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Are you a racist?

Many of us in Malta would not have had the opportunity of listening to a radio show on BBC channel-4 last week. The show has caused some stir in the UK...

The following article (taken from The Obsverver) provides various highlights on this radio chat show. It touches many issues that interest us in Malta right now - giving us many points to ponder upon...
Read on...

The spat between Joan Rivers and Darcus Howe illustrated just how hard it is to talk about race, writes Akin Ojumu
Sunday October 23, 2005
The Observer

Have you got something against black people? You probably wouldn't be reading this if you had. But if you are brave or foolish enough to admit your prejudices, you can expect to get clobbered for them. Quite right. But I felt some sympathy for Joan Rivers when she lost it with Darcus Howe on Radio 4 last week after he suggested she had a blind spot about race. He baited her; she responded: 'Don't you dare call me a racist.' It was riveting radio but it left me wondering why she was so upset.
Listening to their conversation again on the BBC's website a couple of days later, Rivers didn't sound like a racist and Howe didn't actually suggest that she was, although he came mischievously close. After 10 minutes of listening to Howe lecture about race relations, she was bored and wanted to move on. He didn't.

But the subtext of what was going on was depressing. To call someone a racist today is the worst thing imaginable, the ultimate affront to their sense of self. To suggest that they might have more in common with Alf Garnett than they would like to admit is an insult that few people - not least, I imagine, the liberal readers of this paper - are prepared to stomach. Which is a problem.

In Britain, racism is a part of life. I've been relatively lucky but as a teenager I was occasionally abused on the streets when I ventured outside the capital; as a young man I have been stopped and searched. I grew up in south London, close to where Stephen Lawrence was killed; I read about the death of Anthony Walker in Liverpool with the same revulsion.

Racism is everywhere but if we can't talk about race without some people fearing they might be called a racist, how do we find a way of addressing it? If we can't have a debate because people are scared of being called names, then free speech comes under attack.

For a veteran black rights campaigner and unashamed self-publicist such as Howe, the world is divided into oppressors and victims. If you are black you should always be on guard against a slur, or worse. I disagree. Race is no longer just a black or white issue; there are shades of opinion but these are lost if each time anyone making a questionable or questioning remark is called a racist.

Take black male criminality. If you read the papers regularly you cannot help but notice that young black men are associated with certain street crimes. This is partly a matter of reporting but it has become a difficult subject. Can you make this association without being a racist? Yes, but only if you acknowledge that we are only talking about a few offences, gun crimes for example, that are specifically linked to issues such as drugs and gangs. There are plenty of other serious crimes that blacks are not disproportionately involved in.

Education is another contentious issue. Many inner-city schools seem heavily segregated along racial lines, and parents naturally scramble to get their children into academically successful schools, which often have a higher proportion of white middle-class pupils. Good grades are important but parents also a fear their children mixing with 'rough' black boys and this too is behind the decision of some parents to seek schools for their children miles from where they live. I am not just talking about white parents. Black people, myself included, are quite capable of this prejudice. It may not be as powerful as white prejudice but it is still an issue.

Crime and education are always hot topics; race is a subtext that is consistently downplayed.

I despise the BNP but consider recent events in Burnley, Oldham and Bradford where racial tensions have run high. There is more going on there than racism and racial division. Social deprivation, alienation and the decline of traditional employment have all played a part. It is too easy to dismiss the locals as ignorant racists and not treat them as fellow citizens.

A book about the decline of the white working class (The Likes Of Us, by Michael Collins) argued that they had become the forgotten victims of multi-culturalism. He said that the liberal elite demonises the kind of people he grew up with around Elephant & Castle. I disagree but his argument struck a chord with many. There are passionate grievances held against contemporary Britain and we can't ignore them, even if some views seem unpalatable.

The front line for race relations in this country is in places such as Burnley and the neighbourhood Collins described in his book. It is no surprise that people there see things differently.

There are such powerful feelings of guilt about racism in this country that it has become hard to talk openly about racial issues. Race is such an obvious difference that it puts an extra pressure on how we deal with it. We can't hide from it so let's be as inoffensive as possible.

Over the past 50 years Britain has changed from a largely homogeneous population into a wonderfully diverse nation, but such rapid progress has left scars. To compensate for all the struggles endured by my parents' generation and the current one, we have decided that racism is society's greatest ill. Of all the isms, this is seen as the worst. Sexism, ageism, homophobia, Islamophobia certainly aren't tolerated in polite society but they don't carry the same stigma.

The result is that talking about race is too often like tiptoeing through a minefield. If I give the impression or suggest that someone's views about race are simplistic, their reaction is to act so shocked that I usually feel obliged go on the defensive. And that annoys me. Why can't I suggest that someone isn't as liberal as they would like to think without causing a scene?

Of course, one reason might be because I have touched a nerve, but I also believe that a lot of people are scared of being wrongly outed as a racist. Unlike Howe, I think there is a difference between being insensitive and being a racist.

Perhaps Rivers and Howe could have had an interesting discussion about all this last week. Or perhaps not. The meeting of two tireless provocateurs was always likely to end with a few punches being thrown. But there is a more measured debate to be had about how we relate to each other in a multi-cultural society. We need to be more honest and less judgmental.

It doesn't really matter what Joan Rivers thinks about blacks. I never thought she was that funny anyway. But it does matter when people like her feel that they cannot express themselves. I'm not talking about giving a free ride to real racists, but we should be wary of restricting opinions unless we have a proper reason.


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