Defining Racism

The term ‘racism’ carries a lot of weight, but people still argue over what it means

When we refer to ‘racism’, we are not just talking about the most prolific examples. Racism isn’t limited to burning crosses or vicious slurs. It can also be found in subtle or systemic forms. An uncertain definition allows a lot of racist behaviour to slide under the radar, or to dress itself up in different terms.

Because of this, Black Protest Legal Support is joining a number of other brilliant organisations in trying to unify our definition. This will help us all recognise racist behaviour and call it out.

However, while we support the unified definition of racism, we also believe it is important to highlight the specific elements which are relevant to the black population. As a black organisation, we are very aware that many elements of systemic and overt racism are specifically anti-black.

As Runnymede’s definition explains, an acknowledgement of racism requires considering the lived experience of individuals. The lived experience of black people in the UK is a very specific experience which our project considers. Although our legal support is open to any protester who needs it, we are aware that black people are more likely to have negative interactions with the police. Black people have higher rates of stop-and-search, are more likely to be convicted and receive harsher punishments for the same crimes.

And outside of the legal system the same issues arise. Black people have higher rates of unemployment and make up a disproportionate number of the homeless population (especially in London).

Racism is relevant for all non-white communities. The power imbalance in the UK is firmly set in the favour of the White British. We therefore support Runnymede’s efforts to find a unifying definition which makes room for all. Nevertheless, our own work will continue to have an additional focus on anti-black racism in the UK.

Below is the definition from Runnymede’s ‘Reframing Race’ project, which we use in our work:

“Racism is about power and the elevation of some populations to positions of primacy and domination and the denigration and subordination of others. It is about who is deemed worthy/unworthy of a place in a society/territory; who will receive the protection of the law; and who will be subject to unusual punishment and control. And the work of racism is enacted and reproduced in the main by institutional forces in society with results that can be seen, for example, in the courtroom, the boardroom and the classroom.

Racism is brought to life by categorising certain populations as deeply and irreversibly flawed/ dangerous because of their biological and/or cultural failings. This means that ‘people of colour’ as well as Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people and Jewish people can all face racism. At the same time, racialised populations that may pass for white (or appear ‘ethnically ambiguous’) may, in certain contexts, also experience some ‘benefits’ (or lack of impediment) associated with whiteness. Such benefits might include less frequent stop and search contact with the police –and these may be largely unavailable to certain visible people ‘of colour’, such as black/Black men. 

Racism affects the lived experiences of populations deemed unworthy, flawed and dangerous.These lived experiences matter and we believe that people with experience of racism must be central to the work of anti-racism. 

We also recognise that looking at racism through the lens of lived experience is not enough. It directs the conversation to how we (or people ‘like us’) experience racism and towards racists or acts of racism that we may have encountered. It can lead us to talk more about what racism has done to us rather than what we’re going to do about racism.”

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