Last week on the FLY blog, Audrey Sebatindira argued that young black men were often apathetic about the concerns of women of colour.
Reading Audrey’s article, my first thought was – preach. A few years ago, helping run the ‘I, too, am Cambridge’ campaign, I was often involved in discussions with my friends about racism or patriarchy. Some wondered why, given the relative privilege of Cambridge students, we were trying to raise awareness of racist micro- or macro-aggressions. We’re all at Cambridge, can’t we all just chill out?
I would argue that oppression was all encompassing and one kind of privilege didn’t give you a ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card for other kinds of oppression. In fact, if anything, in a place as white as Cambridge, racism was probably more pronounced.
Those who disagreed previously then generally conceded, bar one group – the brown boys. They would question me, asking me whether I really thought that racism existed, whether I had really been racially abused (I have), was this really a worthy cause. We’re privileged, Abby, they’d say. We don’t need to fight anymore.
I don’t have those conversations any more. The brown boys still think either that (a) racism doesn’t exist or (b) it does, but the struggle doesn’t apply to them. It’s just that I’ve stopped trying – for my sanity, for my friendships.
I’ve often wondered where this apathy and conservatism comes from. Brown men as a whole directly experience a significant amount of oppression: they’re increasingly targeted by police stop and search powers, Islamophobic racism, and anti-immigration sentiment.
One reason is that they’ve probably never experienced blatant discrimination themselves. There’s no denying that there is relatively more privilege in some BME communities than others. And privilege can blind you to the structural and systemic oppression of others.
Looking at immigration patterns amongst Southeast Asians, from the 1980s onwards the demography of immigrants has changed radically. While earlier immigrants usually entered the unskilled workforce, later waves of immigration, from East Africa, Sri Lanka, and India, consisted of more professionals. These groups became ‘model minorities’. Their children went to better schools and could adopt the language and dress of the dominant race and class. So brown men have found it easier to rise the ranks of business, culture, and politics.
A second reason is if they have experienced discrimination, they probably think that it’s worse for other groups. And fair enough – it might be. But the next logical step should not be to see racism as ‘someone else’s struggle’.
Both these reasons, I think, totally miss the mark. The first is easier to question than the second. So what if you haven’t experienced blatant racism? You know it exists, you know people are affected, you should be actively trying to stop it. ‘Actively’ doesn’t have to mean running an anti-racism campaign. ‘Activism’ is as simple as talking about race with your friends and raising awareness.
The second reason reveals a more worrying conservatism in the ways we define ‘racism’. Yes, racism is the shocking police brutality which black men as a group face daily. Yes, racism is when someone shouts a racist slur at you. But racism is also the subtle, consciousness-shaping system of definition which affects how your CV is read by employers, how your clothes are interpreted by Tube passengers, how you are seen as ‘different’, ‘dangerous’, ‘dirty’. We aren’t stupid, we can see the difference between those two levels of discrimination. But they are part of the same system.
A final reason is the not-so-hidden conservatism embedded in ‘lad culture’. It’s unfair to say this is only a problem with brown boys – it’s more a problem with ‘boys’. ‘Lad culture’ doesn’t take anything seriously, and so is prone to conservatism. Because racism and sexism are serious business.
So why should we care about the apathy of some brown men? Because, increasingly, there is less solidarity between different minority groups in Britain, and that doesn’t bode well for dismantling racist systems of oppression. When racism was more widespread and obvious, minorities had no choice but see the anti-racism struggle as their own. ‘Britain’s Racist Election’ is an amazing documentary outlining the political gains made by an anti-immigration, racist Conservative parliamentary candidate in an area which experienced an influx of Sikhs. His slogan was ‘if you want a n*gger for a neighbour, vote Labour’.
For the white majority who voted him in, a ‘n*gger’ could be brown or black – they were just the ‘Other’. Now, some minorities have partially transcended these barriers. But being a model minority doesn’t mean you’re any less of a minority. That election happened a generation ago. Oppression is alive and real now. So we need you, brown boys, to help us tackle it.