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Updated: Aug 22

Sunday 14 October, 14:00—15:30, Pit Theatre Identity wars: race and society

Katharine Birbalsingh - headmistress, Michaela Community School; author, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: the Michaela way

Syd Jeffers - senior lecturer in sociology, University of East London; research interests, politics and theories of race and racialisation; Arsenal season ticket holder

Shiv Malik - head of strategy and communications, Streamr; author, Jilted Generation: how Britain has bankrupted its youth

Munira Mirza - director, HENI talks; former London deputy mayor; co-founder, AllInBritain

Fraser Myers - writer, spiked; producer, spiked podcast

A volunteer looks on. Thanks to Henry Kenyon henrykenyonphotography.com

There is a view that white people, by virtue of being white, benefit directly and indirectly. They get arrested less, are more likely to get higher paid jobs, have access to better housing and therefore are privileged. Also, some argue, racism is sometimes ‘structural’; it exists in a seething, underlying way. It was a point made by Shiv Malik. Asians do get longer sentences, claimed Malik. The possible reasons for this are complicated. Perhaps Asians distrust the system, leading to their own downfall, which is why conviction rates do not favour them. There are difficult conversations about race that perhaps we shy away from, he said. Seeing racism everywhere may not help anyone, but discussing race in the right way seems like a good idea.

Former London deputy mayor, Munira Mirza certainly felt that the definition of racism has lost meaning. There is a pernicious view that racism is as bad now as it always has been in the UK and Munira Mirza strongly objected to it. The effect of misperceiving race is that a generation of children (of colour) think that the system is stacked against them. In fact, she pointed out, some minority groups do better than other demographics: a much higher proportion of UK residents of Indian ethnicity work in medicine.

Academic Syd Jeffers felt that the debate should really focus on prejudice as much as race. Prejudice against ethnic minority groups is very difficult to legislate against but can lead to injustice. Another problem, he claimed, was that when measuring ethnicity by outcome it can seem that any difference has been deliberately caused. The gap in outcome can result from more subtle factors.

Katharine Birbalsingh started her argument by pointing out that there is little concern when more men than women go to prison. We assume that the reasons for this statistic are not the result of sexism. So why are we determined to see discrimination when statistics reveal differences involving minority groups? The real losers when racism is seen everywhere are those from ethnic minorities: it has the effect of sapping motivation and energy in the face of assumptions that there is an agenda against them. Katharine Birbalsingh stressed the importance of teachers having high expectations of all students: it is hard to do that if fearing an accusation of racism just for putting a student into a detention.

Katharine Birbalsingh also told the white members of the audience: “Let go of your guilt!” This was a reference to the fact that white people are sometimes encouraged to feel guilt for the offences committed by white people historically. It caused amusement, but there is a serious point: are white people really privileged just for being white? I would recommend searching for a brief online interview in which Morgan Freeman is asked what he thinks of ‘Black History Month’. How do we go about dealing with the problems of race in society? “Stop talking about it,” says Morgan Freeman. A final point about this sensitive debate is that none of the panellists, including the chair, are white.

Discussion questions

  • Does it help race relations to talk about race or is it a topic better avoided?

  • In what ways, if any, does race affect a person’s behaviour and attitudes?

  • Is the UK a fair country in the way that it treats people of different races?

  • Should you be grateful that your school gives detentions? Would you want to be in a school with no detentions?

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