“Everyone’s a little bit racist,” is how the cheerful signature tune goes from the satirical musical Avenue Q. It’s a coming of age tale that cleverly and humourously dispels the myths children are fed repeatedly when they are young – including “you can do anything you want to” and “no one hates anyone”. I’m crassly summarising but you get the gist, and it’s the latter point that the “racist” song, one of my favourite show tunes, is rebuffing. It was the perfect anthem to open one of my radio shows last week as a study was published showing that one in four Britons hold racist views.
The researchers, from the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), weren’t afraid to get personal in this annual study, with figures showing that 22 per cent of people would take issue with a family member marrying a black person, 21 per cent with marrying an Asian individual, and a whopping 44 per cent would have a problem with a close relative wedding a Muslim.
So I asked my listeners: do we just have to accept that racism is a fact of life? Is our suspicion of difference hard-wired into us from birth? And I also asked if listeners had ever taken on racism within their family and friends – or confronted total strangers.
But before I even got to listeners’ tales of calling out racism there was an interesting initial howl of outrage regarding whether the study itself was racist. Why hadn’t it been done the other way round – why hadn’t Muslims or black people been asked how they would feel if their child married a white person?
And they were right. The question hadn’t been asked, which was confirmed by Roger Harding of NatCen. So it was an excellent point collectively made. However, it was also illustrative of something else – which another caller’s jaw-dropping tale pointed to: how difficult it can be to critically appraise our own behaviour versus finding flaws in polling methodology.
Maria’s experience of racism, as a black woman married to a white man, was within her own family – not that they saw it like that – she told us all on air. Her parents-in-law would use the n-word when talking about black people. Other black people. Never Maria of course. It bothered her but she never said anything as she didn’t want to make things awkward for her husband. One day, though, she was tipped over the edge as they used the word in front of some of her black friends, who were outraged, and she had no choice but to confront them.
The tale has a happy ending as her in-laws changed their ways and peace broke out – but not before Maria was forced to relive painful memories of being beaten up on the streets of Britain in the 70s simply for being black – while being called the n-word.
During my shows, callers can say what they want, within reason. But it’s also a space where people’s real-life experiences can bring your initial view into sharp relief and make you question your own language and privilege with an immediacy and humility you struggle to find in any other public forum.
So everybody might just be a little less racist after Maria’s call. You never know.
By Emma Barnett
Emma Barnett presents 5 Live Daily Wed–Fri on Radio 5 Live and After the News, with Nick Ferrari, following the News at Ten on ITV, Mon–Fri