UKIP: Racism without the racists?

In light of the United Kingdom Independence Party’s (UKIP) recent successes at the local and European elections, a number of colleagues, friends, family and followers on social media have asked me whether I think UKIP are racist. My answer is always the same. Yes – UKIP is a racist organisation. A significant proportion of people have been surprised by my response; however, I am not similarly taken aback by their reaction to my assertion neither am I shocked that this question has been put to me so frequently over the last few weeks. I’ll explain why during this short piece.

Firstly, to deal with some of the more incontrovertible occurrences of individual racism emanating from UKIP members. Should a UKIP member instructing Lenny Henry to “emigrate to a black country” be considered racist? Yes. Is telling Nigel Farage that “Jewish bankers dominate the world” racist? Yes. Is the expression “bongo bongo land” racist? Yes. Is the following statement from a UKIP member racist: “Go home you free-loading, benefit-grabbing, resource-sucking, baby-making, non-English-speaking ********* and take those other hairy-faced, sandal-wearing, bomb-making, camel-riding, goat-********, raghead ******** with you”. Well, irrefutably, yes.

Popular opinion would mostly agree that these kinds of bigoted attitudes, expressed about Black people, would constitute racism. That is because they fit neatly within old, colour–based conceptions of racism as something to do with a dislike or hatred of Black people. Hence, when such abhorrent opinions surface high ranking UKIP officials appear all too aware of this and act quickly to condemn the perpetrators for expressing such indisputably racist sentiment. Moreover, to further distance the party from these increasingly frequent individual micro-aggressions, UKIP professes actively to value highly-skilled Black, South Asian and East Asian people over certain peripherally white people – a position which distances them from the (even far-er) far-right British Nationalist Party. If one then continues to hold to the position that racism should be understood simply as “prejudice … directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior”, it is unsurprising that some do not recognise UKIP as a racist organisation. In simple terms, given that it is the official party-line to supposedly celebrate, as opposed to deny, the talents of particular non-white peoples how could an organisation of this nature be considered racist?

So successful is UKIP’s articulation of its ‘anti-racist’ immigration control objectives (an oxymoron if ever I heard one) even the BBC’s chief political editor, Nick Robinson, seems to agree that the broader debate about EU migration (read: white migration), engulfing much of the UK, is indeed “not about race”. This attitude is especially worrying. That is because it fails to recognise how it is white people are indeed raced, and therefore must have something to do with ‘race’, or how differing white ethnic groups are racialised differently. Thus, if the position of Robinson is typical of others in mainstream media, UKIP will continue to receive very little in way of comeback when describing “Romanians” as benefit-stealing criminals or “Polish” people as low-skilled workers because simply it is assumed that these persons and countries are perceived by Britons as white. Failing to understand that UKIP’s vision of Europe as a two-tiered economic space, which has produced supposedly two distinctly different cultural-types of European countries and, importantly, peoples (wealthy, cultured and civilised Western, Central and Northern Europeans and impoverished, barbaric and uncivilised Eastern Europeans), is absolutely to do with ‘race’, legitimises UKIP’s supposedly ‘anti-racist’ position.

Indeed, racism should be understood as a belief in Black inferiority but it should also be considered in much more complex terms if we are to understand the nature of how discriminatory practices function in contemporary Western societies. It is therefore imperative to mark and name the racist practices and beliefs of UKIP and Farage to avoid what Mairtin Mac an Ghaill calls “racism without race”, which is a tendency to downplay the seriousness of xenophobia, jingoism and racialised forms of oppression simply because ‘new’ incarnations of racism do not fit neatly with the ‘old’. To ignore what is implicit within Farage’s anti-European rhetoric – a belief in Europe as a place populated by sub-racial categories of white people, whose cultures are inferior to those imagined to exist in Farage’s mythical little England – is to fail to recognise the sincerity of intra-racial racism and the inherently racist, divisive and contentious intent harboured by UKIP.

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Sterling, Clarkson and Scudamore: What discussions in private space reveal about the pervasiveness of racism and sexism.

In recent weeks, Donald Sterling (owner of the LA Clippers), Jeremy Clarkson (BBC presenter) and Richard Scudamore (Chief Executive of the Premier League) have found themselves having to defend unsavoury comments made during private communications. Apologists for these three men have taken quickly to radio, television and social media to support the accused, arguing simply: the overtly racist and sexist comments, made by each man, happened in private and were not intended for public consumption. For some then the argument must stop here. Supposedly, there’s no need for any further inquiry or analysis. The social context of the utterances renders them inconsequential. By the logic of this argument it is unimportant Sterling is troubled by his girlfriend “associating with black people”, that Clarkson saw fit to subject his co-workers to the ‘n’ word or that Scudamore, self-proclaimed activist in the “whole equality agenda”, thought it acceptable to ridicule “female irrationality” and crudely objectify women. No. For some, such as Bill Maher (in defence of Sterling), host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, and Michael Gove, Conservative MP (in defence of Clarkson), it would seem that if there is any debate to be had it is about the sanctity of private space. But it is hardly surprising that powerful, wealthy, white men have moved quickly to defend Sterling, Clarkson and Scudamore’s right to privacy if these three men are representative of how powerful, wealthy, white men talk to one another.

As with all popular scandals of this nature, whereby well-known figures are exposed as mere mortals, like the rest of us non-mainstream media dwelling creatures, there is an obligatory PR offensive, concerned with damage limitation, spear-headed by an official apology. For instance, Scudamore’s apology reads:

“[The emails] were received and sent from my private and confidential email, which a temporary employee who was with the organisation for only a matter of weeks should not have accessed and was under no instruction to do so”

Sterling and Clarkson, too, made similar pleas asking the public to understand that their utterances were never meant to be heard outside of a private setting. Interestingly, Scudamore’s response, in particular, reads as much as a defence as an apology.  Clearly, he conveys in part that it is he who has been wronged in the wake of his private thoughts coming to light. His explanation asks readers to sympathise: he is a victim in this affair given that his private space has been breached by a third-party. Indeed, while this may be so a willingness to trivialise the significance of these recent revelations should be met with suspicion.

Sterling, Clarkson and Scudamore are certainly not the first high-profile individuals to be caught-out. From ex-football manager and pundit, Ron Atkinson – who was recorded, off-air, racially abusing Marcel Desailly – to anti-racism campaigner, Paul Elliot – who resigned after using derogatory language whilst speaking with a friend – uncouth exchanges had in confidence are forever surfacing for all to see and hear. Given the regularity of these types of incidents therefore I take issue with those who seek to downplay the actions and utterances of those men in authority who have been caught in a less than favourable light. That is because implicit within apologists’ pleas for leniency, is a request to accept that an expression of prejudice is somehow less meaningful because of the social context. That because these crude and discriminatory attitudes originate in private space, it would be wrong to suggest that these men fight (and frequently or very occasionally fail) to supress similar exclamations in everyday, professional and public realms. This is not to suggest, nor indeed is it to deny, these men are concealing deliberately blatant and repugnant social attitudes. However, given these men, in the most unambiguous of ways, have been recorded articulating such explicitly offensive language/ attitudes, is it beyond the realms of possibility that sexist and/ or racist tropes inform subtly their world-views, subconsciously or otherwise?

I also take issue with commentaries critical of the three men that have failed to address sufficiently what these private outbursts reveal about the nature of contemporary racisms and sexisms. That is, the language used by each man should not serve as yet another prompt to deliberate the nuances of wealthy men’s right to privacy or, indeed, whether they should be labelled racist or sexist or not.  To proceed along these trajectories is to overlook something entirely more significant. My most pressing concern then is to flag these private utterances as symptoms of a cultural imperative, impelled by liberal social attitudes, which encourage people to shift bigoted and uncensored perceptions of women and racialised Others ‘underground’. In other words, racist/ sexist attitudes have certainly not disappeared from the human condition; quite conversely, they remain operative, languishing in secluded and secretive arenas, away from scrutiny, loitering unchallenged. Therefore, what was said by Sterling, Clarkson and Scudamore, in private, away from the glare of the media spotlight, offers us – not necessarily insight into whether these men are, in the words of Les Back, “fully paid up card carrying Nazi[s]” but – momentary access into the social worlds powerful men inhibit and a fleeting glimpse at the types of conversations they perceive as normal, away from fear of reprisal. Far from being inconsequential, private speech therefore reminds those interested in matters of equality that the fight is eternally ongoing.

Now, undoubtedly, driving racism and sexism ‘underground’ has some positive outcomes. For instance, throwing a banana at a black football player, today, as was common in the 1970s and 1980s, would be considered acceptable behaviour by very few British people. This is perfectly in line with modern ‘no racism or sexism in public, please’ discourses. However, sadly, this does not mean ‘jokes’ about black people and bananas have disappeared entirely from private space. We should therefore be careful not to overstate the positive outcomes that liberal policies have produced over the last thirty years, especially those that shift prejudice elsewhere, and seek to understand discrimination in new ways. In short, a reduction in abhorrent overt racist or sexist behaviour and/ or language in public should not be taken as evidence of absolute social improvement.  Private space, and the goings on within, can indeed tell us much about the extent to which attitudes have changed and just how many, and what kind of, inroads have been made in the fight for racial and gender equality.

Becoming white and (un)learning colour-blindness: Stefan’s story

This piece is an edited extract from my PhD thesis and appears in the introductory chapter. To cite: Lawrence, S (2014), ‘Becoming white and (un)learning colour-blindness: Stefan’s story‘, paper presented to Leisure Studies Association 2014: Sport, Festivity and Digital Cultures, University of the West of Scotland, Paisley, July 7th-9th 2014.

The day started like any other.  Our primary school teacher would take the register, we’d say a morning prayer and then we would sit down to work. After we’d taken our seats however our teacher told us that she had some exciting news: a new boy, Daniel, who had just moved to my hometown from a nearby, densely populated multicultural city, was waiting outside the door to meet his new classmates. “Do come in Daniel”, our teacher shouted in the direction of the door, gesturing to him to enter the room.  The class fidgeted with excitement.  Slowly, the door opened and a timid figure emerged from the corridor. “He’s black!” a surprised voice exclaimed. The room fell silent, the class stared and Daniel did exactly the same back at the class. In the stillness, my parents’ words sounded in my head: “everyone should be treated equally regardless of colour”. But as a child seeing a black face for the first time, the only thing I can remember thinking was how different this dark body, juxtaposed against a sea of white bodies in a classroom, bathed in bright natural light, was to me and all that I had come to know about bodies in my world.  Maybe it was because Daniel’s body was ‘new’ and with all ‘new’ bodies there is a sense of excitement and intrigue, but somehow, for me at least, there was something particularly captivating about this particular body.

Daniel and I would eventually become extremely good friends: we would meet socially on regular occasions and would ride the bus to school every day, up until we left high school.  Nonetheless, my memory of our first encounter is dominated by a sense that there was something ‘different’ about Daniel, which conflicted with what my parents had told me about the colour of person’s skin that it “means nothing” because  “we are all equal”.  This particularly powerful memory of an otherwise mundane event could easily be dismissed for my own convenience as a typical reaction of a child whose innocence and inexperience had sheltered them from the corporeal varieties of our world; however, since no other childhood friend evokes such a vivid recollection of our first encounter, it is more appropriate to accept that my curiosity about Daniel was a consequence of the failings of liberal, colour-blind racial ideologies to teach children about their own whiteness (MacNaughton, 2005).

Living in a small semi-urban English town in the West Midlands where most of the inhabitants were/ are white, working class, I was raised to be colour-blind toward matters of ‘race’.  However, because of the ideology’s obvious failings, inasmuch as it does not really teach us not to see ‘race’, rather it teaches us to ignore it, I did occasionally notice that certain members of my immediate social network were racialised.  My school friend, Daniel, and my football playing mates, James and Sean, and their dads, for example, were marked out, by an older member of my family in the 1990s, as “black” or “half-caste”.   I, on the other hand, had never learnt about my social location as a raced being.  I was never told that I would be perceived as having a racial identity and I certainly was never informed by anyone that I would be able to call upon a number of privileges that my “black” and “half-caste” friends would have difficulty accessing.   After all, as my parents’ well-intentioned colour-blindness had taught me “everyone is equal, regardless of colour”.  Not once was I made to feel that my childhood or teenage achievements were a result of anything other than hard work and not ever was I made to feel that I was ‘minority ethnic’ or told I could not consider myself ‘properly’ British, despite my dad’s family having emigrated from Sicily in the early 1950s.   And so, although I was aware of my own ethnic identity and the presence of cultural differences, which sometimes was the source of mild discomfort when negotiating belonging as a youth (a preference for wine over beer), I was never marked as having a racial identity or as being significantly (read: racially) different from the majority of my peers, by my peers, family, teachers or football coaches.  As such, colour-blindness had taught me to overlook the importance, or otherwise, of ‘race’, when grappling with the politics of identity, my parents’ quasi-Anglicising of my first name (Stefan from Stefano), my own white privilege, and the realities of racism which my Black friends and their families would/ do experience.

I carried this colour-blind naivety with me into my leisure time and it was through sport that, as a teenager, ‘knowing’ ‘race’ was of marginal importance, I fostered many positive relationships with other boys from a variety of different ethnic backgrounds.  In this way my connections with Black peoples, from an early age, had been largely positive.  Therefore, during my time as an undergraduate student, after taking a particular interest in matters of racial equality in sport and leisure, I graduated as someone who would have considered themselves a fully-fledged left-leaning liberal, ‘anti-racist’, passionate about social justice.  However, before sounding too self-righteous, on reflection, and despite my best intentions, my understanding of ‘race’ and racism was often guided by a traditional view that assumed these matters, primarily, were a problem for ‘non-white’ people.  Thus, even as one of the fortunate few that both attain a university degree and are taught about racial inequality, I gave very little, if any, consideration to white people’s/ my role in perpetuating racialised hierarchies.

It was during my time as a Masters student, as I explored my own ethnic identity and the history of Italian migrants in Britain, that I would first consider the complexities of whiteness, white people and their relationship to racism(s).  At first, I was reluctant to understand myself as white, even if others did, since I wished to distance myself from the white (Anglo) majority, whose attitudes towards ‘race’ and politics, particularly while I was growing up, often conflicted with my own. The term ‘white’ was a phrase I equated with power and thus I preferred to identify as Anglo-Sicilian partly because this enabled me to avoid asking myself more awkward questions about my role, as a person who is perceived as white, in effecting racialised injustices.  Hence, when I used to write about ‘white people’, I always preferred to think that I was not writing about myself.  As I argue in my PhD thesis, white men dominate sport and leisure, media, higher education and politics, and because of my past involvements with moderately influential positions in sport and leisure, as a personal trainer, sports coach, journalist and youth worker, in addition to my current status as a senior lecturer, I too have been one of those white men who have (consciously or otherwise) taken advantage of white male privilege, regardless of my own politics or ethnic affiliation.  And so, while in many ways I do not refer to myself, within my scholarly work , when I refer to the dominance of white men, because to do so would be to allude to a narrow and essentialist definition of the social category ‘white people’, in many other ways I cannot avoid being implicated in what I write about whiteness and masculinity discourses, more generally.

The following counter narrative story not only hopes to explain why it is I became interested in whiteness and its discursive constructions in sport and leisure media, it also hopes to demonstrate how performances of whiteness can be reflexive and critical, if not often enough,  which avoids reifying the social category ‘white people’ and highlights the complexities of ‘doing’ whiteness:

In my role as a personal trainer, which I undertook in order to fund my Masters degree, I became accustomed to my white male client base asking for help with achieving a ‘[Men’s Health] cover model physique’. Of course I put them under no illusion that to achieve such a body would be an extremely difficult, if not impossible, task, but it would be something I could help them “work towards”. During one particular consultation, as was usual, when I asked a client what it was they were looking to achieve, he replied “something you see on the cover of Men’s Health. Y’know not too big, but toned”.  As we stood on the gym-floor, chatting about how we could achieve this goal, the client suddenly pointed towards the leg press machine which was being loaded, with a large amount of weight, by a very muscular black man. “Wow”, the client said, “I wouldn’t fancy trying that!” “Me neither”, I replied. “Then again, black blokes are more powerful than white blokes aren’t they?!” the client asserted, “so getting like the guy on the front cover of Men’s Health is easier for them than it is for us, ay!”.  At this moment I paused and looked around. “Well, that’s not quite accurate”, I said and pointed to a more slender looking black man using the chest press machine who the client had conveniently overlooked. “Yeah but they are renowned for being more cut and toned and that, I mean, think about it, you see loads of ‘em in adverts or doing sport on the TV and they’re all really stacked!”, he said more forcefully this time.  I went on to argue against the client’s logic and politely informed him that his views were “scientifically problematic”, not to mention simplistic given that gym-goers and sportspeople tend to be more athletic than the majority of the population. “Anyway it doesn’t matter”, he said. Needless to say, after that initial consultation, the client never rang back to book in for a second visit with me.

Both of the stories recited during this short piece demonstrate how bodies, whether mediated or lived, are among the first pieces of information we gather when making assumptions about an individual’s cognitive and physical capabilities.  For instance, as my first story reveals, although I came to understand Daniel to have been a confident, religious and musically gifted individual, meaning we shared many similarities, my initial assumptions about him, as different and intriguing, were provoked by my reading of his body, impelled by my surroundings and their colour-blindess.  The second story, too, is also able to reveal the importance of the body, particularly the athletic body, insomuch as it reveals how many people still come to ‘know’ about other people via how they perceive the racialised aspects of bodies. As I demonstrate throughout my PhD thesis, the “techniques of boundary inscription between ‘us’ and ‘them’ begin with the body: ways of looking, ways of sounding, and ways of being” (Valentine, 2010: 531).  In light of this claim, I suggest that continuing to be dogmatically loyal to the myth of colour-blindness, when it is clear people do see colour, prevents us from “get[ting] real about race” (Bell, 1992: 5) – this in turn marginalises, unintentionally or otherwise, the negative effects that racialisation has for differently racialised groups of people. The challenge for social scholars and interested parties alike then must be to unlearn colour-blindness, so as to better understand how it is different bodies are differently racialised and how it is they are represented, contested and (re)produced in unique ways

References

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