There’s more than one way to be an anti-racist
More than two years since the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, conflicts over race and identity continue to take center stage in the public discourse.
Is asking someone where they’re “really” from a form of racism? Was Meghan Markle treated differently by the British press because of her race? Is colourblindness an excuse to ignore racism? These are important questions, but it often feels that there can only be one acceptable answer to show a sincere commitment to opposing racism, with any other view treated with contempt.
There is no contradiction between being a committed anti-racist and believing colourblindness is still the best way to combat racism
There is increasing scepticism towards the notion of colourblindness. Afua Hirsh, broadcaster and author of the book Brit(ish), argues that “liberal attempts to be colour-blind have caused more problems than they have solved.” Kehinde Andrews, professor of black studies at Birmingham City University, asserts that “colourblindness is always a bad idea”, and that to support it “is to give space to whiteness”. But, for many of us – and that includes ethnic minority people – it was the liberal ideal of realising a colourblind society that rendered racism both immoral and absurd.
There is no contradiction between being a committed anti-racist and believing colourblindness is still the best way to combat racism. To support colourblindness is not to ignore racism or deny human distinctiveness. It is to emphasise the importance of our common humanity and unique personhood over the colour of our skin. It is to say that race should no longer play a part in our judgments about a person’s moral character, nor shape the laws and policies that govern our societies.
In recent discussions about decolonising education, most would agree that a broad range of perspectives and histories should be offered in the national curriculum. But this has been the norm for decades. Authors like Chinua Achebe, Benjamin Zephaniah and Maya Angelou have been staples of English literature teaching in this country for some time. No doubt there is always room for improvement, especially in how topics are taught. But efforts to provide a rich and culturally diverse curriculum are simply beyond doubt.
What those calling for a decolonised curriculum really want is something else. They want to reveal and dismantle what they perceive as the inherent “white supremacy” of our education system. Last year, poems by great English poets Wilfred Owen and Philip Larkin were dropped from the GCSE curriculum in order to promote diversity. In 2021, Hull University advised against staff insisting on good written English for all students. The university stated, “It can be argued constructing an academic voice means adopting a homogenous North European, white, male, elite mode of expression dependent on a high level of technical proficiency in written and spoken English, a mode of expression that obscures the students’ particularity”. In 2019, the charity Youth Music called for schools to exchange Mozart for Stormzy in order to promote diversity and inclusivity in the curriculum. But works should be judged for their intellectual and aesthetic value, not how “diverse” they are.
So many of our institutions have internalised and strictly enforced a racialised view of education in the past few years – and it is young ethnic minority people that stand to lose the most. These moves presuppose that ethnic minority students are incapable of accessing and understanding ideas, texts and histories that lie beyond their everyday experiences. They imagine that a student’s particularity will always be in conflict. And they reduce the textured, complex nature of human history to a heroic battle of racial identities, reinforcing the very boundaries that education can do so much to overcome.
This isn’t supporting the development of ethnic minority students. It’s holding them back.
There are still differing views about what constitutes racism, the nature and causes of racial disparities and how best to respond to them. No group can claim to speak for all ethnic minority people on this issue. But thankfully, a liberal society provides us with a simple and elegant solution to our differences – civil, honest and open debate in a public forum.
That is why I am co-convening a conference at Emmanuel and King’s College Cambridge today, hosted by The Equiano Project. We have brought together the leading thinkers and voices on these subjects, most of whom are ethnic minorities, from the United States and the United Kingdom, including Glenn Loury, John McWhorter, Thomas Chatterton Williams, Coleman Hughes, Trevor Phillips OBE, Lord Tony Sewell, Katharine Birbalsingh OBE, Stephen Bush, Sonia Sodha, Tomiwa Owolade and many others. Together, we will explore how liberal values can inform our answers to these questions, and how we can build a new age of tolerance and equality.
Not all of the speakers agree on how best to address these issues. That is, in part, the point. If we are to find answers to one of the biggest debates of our time, we must begin with a genuinely open debate and a shared premise – there is not one way to be an anti-racist.
Inaya Folarin Imam, journalist and founder of The Equiano Project.
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