Some ideas and resources for arguing against common racist comments in the UK
There’s no neutral state of being apolitical. Everything is political. If people claim to be “apolitical” it just means that the current levels of injustice don’t personally inconvenience them enough to care.
At the time of writing in June 2020, we’re going through a dramatic shift in public consciousness in many countries about racism, the problems with current society, and nasty histories that have been brushed over and ignored. A lot of my friends are arguing with family members and acquaintances, or discovering that friends are much less well-informed than they’d hoped. If it’s tiring being white and trying to argue against it, imagine what it’s like having it personally aimed at you.
There are plenty of online guides aimed at counter-acting common racist statements, but most of them are from an American context (here is a good quick one), so I thought I would write some rebuttals to some common false arguments that are being thrown around in the UK at the moment, with answers that work with the history and culture of the UK.
This is more of a one-stop resource for useful counter-arguments, images and sources to link to than a whole article to send to Uncle Geoff who keeps saying these things.
Also if you take one thing from this collection, this article by Jude Yawson about racism in the UK is a great, informative link to share
(I have turned the comments off on this post to stop me having to constantly moderate replies from racists)
Persistence is key, people don’t often change their mind dramatically overnight, it’s the slow drip of new information that can change their mind.
People have been This Terrible all along. This is always what we’ve been up against. They were just hiding it better before.
If your energy is trailing, the best people to concentrate on are people you know, rather than strangers being terrible in the comments of the local paper. It’s important to challenge the local racists too, but you have the most likelihood of challenging and changing the mind of people who have a connection to you.
I also wrote a guide to spotting fake social media accounts, and strategies trolls use here.
it’s going to be exhausting (but imagine what it’s like to be on the receiving end of all this racism all your life), you will need to take breaks sometimes, but keep at it. Persistence and determination is the key. You will probably feel like everyone fucking hates you and your life would be easier if you just kept quiet, but keep at it. Good Vibes Only, Why Can’t We All Get Along doesn’t work here. Systematic injustice doesn’t get changed without discomfort. People abusing their power don’t give it up easily, or if everyone just asks nicely.
The Overton Window is the selection of political views that are considered reasonable and ok in society. What is in the window can change dramatically, and be changed. Ideas can go from crazy and ridiculous to completely normal (women getting the vote in the UK) or from considered normal to outrageous (Apartheid in South Africa).
People don’t change their opinions dramatically overnight that often, the important thing is to bloody-mindedly slowly shift the Overton Window away from bigoted views, and do everything in your power from stopping it sliding back. You don’t want to leave people only getting their information from the Daily Mail.
We’ve got to slowly chip away at this giant wall with a tiny screwdriver.
Here are some ideas to reply to some of the common statements that come up again and again. I’m not presenting them as The Correct and Only Answer, it’s ideas you can copy if you want to challenge these fallacies but are coming up short on what to say.
I’ve also included lots of memes and screenshots of social media stuff. Usually I’m pretty careful about sourcing graphics here, but I’m not sure of the original source of some of these.
I’m going to write another post with historical info about the brutality of the British Empire. I was originally going to put it in here, but it got so long and unwieldy I’ve decided to make it a separate post.
“Oh why can’t we all get along, it’s not nice to all be arguing like this”
Ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away. The nastier the problem, the worse it gets if ignored and allowed to fester. Enforced nicey-niceness can actually be a way of silencing and controlling people. If you’re not allowed to talk about anything difficult, it can never be resolved.
The most virulent defender of Apartheid I ever met was a nicey nicey Downton Abbey/Bake Off type middle aged lady I used to work with. I thought she was South African, but turns out she was English but had emigrated to South Africa in the 80s at the height of Apartheid and sanctions. She really hated Nelson Mandela because he “took her nice life away” and she viewed black people as this nasty sort of thing like an insect you’d rather not have come in your house. According to her Apartheid was good because “well, black people just aren’t like us, are they”. She was appalling, but totally “normal” and “respectable”.
Fuck you Linda.
(And she would have more problems with me saying fuck than she would with wanting to bring Apartheid back, which shows the problem).
Normal and respectable people accepted slavery. They accepted Apartheid. They accepted women not being allowed to vote or own property. They told people who argued that we should change these things that they were crazy trouble-makers, and that they were the problem, not the system.
“All Lives Matter”
Ah so you value Black people’s lives and care about them being treated well? That’s great. Oh, trans people’s lives too? Brilliant. Disabled people? Great too. Refugees? Let me know when you want to sign up to volunteer with the charity. I’m glad that you care a lot about the wellbeing of so many different groups of people who are different to you, and want society to treat them well. Not just straight white people.
“Why does everyone care so much about some American man?” “George Floyd had previous convictions, why are you making a martyr of him?”
If you commit a crime, there is an investigation and you go to court and (hopefully) have a fair trial and a chance to defend yourself. Any penalties are from a clear book of laws. There is no crime that has the punishment of a policeman strangling you on the spot in a car park. Especially not for the bank note you tried to pay with turning out to be fake. Have you ever had a fake note? You deserve the death penalty, right? Outside in the carpark of the shop with no trial.
The police in the USA can do what they like (especially to Black people) with no accountability because their professional associations pay the legal fees and they escape justice through a convoluted legal loophole called Qualified Immunity (link here with info). They are out of control and bereaved families are sick of them. Lawyers get nowhere trying to bring them to justice.
Breonna Taylor was a paramedic from Kentucky with no connection to crime at all. The police burst into her house late at night when she and her boyfriend were asleep, because they got the wrong house number for a drugs bust, and shot her dead when her boyfriend panicked thinking it was burglars. There were no consequences for them, and when public pressure forced the police to release the report into her death, it was mostly blank.
Derek Chauvin knew he was being filmed by a member of the public who tried to intervene, but he didn’t care because he was so arrogant that he thought he would never face any consequences. The public had had enough. That was the final straw. They were sick of not being listened to.
Huge numbers of people in the UK have attended protests because they want to show solidarity and support to the Americans, but also because they want to draw attention to problems with racism in British society which have also been ignored and brushed under the carpet for too long.
Brock Turner was seen by two witnesses, who intervened. There was no question of his guilt. The judge worried more about the impact going to prison would have on his promising swimming career than the impact on his victim (the judge was later fired after public outcry). Brock Turner’s father also complained that “”[The sentence] is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.”
“What about Lee Rigby? No-one protested about him”
Lee Rigby was killed by terrorists, who went to court, faced justice and are now in prison. His family were satisfied, unlike the families of those murdered by out of control police. They have released a statement of their disgust at their family member’s murder being used to justify racism.
Here is a great article from Jude Yawson that says it better than I can:
“To exist as a historically conscious black or Asian person in Britain is to exist knowing that a majority of your white counterparts do not acknowledge your history. They have not been forced to adopt centuries of trauma, or been subjected to the racialised perceptions created over that time. They have not originated from mother countries gradually drying from the imperialism they were soaked in, and do not have to live in recognition of slavery and colonialism and the impact these have had on their countries and people.”
“Racism and Classism Killed the Residents of Grenfell Tower: from the residents’ years of documented complaints about safety to the fact it lies in the richest borough in London – a stark reminder of whose voices get listened to in modern Britain, whose don’t, and that this dichotomy can have deadly consequences.”
“The police don’t use equipment like tear gas or rubber bullets in the UK”
A lot of the techniques and equipment the police in the US are receiving condemnation for were pioneered in Northern Ireland by the British government. The UK also manufactures a lot of this equipment.
“Why are people in the US calling for police defunding? Crime will spiral out of control”
In the USA, the police receive huge budgets, but are also assigned duties which other countries give to social services. The budgets get spent on weapons rather than social programmes. Is it really a great idea to send someone with a gun but no therapeutic training to deal with someone having a mental health crisis?
People are calling for the money to be spent on schools, social workers, drug rehab and mental health care instead. Better social services means less crime to begin with.
The police in the UK don’t get given the same huge sums of money, but the Tories have certainly defunded social services under the guise of austerity, making the poor pay to bail the rich out after the banking crisis. Better social services, mental healthcare, fairer housing and other improvements are also needed in the UK.
“You don’t solve any problems with uprisings, you should do a petition instead” “People are just protesting for fun”
People try simpler methods like petitions first. Protesting is a lot of effort. They only protest if no-one is listening to what they’re saying.
“The ANTIFAs are using this as an excuse to beat people up”
“Both sides are just as bad”
Whatever Donald Trump thinks, Antifa is not some kind of secret organisation like the Mafia. It’s just short for Anti-Fascist. The label antifa can cover all sorts of different groups with different aims. It just means that they all despise fascism and racism.
The opposite of anti-fascist is fascist. Pick your side.
The Black Lives Matters protests have had huge numbers of people, but very little trouble. A small number of Tommy Robinson’s little gang showed up this past weekend, did Nazi salutes by a WWII memorial, punched the police, took cocaine in front of a journalist from the Telegraph, and pissed on a memorial to a policeman murdered by a terrorist. All in one afternoon.
“George Soros is paying for all this to cause trouble”
George Soros does not secretly rule the world. The reality is much less dramatic and exciting: he’s an economist who moved into banking and became incredibly rich, but felt guilty about becoming so rich, and decided to start donating his money when he retired.
He’s a Hungarian Jew whose country was invaded by Hitler and then Stalin, and who was a refugee himself after the Soviet re-invasion of Hungary in 1956. So he has a lot of sympathy for refugees and anti-authoritarian causes, and support for education and international co-operation and donates his money accordingly. Which is why authoritarians and wannabe dictators like Viktor Orban and Donald Trump hate him.
Talking about George Soros like he’s an evil goblin who secretly rules the world with his piles of gold is an offensive Anti-Semitic stereotype taken straight out of a Nazi cariacature.
No, you can’t change the past. You can however change what happens NOW. If we don’t do anything to change things the same old problems will repeat again and again.
“It’s the past, we should move on”
“Slavery was a long time ago, it doesn’t have any relevance to now”
If you don’t address problems from the past, they continue to be problems in the present. The UK in particular has a lot of dirty secrets from the colonial era. Families who got rich from slavery and exploitation are still unduly rich and powerful, continuing to dominate politics and powerful industries, and making sure everything continues to benefit themselves rather than the public as a whole.
“If we take down the statues, then we’ll forget all the history”
There are no statues left of Hitler. You know who he was and what he did.
Statues glorify people, literally put them on a pedestal. It’s not about the physical statue itself, it’s about who is glorified by history, who is allowed to tell their story, who is allowed to have power and a legacy. Why does someone like Edward Colston deserve that kind of thing? Why not have a statue instead commemorating his victims, or the work of someone who did something good for humanity?
The current discussion is the opposite of forgetting or erasing history- it’s about finally facing up to the difficult bits. Colston’s descendents erased all the people he killed and brutalised.
“You should start a petition to remove statues, not just pull them down”
The people of Bristol petitioned and politely campaigned for nearly twenty years to get rid of the statue, and nothing happened.
Jimmy Savile did a lot for charity too. Shall we put a statue of him up on your street?
You also won’t object if I sell your children either right? It’s for charity, so I don’t see why you’d object.
“What about the Romans”
“What about Roman slavery”
Roman slavery was very different to colonial slavery. Roman slaves were no particular race, ethnicity or religion. There were no special markings or clothing to identify them. They looked just like everyone else. In fact that was a way to keep the institution going- if slaves had realised how many of them there were, they might have banded together in an uprising. There were possibilities for Roman slaves to become free, and if they became free they just blended back into society as an average person.
Slavery in the colonial era was very different. All the owners were white, and all the people they enslaved were black. If you had been enslaved and became free, everyone else who looked like you was still enslaved, and you would be treated just as badly, despite being free.
Slavery was abolished in the Carribbean in the early 1800s, and in the US after the American Civil War, (and not until 1888 in Brazil!) but just because people were legally free, it doesn’t mean that they were suddenly treated equally and fairly in real life. The Deep South enforced racial segregation until 1965 and fought back very hard against Civil Rights campaigners.
Actually archaeologists don’t think that the pyramids were built by teams of slaves. The Pharaoh owned all the land in Egypt and the farmers had to pay their rent by doing so many pyramid days per year.
Bad landlords and exploitative work contracts definitely are an important issue. The Conservative Party actually voted down a law requiring landlords to keep their properties in “habitable condition”. Craig Mackinlay of South Thanet was one of the MPs who voted against it.
“What about Victorian workhouses?”
“What about this other bad historical thing?”
Those were terrible. Isn’t it good we don’t have them any more because writers like Charles Dickens and George Orwell drew people’s attention to how terrible they were. It’s great when people become educated about a topic and realise that something they had previously accepted is actually horrible and harmful and needs to be changed.
“Churchill was a hero”
Churchill fought Hitler, but that wasn’t because he disagreed with Hitler’s racist beliefs. In fact the opposite. We are sold a cuddly heroic cartoon character version of Churchill, but over his military and political career he was responsible for massacres, famines and brutal invasions. He comfortably expressed views in public similar to the Nazis and KKK. There’s plenty of details in this link below.
Anti-racism activists are particularly grateful to those who died fighting against Fascism and white supremacy. Why would they want to take down a memorial to them? They don’t want the memorials that glorify slavery and brutality, not to get rid of memorials to those who fought against them.
“The British Empire was overall positive”
I’m going to write another detailed resource post with lots of links about this (it got too large to include in this post). Afua Hirsch has a great podcast about this- there is a summary and links in the article below:
You don’t get any congratulations on stopping doing something terrible if you were also one of the main culprits. Congratulations on stopping robbing banks!
“We freed all the slaves and didn’t pay it off until 2015”
This isn’t a positive thing. The slave owners got paid a lot of money as compensation, and the people who had been enslaved got nothing. Rich people who got rich in disgusting ways became even richer (and their descendants like David Cameron and Dominic Cumming’s wife are still rich and powerful off the back of that illicit money- link here) There are British people alive today who were paying money from their taxes to pay off the debt to families who enslaved and abused their ancestors.
If someone offers you a slave, you don’t have to buy them. You don’t have to buy them and ship them across the Atlantic and make them work for the rest of their life on a brutal plantation to make you money either.
In fact if you hung around the wrong people now you could be offered a slave for sale. Modern Slavery is still a big problem, and happens in the UK too. You shouldn’t buy a slave now either.
“Country Y sold white slaves”
“Black people were slave owners in Africa”
Again, if someone offers you a slave, you don’t have to buy them. If another country does bad things, we don’t need to copy them.
“The Portuguese did it first”
Again, just because another country is doing something bad, doesn’t mean we had to copy them. People knew slavery was bad at the time, a lot of people just didn’t care because they could make a lot of money.
“The Portuguese/Ottomans/Saudis/other nationality also had a slave trade”
The Ottoman Sultans also used to strangle their own brothers on accession to the throne to prevent competition. Perhaps the British Royal Family would have been more exciting if we had copied them with that too.