I must admit that my first reaction to seeing that the Irish Herald had mistakenly used a picture of Stormzy on its back page announcing Manchester United had signed Romelu Lukaku was laughter. In contrast, I hope that not many people were laughing when the Conservative MP Anne Marie Morris was caught saying that no Brexit deal was the “nigger in the woodpile”. While one seems less harmful than the other, both of these incidents speak to the role that racism still plays in society.
Morris has rightly been suspended, with numerous calls for her expulsion from the Conservative party. No doubt there will be some people jumping to her defence, decrying the “PC gone mad” brigade. But she is an elected official, not Jeremy Clarkson. The history of the word is so troubled, it is shocking that a politician would utter it in any context. Morris was speaking at the East India Club, a private gentlemen’s club founded in 1859, so perhaps she got caught up in the colonial nostalgia of it all. We should be grateful for the recording because we don’t always have access to the conversations that go on in the spaces of the elite. The fact none of her colleagues on the panel raised any objections tells us the climate in which she made the comment and it was received. We should not forget that Tory peer Lord Dixon-Smith used the phrase in an official debate on housing in the House of Lords in 2008. This latest incident is just one in a long history of Tories and racist language, the most notable being the embrace of the slogan “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour”, by successful Conservative candidate Peter Griffiths in Smethwick in the 1964 general election campaign.
A grime artist being mistaken for a footballer in an Irish paper seems a lot easier to dismiss – nothing but a Stormzy in a teacup maybe. Very embarrassing for the newspaper but innocent enough. After all they are both dark-skinned black men and Stormzy was in a United shirt. But Stormzy was right to be offended and spoke for all of us who are tired of having to remind people that we don’t all actually look alike. It’s deeper than a case of mistaken identity, confusing us for one another is rooted in seeing black people as not just looking similar, but being the same.
In the classic Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison explained what it was like to never be looked at but looked through. Of always being seen as the anonymous black male, the stereotype, the implicit threat to white society. It’s something that is impossible to understand unless you have witnessed strangers cross the road to avoid you; been followed around shops by security guards; or been ignored by colleagues in your place of work because they refuse to look too closely at the black man in the corridor. In those moments you no longer exist, you have been reduced to nothing but society’s fearful image of you. The fact that in 2017 being seen in their own right is not even afforded to black celebrities tells us how far society still needs to progress.
The consequences of being seen as nothing but the stereotype are certainly no laughing matter. In Britain black communities have been complaining about always being viewed as suspect for decades. Vastly disproportionate use of stop and search is in no small part down to seemingly always fitting the description of a suspect. In America the consequences are deadly, as the never-ending examples of police shooting unarmed black people demonstrates.
Terence Crutcher, a student and father who sang in a church choir, was shot by police with his hands up, after being identified as a “bad dude”. Of course, even though he was unarmed and posed no actual threat the jury acquitted the police officer who killed him. When Barack Obama said: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon [Martin]”, he wasn’t abstractly connecting to the tragedy of the killing, he was echoing the sentiments of black parents. No matter who you are, what your background is, you are a black male and therefore a threat. If being an unarmed 17-year-old can’t protect you, then neither would being the president’s son.
An MP casually dropping the N-word may seem like the more serious cause for offence, but the fact no one at the Irish Herald noticed the picture on its back page was of the wrong black man is just as insidious. We are quick to focus on the obvious displays of racism that are relatively easy to condemn and call out the individual racists. But it is the mundane, everyday racisms that we all collude in that we need to be just as vigilant about.