The Grunwick strike

in the 1970s, Grunwick photo processing factory in Willesden, London employed mainly Asian women – their workforce was 80-90% Asian and mainly female. This was a deliberate policy on the part of owner George Ward and his management. They preferred female Asian workers because they were cheap, docile, and easily bullied.

In Finding a Voice (see reference below), Amrit Wilson quotes Jayaben Desai’s description of working conditions at Grunwick in 1976:

On two sides there are glass cabins for the management so that they can watch you as well. He is English. He moves around and keeps an eye. You have to put up your hand and ask even to go to the toilet. If someone is sick, say a woman has a period or something, they wouldn’t allow her home without a doctor’s certificate, and if someone’s child was sick and they had to take it to the clinic or hospital they would say “Why are you going, ask someone else from your family to go”…

Even pregnant women who wanted to go to the clinic were told “you must arrange to go at the weekend.” On the rare occasions when a woman did go during working hours she would be warned that that was the last time. Everyone would be paid a different wage so no one knew what anyone else was getting. And to force people to work they would make them fill in a job sheet saying how many films they had booked in. If someone did a large number they would bring the job sheet around and show the others and say “She has done so many, you also must.” Not that they were paid more!

The mail order room at the factory, where orders were processed and prepared for dispatch, was particularly bad: this is where Desai worked. There were no windows there or air conditioning, and Desai described the place as a zoo. The workers earned from as little as £28 a week, for 40 hours work, at a time when the average national wage was £72 and the average full time wage for a female manual worker in London was £44 a week. Although wages varied, so as to keep the workforce divided, white people were consistently paid more than nonwhites. Overtime was compulsory, even at a moment’s notice and regardless of whether the worker had children to collect. Sackings were commonplace, and indeed staff turnover was 100% (i.e. on average, employees stayed for a year at most).

In 1976, a busy time for the photo processing factory with everyone (else) enjoying the long hot summer, things reached breaking point. One man was summarily sacked for failing to complete his allotted work. He and three others walked out. Mrs Desai was told to stay and work overtime. She refused and walked out with her son.

Those six had no idea about how to start a trade union or conduct an employment dispute, but they knew that this is what they wanted to do, realising that it was the only way to change conditions. They organised a petition which many other workers signed, saying that they wanted to join a trade union. Between them, they found out what to do and who to contact and what began was a two year strike that hit the headlines time and again. There were mass pickets, violence in which both policemen and picketers were injured, sympathetic action elsewhere (including at the post office where workers refused to carry Grunwick mail, and at Kodak where workers blacked photo supplies delivered to Grunwick). Ministers joined the picket line; other ministers decried the strike action; labour prime minister James Callaghan wanted to warn off Arthur Scargill from supporting the strikers.

Although much of the violence that got reported was violence by the picketers, about 3 times as many picketers were injured as police officers. A local doctor was reported as saying “Two types of injury are particularly common: the first is a result of testicles being grabbed by the police. The second is a result of women having their breasts grabbed.” Equally there were many false arrests. Desai herself was arrested for assault: which was particularly incredible since she (a tiny woman) was accused of assaulting two men who were standing on the opposite side of a high fence. The charges were dropped for, ahem, lack of evidence.

Eventually, the strikers gave in.

They had only ambiguous support from conflicted union bosses, despite much popular support from members of other unions. For example, when legal action was threatened against the UPW (Union of Postal Workers) in respect of the post office strike, they ordered their members back to work immediately, and then failed to take further action when a promised ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) resolution did not materialise. Desai and her colleagues even resorted to hunger strike in protest at the TUC’s (Trades Union Congress) lack of helps, which only resulted in their being disciplined by APEX, their own union. At the same time, NAFF (National Association for Freedom, now The Freedom Association) was providing a high level of support to the completely intransigent George Wood, even to the extent of helping him to circumvent the postal workers’ action, and the letter of the law was used against the strikers and their supporters.

Nevertheless, this long and militant action which was led by an Asian woman on behalf of a workforce of primarily Asian women remains an important part of trade union history, and the history of British race relations.

It was the first major strike action in which unions gave any real support to Asian workers, never mind female Asian workers. And it made the exploiting employers wake up to the fact that not all Asian women can be relied upon to provide docile, submissive labour regardless of working conditions.

I’d like to finish with another quotation (again, via Wilson) of Jayaben Desai. This one is about her encounters with George Ward.

He would come to the picket line and try to mock us and insult us. One day he said “Mrs Desai, you can’t win in a sari, I want to see you in a mini.” I said “Mrs Gandhi, she wears a sari and she is ruling a vast country.”… On my second encounter with Ward he said “Mrs Desai, I’ll tell the whole Patel community that you are a loose woman.” I said “I am here with this placard! Look! I am showing all England that you are a bad man. You are going to tell only the Patel community but I am going to tell all of England.”

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Sources / further reading:

Cultural appropriation for white people

Sometimes when we hear what women of colour are telling us about our experiences, we don’t truly get it until we find some white parallel.

This is maybe why feminists, especially the radical ones, can be better equipped to really see the power structures applied by white supremacist patriarchy to women and men of colour – because we already have in our feminist analysis the right concepts and tools to understand something about power, dominance and oppression. It’s not the same, but analogies can be drawn and they help to make things clear, to help us finally get it.

So the other day I was in a pasty shop.

An Authentick Corrnwall Pastie Shoppe. In Cirencester, which, for the geographically challenged, is many a mile from Cornwall. I’m not from Cornwall, but I visit fairly often, and it is beautiful, with a rich history of which many Cornish people are justly proud.

This shop stole a little bit from just about every aspect of Cornish culture, and turned it into an ugly caricature. It was an ungainly hodgepodge of old prints, surfing memorabilia, fisherfolk, posters patronisingly reproducing a thick Cornish accent, all set off by the brightest blue and ruled over by a grinning one-eyed mockery of a black bearded smuggler-pirate. Layered over this were the same overpriced coffees and smoothies, served by the same gormless locals, that you can find in pretty much any contemporary cafe-culture hangout.

It jarred. It jarred so badly it hurt. The stuff in there was both fascinating and repellent. I wanted to know what the hell they thought they knew about Cornwall.

This visceral reaction hasn’t got a lot to do with race. But it is something I will draw on when I hear talk of cultural appropriation. I will remember that jarring, repellent mockery of Cornishness and I will imagine a layer of hate smeared on top, a layer of hate so thick that it took centuries of dominance and oppression to create.

What is institutional racism?

The first time I ever heard the expression “institutional racism” was in connection with the Stephen Lawrence report back in 1999.

(You can read the report in full here, the chapter on racism is here.)

At the time, the expression struck me as pretty stupid. How can an institution be racist? Institutions aren’t racist, people are. If we are saying that the people who set up the institution, that the people who now operate it and act within it are racist that’s one thing. But people are often at pains to point out that (apart from “a few bad apples”, cough) the individual police officers are not being accused of racism, only the force as a whole. But “the force” does not have a mind of its own. It is something that people set up, to structure how people will act to achieve objectives defined by people.

Here is how the inquiry report explained its use of the concept of institutional racism:

The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.

(The report itself goes into quite some detail about what the phrase denotes, and what various academics and others understand by the term.)

In the context of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, the collective failures identified included the refusal of the investigating officers to appreciate the relevance of the victims’ race – they would not accept that the murder of Stephen Lawrence was a racist murder, refused even to take the possibility seriously, and rejected the idea that the murder was purely a racist attack even during the inquiry six years later. The police force also sidelined and failed to take seriously the evidence of the key witness, Duwayne Brooks, who was also attacked – he named the five suspects but the police did not arrest them until two weeks later when it was too late because evidence had been destroyed, alibis had been concocted, witnesses intimidated. Mrs Lawrence (Stephen’s mother) repeatedly described the behaviour of the police officers generally as “patronising”, and believed that they acted this way because she was black (see here).

I could talk now about whether every single police officer who held unwitting prejudices, acted on racial stereotypes or who allowed their own ignorance or thoughtlessness to get in the way of carrying out their very important public functions properly and fairly is in fact “racist”, as opposed to merely being part of an institutionally racist institution… would there be any point? It was hard enough getting the Met to accept that they were guilty of institutional racism, never mind getting them accept that a huge proportion of their officers were individually (albeit unwittingly) racist. Does the distinction between calling it institutional and calling it individual make a difference anyway, as long as the police respond appropriately with training, changes to policies and practices, and whatever else it takes?

Here I’m going to go back to that Clare Xanthos article I mentioned the other day, because she puts this nicely. She says, after citing a few statistics on race disadvantage:

… most British policy reports and newspapers simply identify “institutional racism” as the culprit for these discrimination statistics, whilst overlooking the reality that behind the shadowy concept of institutional racism are individual acts of hidden racism.

If institutional racism is really a mask for individual racism on a grand scale, isn’t it important that we recognise and expose that fact? If institutional racism merely means that a lot of people are racist together, reinforcing and perpetuating one another’s racism, doesn’t it matter all the more that we identify that fact?

We are all shaped, whether consciously or not, by the institutions within which we act – the family, the school, the workplace… society and all its components. Is it right to criticise the individuals, or only the institutions? I don’t want to go blaming otherwise well-meaning people for being unwittingly racist or sexist or anything-else-ist because I know that the context means a lot and I believe that people who are unaware of that context cannot be expected to break away from it singlehandedly, cannot be blamed for believing what they are taught. Equally, I know that if I use labels like “racist” for individuals who consider themselves well-meaning and perhaps even progressive and enlightened, many of them would take it has blaming, shaming, a guilt trip, unfair, whatever. That isn’t where I want to go.

But on the other hand, I do not believe that the fact of conditioning removes our personal responsibility for what we do as a result.

If a person is taught to believe that men are from Mars and women from Venus, I still want to insist that s/he take personal responsibility for opening his/her eyes and unpacking that early indoctrination. Especially if, say, s/he intends to set up as a marriage counsellor. Equally, if a person is taught or conditioned to consider brown people as potentially suspect until proven otherwise, I still want to insist that s/he take personal responsibility for opening his/her eyes and unpacking that conditioning. Especially if, say, s/he intends to set up as a police officer.

Does it help if we call these people sexists or racists and “accuse” them of having unexamined privilege? Is it better to be pragmatic and bring people along, or to speak unpalatable truths and drive them away?

Either way, it seems that where we have got to is that “institutional racism” is an expression used by pragmatists when faced with an otherwise well-meaning institution that is riddled with unexamined, unwitting individual racism. And it is an approach that might even work. This BBC article gives the transcript of a discussion within the 1999 inquiry where the Met were trying to say that the term “institutional racism” was not appropriate; this 2003 Guardian article provides a contrast in which the Met is owning its ongoing institutional racism, talking about what it is doing to mitigate the problem, and committing to do more.

So maybe pragmatism works.

Poor visibility

One of the many reasons for my getting involved in the white noise project is that I am from the UK. Here, racism and white privilege happen in a very different cultural and historical context – not isolated from the rest of the world, but certainly different. And one of the things that I would like to explore is how white privilege works in Britain.

Some people will tell you that the UK is a more open society than many others, that race is less of an issue here than in other places – specifically, that it is less of an issue here than in the USA. After all, “we never had slavery” (coughs). I want to explore how far that is truth, and how far only impression. I want to examine the ways in which the experiences of people of colour may differ here, and to find ways of dealing with white privilege and racism that will work in a specifically British context.

Starting with the first question: is British “tolerance” myth or reality?

The sheer amount of extreme racist hate crime that I hear about in the USA just seems unthinkable here. Perhaps I am being naive about that. But certainly the idea of college boys tossing nooses around the place and expecting that they will be able to brazen it out as “just a joke” (see this Times article from last October and this College Racism Roundup on Vox ex Machina) is sickening to any right-thinking person – but in Britain it is more than shocking because nobody thinks that such a thing might ever happen here. We’re too “tolerant”, right?

Clare Xanthos said in this article here:

In the UK, there is an ideology of assimilation, where there is the utmost pressure to blend into the white mainstream; there is an emphasis on not noticing difference, a “we’re all the same” ethos. It could also be argued that as far as the majority of British whites are concerned, racism is a thing that happened in “the olden days.” For the most part, the British media portray the UK as a place where blacks and whites live and work, side by side in harmony; in British soap operas, blacks integrate with whites in predominantly white settings with remarkably little reference to race.

I don’t have any objective research to hand that will tell me clearly whether the scale of racist hate crime really is greater in the USA, but I can certainly tell you that Britain is not “tolerant” of racial difference. We’re just too polite, on the whole, to say so in public: the famous British manners. So we pretend it isn’t there, the elephant in the room. We watch television where the black people act just like white people and the white people don’t even notice that there is a difference in skin-colour – and we never ask whether life is really like that.

As a result, racism is less visible here. There are fewer people ready to admit that racism even happens – at least, if it does happen then it’s inadvertant, incidental, institutional. Outside the BNP, there aren’t really any British racists left. Not proper ones. The real problem that people of colour face here is not white privilege and it is certainly not racism. We name it instead as poverty, as xenophobia, as misunderstanding.

Well, perhaps there is a grain of truth in some of these stories. But meanwhile light-skinned people are still forming snap judgements about darker-skinned people based entirely on their skin, their funny clothes, or their foreign-sounding name. There is an unspoken collusion between white people to maintain white privilege, to let people of colour get into the club only if they play by the (white) club rules.

Clare Xanthos again:

Whites may have racist emotional reactions to blacks, and then personalize their racism by attributing their unease to some factor other than race, often blaming the black individual for some personal failing. Whites also often systematically misinterpret blacks’ behavior in negative terms. Thus while they might regard an outspoken white person as an “extrovert,” they may perhaps label a similar black individual as “aggressive”; while a white patient may be diagnosed with depression, a black presenting objectively similar symptoms might be diagnosed with schizophrenia. It is also noticeable that in employment situations, blacks are expected to be upbeat and bouncy continuously, or face criticism, whereas whites for the most part, are allowed to be themselves.

Is it better to be stop harping on about racism and hope it goes away? If we just keep quiet about why race matters, will our children grow up thinking that it doesn’t in fact matter at all? Xanthos says not, and I agree. Not only is this the stuff of fantasyland, the silence is harmful in itself, because it allows racism to continue unchecked – adding insult to injury by preventing the victims from naming their oppression.

And that’s another reason why I am so happy about the white noise project. It gives me a chance, at last, to stop pretending that race is not an issue in my country. It gives me a chance to escape into a place where mentioning race is not taboo. How liberating. How refreshing. How satisfying. How nice.