Martha-Renee Kolleh, and tackling racism head on

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.


Write us your thoughts about this post. Be kind & Play nice.
  1. Heather says:

    Great blog 🙂

  2. Cory says:

    I completely agree we need a grown up conversation about racism and sympathise with the fact that too often we are patted on the back with the ‘you’re imagining it’ and the more abrupt ‘remove the chip from your shoulder’.

    But a grown up conversation goes both ways and we need to also recognise that the fall in recorded racist incidents might also be, at least in part, down to a general improvement in attitudes.

    We must beat the drum and dissuade those who would be, not to be, so naïve; but this doesn’t preclude us from also realising that things are not always that bad and sometimes, after the unending struggle, things do get a little better.

  3. Doreen says:

    Yeah, co-sign on everything you just said. The more insidious forms of racism which are by definition harder to prove are much more prevalent now. Iny experience, when you try to call them out, at the very best you get denial and at the very worst, anger and accusations of being “the real racist.”

  4. Sandra says:

    I have actually saved this article since it came out in the Daily Mail July 2013 and would wonder how this lady is doing in her business three years on. I really admired her and still do for the way that she was and I hope still tackling this issue ‘head on’ I feel that black people especially UK born Blacks are still not talking about the the ‘race issue’ for all the above reasons for fear of upsetting others and to avoid others, even some of their own colleagues from saying if you play the game – you would be rewarded. ‘You would get the job if you were better qualified’ etc….It is about time tat we realize that there are so many of us Black and Talented with skills qualifications and experience going to waste…..not because we haven’t got enough of the right ingredients ..may be some of us even have too much.
    One way to move forward and to address inequalities and outright discrimination is for the so called ‘ethnic monitoring to stop’ Why should a third generation black person have to tick a box stating ethnic origin? There are no quotas for particular ethnicity so what purpose does this serve. Probably it helps those who want to tick a box saying ‘there we did invite them to interview etc. but they were not suitable.’ We need to move forward from this race issue. Comment…