Why it is time for Labour to place a truly anti-racist message at the heart of its politics 

Lily West

In support of International Women’s Day, I attended ‘Invest in Equality: End the Tory Austerity Assault on Women’, an event organised by the Labour Assembly Against Austerity (LAAA) and Momentum. The all-female panel condemned the Tories’ ideologically-driven austerity for the disproportionate effect it has on women and a discussion was then opened up to the floor. Although the event was a great success, unfortunately, as any woman, BAME person or anyone from a marginalised group will know, ‘the floor’ can often mutate into a hotbed of microaggressions which in turn makes you (understandably) live up to the ‘hysterical’ or ‘angry ’ stereotype that the white patriarchy has so conveniently used as another attempt to silence us.

Prior to this inevitable occurrence, it was refreshing to hear each speaker emphasise that WoC have shouldered the greatest burden of the austerity measures. Both Cat Smith MP and Sian Errington (LAAA) referenced the analysis from the Women’s Budget Group research which showed how poverty, ethnicity, and gender magnify the impact that austerity has on BAME women. In her message to the meeting, Dianne Abbot MP shed light on Labour’s commitment to ‘build upon current equalities legislation… after consulting on how we can best remove obstacles that prevent women, BAME people, and the disabled from reaching their economic potential.’ Maya Goodfellow, a Guardian journalist, stressed the importance for Labour to position an anti-racist sentiment at the centre of its policies to challenge and counteract the consistent erasure of WoC in the discourse around austerity.

Massive shout out to all these women. In a world where you can so often feel like you’re screaming into a vacuum because, whether the prejudice you’re experiencing is overt or insidious, there are still people who want to deny its existence – you made me feel as if someone was listening.

This ‘YAAS QUEEN’ moment unfortunately had to be cut short by the first hand that shot up during the open discussion with the panel. As I’m sitting there, shamelessly fan-girling and basking in the feeling of bittersweet glory that had arisen from the speakers powerfully acknowledging and condemning the variable experience of austerity’s severity depending on the combined interaction of one’s race, gender and income, my serenity is interrupted.

“I don’t really think there’s a need for race to be included in the discussion”, said (you guessed it) a white woman.

* Yas Queen moment is officially over. I’m back in the vacuum, screaming into silence.*

She goes on… “As we’re discussing women’s issues I think we should try and stay united on that front and not bring race into it as it often makes people uncomfortable or alienated and can become quite divisive.”

* My eyes are now seizing as they’re conflicted between rolling right back into the depths of my skull whilst also wanting to continue throwing copious amounts of shade all over this woman. *

It is not my intention to vilify this woman, but rather to shed light on the ubiquity of racial prejudice and how people of colour continue to encounter white people’s discomfort and often denial of racism in even the safest of spaces. Whilst it may suit us to assume that only the right-wing are capable of embracing racist rhetoric and implementing measures that bolster existing racial inequality, this is a misconception. We need only look back to Labour’s ‘control on immigration’ mugs to remind ourselves of the party’s ability to stray from their responsibility to encourage tolerance and diversity in Britain.

Racism is inextricably linked with our country’s history which is what makes it so pervasive and difficult to challenge. It speaks volumes that I was so elated by the speaker’s recognition of race playing an integral role in peoples’ experience of austerity. It shows that Labour’s reluctance to overtly speak out against racism has become so part of the fabric of our mind set that when they do, it causes a reaction. A party who is willing to call out racism should not be seen as refreshing or radical, and above all it should not make people feel ‘uncomfortable’.
After having heard a panel of women each recognise the necessity to look at austerity’s impact on women through an intersectional lens, this white woman still chose to ignore the facts presented to her so that she could unsuccessfully veil her own ingrained prejudice under the guise that race makes ‘people feel alienated and uncomfortable’. Whilst she was prepared to condemn the injustice of austerity measures having a disproportionate impact on women, she was not willing to look further and see that it is low income black and Asian women who are paying the highest price. Her apprehension to talk about race and inability to acknowledge her white privilege was disappointing and is something that BAME women hoped had been addressed several waves of feminism ago.

This is not the first time, nor will it be the last, where a white person dismisses racism as an issue, and it is the very reason why I want to thank Maya Goodfellow for emphasising that the Labour party position an anti-racist sentiment at the very centre of their politics.

In 2017 we have seen both Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as President, two successful campaigns that were plagued with racist rhetoric in order to prey upon and exacerbate existing prejudice. The argument that left-wing parties should resist identifying as explicitly anti-racist in order to be palatable and to avoid making (white or racist) people feel uncomfortable in order to secure their vote, is no longer good enough.

Politicians have a responsibility to challenge society’s ingrained prejudices, rather than avoid them in an attempt to remain popular. The fact that we have allowed racism to resurface as a ‘populist’ policy is a failure that has to be addressed. The reluctance to ardently speak out against racism is legitimising people’s prejudice, and allowing people, such as the woman at the meeting, to deny their white privilege.

The confused approach to Brexit and unchallenged concerns about immigration are serving as a vessel for voters to float away into the hands of the right. Labour’s current leadership HAVE to offer a strong, pro-migration message that destroys the divisive myths created by racist agendas, that exposes the attempts to scapegoat disadvantaged people, and that emphasises how integral immigrants are in our society.

Meanwhile, those of us who aren’t in politics have a responsibility to challenge racism when we see it, harness the enthusiasm that is being generated from current campaigns and channel it towards dismantling the current structures that nurture inequality. Those who feel like they ‘don’t see it’ and find it uncomfortable accepting that racism is still alive and well, there are a few simple things you can do: Listen to those who tell you they’ve experienced racism and try not to let your discomfort convince you that it’s a personal attack on you. We are not looking to you for an apology or to provide us with a solution there and then. Vocalising our experiences is an attempt to make you understand and help you open your eyes to see what (perhaps with good intentions) you do not want to see: a world so entangled in structural racism that it seems easier to ignore it than to be an ally and help continue to try and solve it.

Lily West