I’ve been struck recently, at how little the discourse around race in the UK has changed in the two years I’ve been living in America. We’re still trying to get the minority voices heard. I was thrown by a question from a curator of a well-known museum at a dinner event in London. He asked me if it had been confusing, growing up as the daughter of Indian immigrants in a British society. Internally, I did a double-take. A fair question from his perspective perhaps, but I wondered, ‘Who asks that anymore?’ I was especially surprised it had come from a presumably cultured and plugged-in gentleman. I had to refrain from gaping at him. I thought we were past all that. Perhaps only I am. Maybe I’ve been spoiled in “melting pot” New York, where my identity is more accepted, and inquired about – if it is at all – mostly as a source of richness, not negatively, as confusing. When asked the question, I also felt as if I was being forced back into an antiquated way of viewing myself as “the other” in the UK. Perhaps, I shouldn’t be surprised by this…the Conservatives came into power after I left Britain!
These thoughts came to the fore as sentences were finally handed out to two (out of three or four) guilty of the murder of black teenager, Stephen Lawrence after 18 years. As Stephen’s mother, Doreen, said: “Had the police done their job properly, I would have spent the last 18 years grieving for my son rather than fighting to get his killers to court.” How unimaginably painful for the family to have to wait that long for any semblance of justice (which is not complete). And how insulting that the racism the Met Police (and in extension other institutional bodies) were accused of in the MacPherson Report, seems to be being weeded out more slowly than it could be. If it wasn’t for the Lawrence family’s dogged campaigning, it’s doubtful that any justice would have been done. And as the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) points out, there are still 96 unsolved racially-motivated murders out there. How about some justice for those?
Sometimes relentless campaigners against injustice and crime are made to feel like they are whinging and choosing to remain in victimhood, about grievances that can never be changed. But they probably aren’t being listened to hard enough and there is a reluctance on the other side for real, deep change. This is unfortunate but the Lawrences have shown there can be vindication. When I attended an event about researching black and Asian histories recently in Whitechapel, London, one woman from a lottery funding body expressed her frustration at how only people from minority backgrounds continue to bring up the “other perspective” in her line of work – whether at a grassroots or policy-making level. It was heartening that she cared enough to attend the event and bring up the issue. I am also reminded of a story I broke in 2007 about the disregard many regeneration institutions had for the race equality duty. An investigation revealed how the duty was often “swept aside” to focus on harder targets in their plans to the dismay of minority ethnic residents in redevelopment areas.
A lot has changed since the murder of Stephen Lawrence but Britain has a long way to go before it stops repeating the same old patterns to become a colour-blind country.