Our Spring magazine is finally here! Click here to view and read our new articles!

Racism as a Virus: Black History Month Lecture

Image: The Yorker
Image: The Yorker
Image: The Yorker

Two weeks ago, a Ryanair passenger, David Mesher, was documented racially abusing Delsie Gayle, a black woman seated next to him. The clip recorded Mesher calling his fellow passenger an,’ugly black bastard’ among other slurs. This week, David Mesher publicly told Good Morning Britain he was sorry for the comments he made, but denied claims he was a racist. This is just one example of the casual racism that is still rife within British society. Despite approaching the fiftieth anniversary of the Race Relations Act of 1968, shockingly little seems to have changed. University of York Events invited Iyiola Solanke from the University of Leeds to address a public lecture titled, “Racism as a Virus” as part of October’s Black History Month. 

One of the problems with the history of racism is the focus on legislation as the beacon of change in the struggle for racial equality. The boundaries of our markers of historical progress in terms of race equality, should be one of social, rather than legislative change. However, that does not make legislation irrelevant. Prior to 1965, British law had no legislation for racial discrimination. Despite growing strengths of the Civil Rights Movements in the United States, and influence at home, the beginnings of legislation would be eleven years after the official birth of said movement. Britain in 1965 banned racial discrimination in public areas, but did not seek to address racial discrimination in employment or the housing sector. The Race Relations Act of 1968 was an extension of 1965 in addressing discrimination in employment and housing. It was the first act in Britain to formally make the refusal of housing, employment or any public service illegal on the grounds of racial discrimination. Over ten years later, it was reassessed to include causes of indirect discrimination. In 2010, this was repealed by the Equality Act that insists on equal treatment within employment as well as public and private services regardless of sex, gender, race or religion.  On paper, the race struggle seems one of unrelenting progress. Despite the progress within law and legislation over the course of the twentieth century, there is still a lack of social progress within the lived experience, as exemplified by the racial abuse of Delsie Gayle a mere two weeks ago. 

Imperial histories, colonialism, de-colonialism and the struggle for racial equality is often one told by white, male, privileged academics. Britain’s history of colonialism and the Empire has largely been written by these academics with a tendency to focus on the political rather than the social. Iyiola Solanke, like many, are calling for a de-colonisation of history writing, and within this, there is still the problem of historical denial. Stories of the Empire are still being aggrandized and justified by historians such as Niall Ferguson and more. Aspects of British society are still too keen to glorify imperial history without recognising the extent of its horrors. For Solanke, this contributes to ongoing casual discrimination due to the social complacency it creates. Solanke argues the society and the environment have to be treated in order to address the wider, long-term problems of racial inequality that are still persisting. It is not enough to look at legislative history and claim progress, when everyday casual acts of racism remain prolific within British society.

This year, universities have experienced all time criticism surrounding their shockingly low acceptances of minority students. As well as this, academia as a whole is still a white male realm that prevents the encouragement of black academics. A survey published by UCU (University and College Union) revealed that 90% of black academics believed they faced racial barriers against progressing further in their field. Additionally, 71% stated they had experienced racial bullying within academia and 82% accounted for experiences of cultural insensitivity. Universities are so keen to talk about race equality, but in reality, little is being done to improve the day to day experience of black staff and academics. Universities are willing to have organised Black History Month and posters around campus promoting BME achievements, however, the problem of racism is still rife and not being addressed fully.

For Solanke, a lot of the failures come down to an inherent problem within British society. As well as an avoidance of acknowledging the horrors of colonialism, much of British society are reluctant to discuss race. Knowledge about racial struggle, racial equality and discrimination is not extensively taught and talked about in schools, communities or in society as a whole. Local communities and nation wide, there is a lack of facilities and spaces where racial matters can be talked about. And when discussed, black people are often accused of playing the race card.  A greater educational effort needs to be initiated on all levels of British society as race is still a taboo. Solanke argues this is imperative as tackling discrimination is everyone’s business as everyone is part of society, and society creates racial inequality.

“Racism as a Virus” provides an essential and insightful way for tackling prevailing racial discrimination proactively by encompassing all actors within society. In comparing racism to a virus, Solanke draws on the efforts of public health officials deployed in times of worldwide health epidemics. When there is an outbreak of disease, public health specialists target the spread of disease with multiple methods at multiple levels. The methods are always public, institutional and individual. Public action becomes the norm, alongside the individual effort. The quell of the spread of disease, is dependent on the combination of individual and public effort, as vaccination is never solely going to prevent the spread of the disease. Solanke thus, compares the efforts of tackling a virus to what we should be doing to prevent ongoing racial discrimination. It should be the combined efforts of individuals as well as society, everybody has a responsibility and it is not enough to simply have legislation (or a vaccine) in place. Disease prevention becomes the joint responsibility of the society in question, as well as the public health providers. Racism then, is also reliant on the joint efforts of public and private action. Currently, the responsibility of eradicating racism is held legislatively with the individual. Solanke claims this needs to be transmitted into the public sphere too. The narrative that it is the individual victim’s responsibility to challenge racism has to change, we need to adopt a broader understanding of racial suffering that adopts the joint actions of all levels of society. Solanke argues for a multi-sensory approach, one that is multi-level and long-term, reaching all strata of the societal environment. Only then, will the lived experience be fundamentally altered.

In many ways, disease is the perfect analogy for racism. It ebbs and flows, it is always there under the surface, but it can always be treated if society makes a shared effort to eliminate the exclusivity and prejudice which haunts our surroundings.