Racism - a very peculiar concept

I've just got back from three days of seminars on electoral matters. It was the usual agenda: how to get everyone registered, what kind of candidates are needed, what is the best electoral system, and so on. There was the usual range of participants concerned about the problems of democracy: voluntary organisations, church representatives, academics and, of course, politicians. In fact, just the sort of gathering I've been involved with for decades, except that this was taking place in the town of Goma, close to Congo's eastern border with Rwanda. I was, in effect, a token white person, and at the end of the session, as we all talked animatedly, it occurred to me that I simply had not been conscious of colour. It reminded me of the introduction I once had at a Caribbean meeting in Leeds: "our speaker is Mr Meadowcroft; his face may be white but his heart is as black as ours"!

I've worked on projects like this on five continents and it was typical of meetings in many different environments where we shared common concerns and sought similar goals. Where does one find one's "compatriots"? Amongst those who, by choice, share one's ideals or those who, by chance, share one's country? The more countries I work in the more I find people similar, with the same worries and hopes for themselves and their families as we have here in Yorkshire. These are not trite platitudes but sheer experience of individuals across the globe.

My experience is in stark contrast to the world exposed in the BBC's recent undercover exposé of the BNP. What struck me throughout the programme was the sheer ugliness of it all. How could the purveyors of such crude racism ever conceive that they might appear attractive to all but a tiny minority of socially insecure men who can only appear confident when focussing their aggression on an ethnic minority perversely regarded by them as inferior. Such embedded racism is impervious to argument but it is only the extreme end of a much larger group of citizens for whom life is pretty tough and who, unless carefully challenged, may increasingly blame "immigrants" for their difficulties and are thus vulnerable to the BNP's public face. Certainly nothing is gained either by ignoring the issue or by purely negative protests.

Racism is a very peculiar concept, particularly as race itself is impossible to define precisely - as pro-apartheid South Africans discovered before they finally abandoned the struggle. It has some affinities with nationalism and patriotism which all too often are expressed in narrow terms of birth and identity. At its heart, however, it depends on identifying visual racial characteristics. One only has to see the exaggerated caricatures that litter the racist press - just as anti-Semitic imagery filled the Nazi media - to realise that, if the targets for discrimination cannot be identified, then, presumably, it cannot take place.

This leads me to a thought that I've had whizzing around for some time. Can blind people be racist? The thought is neither academic nor, I hope, objectionable. There is a very serious point behind it. Simply, if, by reason of disability, racial discrimination is ruled out for a particular group, without it causing any apparent concern, does not the whole concept fall?

It is possible to argue that racial identification is not exclusively a visual matter and that, for instance, an accent can identify an individual from an ethnic group. Clearly this can be the case but it is less and less so. It would be impossible to recognise the origins of Trevor Phillips', the Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, from his very polished English speech.

Given the vast amount of social science research one would have thought that this concept would have been examined, but apparently not. At least, I have not been able to find any, and the Royal National Institute for the Blind is unaware of any such research. I suggest that it would be both interesting and potentially valuable to carry out such research.

If racism requires visual identification of racial characteristics then clearly it is a concept which is not innate but is acquired through a specific sense. What is more it is acquired from others. Young children have no concept of race. They acquire it from their elders, particularly from their parents. Many moons ago when I lived close to Brixton we had a black friend who visited us every Tuesday evening. My son, then aged four, wanted to tell me something about him and it soon became clear to whom he was referring. He said, "he comes to see us; he plays with me; he talks a lot", everything except that he was black!

We need to give more attention to the influences on children in their formative years and to put resources into enabling children from very different environments to mix together on, for instance, weekends away. In this context, public money spent on town twinning is not a luxury but cash well spent. Faith schools may have a good educational record but they are increasingly divisive in their impact on the community. All the churches need to ponder whether, for the broader good, they are now anachronistic.

A child's perspective has much to teach us oldies. Some years ago, when families of Asian origin were arriving in the area, a constituent approached me on Armley Town Street to tell me that her five year old daughter had come home from school the previous day and told her that a new girl had just come to the school. "Did you talk to her?" the mother asked. "No", said the daughter, "she doesn't speak English". "Oh, but did you play with her?" she asked. "Oh yes," responded the child, "you see, she laughs in English."

31 July 2004