Talking racism in the UK

The reactions to recent statements by Stormzy and Gary Neville show just how hard it is to discuss racism in public.

In a recent interview British singer Stormzy said he believed there is a lot of racism in the UK [File: Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP]

If the old “bread and circuses” idea holds any truth, then as long as we are entertained, we will keep quiet and stay in our place. Two of the biggest circus arenas are popular music and modern sport, entertaining millions of us and keeping our attention away from the failings of the ruling elite.

Let the working man have his football, let the kids have their noisy dance music, and God forbid that the stars of the show should ever use their platform to comment on problems that cripple the nation.

That is what it felt like this weekend, when on two separate instances celebrities called out racism in the United Kingdom. The reactions to their statements prove just how much we need to speak out on this topic in the first place.

First, we had Stormzy, the grime superstar, who is no stranger to political controversy, putting it on record (literally) that the government is not to be trusted and vocalising a generation’s disdain for our current prime minister, Boris Johnson.

In response to a question over whether the UK is still racist, he told Italian newspaper La Repubblica “definitely, 100 percent”. This was swiftly and erroneously translated into headlines claiming Stormzy had said that the UK is 100 percent racist, followed by a social media troll-a-thon from people who think he is getting too big for his boots, citing a list of crimes against knowing your place. Highlights include accusations of ungratefulness and even calls for Stormzy to consider returning to his ethnic home of Ghana. Oh, the audacity.

Then, in the “ivory tower” of the Sky Sports pundit box, we found former football player Gary Neville having the nerve to state, on camera, following a racist incident during the Tottenham vs Chelsea game, that racism is an endemic problem not only in UK football, but in UK society at large – not least of all within the country’s dominant political parties.

It was a special moment, seeing this loyal representative of English football so frustrated by racism in the beautiful game that he could not help but steam into the breadth of the problem, on the pitch and beyond. It was a move that was met with a real-time shush-shushing from Sky Sports presenter David Jones, who felt the need to add a disclaimer to Neville’s comments, saying that they were not the views of Sky Sports. Jones has since apologised, tweeting that he is “sorry to have spoiled … an important discussion on racism”.

Apart from both being well-known British men, Neville and Stormzy represent very different corners: one very much an established member of one of the country’s most enduring sporting traditions, the other – the ultimate outsider, son of immigrants from a former colony, finding success in marginalised black music and breaking through from a plucky underdog into people’s champion. 

Neville is far from the millennial revolutionary that Stormzy has become, but even he could not quite get away with saying it as it is.

Both of these incidents prove that mainstream discourse is simply not ready or willing to hear the truth about race politics in the UK, so much so that anyone bold enough to state the obvious truth – that racism exists in this country – becomes a target for reprimand.

At a time when the political centre seems to be shifting inexorably towards the right (just think about the impact of former Home Minister and Prime Minister Theresa May’s “hostile environment” for immigrants or the ongoing Windrush scandal), political divisions are deepening daily.

It is a scary time to speak out against the racism and prejudice that permeates British society and its oldest institutions. It is a scary time to stand up for victims of racism whose plight is all too often rendered invisible by those who do not want to see the ugly truth. Those that do, be they sports commentators or chart-topping musicians, face being silenced or vilified with a swiftness that reminds us who is really in charge: people in power structures that will not be challenged.

But challenge them we must. Support for Stormzy and Neville in the wake of their comments proves that many of us are willing to force the agenda and seek change. The UK does have a problem with racism, that is a fact. And the problem will not go away until those who refuse to see give way to those who do.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.