren’t British on the ba­sis of their eth­nic­ity.

This re­search is im­por­tant be­cause, as well as these re­mark­able head­line fig­ures, it also ex­am­ines ex­pe­ri­ences dis­tinc­tive to dif­fer­ent groups. Feel­ing over­looked at work af­fects black or mixed-race peo­ple more than those of Asian her­itage. Mus­lims re­port hav­ing more neg­a­tive ex­pe­ri­ences than BAME peo­ple of other reli­gious back­grounds. Men are sig­nif­i­cantly more likely to have been stopped by the po­lice, while women are more likely to have felt the need to al­ter their ap­pear­ance be­cause of their eth­nic­ity.

My hope is that know­ing how wide­spread these ex­pe­ri­ences are might have ef­fects that are more di­rect than the poll­sters could have imag­ined. That a lit­tle black girl try­ing to scrub her skin lighter would know that many other girls face the same sham­ing pres­sures. That the per­son un­set­tled by be­ing con­stantly mis­taken for some­one else at work – in my case, al­leged dop­pel­gangers in­clude Michelle Obama and Clara Amfo, which is hardly un­flat­ter­ing, ex­cept that I don’t re­motely re­sem­ble any of them – will know that three­quar­ters of black peo­ple have had the same ex­pe­ri­ence.

Bias in Britain is a wel­come ad­di­tion to a badly ne­glected field of in­quiry. But here are a few things it can’t do. It can’t quan­tify the psy­cho­log­i­cal strain of feel­ing in­vis­i­ble, over­looked or treated with dis­dain; of feel­ing – in the mantra many of us know so well – like you have to do twice as much to suc­ceed. It can’t mea­sure the pres­sure of be­ing too vis­i­ble – of hav­ing to do half as much to fail. It can’t di­ag­nose how many of our re­la­tion­ships crum­ble be­cause a part­ner is too bro­ken and an­gered by racism to be able to love, or how many of us lose our sense of iden­tity un­der the bur­den of racism, al­low­ing it to en­gulf and over­whelm us.

Be­cause racism does have the power to over­whelm. I was struck by the story re­cently of a white theatre di­rec­tor who de­scribed him­self as “born-again African”, in part be­cause of the racism he had ex­pe­ri­enced as a con­se­quence of be­ing mis­taken for some­body black. Racism, I was re­minded, has come to be such an in­te­gral part of the eth­nic mi­nor­ity ex­pe­ri­ence, it is con­fused with the en­tirely sep­a­rate ques­tion of who we ac­tu­ally are. This is noth­ing new – it’s the rea­son Mar­cus Gar­vey felt com­pelled to point out, al­most a cen­tury ago, that black­ness is not about shame but about great­ness.

The way to over­come this con­fu­sion is not to stop talk­ing about racism, it’s to un­der­stand it bet­ter. And to un­der­stand it, you have to ask the right ques­tions, and lis­ten – re­ally lis­ten – to the an­swers.

I re­call go­ing into a high­end shop on my lo­cal high street, only to be told I wasn’t wel­come be­cause ‘the black girls steal’

PHO­TO­GRAPH: IMAGE SOURCE/ALAMY

12% of British BAME peo­ple have had racist lan­guage di­rected at them in the past month

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