Race Row

The sacking of Sam Mason for her ‘racist’ comments to a taxi company has not only made the national news but has generated an astonishing amount of local comment (I gave up before I got to the bottom of the comments listed). Although there are big pockets of the west country which are not at all culturally / ethnically mixed, Bristol to me has always seemed a pretty cosmopolitan city. But having moved back to the area after 10+ years away I can see that the local mix has changed quite significantly and I guess that’s a learning experience for everyone.

It’s really quite interesting (depressing?) looking at the comments on the At Bristol report of this story to see how people articulate their very different views about these things. There seems to be no community consensus about what is or is not racist and what is or is not acceptable or lawful, and no common language through which to discuss these issues. My two penn’orth: one can make an unacceptable or discriminatory comment without intending to. Identifying a ‘racist’ is more complicated than simply saying anyone who has ever acted in a discriminatory way or who has upset someone by a remark pertaining to race is de facto ‘a racist’. If you’ll excuse the pun (I can’t think of a metaphor which doesn’t involve one) it’s not a black and white issue, but a spectrum. I would hazard that all of us have said or done something that might be reasonably called ‘discriminatory’ or which may have offended someone (most of us hopefully inadvertently) but I don’t think we are all racists. Language is complicated and we don’t always wield it well.

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Racism is not necessarily the same as discrimination which has a specific legal meaning (treating someone less favourably on grounds of race / sex etc) and which, as defined, is outlawed. We mustn’t forget that what Sam Mason was doing was inciting a taxi firm to discriminate unlawfully against its asian members of staff. Private hire taxi drivers are usually self employed and get paid by the job so this is not a victimless ‘crime’. It is no different from a client who asks for a female barrister or a black barrister (for whatever reason), or a white patient who asks for a white nurse (for an employee there may be no financial harm but a clear humiliation) – it’s unlawful and it’s unfair. Protecting your daughter’s oh-so-delicate sensibilities is no excuse.

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What I don’t understand about this episode is why a fourteen year old girl living in a mixed city like Bristol would be ‘freaked out’ by a turban in the first place, unless she is picking up on attitudes or anxieties prevalent at home, or possibly at school. Need it be said that an asian man (with or without turban) is not inherently frightening – it is learnt behaviour. Wherever it has come from, closeting a child in some kind of weird turban-free world is only going to compound that anxiety – it says to the child that it’s normal to be freaked out by an asian man. And I think it’s that short-sighted parenting that bothers me most about this. I would not expect most open-minded parents striving to bring up well-rounded and culturally sensitive children to consider that requesting a white female taxi driver would be a helpful response to a teenager’s anxiety or potential anxiety about the unfamiliar. A better approach surely would be to not let it be a big deal and to just expect them to get over it.  

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There is a lot of overreaction about this story, but I have some considerable sympathy with the BBC for taking the decision that they did. I also have considerable sympathy with Sam Mason – what enormous consequences for simply trying to ensure your child’s wellbeing, well-intentioned if misguided. Having read about her difficult past few years I hope this is not something which reverberates too far in her life and I hope that people will let her reflect, learn and move on without consigning her forever to the ‘racist’ bin. There are worse people out there.

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