I recently attended a Q&A session with British writer and diversity activist Nikesh Shukla at The Edge. It was set up as part of the University and Student Union’s #NeverOK campaign and focused on racial discrimination.
People often think that acts of racism are proactive and direct – such as using offensive language or putting up signs that segregate people with different ethnic backgrounds. However, as Nikesh pointed out, it isn’t always as clear and distinguishable as that.
There are subtle forms of racism both institutionally and in everyday life. It may involve the simple act of questioning people’s identities or verbally targeting a particular group. Racism may also occur in the form of disrespecting or excluding a person from an ethnic minority group. Nikesh recalled an example of racial targeting from a personal experience. While at a railway station, a stranger calmly approached the writer and told him he wasn’t English. He was then asked where he got his money from. The general tone of the conversation seemed innocent, however the manner in which the random individual spoke made Nikesh very uncomfortable. This qualified the incident to be a racially abusive one. Upon telling the train guard what had happened, Nikesh was dismissed with “It’s your word against his”.
The issue of institutional racism was raised many times in the session. According to the writer, a big part of the problem is the fact that cultural institutions are predominantly white. The publishing industry, for instance, is notorious for institutionalised racism. Nikesh’s book Diversity was rejected by one publisher because they did not view it as being “authentically Asian” and claimed that “there isn’t anything that readers would identify as being Asian”. This raises many important questions: Are ethnic representations only going to be worthy to the public if they conform to stereotypes that already exist? Is censorship so well-hidden that we are unable to recognise it? Are we brainwashed into believing that we are equipped with all the knowledge needed to stop racism?
The ‘myth of meritocracy’ also surfaced in the conversation. Internships offered by journal companies are sometimes intentionally or unintentionally biased based on financial means, skin colour or cultural capital. People who are able to do unpaid work in cities like London have equal opportunity against one another in the selection process because they can afford high transport costs. But for those who aren’t in such fortunate positions, such unpaid opportunities are inaccessible. This boils down to the cultural and economic capital they are endowed with. As Nikesh said, companies should “advertise internships in ways that are equitable for everyone” – not just the wealthy and white but everyone.
The primary inspiration for this article were two simple questions raised in the session: Why do some people feel compelled towards racist behaviour? And, how good are we at identifying even the subtlest form of racism?
Like the rest of the audience, I was left with a whole lot of thinking to do.