Srabani Sen: Why don’t we stop arguing about race and start listening?

Those of a certain age will recognise the headline quote from the theme tune of the Australian soap Neighbours. This segue may not be obvious, but bear with me.

Recently, the entire race equality committee of actors’ union Equity resigned when Equity apologised on its behalf for criticising Laurence Fox’s comments on race on BBC Question Time earlier this year. Fox rejected assertions by Rachel Boyle, a university researcher on race and ethnicity, that the media’s behaviour towards the Duchess of Sussex was racist.

Fox said: “It’s so easy to just throw your charge of racism at everybody and it’ s starting to get boring now.” Fox responded angrily to Boyle, claiming he was “a white privileged male who has no experience in this”, accusing her of being racist against white people. He threw up his hands, asking what he was supposed to do about the fact that he was a white male. Here’s a suggestion. Educate yourself.

Before I go any further, let me hold my hand up. I have benefited from enormous privilege. I was born to middle class parents, both professionals. My father had many rich and famous friends (though we were neither). We were all university educated, stretching back centuries. I had a stable, relatively well-off, aspiration-packed childhood.

It took a career in the voluntary sector for me to recognise my own privilege, learn about the lives of others and see how lucky I am. Not everyone has the good fortune and learning opportunities that working in the voluntary sector brings. But it takes very little effort to find out what disadvantage is, how it affects people and how having privilege can distort the way we look at the world.

Many of us in the sector are debating how we combat the rise of populism. I recently looked up the definition of the term populism: “A political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups”.

Look at the second part of the definition – ordinary people who feel they matter less than elite groups – and compare it with the comments of ordinary people who share Fox’s views. It’s not long before you find people who feel ‘minorities’ matter more than them, that ‘minorities’ are the ‘elite’, getting more resources and attention. The fact this isn’t true doesn’t matter. They feel it so to them it is true.

When they speak up, they face fury from those who believe we live in an unequal society where those who aren’t white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied have to struggle constantly. High emotion, aggression and personal insults are hurled by both sides. So much heat. So much anger. So very little light.

And let’s not fool ourselves. People who feel disadvantaged by the push to a progressive society are everywhere. They may be in your organisation right now, not speaking up for fear of getting knocked down. What is all this arguing achieving beyond deepening the divisions between us?

Here’s a radical idea. Why don’t we stop arguing and start listening? To be clear, I am in no way apologising for, or justifying anyone who espouses racist, misogynistic or any other kind of views that disadvantage others. But if we are to win over those who are hurting, we need first to understand where they are coming from, help them feel valued, and take the wind out of populism’s sails.

Getting angry or shouting at those who espouse views that make us squirm and fume won’t make them change their minds. Showing tolerance and compassion towards them might. They will not expect it. And it will show them there is another way, a better way. For those on the progressive side, it accords with the values we espouse and hold dear: Tolerance. Compassion. Fairness. We can genuinely be the change we want to see.

I’ll end with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi: “Decency and tolerance, to be of any value, must be capable of withstanding the severest strain. Tolerance is the only thing that will enable live as good neighbours and friends.”

Srabani Sen is the CEO and founder of Full Colour.

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