Earlier this week many tuned in to watch an episode of Dr Who that featured the civil rights icon, Rosa Parks. The episode has quite rightly been lauded for shining a light on racism but we must recognise that, in isolation, there are limits to the episode’s effectiveness as an anti-racist intervention. Rather than focusing on pertinent examples in the British context (the 1963 Bristol Bus Boycott, for example) the show engaged with racism as a problem that is geographically and temporally elsewhere: in 1950s Southern USA, to be precise.
Focusing on racism as a problem in the United States (where it is often more explicit and/or fatal) often comes at the expense of recognising racism as a problem here, in the UK. It is perhaps in running this risk that the show lacked the capacity to meaningfully disrupt contemporary racisms. Given how white fragility impacts upon popular discourse and culture, such disruption would surely have threatened the commodity value of Dr Who.
The show’s abstraction of racism from here and now means it’s not surprising that much of the discussion has followed the familiar ‘post-racial’ script: “look how far we’ve come”. However, the self-congratulatory post-show discussion could not stand in starker contrast to viral footage that circulated on the same evening.
Taken onboard a Ryanair flight heading for the UK, the footage shows an older Black woman being racially abused by a white man. The abuser was so concerned about the prospect of sitting next to the Black woman that his shouts of “ugly black bastard” were accompanied by explicit threats of physical violence.
The disgusting interpersonal abuse and the airline’s incredibly limp response reminds us that travelling while Black presents a range of problems that not only transcend national boundaries, but continue well into our contemporary moment. The condemnation of the racist individual, and even of the airline is to be expected. The problem is, however, that cases like these are viewed (and condemned) as anomalous. By disavowing the supposed anomaly, this condemnation helps to maintain the illusion of a liberal, progressive and ‘post-racial’ society, but this isn’t an anomaly.
Excavating the wider context allows us to connect the dots: to see that these instances do not occur in a vacuum. This occurred onboard a flight to the UK: a country in which, less than 10 years after the Montgomery bus boycott, the British electorate were encouraged to vote against the Labour party in order to avoid the threat of having a ‘nigger for a neighbour’. Was the man’s concern about sitting next to a Black woman not an echo of this sentiment?
Contemporarily, the UK government have pursued a callous hostile environment agenda that’s seen the indefinite detention and ruthless deportation of those racialised as ‘the other’. The British state has an unrelenting (centuries old!) desire to control the movement of Black and Brown bodies. Is it not an everyday interpersonal manifestation of this power dynamic that the viral footage reveals? Is it not fair to assume that the aggressor is emboldened by the racisms of the state?
Is it not this emboldening that makes it conceivable for academics, journalists and social commentators to ‘debate’ whether “rising ethnic diversity is a threat to the West”? Those in positions of power continue to feed and cultivate a racist system that bears rotten fruit, and rotten fruit is what we see in the viral video! It is only through reckoning with racism in its structural and historically-rooted forms – as a problem that affects us in the here and now – that we can meaningfully begin to tackle a system in which, in so many ways, it is difficult to travel while Black.
Remi Joseph-Salisbury – @RemiJS90