The delusion of racial tolerance in the UK
A Very British Notion
Britain has long prided itself on being a tolerant society. Far Right rags like The Spectator proudly trumpet Britain’s ‘tolerance’ in the face of a ‘few football racists’ that can be dismissed as rotten apples. Diversity UK pointed out that ‘seventy years ago in Britain, issues of race and identity were unfamiliar to most [if you were White]. However, since then the face of the nation has changed rapidly’. The education group ‘Total People’ claims tolerance is a primary value in the UK.
Britain’s reward for such tolerance is to be perceived as ‘morally praiseworthy’. But what is it being praised for? Polycarp Ikuenobe argues that this reward is in fact about restraint: it is about ‘refraining from mistreating others regarding their racial difference’. It shows that there is a power dynamic at work in the act of tolerating someone else. There is an implied right NOT to tolerate under certain conditions decided by those professing tolerance. Magali Bessone describes the act of tolerance as:
refraining from interfering with something deeply disapproved of in spite of having the power to interfere.
Here is the power we rarely consider: tolerance condones judgmental interference by the judging, dominant, and powerful. Power is present in both interference and in not interfering. It is masked by the concept’s rhetorical magnanimity. The relationship between those expressing tolerance, and those they are judging, is asymmetrical.
Where occasional intolerance arises, like at those ‘few football matches’ The Spectator pointed at, they are reduced to individual acts, every time they happen, no matter how many times they happen. They are separated from cause and effect relationships, disconnected from any organized determinism that might intrude on the sanctity of the idea of ‘tolerance’. Where that fails, such acts’ connections to organisation are cloaked in misdirection, misrepresentation, lies and obfuscation, all to protect the myth that organised racism doesn’t exist.
But there’s no shortage of examples of majority behaviour being misrepresented as an unhinged, illegitimate minority when in fact, support for such racism is widespread. Think Brexit; racism remarketed as patriotism. Think Meghan; the idea of a woman of Colour ‘polluting’ a blue blood, White-skinned hereditary monarchy that is itself a hundred shades of European that Brexiteers ran from. Or the brutal, racist bile that poured into the Twittersphere and wider media from old, racist, white misogynist men openly using Far Right ‘news’ platforms to actively, publicly, unashamedly incite racial hatred, telling people to throw excrement at a woman of Colour who has ‘infected’ the imperial Royal Family in the UK. Think millions applauding an imperial monarch and her reign over the world, and the preservation of the last vestiges of formal empire in the shape of the Commonwealth. These are instead all unrelated acts, for the Right, who refuse to see cause and effect in anything they are responsible for.
Think of the dreadful racism directed at Marcus Rashford and two others after England lost at the EUFA Euro 2020; just the odd idiot on Twitter, or a residue of race hatred that, despite a self-proclaiming ‘tolerant’ society, is an immutable, violent, painful, oppressive constant?
The claim to tolerance masks and denies the notion, the intolerable, horrible idea, that all those individual acts might form part of a larger structure, a learned – and therefore taught – code of behaviour, a pan-national attitude of hostility or disdain or hatred or fear. The UK Court system is acknowledging institutional racism. The British healthcare system is now found to harbour institutional racism. UK mental healthcare is similarly afflicted. The police are also concerned about their own racist structures, and an independent review of the Fire Brigade found it to be institutionally racist and misogynist. Its author warned this would be a common theme across UK public services. The former Vice-Chancellor of Loughborough University openly recognised institutional racism at the university in an interview with alumnus Mike Wedderburn, the sports commentator. Another Vice-Chancellor declared it a problem across the whole sector. Britain’s national identity, pride and progress were made on Empire, as so many nationalists never tire of pointing out. It should be no surprise that imperial attitudes, of racial superiority, remain deeply embedded in all aspects of government, its institutions and their instructions to society.
Are we actually tolerant of intolerance?
So we are left in a quandary: if we are tolerant of race, why is there racism everywhere, everyday? Perhaps some answers lie in the idea of the term itself. What does it involve? How might you feel, if you were told that someone tolerated you? Where is power revealed to lie? With you or with them? I feel dominated and patronised when I think of that dynamic. I feel like a child whose existence is accepted on condition of not upsetting anyone – seen and not heard, permitted as long as I concord with certain conditions of my existence that have been set by someone else, by the society in which I am permitted to reside. Tolerance involves degrees of resistance: I accept you here but do not necessarily wish you here. Your presence is not at my request but I will accept it as long as it breaks no rules or challenges my right to determine how or to what extent I accept you. Tolerance is power.
ensemble of convictions, attitudes, behaviors that are in a hierarchical relationship and monitored by values in a social environment
Among other things, this means there is a sector of society whose values are considered legitimate and dominant, passing judgment on another group of people whose values may be different, or appear different, or intimidate because of that perceived difference. Tolerance in this form is a toxic structure and process because it masks the same power relationship that its use implies does not exist – the devil’s greatest trick.
British values about racial groups have historically been linked to its imperial history: that period of global dominance without which the UK would not have industrialised and evolved into a global superpower of the 20th century. The country’s economic descent and its collapse in comparative global prowess over recent decades does not detract from what placed it at its apogee until its place in the world was challenged by newer superpowers. Britain once controlled nearly one quarter of all people on the planet, through an empire over which the sun never set. This was then and, for almost half the population, still is, a source of great national pride in a halcyonic era that many continue to believe defines the best of Britain.
Since Empire is always based on superiority, whether Roman, Nazi or British, the dynamic of White and Black mirrors that eugenicist ideology. Empires stole countries and then tolerated the presence of their indigenous populations (Cesaire, 1972; Fanon, 1961; Mbembe, 2020). Those indigenes who served imperial occupation were tolerated as long as they did not contravene the interests of the colonizers. Permissions were granted for integration within the colonial institutions on condition of loyal subservience. Our presence in our own lands was tolerated as long as we didn’t get ‘uppity’. Those subjects of Empire who were admitted to the White Motherland required similar permissions and tolerances, and still require permission to stay, after decades of residence, in the face of ignorant, racist, State persecution. In the face of tolerance.
Tolerance involves the power to grant permissions to others with less power. In this case, it is White England granting terms of existence to those of Colour who are literal and figurative descendants of Windrush. White England is a concept. It is made up of government elites, Left and Right, who set the tone of race relations through the Executive and Legislature (the contemporary Right in the West is almost always far more racist than the Left). It is the courts that apply the laws of the land. It is the police who execute them. It is the media that reports according to its ideological and racist biases. It is the wider society that watches such procedure and takes its cue from those rulers and rules and permissions and exclusions and constraints and limits; and takes its cue from that tolerance of the Other as determined by imperial history and political identity. Power is present in both interference and in not interfering, but it is masked by the label’s rhetorical magnanimity. The greatest trick…
In the end…
Tolerance permits difference as long as the difference doesn’t get ‘uppity’. And as long as ‘tolerant racism’ is the mindset of a society and its institutions, that mindset will reinforce racism, and restrict change to the terms and conditions of White Fragility. This term refers to ‘a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves’ like denial, misdirection, misrepresentation, obfuscation, lies and so on. In Derrick Bell’s words, tolerance will be framed by interest divergence: People of Colour in the UK, under a regime of ‘tolerance’, can co-exist as long as what they do, does not clash with what White England wants to happen. Thereafter, ‘tolerance’ becomes ‘intolerance’; but tolerance is already intolerant. It comes from and perpetuates racial power, control and abuse, whilst presenting as doing the opposite. ‘Tolerance’ is the ‘credible’ institutional face of race relations in the UK; we pride ourselves on this Janus term. Making us believe…
As long as we can claim to be tolerant, we have done nothing wrong and nothing needs to change. Yet for many People of Colour, tolerance is imperial continuity; the past in the present, as Mbembe said. Tolerance is a mindset rooted in relations of power that ceded and cede limited freedoms to a captured society. That mindset is masturbatory self-indulgence and denial that we still use to congratulate ourselves on our sterling contribution to race relations. We are not who we think we are, in the same way that America is not the land of the free or the home of the brave. Those who have exercised racial violence most, are those most active in denying it, and defending and disguising the ideology it rests on. As George Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier, people tend to think they can ‘abolish [societal] distinctions without making any uncomfortable change in their own habits and ideology’. They cannot. Until British people move away from a nationalist mindset that internalizes and sanctions permission granting by a dominant race over a subjugated Other as a way of being multicultural, we will remain in race purgatory, with the Devil looking on.
Cesaire, A. (1972) Discourse on Colonialism, New York: Monthly Review Press.
Fanon, F. (1961) The Wretched of the Earth, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Mbembe, A. (2020) Necropolitics, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Equality, Diversity and Inclusion
Reflections, comments, discussion and opinion on EDI topics from Loughborough University staff and students