In 20 Years We'll Look Back On This Race-Baiting Mayoral Campaign With Shame
The Debrief: We need to move away from the idea that someone’s intentions – good or bad – are in anyway relevant when it comes to the racist things they say or do
In recent weeks it seems like anyone who has a direct connection to the role of London Mayor is doggedly determined to make us ask ourselves the question: who is a racist? We’ve had possible future Mayor Zac Goldsmith getting called out by what critics call his ‘dog-whistle Islamophobia’, while current Mayor Boris Johnson has shown that no-one – not even the President of the USA – is safe from his anti-black observations. Long-term Labour headache, ex-Mayor Ken Livingstone, has also somehow managed to be so awful he’s shifted the conversation away from the fact parliament literally just told thousands of refugee children to do one. What next? I half expect footage to emerge of Sadiq Khan on a tirade about Latin Americans, or perhaps the Chinese. I’m being flippant, sure, but the state of affairs we’ve found ourselves in is depressing in the extreme.
According to Livingstone, though, he is definitely not racist when it comes to Jews. A real antisemite, Ken says, 'doesn’t just hate the Jews in Israel, they hate their Jewish neighbour in Golders Green or in Stoke Newington. It’s a physical loathing'. Leaving aside the fact that regardless of Israel’s crimes against the Palestinian people, anyone who says they hate all 'the Jews in Israel' is pretty much the dictionary definition of an antisemite, it’s Livingstone’s final words that have made me think the most.
As far as I can tell, a lot of people agree with his idea that racism is as simple as some sort of deep-rooted disgust of a race of people. Over and over again, when people make disparaging comments about Jews, or black people, or Asians, we have someone piping up in the background to remind us that said person is not A Real Racist because they don’t ‘hate’ the people they’ve said awful things about. But why do Ken, Zac, or Boris’ personal feelings about different races of people even matter?
We need to move away from the idea that someone’s intentions – good or bad – are in anyway relevant when it comes to the racist things they say or do. For so long, the mainstream has demonised ‘a racist’ into this shadowy, overblown figure in a KKK hood doing a Nazi salute. The reality is that while physical violence against a race of people is harmful, so too are the words we speak and the smaller actions we do. Instead of asking if someone ‘is’ racist, instead we should simply question if they’ve said or done a racist thing – and racist things must be broadly defined. Both big and small actions contribute to a racist cultural climate, and we need to insist that the ‘smaller’ things are taken seriously as they all are a part of the bigger picture.
Whether it’s leaning back on old tropes about Jews controlling the media, implying that Asian women are more subservient, wearing Native headdresses to festivals, or blacking up at Halloween, small actions that stereotype, degrade or water down people’s races and/or cultures all chip away at their humanity, and allow mistreatment and violence to go unopposed. For me, ‘racist’ is a verb – an action or thing actually done or said – rather than a noun, ie someone’s entire character.
Obviously it’s not great if people who don’t say racist things have violently hateful thoughts about different races, but there’s no way to actively penalise thought-crime. What we can do as a society however is have a zero tolerance approach to people making racist comments, rather than dismissing them with the excuse that the person responsible for them is ‘not really racist’ so their words don’t count.
I’ve always liked poltician Naz Shah, mostly because of her inspirational back-story and her electoral defeat of known rape apologist George Galloway. However when she alludes to moving the state of Israel to the USA, it doesn’t matter that she seemingly doesn’t have a deep-seeded hatred of all Jews. What does matter is how hurtful it must be for Jewish people (who support Israel or not) to hear talk to mass deportations of Jews, and how dangerous it is to allow this kind of rhetoric to take root. It’s important to hold people to account, especially those who we believe can do better; if anything, calling out people who aren’t ‘real racists’ is far more productive than trying to get those who loathe minority groups to come on side.
If we can learn anything from this entire debacle, I’m hopeful that maybe we’re getting closer to acknowledging that we can all say and do racist (and sexist, for that matter) things actually being ‘a racist’ – whatever that means.
I'm also hopeful that at some point in the not-too-distant future, everyone will be able to look back on Zac Goldsmith's race-baiting campaign and be appalled. Utilising racial prejudices as a way of dividing communities to win votes is vile, and while he has received a lot of criticism from across political lines, not everyone has condemned him the way I feel they should.
Our politicians – especially those cushioned by claims they love living in a multicultural city like London and therefore ‘can’t be racist’ – owe us better than racially provocative campaigns and comments that stereotype so many of us. They might not be the ‘real racists’, but when they’re saying the same things, it’s a lot harder than it should be for a lot of us to tell the difference.
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