It is folly to treat UK race relations as totally divorced from the rest of human experience. We need to look at the larger global picture
Growing up in Nigeria’s commercial capital, Lagos, I once asked my father who was from the state’s majority Yoruba ethnic group if he could imagine voting for someone from its minority Igbo group as governor. “Why would I do that?” my father replied, puzzled by the question. “But what if a fantastic Igbo candidate were to suddenly emerge?” I pressed. “Then he can go run for governor in an Igbo-majority state . . . we have enough competent Yorubas here.”
My father was a well-educated architect who had married a white woman, yet he firmly believed it should be someone from his own ethnic group ruling Lagos because they have historically constituted a majority in the state. His attitude reflects conventional Yoruba opinion, so it will be a while before a Sadiq Khan emerges in Lagos. Or before a non-Igbo is elected governor of an Igbo-majority state, for that matter—something that has never happened since Nigerian independence.
Societies everywhere are divided into in-groups and out-groups. What varies between them is the logic of division. In all-black Nigeria, the logic is ethnic. Hence, when Nigerians debate how fair their society is, the discussion is never solely around the lot of the individual, but inevitably involves comparisons between the status of ethnic group X relative to that of ethnic group Y. In his book Ethnic Groups in Conflict, Duke University Professor Donald Horowitz cites a Basque separatist: “Tell me who is rubbing his hands in glee, and I’ll tell you who should cry.” Ethnic conflicts are “at bottom, a matter of comparison”, Horowitz concluded. People dislike the feeling that a collective they identify with is “behind” others, but are usually, putting it lightly, untroubled by the feeling their group is “ahead” of others.
Here in Britain, race is clearly replacing class as the primary logic of division. Thus when British society is being assessed on its fairness, comparisons are regularly made between the condition of its various racial groups. Like in Nigeria, the debate is not over the objective socioeconomic and general situation of black Britons or British Asians, but their situations relative to that of white Britons. This is pretty standard for diverse divided societies. The problem, however, is that while intra-British comparisons are a constant in the debate, aside occasional references to America, Britain’s majority-minority relationship is rarely assessed relative to those observable in other societies. Instead, it is discussed in an atmosphere of British exceptionalism, as if the scenario in this country is uniquely distinct from those elsewhere. It isn’t.
Majority-minority tensions exist in virtually every country, as there are hardly any nations today without significant minority populations, including of course in the non-western world. Human rights groups have raised concerns over unfair treatment of ethnic and racial minorities in countries as varied as Brazil, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Iraq, Kenya, Nigeria, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Uzbekistan and Yemen among others. We cannot, here in Britain, swipe away with allegations of “whataboutism” the reality that across a wide variety of cultures and demographic equations, ensuring minorities are being treated fairly is a constant challenge.
One major reason it is also useful to see the British situation as part of a larger global picture is because while every majority-minority relationship has its own unique history and context, social psychology has identified certain patterns worth factoring into the British debate as well.
A 2014 article by Rezarta Bilali and others, in the International Journal of Intercultural Relations, neatly sums up the main findings on majority-minority dynamics across various continents. One major constant is that majority group members rarely reflect on their majority privilege while minorities often fret over their weaker status in society. Except in the rare cases where they are politically dominant like the Sunnis in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, minorities tend to be significantly anxious about potential discrimination, prejudice, domination and stigmatisation. To cope, they often develop intensely self-protective instincts that can come across as overly defensive or even paranoid to majority group members. It is worth majority white Britain realising this is a general psychological pattern among minority populations when engaging black and brown Britons.
Another pattern worth noting is that minority expectations of how they will be treated by the majority group are key to their everyday approach to society. Parents’ signals can be crucial here. If they tell their minority children to expect prejudice from the majority group, the children can easily develop an instinctive mistrust of them. Engaging the parents of minority children can thus be every bit as important as engaging the children in an effort to shape positive relations.
Another often controversial trend is that racial and ethnic minorities may identify more strongly with their collective than with the national group, whose norms they see as shaped by the dominant majority. While majority groups—like British whites for instance—will tend to prefer assimilationist ideologies that require subsuming sub-national identities under a shared national identity, minority groups will often prefer approaches that allow them to maintain a distinct identity while also ensuring their belonging to the wider nation.
Finally, in societies where the majority-minority power gap is significant—such as between British whites and ethnic minorities—the majority group will often be stereotyped as exploitative and domineering (sound familiar?). This is as common in Africa as it is in a Western context.
We should always be conscious of the more unique aspects of British majority-minority relations, such as the historical context of slavery, colonialism and racism, but we cannot reasonably assess how well British society is doing by acting as if it is an abstract entity divorced from the rest of human experience. Just as we rightly compare how fairly various racial groups are being treated in Britain, so should we compare how Britain is doing in relation to other flesh-and-blood human societies in this sphere.
It is safe to suggest the consensus among black and brown intellectuals today is that white-majority western societies are not morally superior to other societies. But if they are not morally superior, then on what grounds do we hold them to higher standards than we hold others to in terms of the treatment of minorities? On what moral basis do we hold Britain to higher standards than China, India or Nigeria? I am not saying there is no good answer to this, I am saying it is worth reflecting on the logical consequence of such an answer.
In a Guardian article justifying why racism in Britain should not be measured against American standards, historian David Olusoga argued that to say Britain is less racist than America is “not much of a boast” at all. “Surely, we who dwell in what the actor Laurence Fox recently assured us is ‘the most tolerant, lovely country in Europe’ have higher hopes?” Olusoga queried rhetorically.
I agree with the main message of Olusoga’s argument. I definitely want to live in a more tolerant country than today’s America. But the argument is framed as if the demand we should have “higher hopes” for Britain, which de facto means holding it to higher moral standards than others, is primarily justified by white British claims—personified here by Fox—that Britain is a very tolerant country.
My problem with this framing of the situation is that it sidesteps the need to acknowledge there may be another reason for why we demand more of Britain than others. Not just because it claims to be a tolerant society, for I am not aware of any nation that does not claim to be tolerant, but because we know, deep down, that Britain is ahead of most of the world in the difficult journey towards achieving a fair and tolerant society. If building such a society was easy, then surely many more countries would have done it by now. So, clearly, it isn’t.
I for one feel it would be disingenuous of me not to acknowledge that Britain is a significantly more tolerant society than the two other nations I have lived in and where my parents were from—Poland and Nigeria. Yes, the British can be incredibly smug about themselves and are definitely prone to a national arrogance, but there does exist a strong consensus here towards building a fundamentally fair society. This is not so obvious in many other countries. I think it fair to acknowledge this while pushing for better.
Everywhere in the world, minorities face various levels of challenges and obstacles. Everywhere, vigilance must be maintained to ensure they are being treated fairly. Britain is no different. Britain is not special. But our assessments of how fairly the white majority is acting towards minorities should also be fair. They should be based on what we know about the real-life dynamics of majority-minority relations in general and should be measured against what is going on elsewhere in human civilisation. Not because of a desire to give white Britain an easy pat on the back so it can feel good about itself, but because any other type of assessment would be wholly arbitrary and, consequently, a rather unfair measure of fairness.