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  • Abbie Harby


Updated: Dec 14, 2020

Do you know what actually counts as racism?

For a long time there was simply no conversation about race. Even the words ‘race’ and ‘racism’ scared people as they didn't want to be accused of being racist themselves.

This essentially comes down to a lack of understanding – something this guide aims to prevent.

Read on to find out exactly what racism is, what racist acts may look like, Britain’s history of racism and what the situation looks like in Britain today.

What actually is racism?

Racism is more than just personal prejudice. Racism refers to any action carried out by anyone in any position to negatively influence someone else’s life and their opportunities based on their race.


So, what counts as racism?

This essentially comes down to three main factors: history, institutions and power.


History provides an explanation as to why some races are disadvantaged or face discrimination, while others don’t.

You might say, that's in the past, why can’t people just get over it? The short answer is that it’s not that simple. Moreover, this part of British history is actually more recent than you think. Trading began in 1562, and slavery was only abolished in 1833, less than 200 years ago. If you do the maths, that means that slave trading was fully functioning for longer than it has currently been abolished.


Together with history, institutions work to give certain groups more power than others. By institutions we mean schools, the justice system, businesses, media and organisations. The systems upon which every country is built on are shaped by the dominant group: i.e. Britain is predominantly shaped by white people. Other groups are often abandoned and disadvantaged in the process.


Power then comes into play, as both history and institutions create an imbalance of power based on race. For example, when POC (People of Colour) make jokes about their own race this is okay, as there is no imbalance of power. However, when a dominant race makes these same jokes about a group that is historically and institutionally less advantaged, it is racist.

It is not just language or actions that can be racist. Racial stereotypes can greatly impact an individual’s life. For example, if one race or culture is associated with negative stereotypes - such as dirty, disorganised or lazy - this could be a massive disadvantage when they apply for jobs.

Casual or indirect racism, also known as microaggressions, may be intentional or unintentional. It is directing an offensive message at someone based purely on their being a member of a minority group. For example, choosing not to sit beside someone because you feel uncomfortable about the colour of their skin or making fun of a person’s background, even if disguised as a joke.

Direct racism is 100% intentional and a conscious choice of words or actions. For instance, writing a negative post on social media about a specific ethnic group.

Systemic racism is when the systems in place in society discriminate against particular groups. This relates back to the importance of institutions and power imbalances throughout history. The Black Lives Matter movement, which took on new life this year is a response to police brutality against black people, is just one example of systemic racism.


Has racism always existed?

Racism itself is actually a relatively new concept created by those involved in the slave trade at the height of colonialism in order to justify their actions.

This is an area of British history which many Britons know very little about, believing that POC simply arrived in the UK by choice. In fact, Britain had slave ports in Liverpool, Bristol, Lancaster, Exeter, Plymouth, Bridport, Chester, Poulton-Le-Fylde in Lancashire and, of course, London.

To find out more about Britain's involvement in the slave trade, read our guide.

Slavery was abolished in 1833, but this saw new issues and continued racism in Britain. Instead of those enslaved, it was the slave owners who received a cheque to compensate for their “financial losses”.

The role played by POC in British forces during WW1 has also been severely downplayed, when in fact these groups made great sacrifices in the hope of seeing improvements at home or being freed from colonial rule. In reality, they saw little to no changes and were even mistreated for trying to help Britain. Wounded soldiers of colour were treated in segregated hospitals, those who officially had higher rankings were treated the same as regular white soldiers, and soldiers of colour were given more strenuous work, such as digging trenches (source).

Racism continued post-WW1 with riots and attacks across Britain. Rather than defending those attacked, the British government started a repatriation drive, sending 600 black people ‘back to where they came from’ by September 1919.

Post-WW2 the 1948 British Nationality Act brought some hope for British race relations as it gave Commonwealth citizens the same rights as British citizens. The reality was in stark contrast:

  • POC were still expected to stand aside and wait for their white compatriots to be served first in pubs and shops.

  • Vicious riots and attacks broke out across Britain.

  • Groups deliberately targeted coloured peoples with one group calling themselves the ‘nigger hunters’.

  • Landlords massively overcharged black people.

  • (Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge, 2017)

The 1948 Act was then replaced by the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act. Instead of using the word “citizen” to describe those from the Commonwealth as in the 1948 Act, they were described as “immigrants”, causing further alienation. Additionally, due to Britain’s demand for skilled labour, those now wishing to reside in Britain required a work permit. This principle is still true today.

One major issue has always been police brutality, which has reached boiling point in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd in the USA. Throughout the 1970s, police used the 1824 Vagrancy Act to stop, search and arrest anyone they suspected may commit a crime. Under this principle, black people were stopped far more often than white people.

These laws were abolished in 1981… and succeeded by new stop and search laws in 1984 which were essentially the same, just under a different name. The only difference was that police now needed good reason to believe that the crime had already been committed: these are the same laws which exist today. Research has shown that black people have been disproportionately targeted under stop and search. The Metropolitan Police reported that in 2018/2019 there were 4 stop-and-searches for every 1,000 white individuals, compared to 38 for every 1,000 black individuals (source).


Aren't things better now?

Unfortunately not. Looking at the statistics, it seems that racist incidents are becoming increasingly more common.

The Office for National Statistics reported that in 2018/19, 103,379 hate crimes were recorded by the police in England and Wales of which 76% were based on race, 10% higher than the previous year. They state that although there have been improvements in recording crimes, this is an upward trend that has been noticeable since 2012. There have also been spikes in hate crime following events such as the Brexit referendum and the 2017 terrorist attacks.


Why do people think everything is racist these days?

For so long people have almost been afraid of the words ‘race’ and ‘racism’, fearing that even mentioning the topic would automatically make them racist. The truth is quite the opposite. The key to spotting and ultimately stopping racism is knowing exactly what it is and talking about it.

The term ‘political correctness’ has also been thrown around a lot, and it can feel though what is and is not ‘politically correct’ changes on a weekly basis. This makes it difficult for the average citizen like you and I to feel comfortable talking about race.

Although a lot more needs to be done, conversation about this topic has definitely increased in recent years and highlighted another side to racism, in particular Britain’s racist past, which could make it feel everything is now classed as racist.

The key is to be able to see, recognise, stop and prevent any further racist incidents from occurring.

Our guide on How to Start a Conversation about Race can help you further discuss this vital topic.

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