By: Shanice Morrison
The primary difference between black people living in the UK and the US is that most of those living in America are there as their ancestors were brought there as slaves, whereas those living in the UK are recent immigrants mostly from the West Indies who came in the 1950s of their own accord.
As a result, the racism faced by black people in the USA is more closely related to slavery, a feeling that black people are naturally inferior and a prevailing sense of white supremacy. The kind of racism faced by black people in the UK is very rarely to do with those sentiments, but more often than not a kind of class based racism reflecting traditional British culture and establishing itself in xenophobia.
This can be easily explained by examining the difference in white history between the two countries. Whilst Britain is a historically ‘white country’, America once belonged to non-white Native Indians. When white Europeans who did not fit into the contemporary religious and social boxes that their respective countries placed on them (such as not being Catholic for example) and began to face persecution at home, they began to migrate from Europe over to America leading to the gradual formation of the thirteen colonies.
These colonies were not only very separate from one another in the beginning (they thought of themselves as independent states rather than one nation), but those who had originally come from one place were also very separate from those who had come from another. It took 169 years for the colonies to formally declare themselves as one, and in this time the development of traditions and culture was stunted. That is not to say that Americans created no sense of culture and/or traditions as that would clearly be incorrect, but their development, especially in the USA’s early formation, cannot be compared to that of British culture which had been present for hundreds of years previously.
Due to this important difference, those who consider themselves to be British (specifically white British people) adhere to a culture that is not so much rigid, but historically fixated within society. Therefore those who come to the UK, who are not British, are still expected to also conform to these ideals, which is where the idea of xenophobic racism comes from.
Common phrases among the less socially eloquent in Britain reflect ‘foreigners’ “stealing our jobs”, or disrupting core British values. This is not to say that should a non-white person come to the UK and respect all British values, they will face no racism; this is simply, in my opinion, a large factor in how racism forms in the UK.
Because the same kind of resolute cultural expectations do not exist to the same degree in the US, people of colour (black people in particular) are freer to create their own subcultures which have been the birth of many genius movements such as the Harlem Renaissance. This has led to a new kind of racism almost exclusive to the US: cultural appropriation. That is a whole other article as it reaches depths unable to be explored here except to say that that form of racism barely exists in the UK as black people are unable to create the same kind of culture to be appropriated by others, as they are in America.
The black population of both countries also makes a difference: whilst America has an African American population of around 13.2%, only 2% of the British population considered themselves as ‘black Caribbean’, ‘black African’ or ‘other black’ in the 2001 census. The larger minority in the UK are those from the Indian subcontinent (called Asian, not to be confused with those from the Orient) and the majority of racism in the country is targeted at them, fuelled by Islamophobia due to recent world events. Whilst black people have been assumed to have assimilated into British culture, those Asians have not and there is periodical controversy surrounding white people’s suspicions of them and their supposed attempted to dismantle core British values.
As such, there is much more mixing between black and white people in the UK than there is in the US. Outside of London there is almost no such thing as a predominately black neighbourhood; interracial relationships are very common and there is no real stereotyping/ stigma faced by those in these relationships.
Another interesting difference to note is that what is referred to as a person’s national origin in America is referred to as race in the UK. In this way, one white Scottish person, one white Welsh person and another white English person would all consider themselves to be of different races. Therefore white on white racism is considered a definite phenomenon in a way that it is not in the US.
It can thereby be argued that racism faced by black people (and others of colour) is belittled in the UK as it is equated by white people to the racism they themselves potentially face, and the idea of racism based on skin colour being worse than another kind is not recognised. A white English person making a derogatory comment about a white Welsh person would be considered racist, and could and would be punished in the same way that a white person saying the n-word derogatively would be.
That brings me onto the idea of freedom of speech, which almost does not exist in the UK in the way that it does in America. In America, the notion of free speech indicates that a person can say to a large extent whatever they like and it is protected under the First Amendment. Contrastingly, hate speech is not protected in the United Kingdom and you can be arrested and prosecuted for racist speech and even sending racist material over the internet which many Americans would consider a violation of their civil liberties.
Verbal racism is a big taboo and as such, is not usually enacted; however racial jokes are common especially in stand up comedy (humour that perpetuates stereotypes, such as black fathers leaving their children), are fully accepted in society and are thought of as totally different from racial abuse.
In my opinion, the biggest difference between race relations in the UK and the US is the attitude towards race on which people are brought up. In the UK there is an unspoken rule that race must be ignored. The forced ignorance when it comes to race makes it so that nobody of any skin colour acknowledges that difference of race exists.
This can be a positive thing as it means that racial abuse, upon occurrence, is deemed as more shocking and so is punished more harshly, limiting the amount of racism non-white people face on a day to day basis. However, it is also a negative thing because it allows white people to convince themselves that racism does not exist at all, making it harder for black people and others of colour to protest and appeal for change.
In the US there is a constant call for racial tolerance, racial awareness and racial acceptance. Emphasised from childhood, everybody of all races is very aware of racial differences. Although this is a positive thing in theory, it’s usually taught to people along with no background of African American history other than slavery and so when white people think of African Americans, difference and slavery are the only things coming to mind, which almost naturally totals to their own superiority. Coupled with the perpetual internal insistence that America is the greatest country in the world, a sense of white supremacy is created unlike anywhere else.
*This article was not about claiming that America is more racist than Britain, or vice versa. It was simply looking at the differences between the two, and recognising that there are positives for black people and people of colour in both places, whilst also addressing the negatives they face too.