How best to deal with racism


Today in the Guardian's G2, Hugh Muir is in conversation with OBV's Simon Woolley. Here is the full extract

Hello nut. Meet sledgehammer. The catalyst for this one was a public meeting. Why are you calling us racist, demanded an outraged group of residents. I didn't, protested the object of their fury. Up popped Simon Woolley, an equalities commissioner. Perhaps the issue is the "r" word, he said.

Who is a racist? Is it the person who calls me "coloured", or the cabbie who refuses to stop for a non-white fare? Is it Nick Griffin? Or the horsemen of the Ku Klux Klan? It could be any or all of them given the common usage, says Simon. Therein lies a problem. There isn't much subtlety about it, he tells me. It's the nuclear option, and sometimes the lack of nuance does more harm than good.

"Some things are straightforward in that there is disparaging or discriminatory behaviour and there is clear intent. On other occasions, the circumstances are less clear , but this is the word we are locked into anyway. People get defensive, nothing changes. Nobody benefits really."

OK I say. So when a Pizza Hut manager forced a group of black footballers to pay for their meals pre-consumption, having not forced others, what was that? "Racial stereotyping, I suspect," he says. And when Carol Thatcher said a French tennis player reminded her of a golliwog? A "racial misunderstanding. It wasn't her intention to hurt. A black person might well have ignored it. There is racism that's wilful and motivated by ideology. And then there are racial incidents."

Nothing is hard and fast, he says. Someone who ignores advice and lapses repeatedly into racial misunderstanding can't expect to keep the benefit of the doubt. There comes a point where an apparent example of "racial misunderstanding" or "racial insensitivity" might be a racial insult. Motivation is everything, he says thoughtfully.

Isn't the net effect of all this to make those who misbehave feel better about themselves? He smiles. He's a pragmatist. "We have to ask whether the way we approach things now is effective."

Maybe there's something in this? So let's take a test. Try saying: "Are you calling me racist?" It helps if you snarl it. Now try: "Are you accusing me of being racially insensitive?" Which one of those is more likely to trigger world war three?