We don’t talk – really talk – enough about race

We don’t talk enough about race. Properly talk, that is.

It’s become obvious, as the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has come to the fore with the murder of George Floyd in the United States, that, whilst many of us who consider ourselves liberals have a desire to be anti-racist and create a society where your skin colour does not determine your life chances, we lack the language and the understanding of how to achieve this.

We excel, instead, in talking around the edges of it: about statues, colonial history and political history.

If you agree, I would heartily recommend the book: “Me and White Supremacy” by Layla F Saad – as an essential read, whether you are white or not. It has given me a language, terms and understanding of issues around race and discussing race that have long troubled me, that I have had no easy way to express.

As a British-born Chinese person growing up in a predominantly white market town in Lincolnshire, racial abuse was a daily part of my life. Being called a “ch*nk” and having eyelids pulled up into slits was my, and my fellow Chinese friends and family, start in the journey to knowing we were different.

Covid has brought a huge spike in race hate crime. A friend was recently called two bad C-words whilst running along the River Cam (yes, also here in leafy, liberal Cambridge).

I’m a mum of two mixed race children who are on the precipice of being racially abused for the first time in their life. They aren’t coming to understand that they are different from their friends and neighbours. I feel more than ever that we must honestly and openly talk about race.

The BLM movement can’t be just a passing fad. We need to start the hard, daily work to build an anti-racist society that we can be proud of.

For me, that starts with being honest with ourselves. If you’re white, it’s being honest about the privilege which you are born with because you’re white. That if you have white children, you won’t need to have the conversation I will shortly have with my own children about why someone has called them a “ch*nk”. – That when you go to the book section at our local supermarket you will easily find heroines in storybooks that look like your children but hardly any will look like my daughter. …Or the other 48 examples of white privilege first identified by Peggy McIntosh, who coined the term.

Next we must address structural, systemic, institutional racism in our society. Racism isn’t just being called names in the street or being followed around a shop because you’re black. It’s being honest that we do not live in an equal society now, in 2020. That 48% of BAME children live in poverty not because of prejudice but because our society is fundamentally, structurally racist. This is absolutely not the same as saying most British people are racist. Being able to have these conversations honestly and openly is key. Unfortunately I keep encountering white fragility.

When discussing racism as Liberal Democrats we must resist focusing on topics we are comfortable with – language, history, debating of “facts” – this manifests itself in endless discussions on statues, on colonial history, the appropriate use of terms such as “white fragility” or “racial gaslighting” – these are important – but it can often seem that LibDems are more focused on debating these than having genuine discussions on how to be an anti-racist.

Read Layla F Saad’s book and let’s have those necessarily uncomfortable conversations on how much we need to do.

* Sarah Cheung Johnson is a councillor on South Cambridgeshire District Council and chair of Chinese Liberal Democrats.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Lorenzo Cherin 21st Jul '20 - 2:52pm

    This is the sort of intelligent constructive article needed.

    I agree with it all.

    One thing, though, Sarah, if I might. It is not pedantic to debate statues. Even less so, language. I am actually offended, as a white man of an immigrant father, with an immigrant wife, by the constant reference to the word privilege. Advantage would have made sense. Being white in a majority white country id, wise, is not a privilege, it is, if you mean only to avoid racist abuse or discrimination, an advantage.

    The language has changed to include newer phrases, ways of saying things, that cease to explain, but now, define. I am not, defined by someone elses definition of me, or my characteristics, in every sense. If you grow up poor, or not, if you grow up white or not, if you go through struggle, hardship, problems, disappointments galore, you are not privileged. We should see people as advantaged and disadvantaged, by the society, by the prejudice. But “white privilege” is a slogan, it is becoming an insult.

    i , as someone who heard anti Italian jokes galore as a boy, including based on a myth from the second world war, that said Italians were cowards, even though my own father was forced into the Mussolini youth but went on to help the Partisans, then serve in the British Jurisdiction, police, in his city of trieste, but that did not make me think I was either disadvantaged or advantaged. It made me think those who made the jokes, were ignorant and daft!

    I work with the Ustinov Prejudice Awareness Forum, started by the late Sir peter ustinov. It is about trying to understand prejudice, as well as deal with it, condemn it. One way might be to continue with utilising language as rich, with variety, not slogan and fad based ways of saying things, that themselves become offensive.

    I find, as a freelance man of just over fifty, who lost his house, work, due to the after effects of a car accident that leaves my immigrant origin wife, having permanent disability issues, the phrase, male, stale , pale, deeply sexist, ageist, racist. I read it regularly from even, senior left political activists. Never though from Conservatives. As someone for whom, as a performer, writer, language means a lot, it is sad, only Conservatives use it in ways that offend fewer in this country.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 21st Jul '20 - 3:07pm

    i would like to also say this rather strong point. we must not forget that what is happening in China proves what anybody genuine about prejudice and racism, like you Sarah, and perhaps most in a truly, traditionally, Liberal, democratic party should realise. All races are good, bad, indifferent. China is proving it, as a government, is as bad to its majority, too its minority of the same race, and another minority of another. It is doing harm to all its citizens in the way every dictatorial government does. It does so to the people of Hong Kong, in the way so many white communist fascist governments do to a region that does not obey. And of course to the Uyghurs, it acts just like all subjugating bullies.

    The irony is, though the bad and awful actions of dictatorships, help turn foolish, white western people, more racist, the mere fact that we see from Africa, to the middle East, from latin America, to the farther East, and of course the history , horribe in effect, of Europe, it reveals, all peoples are capable of good, but also, evil, and thus everybody is equal!

  • Michael Bukola 21st Jul '20 - 3:49pm

    Very courageous article Sarah. Well done for speaking out. I want you to know that there are party activists, both black and white, who stand in solidarity with you and your family at this time. I have every sympathy for those who experience racism in whatever form. White privilege is real and should not be watered down by white fragility. There is no harm in highlighting that white people are afforded ‘the benefit of the doubt’ in circumstances where non-whites are not.

  • Mary Regnier-Wilson 21st Jul '20 - 4:22pm

    I totally agree about white fragility Sarah. It’s in evidence everywhere…

  • James Belchamber 21st Jul '20 - 10:33pm

    It is incumbent on all white Liberals to read and listen to the experiences of BAME people and realise our privilege. That is not the same as believing that white people don’t also suffer prejudice and oppression, which is where many white people seem to stumble (“How could white privilege exist if I, a white person, still experience oppression?”).

    Acknowledging this is not acknowledging that we are bad people – though maybe finally accepting it might lead us to reflect poorly on our past actions. Acknowledging our privilege should lead any Liberal to realise that they can use it to repair the system that’s privileging us, and that we are uniquely privileged to put in the work.

  • Thanks for this article Sarah.

    I’d really echo the comments James makes about listening to peoples experiences.

    @Lorenzo – I think that’s really, *really* what you need to do. It is essentially what you are asking us to do by describing your experience – but it rather comes across like you aren’t listening to the core point of Sarah’s article, which is a shame.

  • Peter Martin 22nd Jul '20 - 11:47am

    I must admit I had to look up what “white fragility” and “racial gaslighting” actually meant.

    I suspect I wasn’t the only one.

    So let me get this right. If someone unjustifiably accuses a white person of racism and they respond with a remark which might include such wording as “playing the race card” they’d then be automatically guilty of one or possibly both?

  • Lorenzo Cherin 22nd Jul '20 - 12:10pm

    Ian, I actually began saying that I agree with that point, and the article in itself. Thanks for realising that, as with the request, I am really keen or able to talk about this. But if it comes across that I do not relate to the point, then I wouldn’t want it to.

    My comment is meant to show that the way language describes now, is sound bites and labels, rather than insights and helpful.

    Me too, is correct in its aims, but has become a symbol a badge, as a phrase, there is a danger that BLM might also.

    i ask merely that we utilise language that someone else can relate to. The instances I allude to, are valid in my view. We need to talk about things in an honest way, that means we need to in every aspect.

  • Peter Martin 22nd Jul '20 - 1:03pm

    There’s a lot more connection to race and social class than most Lib Dems would care to admit. Most white middle class parents would be quite happy if their offspring paired up with someone from a BAME background if they were from the right social background and were suitably well educated. But if they weren’t….

    Even if they’d paired up with a white partner, from the wrong background, there’d still be difficulties. There’s still a lot of snobbery around if my more middle class acquaintances are anything to go by. Especially when the Brexit issue comes up! They will say things about the white working class they’d never say about a racial grouping for example. Using the ‘wrong’ names for meals or even eating them at the wrong time, and course, having the ‘wrong’ accent doesn’t go unnoticed!

    I must admit I’m not too sure just what Sarah is getting at. I’d have thought she would welcome the recent dampening of the statue in Bristol for example. But if she’s saying we should be less ‘woke’ and just treat people as people, regardless of any social or racial categorisation, then I’d go along with that.

  • @Peter, the way I’d understand “White fragility” (and to be clear, I’m white) is by the following imaginary (but not that imaginary) conversation :

    Person A (ethnicity irrelevant): “Lets talk about the full history of the past of . They made their money from slavery – from selling other humans for profit. Most of that was against black africans, and the vast majority of their money benefitted white europeans. I don’t think we should be celebrating them as someone to look up to.”

    Person B (ethnicity white): “Ok did some bad stuff. But look, he was helped in the slavery by some of those same black africans, and I’m sure were white europeans at the time were campaigning against slavery, and did some really good stuff for the poor with that money, so we shouldn’t be re writing history.”.

    The point here is that there was just no need to bring up the stuff person B did – and one suspects its happen as Person B precives the criticism of the historical figure as somehow an attack on them.

    Does that make sense?

  • Peter Martin 22nd Jul '20 - 2:46pm

    @ Ian Manning,

    It may well make sense but is this the limit of what is meant?

    Ms Di Angelo, the originator of the term “White Fragility” includes most of the Lib Dem membership by ” critici(sing) white liberals arguing that white people who identify as “progressive” view themselves as “woke” to avoid questioning any issue of racism in themselves”

    Neither would she like my “One race – the human race” approach.

    Is this really helpful? It puts white people in an impossible position of being damned no matter what they say.


  • Mary Regnier-Wilson 22nd Jul '20 - 4:14pm

    Goodness me @Peter Martin.

    The world would be a far better place if white people started listening to what BAME people say about racism rather than complaining that they are damned no matter what they say or countering any account of a BAME persons lived experience with “how dare you accuse me of racism”

  • Peter Martin 22nd Jul '20 - 6:22pm

    Goodness Me @ Mary Regnier-Wilson,

    If you are going to use quotation marks then just put them around actual quotations. I didn’t say that.

    There’s been a couple or so times I’ve been accused of racism. When I gave detentions when I was teaching. When I was refereeing a football match.

    I don’t think I was guilty on any occasion. When I was refereeing it was because I was told to F off and I sent the player off. I’m not sure where you’re coming from with this but, if you’d care to put yourself in either situation you very quickly learn some reality.

    It’s very easy to sit well away from the action and pontificate on how we should all behave.

  • Ian Manning,

    I have noticed on here there is a tendency to represent others arguments in an unflattering light.

    Perhaps try and consider if you can find multiple examples that reflect your representation to see if it is accurate. I noticed in the discussion of the Coulston statue no one was defending the historical figure or his actions but there was criticism about how the removal was done. Several people tried to portray this as being a “supporter” of Coulston.

    A similar false claim is often made about those who wish to separate the issues that are grouped in the original piece here. That of racist acts committed against an individual (always clearly unacceptable and deserving of sympathy for the victim) and the claim (as raised in the original point) that this (or any other country) is “systemically racist.”
    Now we would need to see if we can substantiate this (ignoring the rather annoying modern game of elastic definitions). This is often as you have done portrayed as defensiveness. However, it is rather important to understand the root of a problem as presumably everyone is concerned with resolving unfair in equalities.

    It has been a trend of taking personal experiences and then extrapolating them to make societal level claims. Someone suffering mistreatment deserves sympathy for their experience but not deference to any claim they wish to make about wider trends in society, that needs more evidence to back it up.

    The original article points to the poverty level among BAME children, that is one data point.
    Average pay could be another:
    Average hourly pay by ethnicity 2018:
    Indian – £13.46
    Asian Other – £12.50
    Mixed – £12.16
    White British – £11.90
    White Other – £11.55
    Other – £10.95
    Black – £10.80
    Pakistani, Bangladeshi – £9.62

    School performance stats breaks down further but I would run out of space here to go in to them. This issue is to look at the cause of an issue to find the root of each to know how to respond. “Systemic racism” provides a vague term which describes little and obscures the details you need to know to understand policy implications.

  • Peter Martin 23rd Jul '20 - 5:38am

    @ Mary Regnier-Wilson,

    I can’t remember the exact circumstances of the refereeing incident mentioned previously but consider the following scenario:

    We have a white referee controlling game involving players of different ethnicity. A black player goes down under a challenge from a white player as he is attempting to shoot at goal and claims a penalty. The ref doesn’t give it. He considers it to be not a foul or outside the penalty area. He doesn’t have VAR and has to make a quick decision. He knows he could be wrong but of course he can’t show any doubts and risk losing control of the game.

    The player gets angry. Anyone who has played themselves will know the emotions involved. He lets forth a stream of expletives at the referee and the challenging player and adds an accusation of racism for good measure. What does the referee do?

    a) Send him off

    b) Start to think that the player must know more about racism than he does and ……

  • James Fowler 23rd Jul '20 - 9:38am

    @ Lorenzo – fascinating comment, really interesting. Thank you for posting it.

  • Another data point I mentioned, here is a mid level breakdown of children’s’ Key stage 4 performance:
    1) Girls – Chinese – no free school meals
    2) Boys – Chinese – no free school meals
    3) Girls – Chinese – free school meals
    4) Girls – Asian – no free school meals
    5) Boys – Chinese – free school meals
    6) Girls – Mixed – no free school meals
    7) Girls – Other – no free school meals
    8) Girls – White – no free school meals
    9) Girls – Black – no free school meals
    10) Boys – Asian – no free school meals
    11) Boys – Mixed – no free school meals
    12) Girls – Asian – free school meals
    13) Boys – Other – no free school meals
    14) Boys – White – no free school meals
    15) Girls – Other – free school meals
    16) Girls – Unknown – no free school meals
    17) Boys – Black – no free school meals
    18) Girls – Black – free school meals
    19) Boys – Other – free school meals
    20) Boys – Asian – free school meals
    21) Girls – Mixed – free school meals
    22) Boys – Unknown – no free school meals
    23) Girls – Unknown – free school meals
    24) Girls – White – free school meals
    25) Boys – Black – free school meals
    26) Boys – Mixed – free school meals
    27) Boys – Unknown – free school meals
    28) Boys – White – free school meals


    But even this is too high level to understand what is going on in these groups.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 23rd Jul '20 - 11:57am

    James, very good of you, you are kind, trying merely to utilise language to unite and understand, rather than automatically accept or agree with its current usage.

  • As I understand it, the concept of “white privilege” was never really part of liberal anti-racism theory and seen as a bit “out there” and far left so it is odd that such a view could now become almost semi-compulsory. It is perfectly possible to be anti-racist but doubt whether white privilege is a useful tool of analysis. There are some good points on this thread pointing out that this is a complex and nuanced issue and there is a lot more to disadvantage than just ethnicity.

  • Marco

    It is also unfortunate that people seem to be adopting the US approaches to racial discussions, many of the ideas that you are seeing now are so flawed based upon their roots in the US. They are bad tools for analysis in the US context but so much worse in the UK. Unfortunately no matter how much people claim to be interested in “evidence” you will see them trotting out claims that don’t make sense if you go looking. It is the current fashion, based upon very collectivist ideas you would hope Liberals would see through this.

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