There are no such things as micro-aggressions, just mistakes

My name is Richard Norrie not Richard Norris.

It is a Scottish name. I am Scottish but raised and living in England. English people sometimes get my name wrong. This has happened since as long as I can remember. I always have to spell my name and it is a minor relief whenever I get back up north of the border to not have to do so. The name is well-known there if not as common as Ferguson or McGregor.

Norris, Morris, once even Richard Lordy.

It is annoying. It makes me feel different, excluded even. It is not a micro-aggression.

It just stems from the fact that people ‘fast think’ – they are not entirely focused, they make a snap decision on what they think they have heard based on what they are most familiar with. So English people think they have heard the English name Norris instead. They do this not because they are unconscious racists, Scotophobes, but because they are flawed.

This was brought to mind after reading an article in The Guardian by comedian Nish Kumar in which he complains that people call him Nish Patel. I understand it is bloody annoying, insulting even in cases when people promoting his comedy shows mix him up with other Asian comics and they are making money out of him. But they are not doing it out of racist spite as he seems to think but because they are distracted, lazy and thoughtless.

This is the problem with micro-aggressions, those little everyday actions that seem to enforce differences between ethnic groups. There have rarely been societies before with such high levels of mass-migration. A settled ethnic population is asked to live with a new ethnic population and often there is little familiarity on both sides. How can we expect to bond with one another if the penalty for a faux-pas is to be labelled racist? Racism is one of the greatest taboos we have and the penalties even in terms of social sanction are high and yet people don’t always know each other’s ways. How can they find out if they risk being shamed if things don’t go entirely right?

If we are to have the multi-cultural society that Kumar wants, we have to make allowances for white people stuffing up on the little things. How can we have a successfully integrated multi-ethnic society where getting names right becomes, to quote Jerry Seinfeld, like driving a truck of nitro-glycerine down a very bumpy road?

And all to often such stories of micro-aggressions are relayed without revealing that when white people do make these mistakes and are challenged on it, they are invariably mortified.

My own accent is hard to place being that it is a strange English/Scottish hybrid. This means people sometimes say quite daft things to me. I was once asked in my English home town “where are you from?” My response was “here”. The next question was “no, where are you really from?”

I’ve had some funny comments too. “Wait a minute, do you mean to tell me you’re a Brit?”, “Richard, are you Swedish?”, “I thought, ooh, he’s really mastered the language”. All of these were from highly educated people. The second one was from a Swede.

If these are the experiences of a white guy with a funny accent, it would just imply that people respond to difference in ways that are sometimes a bit odd. It’s not to do with race, or micro-aggressions, but just that people are genuinely curious, are trying to place you, but don’t always express it in the ‘correct’ way. (And yes I’ve been mistaken for the waiter too.)

The Kumar piece was part of a wider series in The Guardian on micro-aggressions to accompany a new ICM poll of non-white ethnic minorities and their lived experiences. The headline findings of the poll are seemingly cause for alarm, especially when relayed in the breathless tones of Guardian columnist Afua Hirsch.

  • It was found that 14 per cent of white people compared to 38 per cent of non-white ethnic minority people had been wrongly suspected of shoplifting.
  • 12 per cent of non-white ethnic minority people have had racist language directed at them in the past month, rising to 43 per cent in the past five years.
  • 43 per cent of non-white ethnic minority people feel that they have been overlooked for a job or promotion in a manner that felt unfair in the past five years, more than double the proportion of white British people.

While alarming, these figures should be handled with caution. If we compare the ICM polling to the major academic surveys, then we have good reason to suspect the estimates produced are too high. For instance a 2016 Policy Exchange report (which I co-authored), Bittersweet Success? Glass Ceilings for Britain’s Ethnic Minorities at the Top of Business and the Professions, found drawing on the Citizenship Survey, that 12 per cent of non-white ethnic minority people thought they had been discriminated against in promotion in the last 5 years prior to being surveyed.

It is also too easy to assume that because minority people say they are being discriminated against, that they thought it was because of race. Of those who told the Citizenship Survey they thought they had been discriminated against in promotion, 57 per cent said they suspected it was on grounds of race while 43 per cent said skin colour. Reported discrimination is not always reported racial discrimination; minorities report being discriminated on grounds of gender as well as age too.

Furthermore, my analysis of Understanding Society data to be published in a forthcoming Policy Exchange report on hate crime, shows insults based on ethnicity are actually rare. Just 5 per cent of non-white ethnic minority people said they had been insulted on grounds of ethnicity in the last year – rising to 12 per cent for white ethnic minorities; perhaps this being more reflective of tensions over more recent Eastern European immigration.

I’ve not seen the methodology of the ICM poll; it claims to be representative but polling minorities is not easy because simple random sampling won’t get you large sample sizes from which you can safely make inferences. These academic studies have ethnic minority boost samples and are specifically designed to allow us to explore minority experiences and I know which I’d trust more.

When considering the suspected of shoplifting statistics, it should be remembered that ethnic minorities are a younger demographic group and younger people are more likely to commit crime and so presumably more likely to be followed around a store. Also, in London, the security guards in supermarkets have tended in my personal experience to be African migrants. Indeed, my own research for Policy Exchange found that security guard was the seventh most ethnically diverse occupation there is.

All is not what it might seem when comparing differences in experience between ethnic groups. While anecdotal evidence reveals things do go on, it does not tell you the extent to which it is happening. Sometimes our perceptions of racial disparities hinge on the benchmark we use. For instance, it is an article of faith that ethnic minority people are disproportionately subject to stop and search. But this is only true when comparing the share of minority people who are stopped and searched to the shares of minority people in the wider population.

If though you actually compare to shares of people who are available to be stopped and searched on the streets, then you actually see white people are disproportionately over-represented. Asian people are under-represented and for black people, sometimes they are over-represented, sometimes under, depending on the place. And stop and search is not deployed randomly but, in those areas, where crime is reported to the police.

Observe how the focus on racism switches to the more illusive micro-aggressions, precisely at the point when macro-aggressions are declining. For instance, the recent evidence from the Crime Survey of England and Wales shows race related hate crimes to be declining: between 2007/8 and 2008/9 there were on average 150,000 race-related hate crimes each year declining to 101,000 between 2015/16 and 2017/18.

Another problem with The Guardian’s approach is to portray racial prejudice as something whites do to people who are not white. But as Sarfraz Manzoor has written of his own upbringing in a segregated Pakistani community in England, prejudice exists amongst minorities too:

“When I was growing up I, too, was told that Britain was not my real home — that white people could not be trusted to be true friends and that the only place that would not forsake me was Pakistan. The outside white world was to be feared, children needed to be protected and the main role of women was in the home…”

What do writers such as Afua Hirsch have to say about the fact that black people are over-represented among those proceeded against for racially or religiously aggravated offences? Black people make up 8 per cent of that group yet just 3 per cent of the population of England and Wales.

And what of all those grooming gang cases, carried out largely by Pakistani Muslim men with white girls as main victims? Surely this must stem from a deep-seated racial and religious contempt. While it is true there is prejudice against Muslims, it is also true that there are comparatively high levels of antisemitism evidenced among them. Yet the focus in The Guardian when it comes to race, is always on wicked whites. Such an approach will encourage a perception among minorities that they are a victimised group and that white people are victimisers. The prospects of integration are much higher if we confront all forms of prejudice as well as just acknowledge that nobody’s perfect.

Statistics on the share of whites who say they would mind if a close family member married a black person are often provided as evidence of white racism. According to the British Social Attitudes Survey, 22 per cent say they would mind if a close relative married a black person, 13 per cent minded a little, 9 per cent a lot (and this will be much lower among younger cohorts).

If we look at comparable data from the Ethnic Minorities British Elections Study, then we see similar patterns, particularly among South Asian ethnic minorities. 28 per cent of Indians, 36 per cent of Pakistanis and 27 per cent of Bangladeshis said they would mind if a close relative married a white person (those saying it would bother them a great deal stood at 8.2 per cent, 16.3 per cent and 9.7 per cent respectively). In this regard, why not stop the finger pointing and just accept these kinds of things as part and parcel of homophily, the natural preference for familiarity.

We do have problems with racism but the fact that the liberal-left has, in part, moved on to questions of social etiquette must surely be a cause for celebration not concern. That said, we have to pinpoint exactly where the problems lie, and you will unavoidably have problems in communities undergoing radical ethnic change. Ambiguous polling and emotive opinion pieces based on personal anecdotes are not the way to do it. And we have to avoid loading our social interactions with high penalties if something goes wrong, nor read too much into individual incidents.

For instance, last weekend a banana skin was thrown at a black player in the North London derby. While it is an unwelcome reminder of the racist abuse faced by black footballers in the past as well as a gross insult to the Arsenal player in question, surely the fact that one banana skin could generate such an outcry is testament to how strong the anti-racist taboo is.

Nor must we read this necessarily as evidence of societal decline brought on by Brexit. In the late 1990s I attended a football match between Coventry and Newcastle where the visiting Geordies gave us a chorus of “Town Full of Pakistanis, You’re Just a Town Full of Pakistanis”, only not their exact words. This was because we had a couple of Moroccan lads in our team (Hadji and Chippo – those were the days!). I remember listening to the football phone-in on BBC Coventry & Warwickshire after the match and every caller was appalled. Bad things happen. Idiots do idiotic things whatever the political weather. We cannot infer a trend from individual incidents.

While it is right to challenge racism and prejudice, we have to remember that the whole point of anti-racism is to accept the humanity of all. To err is to be human. There are no such things as micro-aggressions, just mistakes.

(Well that’s that article finished – better frantically check I’ve spelled everyone’s name right, including my own 😉)

Richard Norrie

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