I watched the heartbreaking conclusion of Sunday night’s European Championship final with four friends: two black men, and two white women. As Saka’s penalty was saved by the Italian goalkeeper, sealing Italy’s victory over England, me and the guys withdrew a little into ourselves. Yes, we were gutted about the outcome of the game, but more than that, we knew what was coming. We knew that a racist backlash against Rashford, Sancho, and Saka (the England players who’d missed their penalties – all young black men) was inevitable because the margin of error that black people are given is always less than their white peers.
When I voiced this, I was immediately met with incredulity from one of the women – “it doesn’t matter that they’re black” she insisted, “no-one’s going to make a big deal about that”. She wasn’t hostile, rather there was a pleading desperation in her voice. It was as if she really needed to believe that racism is a thing of the past. The guys and I made eye contact again – “she doesn’t understand,” we said silently to one another with weary resignation. There was a palpable tension in the room that hadn’t been there before – a feeling of distance between those of us for whom racism is as omnipresent as the air we breathe and those for whom it is easier to live in denial about it.
As a black person in public life in the UK acceptance and support is conditional. Your humanity is only recognised when you’re deemed to be ‘of use’, your margin for error and any leeway you’re afforded is almost always less than your white peers.https://t.co/ydJqIOMX7f
— Mandu Reid (@ManduReid) July 12, 2021
It reminded me of how I felt after the Government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities published its extraordinary report in March this year with the headline finding that “the UK is not institutionally racist”. In the days after its publication my reaction swung between visceral fury and indignation, to the same hollow feeling of weary resignation I felt on Sunday when I realised my friends didn’t understand.
I am certain that the choreography behind this report’s development and publication was political in the most cynical way. We were not the audience for this report. When I say ‘we’ – I am talking about those of us who experience racism, as well as anyone who acknowledges, abhors, and wants to address it.
But there is an audience for it, manufactured or otherwise, and it is being stoked. The same audience that Priti Patel dog-whistled with her condemnation of footballers who took the knee. The same audience that Boris Johnson laughed along with when describing our ‘watermelon smiles’. The same audience who right now are celebrating the decimation of our foreign aid budget, as if humanity makes us poorer – as if equality is a zero-sum game.
We need white allies to believe us. If we disregard the existence of institutional racism, why are young black men in London 19 times more likely to be stopped-and-searched than their white counterparts? Someone on Twitter explained to me that this happens “because blacks are more likely to be armed” – but how is it possible to make an objective comparison of the likelihood of being armed, if black and white men are not stopped and searched with equivalent frequency?
How is it that black women in the UK are four times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than white women? How is it that multiple experiments have shown that a CV bearing a ‘traditionally English sounding name’ will advance significantly further through a recruitment process as compared to an identical CV bearing an African, Arabic, or Asian sounding name? How is it that those from minoritised groups who perform well in education have worse employment and social mobility outcomes than those from white backgrounds who do less well in education? If it’s all about socio-economic status – are we really supposed to believe that it’s a miraculous coincidence that people of colour are disproportionately more likely to be working class or unemployed?
At the very least, we need white allies to acknowledge and not demure from the data, evidence, and patterns that signify inconvenient truths about the realities of racism. We need you to listen when we tell you there is going to be a backlash and to show up. Many of you did. It meant a lot to me and every black person I know to see the phenomenal outpouring of tributes concealing the racist graffiti that had been scrawled over the mural of Marcus Rashford in Manchester on Sunday night. The anti-racist demo in front of the same mural that saw hundreds of people (of all races) gathered to take the knee – just as the England team had done throughout the tournament – sent a potent message that, despite this government’s best efforts, we are not willing to gloss over the realities of racism and that the fight against it belongs to us all.
But the writing isn’t only on that Manchester wall when it comes to racism in 21st century Britain. It’s happening in classrooms, workplaces and communities across the country – and we need you to show up for that too.