The Elephant in the Room: micro-aggressions

© Ferdinand Orleans-Lindsay 2010

David James Smith’s feature article in the Sunday Times Magazine in early August of 2010 triggered a surprisingly intense churning of consciousness in more ways than he is ever likely to appreciate. His use of the expression ‘micro-aggressions’ to depict the variety of subtle devices deployed by white people in this country (both wittingly and unwittingly), to prosecute the centuries-old pursuit of undermining the dignity of black folk, was particularly incisive.

As chronicled by him, the formulation of ‘micro-aggressions’ to describe all of the little put-downs suffered by blacks at the hands of their white compatriots, seemed so apposite that a creeping respect for the guy was inevitable. In the face of a long held conviction that, no matter how liberal or enlightened, it was literally impossible for a white person to fully understand, how it feels to be black, in a white-majority environment this was no mean feat. That conviction has now been seriously undermined, perhaps fatally.

Following publication of the article, lengthy discussions ensued between my wife and I, which invariably ended with both of us accepting the veracity of virtually all its contents, but questioning its author’s wisdom in such public candour, whilst continuing to live with his young family in Lewes. Having both been undergraduates at Sussex University in nearby Falmer, it had been common knowledge that, at least at the time, Lewes was the headquarters of the British National Party. The word through the grapevine to all black people was to steer clear of the place for ‘health and safety’.

A few short weeks on, the issues raised in the said article had been subsumed in the normal run of busy work schedules, tending to the children in all its variegated complexity and coping with life generally in today’s harsh economy. No relief was to be had, however, for the issue returned to the fore with a vengeance, as further development detailed in the edition of the Sunday Times of 7 November, 2010 was to manifest.

Many of the thoughts that had coursed through one’s mind on reading the initial article itself and been relegated to the subconscious, returned unbidden. Amongst these were some shame and not a little regret that, it had taken a white man to stand up so effectively to be counted, suffering in the process, ostracism, abuse  and criticism by the not-so-great and the not-so-good, including his local MP. His final indignity was, horror of horrors, to be burnt in effigy.

In all this time, to my knowledge, not a single black person of any note had offered him any support and certainly, none had dared to put their head above the parapet.  No doubt, many a discussion would have ensued in black households up and down the land, much like happened in the writer’s own case. However, none of the myriad of discussions developed into a strident, coherent protest articulated by a black person of any renown.

This is the elephant in the room that black people will not discuss in public yet, to be sure, even in today’s so called multi-cultural Britain, it is hardly possible to spend a few moments in any gathering of black folk, regardless of class, wealth or education, without being bombarded with a plethora of accounts of white people, visiting unearned ‘micro-aggressions’ on black folks.

From the smiling young sales assistant that suddenly adopts a brusque manner when it is your turn to be served, to the elderly receptionist who automatically asks you to repeat yourself even before you are halfway through making your request, never mind that you are used to conducting advocacy on behalf of others for a living. Indeed, from the delivery man who knocks on your door and cannot stop himself from gasping when a black face shows up in this big old house in a middle class area, to the gardener who asks if you are sure you want to spend as much as he is asking for on the rented garden, even though you own the house and garden and have not volunteered any information to the contrary.

A recent conversation with a black friend, who holds a PhD in physics but works in banking, springs to mind. Like his white colleagues, his rational reaction to the stimulus of higher remuneration in banking as opposed to theoretical physics in academia or industry and relative penury was, to follow the money. Yet it would appear that not even in the annals of banking, the citadel of pure self-interest, where greed is meant to be the only real catalyst to higher and higher performance, can we seem to escape the reach of the scourge of said ‘micro-aggressions’.

Whilst he gets paid handsomely for using his superior intellectual armoury to analyse and devise complex algorithms in the service of the bank and its shareholders, he has often lost the toss with his superiors on issues of critical judgment, when they have chosen to go with the advice of the whizz kid white boy, with the gift of the gab, the right connections and nothing much else between his ears. Thankfully, said friend still has a job in banking, having escaped the great cull that ensued from the credit crunch, while many of the ‘star’ traders, all white, young and thoroughly expendable who gave him so much grief, have been ‘let go’.

Long ago, many black families cottoned on to the atrocious state of much of what passes for state education today. Up and down the land, many of them are making herculean efforts despite a multitude of handicaps, to educate their children sufficiently to equip them with the tools they will need for the future that is approaching with the inevitability of a runaway train. That future, as is now clear, will be one in which the unskilled will be even more marginalised and certainly poorer than ever, at the mercy of an increasingly grumpy taxpayer and pusillanimous governments that refuse to increase taxes to help the poor; and even the skilled will have no choice but to compete for their advancement, with other actors in a greatly enhanced pool of equally, or perhaps, even  more, skilled competitors from the resurgent east.

It is  with this reality in mind that many black folk, some of whom can hardly make ends meet themselves, scrimp and save to send their kids to private schools. They hope to give their children a fighting chance by so doing. You would think then that in such an environment, where you pay ‘market’ rates for what you want, there would be no room for the irritant of racist ‘micro-aggressions’ to rear its little head but, oh no. Even here, within the sedate cloisters of the public school environment, where today’s elite pay through the nose for the privilege of having their offspring equipped with the appropriate tools with which to retain their advantages when they grow up, that seemingly eternal bugbear still rears its ugly head.

An example of this comes easily to mind as this writer has recently been asked for advice by a black family, friends who have opted to send all three of their children to a private school, with a good academic reputation and an even more impressive social pedigree. The fees are steep and doing it three times over is not a joke, so you can see where their priorities lay. They keep a keen eye on their children’s progress and are quick to ask questions of the school whenever necessary. The children are happy in school and all three are academic highfliers.

The first incident, in respect of which advice was sought, occurred when their eldest child, always in the top set in his class, was placed in a middling set with the advent of a new teacher. Quick to react, the parent went in to see the teacher to see what was going on as there had been no fall back in the quality of the child’s work. She asked for copies of the child’s work to study where he might be struggling, so she could assist him back up to the top set. To cut a long story short, the child’s books showed no drop in quality of work, the teacher was able to offer no reason for her decision and within a week, the child was back in the top set where he apparently belonged all along. The family did not pursue the matter further and the child completed the academic year in the top set.

These and numerous other examples of slights, insults and downright bloody-mindedness, afflict black folk day in and day out in this country.

Historically, black people have, in the main, accommodated these rebuffs to their dignity in different ways, according to their circumstance.  Those who achieved middle class status and attendant income, often decamped to the suburbs as soon as they could, putting as much distance as possible between themselves and both poor whites and blacks alike. At least, they rationalised, they did not have to live in such close proximity to their white detractors and the poor blacks who seemed to attract so much of their ire.

Those who couldn’t flee to the suburbs, muddled through with a combination of strict discipline for their kids and self-help in tutoring, whilst keeping themselves in enforced enclaves for collective security. The remainder, who were too poor to self-effect any change to their circumstances, were stuck in poor housing both private and on the council estates where they had no choice but to be exposed to the brutalist architectural experiments of the 1960’s and ‘70’s, in all it’s ramifications.

It is within the latter class of black citizenry that a preponderance of the knife wielding, drug dealing and generally antisocial youth that all too often dominate the headlines, is to be found. It is also within this segment that the often heroic acts of rebellion against the system including sadly, violent riots and other more effective forms of protest has often been located.  Whereas such an ‘underclass’ exists in every community, black, white, yellow or red, regrettably, these are the black folk that many white people prefer to contemplate as being typical of the entire race.

The foregoing offers but a tiny peek at the plethora of aggravation that is part of the continuing heritage of black people in this country, notwithstanding the tremendous progress that has been made over the years. And progress there has been. It is affirmed that, through communal effort culminating in progressive legislation, as well as by thousands of individual adjustments in attitude, the white majority community have succeeded in creating what is arguably, the most conducive environment for minority black populations anywhere in the developed world. For this and many other such achievements, Britain needs to be recognised, applauded and it’s progressive and fair minded white majority can feel rightly proud of itself.

However, once the applauding is done, the thinking caps must go straight back on, with the recognition that there still remains much work to be done before complete fairness and full equality is accorded to all our black compatriots.

As is common in any society, clichés such as “political correctness” gain currency as social shorthand but because of imprecision of definition, a backlash ultimately ensues with everybody projecting their own interpretation on the term. Flowing from this phenomenon is the resentment that has manifest itself within a sizeable chunk of white Britain, that, too much has already been “given” to the blacks of this country. A clamouring for a roll-back then ensues, with the greatest advocates being whites who find themselves at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, for whatever reason. Aided and abetted by better placed whites who, frankly, ought to know better, a dangerously powerful alliance of the ignorant and the mischievous is constructed, which appropriates the historical symbols of this country, to burn people they deem have offended their sensibilities in effigy or worse, without knowing or caring what the effects of such conduct are on an already fearful minority. Thus on what is meant to be a carnival occasion on bonfire night, a community burns in effigy, one of its own, for having the temerity to suggest that, not all its residents are treated with equal civility.

Needless to say, it suits the purposes of some to allow this conflation of a number of public concerns into a resentment of a readily identifiable minority, ready-primed in the collective consciousness as a suitable bogey for much that ails society. But why are black folk so easy to revile, even within a society that has such a well-deserved reputation for fairness? Let us set aside for a moment, the anecdotal evidence that has been produced above and instead, look at some hard, research backed evidence. Perhaps this may convince the sceptical that far from being dead, racial discrimination against black folk is alive and well in this realm.

Following research undertaken by Carol Hunte on behalf of the London Development Agency’s Education Commission, a report entitled ‘Rampton Revisited, The Educational Experiences of Black Boys in London Schools’, was published in 2003. The relevant bits of its findings pertinent to this discussion are that, only 2.9% of teachers in London’s schools were black, whereas at 19.6%, the proportion of the capital’s pupils who were black was more than six times the proportion of black teachers. A reinforcing statistic to the general bleakness of the picture was that Black, Asian and minority ethnic pupils formed 43.5% of the total pupil body but the corresponding proportion of teachers of that ethnicity was a mere 7.4%! Most people’s eyes glaze over when statistics get inserted into any serious discussion but the reader is entreated to forbear for just a little while on this occasion, for that is the only way a true picture of the current state of race in Britain will become clear.

If it is agreed that there is no rational reason why, all things being equal, the teaching profession should not reflect the communities they serve, it stands to reason that instead of 7.4%, the more representative figure for London should be at least 30% for teachers of Black, Asian and other minority ethnic heritage.

Proceed a couple of years from that report, and we find detailed in The Independent on Sunday of 10 December 2006, details of yet another, produced by Peter Wanless and two other officials from the Department for Education and Skills after ministers commissioned an urgent study in November 2005, into why so many black pupils were being thrown out of school. The report concluded that not only were Black pupils three times more likely to be excluded than their white counterparts, but that in addition, they were five times less likely to be on the official register of gifted and talented students.  Most noteworthy was, as the Independent on Sunday’s Ian Griggs highlighted, the conclusion which said,”although couched in careful Whitehall language, it makes for uncomfortable reading”. And what was it that was responsible for such discomfiture?  It went on to say further, and you must judge for yourself. “The exclusions gap is caused by largely unwitting, but systematic, racial discrimination in the application of disciplinary and exclusions policies”. “Even with the best efforts to improve provision for excluded pupils, the continued existence of the exclusion gap means that black pupils  are disproportionately denied mainstream education and the life chances that go with it”, the report goes on to say further.

Fast forward to 2010 and we have an engaging article in the Observer of 4 April, which sets out details of a study co-authored by Simon Burgess, a professor of economics at the University of Bristol in which it is concluded that black pupils are routinely marked down by teachers. Using standard accepted methodology, the study indicated that low expectations from teachers damaged black children’s prospects and concluded that black pupils perform consistently better in external exams than in teacher assessments. The study involved thousands of children of all races and a particularly poignant finding was that, Indian and Chinese children tend to be “over-assessed”.  In other words, the latter racial groups tended to get consistently higher marks in teacher assessments and internal exams than they did in external exams.

As if to pour cold water on all this consensus that seems to be brewing in relation to discrimination against black children, the home affairs editor of The Telegraph, Tom Whitehead    wrote on 23 September 2010, that Tony Sewell, a former teacher and consultant at Reading University, had asserted in a magazine article that the reason black children do badly in class is because of lack of attention and not racism. It is noteworthy that this “expert” had not deigned it necessary to undertake any rigorous research whose findings could be tested and challenged. Instead, he had resorted to the sorts of confident gut pronouncements that are quite familiar with Telegraph readers but are meaningless to most other thinking folk. Trawling through that article, the most useful point to be found  in it was in the final paragraph in which he volunteered a Department for Education statistic stating the figures show that in 2008, a mere 27% of black boys achieved five or more GCSEs at A*-C!

To complete our sourjourn through the tribulations of black folk young or old, lets us take a look at what David Lammy, MP has trawled up using freedom of information requests. “Just one British black Caribbean student was admitted to Oxford last year”, he says, with disgust. Dissecting the data further, he continues that Merton College, Oxford has  not admitted a single black student in five years, and a white applicant is four times more likely to be successful at Robinson College, Cambridge than a black one. There is plenty of material in this vein within the data he proffers to depress any thoughtful individual although of course, black folk have long since ceased being fazed by anything the discriminatory impulse throws at them.

As if to demonstrate the futility of protest against the relentless variety of measures suffered by black people in their daily existence, a writer with hitherto impeccable credentials for common sense and an ethnic minority member herself, shot off an article in the Sunday Times of 12 December 2010 in which she appears to question David Lammy’s assumptions as to who is black. The writer in question, India Knight, indicated that in her opinion, the paucity of black students at Oxbridge was more a function of class than of race and in a dismissive manner quite untypical of her usual style, offered a few anecdotes about Asian students, their culture and its relationship to their greater academic success.

It would appear that black people cannot catch a break, as the Americans would say, whatever they do, whoever is doing judging. On her track record, there is little doubt that India Knight is perfectly capable of using the available information to conclude, that black people in the main suffer a double whammy of racial discrimination and class disadvantage in virtually every thing they do. The brownie points she may have earned in making the points she made, are far outweighed by the damage caused to any reputation she may have had for intellectual rigour. Her weekly subvention for producing that piece may be in the bag but any strain of decency in her will have to live down the notion that, on this issue, she gave the deniers a bone of comfort on which to assure themselves in their pretence that there is no longer a problem of discrimination.

It is quite clear, given all that is set out there, that on the issue of its treatment of its black citizenry, the United Kingdom cannot be complacent in what progress has been made. In the language of recent political speak, a lot has been achieved, but there is a great deal left to be done. Not only is the holdover of racial resentment against the previous generations of black people still present and cancerous, but the seeds for its perpetuation within the next generations of black people have already been sown, as the various studies show. It may be easy to dismiss protests as whining, political correctness gone mad or whatever other meaningless code people use to avoid facing up to reality. One would like to think however, that in its own lumbering way, Britain will muddle through with incremental improvements in race relations until one day, in the not too distant future we emerge in the sunny uplands of relative racial harmony mutual respect and even greater prosperity.

5 thoughts on “The Elephant in the Room: micro-aggressions

  1. A well thought-through piece. When the travails of black people are set out in such stark terms, it is easy to feel despair. Will we ever be regarded for who we really are, instead of put in a box to fit somebody’s preconception of the black man? My illustrious namesake, the late Martin Luther King hoped that one day, we would be judged by the contents of our character and not the colour of our skin. When will that day come?

  2. This guy makes his point powerfully but I question the basis for his sanguineness. I look at all the turmoil in the middle-east today and I see the hand of Britain all over the place. I fear that once the so-called Arab spring has played itself out and peopele take time to think how they got where they are, Britain will get its rightful share of the blame for all the bloodshed and violence. I doubt that people will then be so understanding of any continued racism in Briatin itself, for it was the very same impulse that sent the British all over the world , killing darker hued foreigners, appropriating their lands and resources and living the high life.

  3. Excellent piece, pertinent and very timely and not un-expected from someone armed with the experience and knowledge. Suggested reading for all, for there really is “The Elephant in the Room:….” at every level.

  4. This well written and researched piece offersa rare insight into subtle racism in the U.K. Through anecdotes, personal encounters with what the writer calls “micro aggressions” and information from research papers and newspaper articles, the writer exposes the discomforting underbelly of race relations in the U.K. This delivery is made without bile, as some studies on race do. Thankfully, as he points out, most White folks are “progressive and fair minded”. Indeed, it is easier to deal with institutional racism than the attitudinal one. Some people — consciously or unconsciously — religiously cling to long-held but misinformed racial opinions, beliefs, perceptions or stereotypes. It may explain why KKK has survived the de-institutionalization of racism in the United States or why the BNP has some following in the U.K. The writer laments that race, to use his metaphor, “is the elephant in the room that black people will not discuss”. He provides a reason for this disinterest: most find it politically incorect to talk about racism. But there are other explanations. Some, possibly, see the futility of protesting “little put downs”. Others do not have the voice and the platform to contest racism or the intelectual alertness to descend subtle forms of racism. Hopefully the audacity shown by the writer and others can lead to more open and frank discussion of “residual” racism in the U.K.

  5. I remember reading the original Sunday Times article the writer refers to and thinking to myself that there is still an awful long way to go for racial harmony in this country. Self evidently, the writer has given the issue some thought and the result is this rather thoughtful and well written piece – food for thought for all us.

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