What does a racist look like?
In the UK, we tend to think of racism as solely in interpersonal terms and as a person’s full-time preoccupation. It makes it harder for us to understand when a racist is anyone but a knuckle-dragging skinhead who wants to murder black people all day long.
So, Bannon’s recent overtures with senior Tories are (rightly) criticised, but are somehow being seen as a massive turning point here – as if some of his interlocutors, the architects of Brexit, weren’t at the very least comfortable being racist-adjacent if it won them the Brexit referendum campaign.
Everyone understands that Bannon is a racist, and it helps that he looks like the loathsome creep that he is. Conveniently, he is is conventionally unattractive – as if the peeling skin on his face is an outward sign of inward rot.
The reaction to him is different to the bemused humour that has greeted young hipsters who are affiliated to the alt-right. They are young, often conventionally attractive, dress well, went to good schools, come from middle class homes. But you can have all that and be a racist.
Racists can look like Bannon.
They can also look like a chummy, jocular guy with a good education. The kind of guy you’d share a laugh down the pub with; a witty, quintessentially clumsy Brit bumbling along with a cup of tea for a fawning media pack.
Mr Johnson. The man with a track record in casual racism, whose recent Burka comments are being attributed to his conferring with Bannon – as if Johnson needed the help. Instead of being held to account he is forever infantilised, and would appear, from much of the reporting, to have been led astray into real racism by one of the architects of the alt-right.
Racists can look like a member of your family who loves you but doesn’t like the other black people.
Or the wife who votes for Trump because she doesn’t realise that the “illegals” include her own husband. (He got deported.)
Yes, there are some racists who thinking about it all day long and it is the guiding value in everything they do.
But I think that for the many other people there are unexamined prejudices, abiding inconsistencies (yes, you can have black friends/lover/family members and still hold problematic views). Furthermore, racism, or racial anxiety is the most salient issue for them only once in a while – it’s a not a full-time gig.
In many ways, that’s worse. If you’re endangering me and people like me and you’re doing it all the time, I can see you coming. I can engage with you head-on.
But if it’s that you just don’t care….that your racism flares up like an occasional fever, it’s harder. The fact is, as a minority I need you to build the alliances for my own survival and sometimes you may come on board.
But equally, you might once in a while vote for someone like Trump because “economic grievances” and “someone spoke Polish at my local shop” and “the church is empty and while I’m not going to go I don’t like the gurdwara that’s being built nearby”…basically… you just don’t have skin in the game and gambling with mine doesn’t cost you anything.
And I’m still thinking through how to engage with that.