The truth about racism in the UK

In December, grime artist Stormzy caused a media frenzy by pointing out the UK’s racism. Here, Jude Yawson, co-author with Stormzy on his book Rise Up, calls out the hypocrisy that exists in UK media and explains why we urgently need wider representation in our culture

To exist as a historically conscious black or Asian person in Britain is to exist knowing that a majority of your white counterparts do not acknowledge your history. They have not been forced to adopt centuries of trauma, or been sub­jected to the racialised perceptions created over that time. They have not originated from mother countries gradually drying from the imperialism they were soaked in, and do not have to live in recognition of slavery and colonialism and the impact these have had on their countries and people.

They will never walk around a university campus surrounded by artefacts stolen from other countries, or see the colonialists who ravaged their mother countries celebrated as heroic figures. Nor will they see them hosted in museums – establishments that fight to keep artefacts for tourism’s sake. Or witness their own people depicted in galleries as slaves, without any recognisable history.

They do not have to come to terms with being ‘otherised’ in almost every way while watching the mainstay of society have a freedom of history that they don’t. They can see their history as subjectively as they like – as entertainment or, in the case of memorials or the beloved poppy, a meaningful necessity to recall. History written and projected by the victorious, that has no enticement for the other as it is meaningless to their immediate lives. Hence, I question how truly ‘great’ Britain is, and how great does Britain want the liveli­hoods and perceptions of all its people to be? Undoing the social and spiritual disease that is racism is a necessity.

A plethora of black and Asian Brits, who mostly have experienced racism at a micro, macro, and systematic level, exist and combat it

In recent months, the media has leveraged a wayward discussion on whether this country is racist. There is a lack of interconnectivity in this. For instance, reports of hate crime have increased steadily over the past several years, increasing significantly after Brexit. And temporary exclusions in primary school for incidents of racism have gone up, which makes me wonder about the link ­between the xenophobic tone of the Brexit campaign and young Brits’ growing perceptions of people.

There are examples everywhere. Meghan Markle and her marriage to Prince Harry, their gross treatment within the media reeking of racism after her African American heritage was widely acknowledged. The comparison of their newborn to a monkey by the popular radio show host and DJ ­Danny Baker. Increasing incidents of racism in football – Raheem Sterling and others being subjected to racist chants.

And then there’s the reaction to Stormzy saying the UK is racist, “100%”, in terms of its institutional and systematic history. His comment was misrepresented by media – suggesting he’d said that Britain is 100% racist, as in entirely racist. His character was attacked and he was subjected to racist and derogatory comments simply for speaking out. He was then accused of being too affluent to experience racism, despite having had his door kicked in by police who were called to his house by neighbours suspicious that a black man had let himself into a lovely home, in a wealthy Chelsea neighbourhood.

There is a catalogue of racist events that are widely acknowledged in our communities but rarely acknowledged by white people

A plethora of black and Asian Brits, who mostly have experienced racism at a micro, macro, and systematic level, exist and combat it every day to different degrees. But on the largest platforms – Good Morning Britain, Sky, Question Time – such experiences are dismissed, sometimes as ‘pandering to wokeness’ as opposed to what they truly are: a soulful endeavour to alleviate us from this entrenched position. While posing as a debate and offering people who do not suffer from racism a perspective, such platforms are doing a grave disservice to the honest work of the well-studied and concerned people who can communicate such experiences.

Good Morning Britain host Piers Morgan recently had what many in media referred to as a ‘fiery debate’ with British writer and broadcaster Afua Hirsch live on TV. He did not afford her any time to articulate herself, her words misconstrued and attacked, her points belittled with counter arguments that strayed from the issue. In the same breath, Morgan defended Danny Baker. Racism itself as a phenomenon becomes a blurred line.

On the TV show This Morning, Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu described white privilege, where incidents such as Baker’s racist tweet and the microaggressions mounted against Meghan Markle can be dismissed as playful ignorance and not denoted as racism. She argued that it is not the job of black people or minorities to teach white people about racism, they must endeavour to learn about it themselves. Presenter Phillip Schofield asked, “What examples do you have?” to which Mos-Shogbamimu pointed out that his question is precisely the issue, and asked where has he been in the past two years.

Top image: Stormzy in concert in Amsterdam, February 2020. Photo: Ben Houdijk/Shutterstock.com; Above: Bullet-proof vest created by the artist Banksy and worn by Stormzy during a performance at Glastonbury in 2019. Photo: Bruno Mameli/Shutterstock.com

There is a catalogue of racist events that are widely acknowledged in our communities but rarely acknowledged by white people because they do not have to live with the realisation or memory of it. It has no bearing on their lives.

Racism becomes a stance, often described as the ‘race card’, which implies people have been allowed to see such a conversation as debatable rather than wholly misunderstood. This is maintained by our media. In an article for the Guardian, Hirsch noted how slow the acknowledgement of racism is in Britain. She argued that the notion of the ‘race card’ is being used to silence people from speaking out on racial matters. There is a difficulty in decolonising and proposing anti-racist rhetoric even at a school level. Hirsch referred to the University of Sheffield, which is paying 20 race equality champions to tackle racism on campus. Their work includes tackling derogatory statements, such as “you are pretty for a black girl” or “you are playing the race card”. As Hirsch states, these magical cards don’t work.

Yet microaggressions are one feat of many that coincide with racism. If this well-educated, intelligent and good intentioned woman can be vilified – who can’t be? It becomes a constant battle, a fight into which we all can be involuntarily dragged, even if we jeopardise our positions for ­doing so – socially or financially.

Racism becomes a stance, often described as the ‘race card’, which implies people have been allowed to see such a conversation as debatable

DJ Dotty recently took such a risk, calling out her employer on her BBC 1Xtra Breakfast radio show for showing clips of LeBron James when reporting on the untimely passing of Kobe Bryant in a BBC News report. The two basketball players look entirely different – the only similarity is they both played for the Lakers. She described this as unforgivable and placed her company in the Trash Bag – a feature of her show where she highlights something that needs to be addressed. Dotty made the point that the BBC would never have confused Messi with Ronaldo, Nadal with Federer, and that not all black people look the same. The lackadaisical incompetence of the BBC, with the correct information available in 0.2 seconds of research (James’ name on the back of his shirt was clearly legible in the footage), makes you wonder what taxpayers are paying for.

Self-made writers and artists are using social media and their wider media platforms to speak out against the racism that impacts all corners of society. Raheem Sterling has used his platform to point toward racism on and off the pitch, including calling out biased media headlines. Writers like Musa Okwonga have spoken out on racism within football. Stormzy has used his platform to shed light and respond to the racism exemplified in the media against him and others. Rapper Dave’s song Black accumulates facets of a young black and powerful livelihood. Writers like Chanté Joseph write on racism within politics and television.

But not only racism, also perspectives of black Britishness – like Aniefiok Ekpoudom shedding light on the brilliance of artists such as J Hus and why he is so important to young, up-and-coming black Brits. Rapman, and his short film ­Shiro’s Story and feature-length movie Blue Story depicting overshadowed livelihoods. Ciaran Thappar and his articles on Drill ­music as an entity, providing nuance on topics the mainstream media refuse to tackle, as well as writing on experiences to do with racism from the British Asian community.

There is a grave and systematic error that pits people against each other, which has become the mainstay of the country

These are all self-made individuals who recognise and understand a greater cause in depicting things surrounding race differently. Nevertheless, like Mos-Shogbamimu said, it’s not on us individually to explain racism – others must endeavour to unlearn.

There is a grave and systematic error that pits people against each other, which has become the mainstay of the country. If we want to reach a state of equality, the experiences of black and ethnic minorities must be recognised alongside wider Britishness. Whether it’s politically, or in the media, or in social media and its algorithms, creating our echo chambers of people – this society as a whole needs to do better.

Jude Yawson is a writer based in London. He co-authored Rise Up: The #Merky Story So Far with Stormzy, the first book to be released under the Penguin Random House imprint Merky Books; @judeblay

JUNIOR GRAPHIC DESIGNER

Milton Keynes