This week, Martha-Renee Kolleh, a cafe owner living in Osset, nest West Yorkshire, took extreme measures to combat the racism that was slowly strangling her business.
It was quite simple really. She put up a black and white sign in the window.
‘ Attention!’ it read. ‘Everyone be aware I am a black woman and always will be. If you are allergic to black people, don’t come in. But if you prefer quality wholesome meals in a pleasant and clean environment, come in. I don’t bite!’
She told reporters that she had been experiencing customers leaving the cafe soon after seeing her behind the counter. She was proactive, testing her theory by hiring a white member of staff to serve customers and gauge reaction. She told the Daily Mail ‘She [the member of staff] did very well and we had a lot of custom, but as soon as I was back behind the counter, nobody comes in.’
In the words of Kanye West, racism’s still alive. They be just concealing it. And, of course, the white reaction to an incident like this one is too often of instant dismissal, an earnest demand of PROOF, PROOF, PROOF, and a keenness to insist that you’re just imagining it. In Martha-Renee’s case, too many have accused her of ‘playing the race card’ to drum up a bit of publicity for her business. Because, can she know that it’s racism, they ask, almost breaking their backs as they bend and twist in an effort to avoid the problem. How can she truly know?
Martha’s story tells us something significant about the subtleties and implicit biases of an embedded, structural racism. This is the sort of racism that doesn’t spit in your face and tell you to go back to where you came from, but will smile at you politely and tell you that you didn’t get the job this time because there was someone else a little more suitable, and a little more white.
Those of us who notice these implicit biases are ignored, dismissed, ridiculed, discredited, or shouted down. At the very least, we’re told we are imagining it. Here are some facts that aren’t imagined. The police are 25 times more likely to stop and search black people than white people. The overall unemployment rate of black women is 14.3 percent, compared to 6.8 percent for white women, while Pakistani and Bangladeshi women’s unemployment stands at 20.5 percent. Black women are concentrated in part time work. Employment tribunals have seen cases in which black people have seen job applications rejected when their names sound African, and invited to interview when their names sound British.
These are the facts. Racism doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Racism is blindly perpetuated by those who indirectly gain from its continued existence. They might be your friends, your lovers or your political allies, but god forbid you utter the words white privilege, or point out the benefits they enjoy from a society that is structured towards white needs. As Lola Okolosie writes , you might just find that they consider you the racist for pointing it out.
According to home office statistics, the number of recorded racist incidents have dropped by 8%, from 51,585 in 2010/11 to 47,678 in 2011/12. Something interesting is at play here. Perhaps those who aren’t comfortable around us are less likely to articulate it to our faces nowadays. But it’s still there, a stifling atmosphere that, instead of being lanced and brought to air, has settled like a irritating spot under the skin.
All the while, we continue to discuss racism as though it is only ever incident based, a series of terrible anomalies in which Good White People couldn’t possibility be implicated in, just in case their feelings get hurt. We need a grown up conversation about racism in all its forms- overt and covert, insidious and blatant, the structural, and the interpersonal. Only then can we lance that boil and work towards ridding ourselves of what essentially, is a socially constructed disease.