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The Legacy of Empire and Systematic Racism in the UK, is the UK in Denial that Racism Exists? – Places in the Sun

The Legacy of Empire and Systematic Racism in the UK, is the UK in Denial that Racism Exists?

by Kim Holmes

Credit photo from James Eades on Unsplash

Racism is rife where politics, poverty, and miseducation reside. The United Kingdom formed of England, Scotland and Wales is notorious for claims of progression related to being a “successful multi-ethnic and multicultural[i]” country, faces challenges towards these claims in several areas of UK life. This chapter will tackle the premise that the UK is in denial that racism exists due to Constructivist ideology and components of Realism. The argument will analyse experiences presented through systematic racism embedded in the workplace, in UK education, and policies implemented. These departments will be emphasised through media articles and journals, as well as experiences found through primary research methods like surveys and author-based incidents. This chapter aims to scrutinise the UK for the common practice of racism, discrimination, and prejudice within institutions and the media. Key concepts entail tokenism, modern racism, racism in IR theory that directly correlates and could explain the hidden existence of racism. This chapter will invite you to look at evidence that suggests that racism exists in institutions like the police, education, and the workplace relating to policy. Structurally, the chapter will begin with a literature review surrounding the opinions of racism in the UK as well as emphasising theories like tokenism and critical race theory. Then, anecdotes from experience are used to give a primary research glimpse of real events that have happened, because of racism in the UK. I am a recent Masters graduate, that came to the UK in 2005 from Zimbabwe. I am of mixed Black-African decent and currently reside in Surrey. I have been studying politics and International Relations to grasp the ideologies of the world and those in power and decision-making roles. The Guardian mainly will be used to show news reporting of these incidents, and opinions and various other news forums and polls to show for valid research behind the hypothesis that the UK is in denial that racism exists; it is something that needs to end, however would only begin once it is accepted as part of daily life in the UK.

Is the UK in denial that racism exists within its institutions?

The issue of racism has plagued and infected all corners of the world. In journals, media, and throughout history there have been many challenges towards racism and the problems that come from it. The UK is known for taking pride in being one of the most diverse and multi-ethnic countries in the world, and it can be agreed that it is diverse and is home to many ethnicities. But it is no secret that “racial tensions” in mostly “north-west towns – Oldham, Burnley, Rochdale and Blackburn” (all of which show to have elevated levels of “internal ethnic segregation”) triggers a speculation that racism is still prevalent in the UK[ii]. The theory of racism and the psychology behind it hold many experiences that haunt the past, mark the present, and impact the future. For the UK, the legacy of its empire that stretched over 300 years from the 1600s has seen many revolutionary changes, but old practices remain, as a result of slavery and competition which can be seen in immigration laws, education, and the workplace. This review of the literature involved in debating or speaking on racism will highlight and identify theories related to controversial media coverage on acts of racism. Additionally, this review will form the basis of the methods used to seek out modern racism in contemporary UK society.

Jacqueline Nelson posits that the “denial of racism, in varied forms, is a key feature of modern racism[iii]”. Also, within this review, racist events and challenges towards their existence will be portrayed in three dimensions : (1)work, (2) education and, (3)politics shown in the media, and particular coverage on global crisis events like COVID-19 that underscore racial inequalities. Ultimately, the existence of racism will be explored, with an area for resolve if practiced and made by law that could cure the alarms of it. Acts like the Race Relation Act 1965 which addresses “the prohibition of racial discrimination and followed previously unsuccessful bills. The Act banned racial discrimination in public places and made the promotion of hatred on the grounds of ‘colour, race, or ethnic or national origins’ an offence ” do not hold weight in law as the UK Government proport the denial of racisms existence and so this law seemingly is not practiced due to the high volume of racist performances in the UK.

Critical Race Theory (CRT) ‘draws from and extends a broad literature base in law, sociology, history, ethnic studies, and women’s studies[iv]’. Daniel Solorzano, Miguel Ceja, and Tara Yosso (2000) maintain a good, descriptive account of CRT by explaining its five elements focusing on: “(a) the centrality of race and racism and their intersectionality with other forms of subordination, (b) the challenge to the dominant ideology, (c) the commitment to social justice, (d) the centrality of experiential knowledge, and (e) the transdisciplinary perspective”. (pg. 63). Interestingly, CRT creates the idea that racism is “normal” for people of colour, in that it is the way American culture was intentionally structured. The intersectionality of this theory posits that no person has a single unitary identity, and it is assumed that anti-racist movements tend to make progress when it is in the best interest of those in positions of power, not due to moral persuasion. Ultimately, CRT holds that positions of power and movements are not “anti-white”, much rather, it recognises that white voices have dominated the discourse, and centring the voices of ‘persons of colour’ disrupts the practice of white supremacy. Errol Henderson 2013 gives a satisfactory account for the centrality of white supremacism in IR theory and maintains that “social contract theses that are often cast as ‘race-neutral’ suggest one type of relations for white people and their institutions and states and another for non-white people and their institutions.[v]”. To speak on history, Henderson 2013 highlights that during the “late nineteenth and early twentieth-century IR theorists built on racial dualism as they built their conception of a global anarchy and the role of ‘civilized’ whites in providing, maintaining and ensuring order within it by means of a system of international power relations among whites – or, at a minimum, dominated by whites: and a system of colonial subjugation for non-whites” (Henderson 2013 pg.88). As a result, it is no surprise that practices and biases formed for white supremacy continue into modern times, which is reflected as modern racism.

Additionally, an account of this can be witnessed through the horrors of slavery being a key factor towards racism in today’s global arena. Empirical evidence that suggests modern racism, and the UK’s denial of it, can be shown through the theory of tokenism. Niemann 2012 investigates the theory of tokenism. Relating to institutes with employees of ethnic minorities, tokenism can lead to “stereotype threat [vi]”. Belonging to a minority where there is a stigma can influence detrimental effects, especially within the workplace, as non-whites internalise negative views that can lead to significant actions. Despite Niemann creating this autobiography, we must comprehend the dangers of the existence of such theories present in the UK. Niemann offers a decent anecdotal narrative, and this is apposite when attempting to understand the racial injustice that occurs in the workplace when it comes to employment. As a result, tokenism is suggested as a question and an element for investigation when seeking evidence behind racism in the workplace in the UK.

Moreover, relating to tokenism, the topic of ethnic pay gaps in the UK also stimulates the conversation of racism being overt, however denied of its existence. Longhi and Brynin 2017 state that “there is the clear expectancy that immigration affects pay[vii]” , and it is “expected that ethnic minorities are paid less on average than white people”. This is in conjunction with Salehyan 2008 as they further promote the consequences of refugee movement under refugees and immigrants being a source of conflict, in this case, modern racism. Saleyhan specifies that “refugee flows between states significantly increase the likelihood of militarized interstate disputes[viii]”. Significantly, Saleyhan allows for an appreciation of how having a high percentage of immigrants can form prejudice, discrimination, and ultimately racism due to immigration laws in the UK. Further to this, the Office for National Statistics highlights research that suggests “on average, employees from the Bangladeshi ethnic group earned 20.2% less than White British employee’s[ix]” in 2018. Therefore, a clear pay gap based on ethnicity is acknowledged and persists in UK society -ultimately emphasising that racism exists in institutions. It also sparks the question of ‘what is being done about these statistics?’


Several articles from newspapers, mainly the Guardian and the BBC news, are saturated with headlines related to racism in the UK. For this chapter, articles from the Guardian represent a right-wing attitude for news reporting. This would give an idea of what the ‘public perception’ is on this topic, and the government’s thoughts as the UK is currently a Conservative (Tory) government. In addition, personal experiences with quotes will also be used within the methods of this chapter’s research question. This is to provide some primary evidence of racism existing or not existing in the UK.

A 2020 Guardian article reads that “British people believe their empire to have been a force for good in the world, or at the very least did nothing to be ashamed of[x]”, additionally revealing that the “true impact of colonialism is still widely misunderstood within the British psyche”. In understanding, many Brits may feel that racism does not exist, but the impact of colonialism is an ongoing theme when you hear popular remarks like “go back to your country[xi]” being told unto immigrants. To support the hypothesis that racism exists in the UK, the Guardian also reports that “racism is always the easiest excuse for everyone[xii]”. This lack of respect or a lack of creativity when in an emotional state is what leads to easy excuses like racism. An empirical example can be seen in the following anecdote:

I was working in Ladbrokes (betting shop) in Leicestershire, it was 9 pm on a Thursday. A man of white ethnicity walked in and started to shout at my manager. I asked politely if he could stop shouting as she is doing her best to help, that’s when his anger turned to me, he proceeded to tell me ‘Shut your mouth you little n****’, this moment is forged in my memory” — author story.

This experience held many emotions during and after, three years later it remains. The shellshock of hearing the derogatory term that was coined during the slavery and colonial-era had suddenly taken over my body. This was something I thought to be unimaginable, something you only see happen in the media. These are occurrences that a lot of immigrants and non-white people have to be subject to and victim to, resulting in the Guardian article proving valid because “racism is always the easiest excuse for everyone”. Experiences like this cement the fact that racism in the UK exists and it sees no end unless people become educated on the topic and develop a sense of morality.

Racism in the workplace and policy:

Racism in workplaces has seen an exponential rise especially during the current global crisis that is COVID-19. The Guardian 2020 exemplifies BAME (Black, Asian, and minority ethnics) communities portrayed as martyrs when investigating policies held for front line workers in the NHS. A compelling story is seen in the case of Dr. Abdul Mabud Chowdhury, a consultant urologist at Homerton hospital who died from contracting the virus. Dr. Chowdhury’s son, Intisar Chowdhury gives a powerful account of the horrors the virus poses to NHS workers and underscores that staff within the NHS “…should not have to go as martyrs…they did not sign up to battle on the frontline and give up their lives” (Marsh and Mcintyre 2020).

A dissertation I proposed[xiii] showed how racism plays an integral part when it is related to the policy domain. Public Health England ingeniously put from a data review that stakeholders “highlighted the high proportion of BAME groups that were key workers and in occupations that placed them at risk by increasing the likelihood of social contact and increasing the risk of being exposed to those infected with COVID-19[xiv]”. Consequently, Public Health England emphasised that there is a “legal duty and moral responsibility to reduce inequalities”. To this chapter, the Guardian and PHE as a case study stimulates the arguments that racism for immigrants is not as undercover as the government attempts to portray with their too-late policies and afterthoughts for people of other ethnicities, that is not white. This is strikingly interesting as the NHS is an institution that affects the whole of the UK, but despite its necessity in society, the inequalities have shown harm BAME communities.

“I witnessed my manager (of Asian descent) at a GP practice being told to ‘go back to your country as she was trying to tell a patient that we cannot help with dental provisions as GP’s do not cover this, the patient proceeded to be violent towards her by snatching the phone away from her when she attempted to call the police as he refused to leave and maintained his aggression” — author story

This experience was not the only incident within the NHS and GP practice that I both experienced and witnessed racism. There is not enough help for victims of such behaviours, nor do these workplaces do enough to tackle the issue of racism from the public. Thusly, it says a lot about the ones in power of making policies, as this is something that happens continuously and remains unchecked. Fuelling the idea that racism is hidden in plain sight, and still, the UK government and media deny its existence in this ‘multi-ethnic’, ‘multicultural society’.

Racism in different institutions

Anushka Asthana 2020 reported that “People are more likely to say that racism has got worse or stayed the same during their lifetimes than it has become less common”. This was reflected in a poll that paints a “bleak picture of discrimination in the UK”. Interestingly, the study that was used for the poll revealed that “almost two-thirds of the population think there is a ‘fair amount’ or ‘a great deal of racism in the British society”, but people of black descent are twice as much seen to say the problem is widespread, then white respondents. Asthana 2020 also highlights that those exchanges of personal experiences showed “large numbers of black, Asian and other minority-ethnic people reported incidents of racial abuse – both verbal and physical – with many experiencing attacks regularly” (Asthana 2020).

Also, Matt Singh 2020 draws to an ITV programme Stephen Lawrence: Has Britain changed? , which conducted a poll on 3000+ UK adults looking at experiences of, and attitudes towards racism in Britain. The poll used 1502 subsamples of ethnic minority respondents, which was weighted independently of white subsamples. The poll shows a sufficient size of the black subsample (405 unweighted) representing the perspective and views of the UK’s black community with “a statistical margin of error of +5points[xv]”.

The ethnic minority respondent poll emphasised that most respondents believe and perceive there to be a culture of racism in the Police force. The 65+ age group presented the highest scoring for this belief, and this can reflect life experiences impacting their decision. With more years of age, comes more experience and the witnessing of racism. This alongside people of black ethnicity scoring the highest for this belief.

The poll also features ethnic minority and white respondent’s responses to the question “please say whether or not you think it has a culture of racism (the education system[xvi])” ,which scored 393 respondents from differing ethnic groups (black, mixed, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Chinese, Other Asian and other), responding that racism does exist within the education system (schools) in the UK. To support this, David Batty and Nazia Parveen 2021 from the Guardian reported that “UK schools record more than 60,000 racist incidents in five years[xvii]”. Further to this, the “freedom of information (FOI) requests sent to 201 councils and about a fifth of England’s multi-academy trusts uncovered a total of 60,177 racist incidents being defined as any situation perceived to be racist by the alleged victim or any other person, including unintentional racism” (Batty and Parveen 2021).

Overall, the poll reveals British attitudes from both white and ethnic minorities, expressing that systematic racism is prevalent and is increasing in the UK. This is an alarming poll that was shown on ITV and should be a benchmark for the UK to see that despite politics speaking of its non-existence, racism does exist.

Can the UK end the perpetuation of Racism?

In summary, this chapter has illustrated that reform in UK society is needed when tackling the issue of racism. The effects of racism remain deeply felt by BAME groups. This translates on into how this community appropriates itself in the UK and has detrimental effects when practiced in institutions like work, education, and the justice system. This chapter has succeeded in showing public perception of the increase or prevalence of racism in the country, whilst underscoring the many article headlines from the Guardian that present notions that racism exists; and crucially that the government’s denial of it appears to be too optimistic, compared to the reality of what occurs –with no formal consequences. Critical race theory poses threat to the how Racism is actioned upon as it presents the idea that racism is ‘normal’ in being felt by people of colour. This sense of normality is what gives room for racism to grow, because if the public perceives that it is normal, then the actions which include discrimination and prejudice are seen as normal, and that makes it acceptable for BAME groups to experience them. This danger is something that needs to be given clarity too, as confusion about this can lead to more violations of basic human rights within a society; specifically, when they are under a social contract which binds security to citizens. Nonetheless, tokenism should be spoken more on, as workplaces maintain a percentage of black or other ethnicities, mainly in corporate jobs. This is inequality at its peak in the workplace. Ultimately, an awareness of the existence of racism in the UK would begin to help stop its progression once it is accepted as a part of daily life. As a resolution, the UK Government should stop stating that the racism is not an occurrence of British society, as this dilutes the topic and reduces it to something personal to a few citizens. Rather, the Government should highlight and emphasise the issue that is frequent in the media and felt in multi-ethnic communities, by having difficult conversations that can help mediate the issues and let people who feel the effects of racism have more say and contribution as to how to make equality a permeant part of society. The Race Relations Act 1965 is not sufficient in today’s society, and it is not protecting citizens. As an ending point, racism can only be stopped if there are strict laws in place for perpetrators, and more engagement with victims. Racism can be reduced to a lack of education, empathy, ignorance, and insecurity that is apparent in all those that make these attacks on people. These should no longer be reasons for racism to be seen as acceptable.

[i] Tapsfield, James, and Jack Maidment. 2021. “Landmark Report Urges UK To ‘Look Beyond Race’ Amid Row”. Mail Online. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9422587/Landmark-report-urges-UK-look-race-amid-row.html. [ii] Katwala, Sunder. 2001. “The Truth Of Multicultural Britain”. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2001/nov/25/race.world4. [iii] Nelson, Jacqueline K. “Denial of Racism and Its Implications for Local Action.” Discourse & Society 24, no. 1 (2013): 89-109. Accessed April 29, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24441659. [iv] Solorzano, Daniel, Miguel Ceja, and Tara Yosso. “Critical Race Theory, Racial Microaggressions, and Campus Racial Climate: The Experiences of African American College Students.” The Journal of Negro Education 69, no. 1/2 (2000): 60-73. Accessed April 29, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2696265. [v] Henderson, Errol A. 2013. “Hidden In Plain Sight: Racism In International Relations Theory”. Cambridge Review Of International Affairs 26 (1): 71-92. doi:10.1080/09557571.2012.710585. [vi] Niemann, Yolanda Flores. “The Making of a Token: A Case Study of Stereotype Threat, Stigma, Racism, and Tokenism in Academe.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 20, no. 1 (1999): 111-34. Accessed April 29, 2021. doi:10.2307/3346994. [vii] Longhi, Simonetta, and Malcolm Brynin. 2017. The Ethnicity Pay Gap. Ebook. Equality and Human Rights Commission. https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/sites/default/files/research-report-108-the-ethnicity-pay-gap.pdf. [viii] Salehyan, Idean. “The Externalities of Civil Strife: Refugees as a Source of International Conflict.” American Journal of Political Science 52, no. 4 (2008): 787-801. Accessed April 29, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25193850. [ix] “Ethnicity Pay Gaps In Great Britain – Office For National Statistics”. 2019. Ons.Gov.Uk. https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/earningsandworkinghours/articles/ethnicitypaygapsingreatbritain/2018#:~:text=In%202018%2C%20on%20average%2C%20employees,less%20than%20White%20British%20employees. [x] Shillington, Kevin, Frances Rehal, and James Griffiths. 2020. “The Uncomfortable Truth About Britain’S Imperial Legacy | Letters”. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/12/the-uncomfortable-truth-about-britains-imperial-legacy. [xi] Berry, Darragh, and Mark Corcoran. 2021. “Woman Tells Boy, 9, ‘Go Back To Your Country’ In Vile Racist Rant On Bus”. Mirror. https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/woman-tells-boy-9-go-23271556. [xii] Booth, Robert. 2019. “‘Always The Easiest Excuse’: Is Racism Rising In The UK’s Most Diverse Area?”. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/may/20/always-the-easiest-excuse-is-racism-rising-in-the-uks-most-diverse-area-dollis-hill. [xiii] Holmes, Kim. 2020. “An Analysis Of COVID-19 Policy On BAME Communities And Medical Professionals”. Postgraduate Masters, University of Surrey. [xiv] Beyond the data: Understanding the impact of COVID-19 on BAME groups, 2020 pg.6 [xv] Singh, Matt. 2020. “Stephen Lawrence: Has Britain Changed? – Number Cruncher Politics”. Number Cruncher Politics. https://www.ncpolitics.uk/2020/07/stephen-lawrence-has-britain-changed/. [xvi] ITV Has Britain Changed Poll (Ethnic Minority Respondents). 2020. Ebook. Number Crunching Politics. https://www.ncpolitics.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2020/07/itv-has-britain-changed-tabs-ethnic-minority.pdf. [xvii] Batty, David, and Nazia Parveen. 2021. “UK Schools Record More Than 60,000 Racist Incidents In Five Years”. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/mar/28/uk-schools-record-more-than-60000-racist-incidents-five-years.

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