Not Wong: Banal racism

Brian Wong decries the casual racism which continues to pervade society

Black Lives Matter - police brutality

When we talk about racism, the most vivid imagery which springs to mind tends to be the usage of racialised slurs, violence carried out on the basis of ethnic and racial lines, and a ‘backward politic’ associated with individuals who endorsed the movements of le Pen, Trump, Farage, and such. More imaginative and informed minds may see racist flashpoints and undertones present in incidences of conflict between law enforcement and citizens (e.g. police brutality in America), or immigration controls implemented by governments such as the current one in the UK. But a commonality persists—from a liberal point of view, racism is distant; it is evil; it is extraordinary. And in many ways, the liberal movement—whitewashed and dominated by individuals exempt from the most pernicious forms of racism—understandably posits that racism is an issue of moral wrongness, of absolute abhorrence, and of relative rarity.

Imagine there’s no heaven,

It’s easy if you try.

But that’s rarely, if ever, the case. For the subjects who act as vehicles to the deeply entrenched power relations it exemplifies, racism is proximate, banal, and ordinary. It is not merely the outcome of someone who is capable of great evil and incapable of moral remorse. It is not merely found in the most extreme and rare of circumstances. It is not merely a social issue, a political topic, or an agenda item to be incorporated into a movement which could do with some greater political capital. It is real, and wraps itself around the victim’s experiences, perspectives, and decisions. The kind of racism I’m talking about is mundane and boring—it is banal, and it is the banality of racism that makes it so universally destructive.

No hell below us,

Above us, only sky.

Racism exists in the form of relational assumptions which define the interactions between individuals. Here in Oxford, that translates to cases where, as a Chinese student, you may be asked if you’re looking for tourist directions or ‘the wrong college’ when trying to enter a college for a tutorial. Or cases where the restaurant waiter rocks up and decides to speak very, very slowly to you, even though you are clearly more than fluent in the language, or when you’re told by the shop owner that you speak very good English for a Chinese person. Note that none of these cases is an instance of malicious intent—the porters are not evil, and neither is the waiter nor the shop owner. Indeed, upon hearing of your discomfort, many may argue that you’re overreacting to these cases. After all, surely these people are merely being friendly, right?

Imagine all the people living for today,

Imagine there’s no countries,

It isn’t hard to do.

But racism doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t work in the form of non-victims policing the emotions and reactions of victims, and telling the victims that their experiences are non-representative and have been over-interpreted. The subject of racism is, ultimately, more than merely material harm. And the assumptions about one’s identity, based purely upon how one looks, are acts of violence in and of themselves. When persons of colour have to take on additional burdens of emotional labour not only to explain their intentions—but also the presumptions of why they are entitled to operate, live, and act within certain spaces—that imposition is inherently unfair. And these additional burdens are particularly pernicious when you’re expected to react in a non-confrontational and ‘respectable’ manner as you try to convince the deeply cynical porters that you really are not trespassing into some college’s territory, or the police officers passing by you at night (particularly if you’re in America) that you are not an illegal immigrant or a drug dealer, or the professors and students you meet in certain institutions that you are not merely there as a result of quotas. Note that, once again, in none of these instances are the perpetuators of racism evil. Neither are they extraordinary. Nor are they distant and removed from the so-called liberal bubble we inhabit.

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Nothing to kill or die for,

And the worst forms of banal racism are ones that are disguised in the rhetoric of justice and morality. Take the US, for instance, where racialised violence perpetuated by the state is framed in terms of the police carrying out their duties of law enforcement and peacekeeping. Let’s be very clear here. An overwhelming majority of policemen are not evil—they do not intend to or wish to carry out acts of unjustifiable, excessive violence. Instead, they are merely cogs within a greater machine, banal participants in a wider game, performers within a performance which is structured to create confrontations and unjust killings that harm both police and civilians of colour. Through norms, rituals, and practices that implicitly condone racialised policing (e.g. stop and frisk, targeted and sweeping profiling, and imperfect regulation of arms usage), the system propagates itself through individual actors who often have no malign intentions. And when the system becomes challenged and called out, the default defence is the view that these policemen are not evil people. Of course that’s true­—but that means nothing in the wider scheme of the pursuit for justice.

And no religion, too.

Or take the Manchester shootings, where the actions of a radicalised, bastardised individual who happens to adhere to a twisted and poisoned version of Islam somehow entail a moral burden on behalf of the Muslim population in the UK to perform grieving and mourning. It is as though, if they fail to mourn as expectation demands that they do, the mere failure to mourn would serve as evidence that the entire Muslim community is to blame. I think it is imperative to show collective solidarity in times of crises, and believe that individuals— regardless of religion or ethnicity or race—ought to mourn the victims of the vile, abhorrent act carried out last Monday. But, at the same time, the banality of racism percolates and takes root through the emotive fervor of grief, by instilling the expectation amongst us that Muslims ought to grieve particularly hard so as to justify the fact the terrorist who carried out the attack is an outlier and not the norm. Note—the racism here embodies no malicious intent, and, if anything, it is driven by (I hope, at least) a desire for reconciliation and harmony. But this absence of malice does not absolve it of its wrongness—the wrongness of imposing unjustifiable expectations on a community purely based on their ethnicity or race.

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Imagine no possessions,

I wonder if you can,

No need for greed or hunger,

A brotherhood of man.

An objection may be that Islam is not a race, and criticisms of Muslims ought not be taken as evidence of racism. But let’s not neglect the fact that the dog whistles and prompts used to discuss Islam are often couched in poorly disguised, racialised language. Every time an episode of domestic terrorism occurs, the issue of immigration inevitably becomes dragged into the picture, with critics of cultural pluralism gleefully hopping on to the bandwagon to attack cultures using racialised stereotypes and references to the ethnicity of the terrorist. Islam is not a race, but the ways in which Muslims are attacked—banally and ordinarily, in many cases—are inherently racist.

Explicit racism is repugnant and abominable. But in many ways, it is far easier to identify and call out than banal forms of racism. Banal racism is when someone raises placards at a protest condemning racism, and then continually perpetuates stereotypes and myths about persons of colour over a pub conversation or casual chatter with friends. Banal racism is when someone glibly asserts the beginning of a ‘post-racial era’ whilst persons of colour live under complex webs of prejudice, barriers and discrimination that they must navigate on a daily basis. Banal racism is when someone decries that racism is no longer “the most important thing to care about today”, and allows their privilege to taint their performative allyship with blatant ignorance. Above all, banal racism is when racism continues to thrive in the post-Trump era, and yet so-called allies resign themselves to singing performatively, in a Kumbaya circle around a campfire.

You may say I’m a dreamer.

But I’m not the only one.

I hope some day you’ll join us.

And the world will live as one.