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How do we challenge commonplace racism and microaggressions? Place them in their rightful context.

Writing by Patrick Anderson. Illustration by Heather Baillie.

For racism at Edinburgh University to be genuinely challenged, racism needs to be put in its rightful context. All too often structural racism is seen as existing in the form of violent, hateful actions - police brutality, racial hate crimes commited by the far-right, our Prime Minister suggesting Muslim women look like ‘letterboxes’ are almost universally regarded by students as being unquestionably racism. But racism can also rear its ugly head in microaggressions, and most of the students at this university are no exception to that.

Let me cite some examples. In second year, a white student who knew full well I was of Southeast Asian descent (not that that excuses bigotry) said he was going to the ‘chinkey’. I heard another student call a Black person an ‘African Queen’ behind their back. In first year, someone once said to me that there was more racism against white people in Europe than people of colour. Although these statements weren’t always directed at me, they led me to question how this language is being used by the supposedly ‘woke’ generation. These comments were often defended and brushed under the excusable carpet of commonplace ‘irony’ or ‘taking the piss out of racist people’. In my experience, this is often an excuse to express genuine racist sentiment.

With the global wave of Black Lives Matter protests after the brutal murder of George Floyd, the last few months have led me to have a sober reflection of microaggressions which I know I’ve been both guilty of and subject to. It led me to cross examine one of the ultimate questions of our time. How do we tackle racism in all its forms, including microaggressions and commonplace racism? I think one way is to put them in their rightful context. Microaggressions aren’t seen as the symptoms of the same disease Donald Trump is proudly diagnosed with. But they’re part of the same family and have the same historical roots.

Let’s say we have a family tree. That family tree is structural racism. At the top we have the ancestors. These are things like colonialism, the slave trade and the explosion of antisemitism and Islamophobia during the Catholic Reformation. These were key turning points. After all, racism began as a tool to oppress others, not as the natural segregation of peoples. Next we have the descendents. On one side we have distant cousins. People like Tommy Robinson, Donald Trump and Katie Hopkins who think the label of racism is a badge of honour. On the other side, we have another branch of the family tree: microaggressions. They’re not equivalent to the rhetoric of the far-right, but their existence has the same origins.

Recognising this is by no means a silver bullet. But to genuinely tackle this use of language, it needs to be contextualised. Calling people out, reminding people of the struggle and the historical roots of their comments are just some of the ways in which microaggressions can be challenged at university.

In the long term for this problem to be dealt with, anti-racism efforts need to be engineered at an earlier age. Decolonising the curriculum in primary and secondary schools is no magic fix, but it could lead to pupils to have a better understanding of how racism shouldn’t be such an acceptable trope in language and humour. I don’t want to discount the good job many schools do in enlightening pupils about the slave trade and the Holocaust. But these events can’t be taught as somehow confined to history. There needs to be an effort to highlight that the struggle goes on and that history has a huge impact on how society is organised today.

We need to convey that racism isn’t just about the contemporary issues of police brutality or the history of colonisation - important as teaching these issues are. It is about how we deploy language, how we ask people questions about their ethnicity, how we use humour and irony and ‘banter’ with our friends. That microaggressions come from a long, enduring history of struggle and oppression. That so many are guilty of this, but unless people challenge themselves they are complicit in a system that relentlessly targets and marginalizes people.

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