Banter: racism or cultural differences?

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So before people start baying for my blood, I would establish that this article is not to absolve racists or justify racism in Britain. It is only to express my experience so far on the nuanced issue of racism in Britain and how it’s difficult to distinguish between banter and microaggressions.

I feel that British people are not racist, they are just culturally different to me and banter is one of the many examples of how. As of now, I’ve lost count of the numerous ways to be racist. I sympathise with those most affected by this arduous work of staying on top of the new ways of “how not to be racist”.

As a black person in the United Kingdom, I have mainly experienced racism in the form of microaggressions, a term prescribed by “experts” (who mostly aren’t POC) on Twitter. But is microaggression a type of racism, or is it just a misnomer for culturally different?

I have noticed that when most black American people are asked to give an account of how they have been victims of racism, they usually go back 10 years, 20 years or even 60 years to a time when racism was still fairly overt, in order to explain why they felt they have been victims of racism in the present day. Just like America, the answer that is usually afforded in Britain is “it was subtle…”, and I am a perfect example of this innocent absurdity.

Banter — the culture of British banter can be so elusive it could be easily misconstrued to mean microaggression. For example, I had clocked into work — as you do — on a dreadfully cold winter morning and proceeded to get my scanner in order to get ready for work. At the charging point sat both my team leaders who were chipping away at the backlog of work and minding their business, not until I piped up by saying “good morning, it’s freezing out there”.

One of the male team leaders (who every minority worker suspects to be “racist”, by the way), retorted “it’s not cold, it’s only because you’re African and you have only been in this country for a short while”. Immediately, both team leaders got cackling hard and I promptly got befuddled by their responses, mainly because he made a reference to my ethnicity in such an aggressive and dismissive way. I responded, stammering, “no, it is because it’s three degrees outside”. He responded in an apathetic way, saying “you’re African and have been probably residing here for two years”, as though you have to have white skin as a legitimate reason to complain of the cold. As I was about to address his ignorance, his colleague interjected by saying “alright guys, let’s get back to work”.

Certain comments, gestures, demeanours and crucially, cultural practices can be construed differently across ethnicities in Britain.

Both team leaders, who if had gone viral, would be instantaneously labelled racists, were completely unaware of the damage they had done to my feelings. But apparently, it was a British thing to “playfully humiliate” friends and colleagues I suppose, by the virtue of banter.

I became very upset and taken aback because I had not had the chance to respond. But after a few hesitations later and a few negative scenarios playing in my head, I garnered enough courage to confront him. I expected that he would respond with a cavalier attitude and harangue me on not having a sense of humour — possibly dismiss me.

However, his response was quite surprising. His immediate response was that of embarrassment as he did not think I would be remotely affected. He was just joking and was ready to learn.

My point is that in Britain there is a colossal cultural gulf between ethnicities. Certain comments, gestures, demeanours and, crucially, cultural practices can be construed differently across ethnicities.

The ethnic demographic makeup of the UK is “white 87.2%, black/African/Caribbean/black British 3%, Asian/Asian British: Indian 2.3%, Asian/Asian British: Pakistani 1.9%, mixed 2%, other 3.7% (2011 est.)”.

I believe the statistics above suggest that the predominant ethnic group dictates the mainstream social culture. The predominant ethnic group in Britain should be more sensitive and tactful in their speech. I am not asking you to be less British, just be more sensitive and aware. I also think that rather than just accusing people of a microaggression, have a discussion and confront those who you deem to be offensive. This will benefit both you and them.

I have experienced microaggressions and they are usually in the guise of banter. But you can look at it from two angles: cultural difference or racism. To confirm, I’d implore you to confront or learn before choosing racism.

Elena Mozhvilo/Unsplash

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The views expressed in this publication are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Falmouth University, the University of Exeter or Falmouth & Exeter Students’ Union.