Racism is everyday. Acts of racism are committed every day, and in everyday settings: in the street, on public transport, at work or in school. There is therefore much that can be gained through careful attention to everyday racism. What about the bus makes it such an active site for racist aggression? How do different kinds of public space and built environment make people visible and surveillable as racially out of place? What does it feel like be stared at, whispered about, or treated as if invisible? Thinking through these questions can help us generate theory about race and racism, encouraging us to consider bodies, space, bodies in space, the urban environment, the sensory, the interactional, the phenomenological. These are all, to varying degrees, important geographical questions. But there is also a danger that by focusing on interactions – on what we can see or feel, and on what happens in public – racism gets reduced to the sum of its conflictual interactions, bodily encounters and ‘microaggressions’. The challenge, therefore, is to theorise the relationship between everyday racism and the institutional and legal forces that structure it.
An example might be useful here. I have spent years researching deportation, particularly from the UK to Jamaica. Ricardo had moved to the UK when he was 10 and was deported from the UK in his early 20s. In 2016, I went to the West Midlands to see where he grew up. His friend Melissa explained how the police started stopping, harassing, and arresting their group of friends once they reached Year 9 and 10:
Melissa: Everywhere you walked, you’d get stopped, and it’s, like, why you stopping us for? I remember one time, I got a mate who’s Albanian, and a policeman come over and was like, ‘You think you’re black don’t you mate?’ And then we’re like ‘What?’ And he’s like, ‘Remember you ain’t even got a visa’. This is what he’s saying to the boy, and I’m just like hold your tongue, he wants you to say something to him. Don’t say nothing, just walk off and stuff. Like, that’s how police was round there ... just, Smethwick police was racist, they actually was racist. That’s all I’m saying, a lot of them was racist. After school, they’d just pick on the dark-skinned people, yeah.
This account of police racism is damning, but of particular interest to me here is the way that immigration control gets invoked directly by the police officer: ‘Remember you ain’t even got a visa’. It suggests that the material realities of the immigration system – the visa, the law, the threat of deportation – get internalised and reinscribed by the individual police officer. It offers a very clear example of how the everyday is structured by the institutional. The interaction shows how discourses on immigration at the national level permeate society and get mobilised in local interactions. Think about when ‘asylum seekers’ are attacked in the streets while being hailed as ‘asylum seekers’. Or when, in the days after the Brexit vote, people who looked/sounded Eastern European, along with black and brown British citizens, were told: ‘go home, we won, go home!’
Brexit was a national referendum on the UK’s political system – its laws, regulations and trade relationships – but it worked to license various acts of racist hostility in the everyday. In this way, a political process ostensibly about the demarcation of the nation became inseparable from racist demands for the expulsion of racialised outsiders – and in practice this desire for expulsion and purification took the form of everyday racism.
With this in mind, we can see that those people on the street or on the bus who stare, curse and spit are not some aberrant group of regressive bigots (or they are not only that). Their worldviews, and their political and emotional convictions, are fuelled by the politicians and commentators who daily confect moral panics about migrants and minorities. The street racist is therefore, following Frantz Fanon, ‘normal’, because he exists in a racist culture and a racist society. Put another way, the person who shouts ‘go back to your country’ only makes crude and improper what Home Office policy does much more effectively in practice (by illegalising, detaining and deporting tens of thousands of ‘undesirable migrants’ each year).
If this still sounds quite obvious, then let me take it a step further, and underline the political implications a little more. Most people agree that cursing at people – telling them to ‘go home’ for example – is wrong. Racist name-calling is universally condemned (or near enough). People should not be prejudiced, they should not discriminate, and they should avoid racist epithets. And yet, as I have just shown, racist resentments do not come from nowhere. Although we cannot easily quantify racism (what would that mean anyway?), we can suggest that societies and cultures can be more or less saturated by racial conceptions and racist practices. As such, there must be some set of forces that produce and reproduce racism, and it is these forces we need to understand and dismantle if we are to combat racism. Immigration controls are absolutely central here; borders reproduce racist social relations at different scales. And no amount of ‘unconscious bias training’ will reduce anti-immigrant sentiment when the Home Office continues to exclude, expel and brutalise non-citizens. This raises the question: can racism in Britain, both everyday and institutional, be combated without dismantling immigration controls? (spoiler alert, no).
Most accounts of racism assume the national scale of analysis, so that racism concerns unjust and unequal relations between citizens. In this view, racism is wrong because it creates hierarchies among citizens. But what about the many people in the UK who are not citizens? Non-citizens who live in the UK are subject to British law, but they do not belong to the state and can therefore be detained and deported. Discrimination against ‘immigrants’ is legal and necessary – how else could immigration controls be enforced? – while discrimination against minority citizens is not, which is why we have equality law and the Race Relations Act. And yet clearly we miss the point if we view these two sets of processes as distinct.
Racism shapes how people encounter immigration enforcement. The racism of teachers, police officers and immigration officials makes some people more vulnerable to deportation. Equally, immigration controls have adverse consequences for citizens, and the impact is most keenly felt by ethnic minority citizens. Not only are black and brown British citizens more likely to be wrongly subject to immigration enforcement themselves (because they look like ‘immigrants’), they are also more likely to have their friends and family members subject to immigration control, and thus to have their loved ones excluded, illegalised, and expelled. This reflects the fact that immigration controls are expressly designed to prevent people moving from where ethnic minority citizens are thought to have ‘really come from’. As Sivamohan Valluvan (2019: 52) puts it:
Racialised nationalism anxiously scans the border and the exterior only because it already takes issue with the interior and the many problematic minorities that are in some form already deemed excessive – excessive in the sense that they are simply too many, have been given too much allowance, wield too much power, or threaten to wield too much power if not preemptively stymied.... The exterior is therefore rendered a threat partly because it is seen as replenishing, enhancing or emboldening the already problematic interior.
As Valluvan explains, the problem of minorities is always the problem of migrants. Racism and nationalism are inseparable, and unappeasable demands to exclude migrants and restore national unity inevitably fuel and reproduce racist resentments. Increasingly draconian immigration controls attempt to appease and channel this resentment, but they cannot contain or control the violent energies they unleash.
Priti Patel promises to stop the boats, reduce the numbers of asylum seekers, and deport the ‘illegals’ and the ‘criminals’. But it is not clear where this ends. There is always ‘more where they came from’, and always at least one too many in our midst. The borders are always being breached – by floods, waves, and swarms – and the immigration system has never been fit for purpose. Is it any wonder that narratives on invasion, crisis and emergency incite people to act violently? Is it any wonder that the violent practices of the Home Office have their corollary in acts of street racism? Is it any wonder that the racist police officer seeks to scornfully remind the Albanian child that he doesn’t have a visa?
Racism is everyday, certainly. But it is never reducible to the local interaction. Racist encounters are structured by racial histories and racist state policies. I have talked about the relationship between street racism and immigration controls here, but I might have applied the same analysis to the global ‘War on Terror’ and its local manifestations in anti-Muslim racism, or to longer histories of policing, surveilling and punishing people racialised as black, from slavery onwards, which continue to define local interactions in many places around the world. Politically, this means that resistance to racism needs to be attuned to these different scales (another geography favourite), and to build out from the everyday, so that people’s rage about their experiences of racist violation in everyday settings can be channelled into the work of dismantling racist structures and institutions. This is the work of anti-racist politics.
Luke de Noronha is lecturer in Race, Ethnicity and Postcolonial Studies at the Sarah Parker Remond Centre at UCL. Luke’s book Deporting Black Britons: Portraits of Deportation to Jamaica was published in September 2020. Luke was also amongst the writing collective that wrote Empire’s Endgame: Racism and the British State. Luke’s next book, co-authored with Gracie Mae Bradley, is entitled Against Borders: The Case for Abolition, and is out in July 2022.
This is the second piece in Decolonsing Geography’s ‘everyday geographies’ series ahead of the 2022 Geographical Association conference. You can read the first article, Gavin Brown’s analysis of the Non-Stop Picket outside the South African Embassy in London, here.
Valluvan, S. (2019), The Clamour of Nationalism: Race and Nation in Twenty-First-Century Britain Manchester University Press