The social psychology of racism

I remember attending a workshop 16 years ago in Nottingham. The event was organised, as I recall, by the Nottingham City Council to encourage more “black” people to get into teaching. That was in recognition of the significant under-representation of African and Caribbean teaching staff in the school system. So they got this guy as the keynote speaker. He was originally from Jamaica, and a Vice Principal in one of the schools. He was a charismatic and eloquent speaker who delivered a series of impassioned motivational speeches, in the manner of spirit-filled evangelists on the pulpit or political orators waxing lyrical on soapboxes. You wanted to leave the session and immediately sign up as a school teacher

The organisers got more than they bargained for, however. As the session went on, Our orator pulled no punches, going to great lengths to speak about his experiences of discrimination in the system. He had, he said, spent close to 30 years in teaching, with not one instance of internal promotion. On the other hand, he saw, too many times to count, how his Caucasian colleagues were promoted ahead of him. I watched there and then as the organiser’s (almost all Caucasian) effusive admiration for the speaker changed into consternation and then to barely disguised disgust. The invited speaker was rocking the boat.

However, the most striking thing for me, which had remained etched in my memory, happened towards the end of the event. During the Q and A, I had asked the speaker a question along the line: does he think he was being a bit too harsh and at the risk of over-generalisation of the issues he was raising. With hindsight, I now think it was a poorly judged question. I was just about 8 months or so in the country. Reading about racism and discrimination in books is one thing. Experiencing it is another (I subsequently had my Baptism into this reality). I could not, should not, have presumed to know more about the issue the man was describing with a lot of personal examples. You could see in his response to my question that he was pained, but not angry, about my lack of experiential understanding. He was describing his lived experience. 

But what really struck me in the immediate aftermath of this exchange with the invited speaker in 2005, was the way the Caucasian organisers warmed up to me, a few of them nodding their heads in agreement when I was asking my question. It was certainly not my intention. Clearly I was the sort of guy they would feel more comfortable with, not this “rabble rouser” who had come to rock the boat. I had become the “good black guy”.

In subsequent years I worked with another organisation who went through a redundancy process a few times. In one of those processes in particular, it was impossible not to see a pattern: two of the black employees who were typically vocal and self-assured were laid off. I remember thinking of the palpable contrast between one guy (also black, btw) who was retained: he was quite a serial latecomer, and was extremely laid back in an environment where you have to be actively engaged and right on it. If anyone had to go of the three, I thought it had to be him. Well, I now realise he had the  “comfortability” factor. He was not one to raise his voice against anything he perceived to be wrong. 

There is a way society in the West- I have also observed this in the US- deploy direct and indirect social mechanisms to compel minority groups to conform. It works this way. If you belong to a minority group that has historically, and contemporarily, face racial discrimination, the less you talk about it, the more you are accepted into “mainstream” society. More often than not, it is also the unwritten condition to access opportunities. In a curious, paradoxical twist, those who talk less about their experiences of discrimination, and are less involved in campaigns against racism, are vetted as dignified. In other words, in order to be vetted as dignified, you need to sacrifice your dignity. Otherwise you are cast as the loud, brash and angry “black” man or woman. 

In the UK it is a more subtle, covert system. In the US it is more overt, in your face. I have some sympathy for those African Americans who feel the need to be inaugurated to the society of “the good black men and women” who by definition says little or nothing about the reality of racism. Dignity is a luxury they can’t afford in the desperate push for acceptance, validation and an illusory sense of temporary power and borrowed privilege. 

I realise, of course, that there are many well meaning Caucasian people who do not realise the powers they wield and use for the social construction and reconstruction of racism. They are not racists themselves, let’s be clear. But to them I say: if you are more comfortable, and express more comfort, around your minority friends who speak little or nothing about racism, and you’re more uncomfortable around those who actively campaign against racist behaviours and abuse, you are unwittingly contributing to the problem. Either by making racism more intractable and entrenched in society, or by passively silencing the voices of those saying “enough is enough”. 

Seun Kolade