Being French I have always looked up to the United Kingdom as a place of tolerance, respect and progress. In London I noticed so many people from different backgrounds, races and religions. All behaving, dressing and speaking in different ways, languages and accents – but no one seemed to care or pay attention to any difference. I got comforted in this idea when multiple scandals about the right to wear religious headscarves tore the French population apart (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-47380058 ). I felt like my country was way behind this British ideal of peaceful race relations. But when I actually came to live here, I realised that this ideal I had in mind for so many years was actually quite far from reality.

Indeed, even though I knew that there is no such thing as a perfect country without discrimination and racism, I did not expect the UK to have the extent of issues I came to learn about when I joined Race Equality First. The Organisation recently dealt with a case where a man black-faced, dressed as a Minstrel and sang a racist song to mock his black colleague at a Christmas party (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-47305868 ). He claimed that he “didn’t know his colleague would get offended” by this. By doing more research and reading about other racial discrimination and hate crime cases, I realised how deeply rooted some of these issues were in the British society, even in the political sphere, as shown by the claims of Anti-Semitic incidents within the Labour party, which led 7 of its members to quit (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-47278902 ).

After more than 50 years of the Race Relations Act, which made racial discrimination a crime in public places, BME people are still confronted with discriminatory behaviour on a daily basis. At its first redaction in 1965, the Act made it illegal to discriminate against people on the “grounds of colour, race, or ethnic or national origins”. When amended in 1968, it became illegal to refuse work, housing or public services to someone because of their colour or ethnicity. Today, even if discrimination and inequalities have been reduced, there is still a long way to go.

Black workers are still paid 8.3% less than their white peers and black workers who hold A-levels earn 10% less than white workers with A-levels.  But this does not only concern the work environment. Racism is everywhere, whatever you do: in the street, at the GP surgery, even at University (https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/04/24/study-finds-faculty-members-are-more-likely-respond-white-males-others ). And it feels wrong that in 2019, in a country known for its progressive views and laws, people still suffer due to ignorance and xenophobia.

One theory around the persistence of racism is that each individual has unconscious bias which makes us perceive people from different ethnic backgrounds as more threatening than people of our own ethnicity (https://psmag.com/economics/black-male-faces-3571 ). Indeed, many BME people who have been a victim of discrimination said that they did not think that people were even aware that they were treating them differently because of their ethnicity. Unconscious bias impacts on our judgment and decision-making on the basis of our prior experience and personal thought patterns without us being aware of it. This sets our preference for the sort of people we want to be surrounded by but also ‘gives’ us preconceptions about others’ competence, interests and behaviours just by looking at them. The Implicit Association Test (IAT) was released in the late 1990’s to reveal people’s hidden bias. Taking this test could be the first step in being aware of our bias in order to dismantle our misconceptions about others.

But to me, the best way to counter and defeat racism and ignorance is to increase social interaction between different communities and to create a more inclusive society. Personal and daily experience of being surrounded by others from diverse communities is the best way to “recognize, accept and celebrate” the differences between us (Audre Lorde). I still think that in France huge progress is needed to improve how it deals with racism and discrimination issues, but I have realised that this is also true for the UK, and probably for every country in the world. We must not rely on our past achievements, but always look for betterment to make our society fairer.

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