If you approached the majority of the public and asked them what Racism means to them, they might speak of slavery, and Rosa Parks and segregation, drawing on historical events that position racism in the past. But what about Structural Racism or more specifically Institutional Racism? How many people understand the scope of such a huge demonstration of racial injustice? Many will look at this blog posts featured image, think of the days of segregation even just to drink water, most likely unfiltered for those labelled ‘coloured’ and believe that it represents Racism. The truth is, however, that it represents only a minute aspect of Racism. Though it seems to again have disappeared into the historical ether, some may remember the 2003 documentary The Secret Policeman. This controversial documentary was released only 15 years ago and yet it presented an institutionally racist police force in Britain, to a disgusting and shocking extent. Again, if you have not seen the documentary it is a good wake up call to anyone that does not believe how recent severe examples of Racism have been displayed. What it showed was that we had evolved beyond placing physical chains on people of colour (I am using this term as it seems to be the least restrictive in terms of who it represents) but had not evolved beyond the mindset
Like the topics of Feminism and of politics, the subject of Race is still hushed away in conversation. To speak about the existence of Racism, structurally and institutionally and to attempt to voice personal anger towards the state of racial perceptions and prejudices, is to launch oneself into a barrage of bullshit.
People, especially those not belonging to any sort of racial minority, strike up a defence, a slew of statements in denial toward the topic. Reni Eddo-Lodge’s blog turned book “Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race” expresses the frustration of experiencing this rejection of reality, this inability to engage in an open-minded conversation about Race. It does not attack white people as a race, that would be counterproductive and it does not label every white person with this particular persona. Instead, it merely voices this infuriating repetitive situation wherein people continue to hush the conversation, to usher it into a corner with the rest of the topics not-suitable-for-the-dinner-table. It provides context and historical backing to its discussion, it is, in general, a great aid and a good start to educating oneself on the matter.
Perhaps one of our biggest problems is that the education system has, on the whole, failed us a society in relation to racial understanding. Perhaps through an intentional white-centricity or merely through a naivety, much of the research, context and knowledge one has to gain to understand such a complicated matter is omitted from the standard curriculum.
While there has been a progression over the years since then, it is still undeniable that Racism permeates through much of our industries and society. So what actually is Institutional/Structural racism? Well essentially, it’s what you see in the documentary. It is the underlying collective attitudes within society or within a workplace that prioritises one race against another. That is a wildly simplified definition but there is only so much space to discuss within this blog post, so please carry on your own research as well. Akala, a teacher and rapper, is someone that has continually educated his listeners and the people he comes in contact with, hoping to enlighten and inspire people to educate themselves and change their views. He is an example of a voice that has not been silenced by the stigma surrounding racial discussion, see his own conversation on structural racism here:
Being that it is so strongly embedded in the foundations of society, it would be overly optimistic to believe that the effects of centuries of racial discrimination can be reversed in a short amount of time. However, just like those who rallied against slavery until after almost 300 years of unfair treatment it was abolished, we have to find ways to break it apart until it is no longer a problem. Right now, as Reni’s book demonstrates, as Akala frequently explains the best way to defeat racism is to contextualise it, to understand the history behind it and to attempt to re-educate the world. But how can we do this when so many people are so intent on silencing debates and discussions on the topic? Well, we do it through talks with local schools, and with local communities, granted many who will attend these events will be the ones intent on listening but the conversation will eventually grow beyond that circle. We reach out to both sides of the argument through less exclusive methods and further reaching mediums such as film, theatre, music.
This has been something that has been going on for many years, but a large majority of creators, writers and musicians are still afraid to lend their voice to this section of creativity. In my dissertation for my MA in Playwriting at my University, I looked into this specific issue within a mixed-race context. In the theoretical aspect, I discussed how the theatre and the creative industry, in general, lacks a multicultural footprint essentially, for whatever reason people do not know enough or are not brave enough to create honest portrayals of race. It is this difficulty that we need to encourage a confrontation with. People are far more willing to encounter this debate within an environment where they can be entertained i.e. the theatre, the cinema. Fortunately, this already seems to be in an increasing possibility with films like Black Panther for example that use the form of DC and its wide popularity to portray a twist on African culture, with an underlying message throughout.
When I speak of my Dominican heritage when I dare to speak beyond that to my ancestors in Benin, I have found some people are either interested or roll their eyes, denying my attachment to this aspect of my history based on my lighter skin. Even my own discussion of this subject will be and has in the past been contested by white friends, purely because they struggle to associate me with being of a black descendency and thus unable to speak accurately. The problems with that denial are one and many. That not only does much of their assignment of my race find its basis not just on my lighter skin tone but on my stereotypically ‘white’ interests or ‘white’ accent. That this belief that white people (even if I was solely white) cannot include their own anti-racist statements because they are not, what? Qualified?. This discussion is one for everyone, and it is one that starts with one and reaches to many. It is one that deserves to be spoken about, without fear of alienating oneself even further and without it causing a debate where no-one is really listening to anyone but themselves.