On the idea of “calling out racism when you see it” and why it doesn’t always work

5:43 pm - April 29th 2014

by Sunny Hundal    

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The rallying cry that “we should call out racism when we see it” is an easy one to make on the Left.

It is up there with “Tories are heartless, evil bastards” and “we should set up a political party that really represents the working class” – in making us feel all fuzzy and perhaps even mobilised to take on the world. Especially when these days you can call out racism with just an ill-tempered and carefully worded tweet. Doing it when Nigel Farage is on BBC Question Time gets you bonus retweets.

But there are several problems with this cry, especially defining what exactly constitutes racism. Furthermore, such accusations don’t always help those its intended to.

You may think this is semantics and tactics, but its not. It has real impact.

A few years ago I was invited to a round-table on the imminent launch of British Future, and a group of American campaigners on immigration had come over. They issued a stark warning: “Most of what we’ve been saying about immigration for the last 40 years has backfired, and not worked for us.”

They explained that the pro-immigration lobby had spent millions of dollars and years of campaigning to defend immigration, but had failed until recently. I wrote earlier about what they said.

For many on the Left this sounds like ‘playing politics’ than taking a ‘principled position’. This sort of knee-jerk thinking has infected our thinking, with little regard for outcomes or whether the rhetoric helps the very people it is meant to.

I’ve already explained why calling all of UKIP racist isn’t just futile but also counter-productive. That doesn’t mean we ignore specific incidents.

I have two simple rules on race-related controversies:
1) Does being outraged over it help the cause? If not, its just empty posturing.

2) Criticise the action itself as ‘racist’ (if and when it happens) rather than offering up blanket accusations of racism.

This is the definitive word on talking about racism. HEED IT

In summary: if someone is saying “we should call out racism when we see it and anyone who disagrees with is an apologist” – we should ask them if they’re doing it to actually help victims of racism, or just make themselves feel better.

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Reader comments

1. Sunder Katwala


We should call out racism when we see it. AndI don’t see why that is incompatible with the argument that it is counterproductive to call UKIP a racist party. There is a majority against racism in our country: we should extend and deepen that. So I think you risk conceding rather too much here, in being concerned about efficacy.

So where we hear racist comments, such as from UKIP council candidates, saying Ed Miliband isn’t British and Lenny Henry should return to a black country – it is important to uphold the values of keeping racism out of our public debate.

UKIP do have to suspend these racists, and the media and the other parties call on them to do so. We never do that for the BNP: there is no point in asking Nick Griffin to chuck out racists from a racist party. Nigel Farage needs to do that to uphold Ukip’s reputation as a mainstream party. He has been slow to clean up the act, as he said he would, and it is a test of his leadership and credibility that he does so.

There is absolutely no problem or political dilemma whatsoever with challenging racist claims which most people perceive as racist.

Any dilemma arises when charges of racism or prejudice are levelled in cases that are open to dispute, and especially where most people think the charge is OTT or unfair.

Calling UKIP a ‘racist party’ seems to me both unfair and counterproductive. The party was created to get out of Europe. Opposing EU free movement is legitimate too. There are acceptable and toxic ways to pursue these arguments.

Calling Ukip racist may cheer up some of those who would never dream of supporting Nigel Farage’s party. But if the blanket charge is used so loosely by opponents that it’s seen as an unfair smear, it is likely to alienate, rather than persuade back, those who are thinking about voting Ukip. But that problem does not arise with examples of racist speech.

Three-quarters of people find racism unacceptable. That is why three-quarters of people said they would never vote for the BNP. UKIP has a very different reputation with the public. The 2009 exit poll shows this clearly. Pretending that UKIP are the BNP or worse isn’t credible

That evidence showed that most Ukip voters are not racist: Ukip voters accept, for example, that non-whites are as British as white Britons by a 3:1 margin (and the politicians are more mainstream than the voters). Most UKIP voters do find the pace of change in Britain in recent years unsettling. They have rejectionist ‘close the border’ views on immigration. Calling these views ‘racist’ is not probably the best way to challenge them.

A significant number of people both oppose racism but also find the argument that there have been some examples where
charges of racism have sometimes been used too loosely, too quickly, and too often to close down debate about immigration; or to address issues (for example FGM) where human rights abuses affect minorities communities.

Showing that isn’t true is an important part of securing majority support for keeping prejudice out of the public debate. So any dilemmas arise where a liberal minority sees something as prejudiced, but most people don’t agree (this is the case with UKIP’s posters, where scaremongering seems to me a better challenge), or where one is hoping to persuade those with very anxious views to help to uphold norms against prejudice.

There is a debate to be had about withdrawing from the UK (although frankly not a very sensible debate as I’m yet to hear a good argument for it). Nevertheless I appreciate its a debate that many in the public want to have. There is a separately debate about how a mainstream party should handle itself in an election. UKIP haven’t been behaving like a responsible party.

The reality is that: –
1. There are a lot of Eastern European living in the UK. Often their accents mark them out as being different
2. There is a perception that “they are taking our jobs”. However obviously the reality is a bit more complex (“lump of labour” etc).

… so essentially the UKIP campaign is paying on negative associating with a ethnic group. I struggle to see how that is so substantially different from any other form of racism. So essentially they are running a very ugly and divisive and yes racist campaign.

Also I worry that not combating this element of racism will only embolden ugly elements in society. Sunder is probably right when he say “Three-quarters of people find racism unacceptable” (although it obviously raises big questions about the other quarter). However those number are not fixed as people’s view change. If we start saying that some racism is okay then I’m pretty sure those numbers will change.

Obviously we might be able to pretend that this racism isn’t racism (to avoid labeling people and making them worse racists). However I don’t think changing the scope of racism (so it only covers ethnic groups as long as they are not Eastern Europeans) will long term be an effective strategy.

Once we allow bigotry into the debate is will simply spread like a cancer, if left unchecked. Pretty soon it won’t be limited to anger at Eastern Europeans. Farage himself has already started talking about parts of Britain feeling like a foreign land – with reference to London. (Remember Farage is a pretty polished media operator). I’m pretty sure the people hearing that message weren’t all just thinking “he means those Eastern Europeans”

UKIP are a essentially dangerous far right group. They have been clever enough to position themselves as “non-racists” (and have a few show trial when a member goes “too far”). But a quick scratch beneath the surface shows they are just another new far right party with clever tactics to hide there ugly core views. Allowing them to get away with the pretence that this isn’t racism is both dangerous and negligent.


In summary: if someone is saying “we should call out racism when we see it and anyone who disagrees with is an apologist” – we should ask them if they’re doing it to actually help victims of racism, or just make themselves feel better.

…and don’t be surprised if you then get accused of being an ‘apologist’ for of not caring as much as they they do.

I hear you, but I don’t necessarily feel any better for *not* getting outraged by every single example of Ukip stupidity, and often think ‘obvious idiot is obvious’ instead. Perhaps it’s a question of which battles to pick and which tactics to fight them (and I also agree with another part of the video: it isn’t about reductive strategies like ‘blaming hip hop’ either).

Hi, Sunny. I quite enjoyed the video that you included in your OP. It would have hit me harder had the presenter spoke in a brummy or scouse or whatever UK accent, but it worked.

@1 Sunder Katwala wrote: “He [Farage] has been slow to clean up the act, as he said he would, and it is a test of his leadership and credibility that he does so.”

Which is a reasonable comment. If Ukip wishes to be accepted as a mainstream political party, it has to live up to its non-racist claims. That means we need to rethink too.

If Ukip ejects a member because s/he intentionally wrote something that is racially offensive, we should welcome the event silently. Political parties, all of them, boot out unpleasant members. It is not solely a Ukip problem.

Ukip attracts nutters with fantabulous websites describing historic events. It is probable that somebody close to you has similar beliefs.

You are one friend connection away from someone who believes something that is bonkers and hilariously funny. If you don’t comprehend that *one* of your friends is strange, it is likely that you do not have *any* friends.


I don’t think we can stop a racist ‘being’ or thinking like a racist, merely by calling him a ‘racist’ anymore than we can find a killer graph to convince a climate change denier the error of their ways either.

However, over the last thirty years or so we have seen a change in behaviour due to pressure of decent people pushing progressive agenda.

In the mid 80s’ you could have went to any football ground in the Country and you would have seen every black footballer on the pitch monkey chanted at every touch of the ball. you never hear or see that now in England. When you see it in Europe you cringe in sheer embarrassment.

That is not because no one in England is racist, but because there are consequences to monkey chanting and racist name calling.

We have to accept that there are a significant amount of people who occupy this Country who will never stop being racist/sexist/homophobic or whatever and we waste our time by trying to change their viewpoint on anything. these people are scum and they are not going to change. What we must do is try to convince otherwise decent people not to tolerate this behaviour and language.

I wonder how many people used to tolerate the banana throwing dickhead on the supporters bus were galvanised by those early campaigns of 1983?

So, yes, don’t label everything as racist, my mother uses the term ‘coloured’ because in her day that was the polite term for example but overt ‘dickheadedness’ needs to be challenged. My father used the term used the ‘darkie’, ‘paki’ or ‘chink’ to describe ethnic minorities depending on their appearance. To my father there were exactly three non white groups.

The trick is I could distinguish between my mother’s awkward stumblings and my fathers outright rudeness.

Sunny, I’m posting this here because I have no other way of contacting you and it seems relevant to this post. It’s a very long comment I made in response to an entry on the London Young Greens site about an event you attended along with Owen Jones on April 6th (http://londonyounggreens.wordpress.com/2014/04/13/we-all-benefit-from-living-in-a-mobile-world-racism-on-the-rise-event-6th-april/). I posted it several days ago but my comment is still “awaiting moderation”. In an effort to get a response I emailed it to Jean Lambert who passed it on to Violeta Vadja at my request. Violeta gave me a rather disappointing response but she did at least respond which is more than Jean Lambert did. I wondered if you would be willing to give be some feedback:
“At the risk of offending quite a few people I’m going to do what Violeta Vajda suggests and get my message out of my head and into the open. It is based my own experiences and largely on what I have seen in Greenford, in the London Borough of Ealing where I’ve lived since 1991. Immigration has undoubtedly had an impact since I moved there from central London. I think Owen Jones has a point about a lack of resources but feel that Sunny Hundal is correct in his belief that cultural differences are also significant. My personal opinion is that the UK can probably absorb many more immigrants, it’s how they behave when they get here that matters.

The borough has been home to many people who were either Polish or of Polish descent since World War 2 because they served at RAF Northolt. So it wasn’t surprising that they came to Ealing once they were allowed to and although there were a great many more than we had expected no one I spoke to had any problems with it. A local business man told me that he felt there have been two waves of economic migrants from Poland, the first were the hardworking, positive and slightly old fashioned ones who made such good neighbours while they were here. Even though they were living crammed into expensive rented accommodation they put their rubbish/recycling out for collection on the right days and smoked on the doorstep because the landlord told them to. They brought vivacity to a rather staid and sedate neighbourhood. He felt that many of them went home after a few years, having made some money, and their example encouraged the less motivated, less desirable second wave to come to the UK. I had been telling him about the two men I had noticed, skinheads wearing identical jackets displaying their football team colours, and several others who I had found threatening a Sri Lankan shopkeeper. On another occasion I heard one of them tell a man of Asian descent who is as British as I am that in his country they knew “how to deal with people like you”. I hope Polish ambassador Witold Sobkow is right when he says of returning Polish migrants “They do not just bring savings when they come back, they bring tolerance.”(http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/witold-sobkow-poles-in-britain-learn-that-people-from-different-races-can-live-together-9273558.html)

There has always been some graffiti around, mostly tags which are quickly removed, but over the last three years a prolific “artist” has made his presence felt. All his efforts reference Polish culture and cannabis which is now used openly and seems to be easily available. No one would have had anything to say about it had those using or selling it been discreet but it was more than many local residents could stand to have to walk through clouds of it where it was being smoked or to see a dealer sauntering about with impunity.

Intoxication of another kind has also become a problem. At first it was quite amusing to see Polish workmen walk home in the evening with cans of beer in their hands, at the end of a day’s hard work. Several years later it is not funny to see Polish beer cans discarded absolutely everywhere in Greenford, in fact it characterises the area according to London based blogger Diamond Geezer. I came across a tree next to the river Brent which had been embellished with carrier bags filled with empty cans and every open space with a bench is surrounded by cans, both bagged up and strewn around. One evening I found a Polish woman in tears outside her home, waiting for a friend to arrive and rescue her cat from the house she shared with an alcoholic. He appeared to have a dual diagnosis of alcohol addiction and PTSD. She was distraught and launched unprompted into a rant about the street drinkers she felt were influencing the opinion local residents had about Polish immigrants in general. It made me wonder what a Freedom of Information request would reveal as to the number of Polish migrants being treated by the NHS for alcohol and other addictions.

It is the impact on the environment and local heritage that particularly concerns me. High rents have led some immigrants to squat empty properties and this has had some appalling consequences. Two closed pubs, both listed buildings, burned down after being used in this way. A house is now the subject of a murder investigation after one squatter was found dead there. It was one of the few properties left with all its period details, until its new unofficial residents arrived and they began to “improve” it. Those who take advantage of high rents and convert properties to HMOs, often building outhouses in the back garden to maximise profits, have caused the worst problems in Greenford. Most of these properties are occupied by people with no personal investment in the area or even in the country. It is common to see mounds of black bin bags outside them which irks residents in a borough that has become accustomed to recycling. No one ever mentions just how much sending it all to landfill must be costing the borough or the environment. Buy to let landlords often dump mattresses – fly tipping is another common sight in Greenford.

I am desperately worried about the increase in run off and not just because of the buy to let phenomenon. I have noticed a tendency among households of Asian origin to pave over front and back gardens, and replace hedges with walls that are often much higher. This has the effect Of shutting off neighbours from each other and it is now common for householders to park up close to their front door. They never walk down their own streets. Apart from causing the area to look sterile and unattractive these measures exacerbate the vibrations from passing traffic. I tried to find any environmental organisation addressing this issue in the hope that there has been some attempt to turn the tide but no one wants to talk about it. Ealing’s green waste charge hasn’t helped.

I am the child of economic migrants, Scots and Portuguese, and I think what has changed since my experience of living in an immigrant community is that new arrivals are more confident about their own identity. I was astonished when I discovered how many Portuguese lived in the UK ten years ago. It seemed almost invisible, in part because it stayed behind the front door. If you visited a Portuguese household there would be little evidence of it from the outside. Once inside it was Amalia Rodrigues, bacalhau and vinho verde. It took years for Portuguese migrants to decide to stay in the UK and open cafes because the plan was usually to earn enough to build a dream retirement home in Portugal. With Poles, these ventures appeared almost immediately. I’m not saying that this was a bad thing.

To Violeta Vajda I would say that Greenford’s residents have tried to be welcoming and open minded about the new arrivals but if your only experience of encountering a Bulgarian is the man who kicks in your front door in an attempt to rob you or, in the case of a Roma woman, the person you see trying to convince a pensioner that they are buying solid gold rather than metalised plastic then it is hard to retain a balanced opinion. I suspect the reason local people have not reported the Roma woman selling back issues rather than new copies of the Big Issue is that they feel sorry for her and admire the initiative of whoever is organising it. I think we would all like to find a way to help her out of her situation but don’t know how to. We have done our best to think the best but, given what I have told you at some length, it is difficult.”

I can assure you that the majority of working class UKIP voters are indeed racist, and were before UKIP even emerged as an electoral force. The reason they appeal is because they voice the fears of the people they are trying to appeal to. And they talk directly to working class people, you know, like the other parties don’t. Tip toeing around calling racist people racist is not going to help either. They aren’t listening to us, they don’t read your blog or the guardian, or even the mirror. Here’s a tip: why don’t you stop addressing other middle class socialists who agree with you and actually get out there and meet some real working class people if that’s not too scary.

Sunny Hundal you are unecuated oaf.
I live in France so you can’t get me for saying that./

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