We all know the world is messed up. At least the self-aware people do. Inequalities regarding race, gender, sexuality and other identities exist in all forms and in every country. As a U.S. citizen who has lived in America his whole life, I have grown up into a system that is inherently racist and perpetuates a disturbing sense of nationalism that seeks to either assimilate the other into the norm or eliminate the other all together. Needless to say, I needed a break from America’s mess.
So when I found out I would be spending the spring term of my junior year in England, I was both excited and relieved. I was ready to be a part of a new system and get an international perspective on all of the recent yet sadly common acts of racism against people of color in America that had made headlines worldwide. After talking to peers who came from all over Europe, the general consensus was yup, the American people have a tendency to be really racist.
Yet, I started wondering: Is America the only country with such rampant forms of racism? Did England have some secret formula that eliminates structural inequality, or at least diminishes it? As an academic passionate about racial studies, I always feel it necessary to critically analyze the different systems that humans live in and how institutional oppression emerges. England is no exception.
The first thing I noticed quickly was that structural inequalities definitely still exist in this country. London is laid out in a unique way. A few decades ago, the city planners changed the layout of the city so that so-called “ghettos,” places where housing was much cheaper and of lower quality, were spread intermittently throughout the main parts of the city. The purpose behind this choice was to eliminate geographical barriers between classes so as to promote a more diverse and metropolitan layout. It was an interesting fact to learn about, but whether or not I thought it was a good idea mattered little in the face of the data that shows the majority of the people living in those areas are of either African or Eastern European descent.
So that was a little discouraging, yet not unexpected. There did seem to be a greater sense of inclusion for people of color, especially at my university, the University of Sussex. I made this conclusion through big observations, like there being an extremely large international student population at Sussex, including students from many different countries, and small observations, like seeing friend groups not be segregated by race as often as they tend to be in America.
Then I heard about the latest controversial news involving race in England. A Muslim student group at Goldsmiths, University of London, was hosting a screening of “Dear White People” that was advertised as an event open only to students of color. The event was known as the first of its kind at any university in the U.K. and was met by heavy protest from a lot of students, as well as a few members of the administration at this university.
Two things shocked me about this news. First, the fact that this screening was the first of its kind at a U.K. university was vaguely alarming. Why had there been no push for more colored student-centric programming in the past? Of course, it should never be the burden of people of color to come up with this programming, but why had no one ever been critically pushed to think of this idea before? Maybe it is because I go to an institution like Vassar, where I’m blessed to be around people who constantly push institutions, but there seems to be less urgency here to fight back. The identity-based organizations at Sussex are relatively inactive, which was extremely discouraging.
Given all of that, I was most surprised by the heavy pushback. To me, this meant one of two things. Either a large proportion of the English population is just straight-up blatantly racist, which I truly do not believe, or, instead, there is a fundamental ignorance of the structures that give white residents in the U.K. a significantly greater amount of power in society.
What I’ve noticed about race in England after being here for a month is that people are quick to point out all the flaws regarding American racism. And trust me, I’m right there with them. I’m angry about the lack of coverage on the Chapel Hill hate crime and murder. I’m scared that state governments are trying to eliminate whole portions of our history from primary school textbooks. It’s all, as I said earlier, seriously messed up. But before one can criticize others, one must have the ability to criticize oneself. I still struggle with acknowledging that my place in society as a half-white male inherently makes me oppressive. It doesn’t make me feel good. But it is a necessary and crucial step towards being able to fight for what is right.
Racism exists everywhere, but it manifests itself in different forms. I’ve been privileged enough to study in two different countries and learn about what role race plays in the attitudes of those in each respective society. Yet the conclusion is the same. Students of color face daily marginalization and fight an uphill battle towards equality.
We all need to come together and realize that even though we come from different countries and cultures, we all have the same duty of using our place in the hierarchy of the world to better the lives of those oppressed.
—Christopher Brown ’16 is a political science and math major.