Many will have shocked at Baroness Doreen Lawrence’s accusation last week that firefighters tackling the Grenfell Tower blaze were racist. In an interview with Channel 4 News she claimed, ‘Had that been a block full of white people, they’d have done everything to get them out as fast as possible.’
Her remarks have been roundly condemned, including by Karen Bell, the Fire Brigades Union’s ‘Black and Ethnic Minority Members Vice Chair’. Yet she is not the first to voice such sentiments. Last year, Imran Khan QC, who acted for the family of the murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence (Doreen Lawrence’s son), and now represents some of the Grenfell Tower survivors, caused similar outrage when he suggested that there may have been ‘unconscious or some conscious racism’ in the way firefighters responded to the blaze in the tower.
How had he reached this conclusion? The firefighters had used stereotypical language in some of their statements after the fire, including, in one instance, referring to one of the residents as ‘foreign’. The tower block had, in fact, been home to ‘a diverse community of people from all over the world’.
But are Lawrence and Khan not justified in their claims? The clue lies in the botched police inquiry into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence at the hands of some racist white thugs in 1993 and the subsequent Macpherson report which branded the police ‘institutionally racist’. The report defined institutional racism as ‘processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantages minority ethnic people’.
Since then, the need to combat institutional racism has been the guiding principle of all governments, manifesting itself in a tireless struggle to promote social justice, equal opportunities, diversity awareness, and Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) rights in every part of our national life. But clearly more is needed. As the Macpherson report highlighted, institutional racism is ‘unwitting’, ‘ignorant’ and ‘thoughtless’. The racism perpetrated by the majority white population – the bias, the stereotyping, the discrimination, the countless racial microaggressions (slights, put-downs, looks or gestures that demean people of colour) – is unconscious. To put it simply, we are racist because we are white.
What are we to do to combat institutional racism? Who better to consult than Nicola Rollock, reader in equity and education at Goldsmiths, University of London, specialist advisor to the Home Affairs’ Select Committee ‘Macpherson: 20 Years On’ inquiry, and editor-in-chief of the academic journal ‘Whiteness and Education’, whose articles include ‘Unspoken rules of engagement: navigating racial microaggressions in the academic terrain’ and ‘The Invisibility of race: Intersectional reflections on the liminal space of alterity’.
Rollock tells us that the problem is ‘Whiteness’ and our task is to ‘deconstruct’ it. But first we must make it visible, for ‘much of the power, privilege, pervasiveness and violence of Whiteness lies precisely in its casual and unremarked normality’. Once made visible, we can set to work to ‘destabilise and disrupt this structured normality’. The discourses of Whiteness can then be ‘dismantled’. In education, this translates into the construction of a new ‘non-hegemonic’ curriculum, and the adoption of the pedagogical approaches of ‘critical race theory’ so that students might develop ‘critical racial knowledge’ and their own ‘anti-racist praxis’.
And there we have it. The Grenfell Tower firefighters’ problem was not that they were racist or prejudiced, at least not in any obvious sense, but that they were suffering from, and perpetrating in liminal space, ‘whiteness’. Yes, of course those firefighters were out to save lives, and they risked their own in the process. But most of them were white. And who can guess the number of microaggressions they unconsciously perpetrated against the residents and victims of Grenfell Tower, on account of their whiteness, as they tried to fight back the flames and rescue them?
But if ‘whiteness’ is a certifiable condition, what about ‘blackness’? Are ‘blackness’ and ‘colour’ not in need of deconstruction too? Are victims any less susceptible to hate, prejudice, resentment, paranoia and delusion than their assailants? Is victimhood not also a condition in need of deconstruction? Perhaps a journal should be founded entitled ‘Blackness and Education’ to consider and reflect on some of these problems. But we should not hold our breath.
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