and the misconceptions surrounding it

“Ignore populists and simplistic definitions, history should be central to our understanding of racism.” – PhD historian Joe Hopkinson explores today’s misconceptions of ‘racism’ and considers its history in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in the United States and the outcry that has since followed.

By PhD researcher Joe Hopkinson

“Watching the protests and riots in the US in the wake of the murder of George Floyd made me write down a few thoughts that turned into this essay about race and racism in Britain.  I am a PhD candidate in History at the University of Huddersfield studying the history of multicultural education in Britain through the perspectives of those who experienced it as children.  As I have been privileged enough to receive such an expensive education, I’ve been able to develop a perspective on race over the last few years that may help some to think about and understand the current situation.  In this essay, I attempt to link academic theories about race with contemporary circumstances, discuss why people misunderstand racism, and to explain how race is a historical force which we must all attempt to understand if we are to engage properly with current events.

Like many others watching in the UK, I am disgusted by the situation in the US following the recent murder of George Floyd, but as a British person it is easy to feel righteously angry about racism in the US while putting almost no thought into racism at home.  Black or Asian British reporters are for instance reprimanded for speaking the truth about Donald Trump and false accusations of racism are thrown back at Black or Asian British MP’s who’re simply describing the racism they and their communities have experienced at the hands of white people throughout history.  I think that a big part of the problem is that few people understand racism for what it is.  They might know the simplistic definition of the word but are unable to perceive it through the lens of history.  If you don’t understand the history of race and racism then you won’t understand that white supremacy was the mainstream way of thinking until recently, and you might be unable to fully fathom why people are so angry about many of the things that are happening today.

“But why make it about colour? Everyone can be racist!”

Viewed through history, racism is a lot more black and white An example of racist pseudo-scientific attempts to categorise humans

The dictionary or Wikipedia definition of racism strips the word of its true historical meaning: ‘prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior’.  A child reading that might think it is talking about a phenomenon that each human population group has participated in equally throughout history, an entirely understandable but false assumption.  At this moment, it might be worth pointing out that race is a social construct with far less scientific basis than most people actually think.  Similarly, ethnicity is another concept that is used to define human difference that is more of a social construct than a scientific way to divide peoples, however, it relates to cultural identities that people choose whereas race is a category that was invented and imposed by white people.  From the fifteenth to sixteenth centuries onwards, white Europeans began categorising human populations through racial hierarchies which placed white people at the top, and darker skinned people at the bottom.  As you hopefully know already, this led to serious worldwide consequences including the most devastating genocide and wars to have taken place to date.  After 1945, the world slowly started talking less and less about race and more in terms of ethnicity.  Scientists from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization made a series of declarations from 1950 onwards about how we should not use the concept of race anymore because it had led to people thinking that racial differences were fixed and real.  Instead, they advocated talking in terms of ethnicity.  As a result, New Racism, also known as cultural racism, emerged.  This is racist rhetoric that avoids overtly racial terms using ambiguous phrasing and an emphasis upon cultural difference as opposed to racial.  This is a topic that requires its own essay, but it is important to be aware that we have not progressed from old biological racism to racial parity.  Racism has not gone away it has just become more complex and covert.  Overall, if we’re talking about racism – the old style or the new – as a historical force it’s not exactly a concept that can be reversed to position white people as the victims unless you’re talking hypothetically or about a parallel dimension where Black people enslaved millions of white people over hundreds of years, instead of the other way around.

No one with any sense is saying that white people are the only humans that can be prejudiced.  Everyone can be prejudiced.  Nevertheless, saying that white people can be the victims of racism misrepresents the word.  It may be linguistically correct to say that white people can be the victims of racism if you follow the definition of the term in the dictionary, but it is factually incorrect because in our reality white people are not the victims of the historical force known as racism.  Hypothetically, could they be?  Yes.  But are they?  No, that’s not what happened.  Words matter and I think that the dictionary definition of racism creates a false perception of what it is.  Racism has always been something that white Europeans did to the rest of the world.  If someone discriminates against you because you’re white then you have the right to be upset about it and to seek justice.  If you want to describe it as racism that’s your business, but hopefully you understand why others feel that you don’t really have the right to claim that word.

“People have always been racist, why do whites always get the blame?”

Viewed through history, racism is a lot more black and white An image from a sixteenth century English emblem book of white Europeans attempting to wash away an indigenous person’s skin colour

Racism is a specific historical force and type of prejudice that emerged through a belief in racial hierarchies which were developed by white Europeans from the Early Modern era into modernity.  Although, proto-forms of racism did emerge in the Middle-Ages.  I am not saying that inter-group prejudice was invented by white people towards the end of the 1400s – humans have always grouped together, discriminated against or warred with other groups and the phenomenon we now describe as genocide is as old as history itself – but in the 1400s white Europeans did invent the printing press and navigate the Atlantic to land in the Americas.  The combination of the two is significant because at the moment in history when Europeans first began to interact with indigenous peoples on a global scale, they also invented the means to widely spread images and stereotypes about them.  The ideology of race and the effects of racism rapidly began to spread at that moment in history.

Human groups have of course understood and noted differences between each other in the past but their ideas on this were quite different to the modern understandings of race.  The ancient Greeks for instance understood themselves as Greeks and everyone else as non-Greeks, or Barbarians.  During the Middle Ages in Europe, white Europeans interacted regularly with Black African, middle eastern, and Asian groups.  They were certainly aware of what became known as racial difference, but they did not articulate it as we do today.  Their understanding of human difference was linked to the four humours style of medicine – blood, phlegm, yellow bile, black bile – that remained popular throughout the continent from the Romans until the Renaissance.  Those who thought and wrote about human difference during the Medieval period generally believed that the contrasting climates of Africa, Asia, and Europe affected the balance of the four humours therefore creating physical differences that we can see between human groups.  Interestingly, pasty white northern Europeans were hypothesised by some back then to be inferior to dark skinned Africans.  This was because cold and wet climates were thought to affect the humours by creating slow witted and unathletic people, whereas hot and dry places were believed to do the opposite.

Viewed through history, racism is a lot more black and white An example of orientalism in European art

Understandings of race, or raza in Spanish and Portuguese – the first European colonisers and inventors of the modern use of the term – rapidly changed from the late 1400s onwards as Europeans began to conquer, enslave, and otherwise dominate or exploit different populations around the world, all the while writing about the experience and representing it in much of the art that we see in museums across Europe today.  Pseudo scientist taxonomists also wrote flawed descriptions of the differences between these groups and developed various racial hierarchies over the centuries in which the whites were invariably at the top and Black Africans at the bottom.  These hierarchies and the literary or artistic representations of them created stereotypes that were propagated around Europe and the world by art and the ever-expanding print media.  This is why white British people in the 1700-mid-1900s for instance generally had strong perceptions of Indian and African peoples regardless of whether or not they had actually met anyone from those groups.  By the end of the nineteenth century, Europeans dominated the world financially and politically, and the European populace generally believed that their rule over people from far off lands was justified because they were inherently superior in a biological sense.

“But isn’t racism a thing of the past?”

To understand current events, you have to know that until very recently the vast majority of Western populations thoroughly and overtly believed in racial hierarchies and white supremacy.  Most presumed and acted on the belief that whites were superior to other groups.  Today, this is not the case.  Your average Western politician does not publicly espouse racist views.  When and how things changed exactly is an interesting question and to answer it thoroughly would also require a separate essay or book.  One theory argues that there was a historical ‘break’ in the overt acceptance of white supremacy after the Second World War.  People saw all the death and realised that it was largely caused by racism.  As a result, for the first time in history, the conditions for massive popular antiracist campaigns emerged.  There was of course the Civil Rights movement in the US, the end of segregation and the introduction of antiracist laws in the UK from 1965 onwards.  Instead of trying to discuss the changes that were taking place in depth, I will use the following points to try and evoke in some way how this was happening in Britain: to my knowledge Britain last had a Prime Minister who overtly held white supremacist views in 1955.  While considering pursuing his third re-election Winston Churchill told his cabinet that he wanted to run on the slogan, Keep England White.  Churchill was not re-elected, but his suggestion led to no controversy or negative consequences.  In contrast, less than two decades later in 1968, Enoch Powell was sacked from his post as Shadow Defence Secretary by Churchill’s former party for publicly making a similar argument and using overtly racial terminology.  The circumstances were different but it is clear that something had started to change between those events in 1955 and 1968 in terms of British and global race relations.  It would however be a massive oversimplification and falsehood to argue that racism in general was somehow disappearing or declining.

Viewed through history, racism is a lot more black and white It was common for wealthy European’s to keep Black servants and to commission portraits which showed of this status symbol while purposefully evoking the white supremacist power dynamic

We tend to think that racism is less of a problem today because those who overtly and publicly uphold white supremacist views have become an extremist minority.  That’s a comforting thought for some.  It suggests progress.  But when you realise that overt, biological, old-style racism was the widely accepted norm until very recently, it seems overly optimistic to assume that we no longer have a problem with racism in the UK or elsewhere.  Of the millions of British people who agreed with Enoch Powell in 1968 – reported at the time as a majority of the population – how many are alive today, and how many raised their children to uphold similar views?  Overt old-school racism is in my opinion continuing its slow descent into obscurity, in Britain at least, but does that even matter when the economic consequences of racism remain so apparent?  Of course things are not the same in the UK as the US, we have different histories, but you only need to have a quick look at the 2017 Race Disparity Audit report to see that racial inequality persists in the UK to a shocking degree.  I have spoken with BAME British people who lived through the Sixties and Seventies that see the overt style of racism as dying out, but also that covert racism persists and is more damaging in reality.  One African Caribbean man told me that he even preferred it back in the 1970s when he knew who his enemies were because they called him racial slurs to his face.  Covert racism is alive and well in the UK today and another topic that deserves its own essay or book.  It denies people equal access to housing, jobs, education and causes greater damage to a person’s life than experiencing racial abuse in the street or at school.  Darker skinned people do not go to British prisons in higher numbers, or achieve less than other groups at British schools because they think it is a good idea and choose to do so.  Experts have highlighted for years how these issues are caused by systemic racism but time and time again little of significance changes.  As Professor David Gillborn argues, when experts repeatedly highlight that racism is the most salient problem for certain BAME children in British schools, yet the government and educators make few substantial changes, it essentially amounts to a conspiracy against Black people in this country.  See also.

I wrote this because I think that more people need to understand and accept the severity of racism in the recent past, so that they can properly understand what is happening in the world today.  If you go about thinking of racism in the terms it is defined by in the dictionary, as opposed understanding it as something historical, you’re going to misinterpret what is going on and not get why people are so angry.  Similarly, if you’re getting triggered by things like #BlackLivesMatter and feel the need to say All Lives Matter then you’re missing the point and falling for Right-wing media narratives that make minoritised people seem like the bad guys when they’re just standing up for themselves.  On a separate note, I’m regularly infuriated to see so many people indulging themselves on social media in ‘researching’ ridiculous conspiracy theories online.  There are so many people out there who seem to position themselves as against the establishment who will argue until they’re blue in the face that ‘they’ are controlling us in different ways.  Yet, for one reason or another, they don’t seem to think that racism is even worth discussing when it’s one of the biggest and most real conspiracies out there – I guess it doesn’t help that many of their conspiracies have roots in Antisemitism.

“Well I support their cause but don’t approve of riots!”

Viewed through history, racism is a lot more black and white Residents clean up in the aftermath of the riots in Liverpool, 1981 - image from the Liverpool 8 and Liverpool 1 Old Photos group on Facebook

I wish nothing but good luck to all of the protesters in the US right now and hope that people in Britain are watching what is happening and taking a long hard think about strengthening efforts to improve the situation at home.  I also wish that white British people could react as optimistically and with the same level of dignity to accusations of racism, or the suggestion that they take part in a racist system, as BAME British have often done when suffering actual instances of racial prejudice.  The amount of visible minoritised British people I have interviewed who take an incredibly sanguine view of the horrific racism they experienced as children and throughout their lives is surprising.  I’m regularly told by the first and second generation African Caribbean, South Asian, or Chinese British people I speak with that they always felt they had a duty to integrate and become British, but the rest of their stories often suggest that this was not reciprocated by white British society.  I am certainly not saying that reacting passively to racism is a good thing, but through speaking to those who experience racism I can see that the day-to-day reality of resisting it must be incredibly emotionally complex and draining.  The violence we are now seeing in the US is far from the normal reaction.  It may seem like an extreme reaction to one event, but in reality it is a very understandable reaction to countless abuses.  My point is that we all need to work together to end racism but visible minoritised people and communities have been doing more than their fair share of the work.  Every time you see a race related riot remember that the people taking part have probably experienced numerous racial slights throughout their lives.  Every time they turned the other cheek, refused to rock the boat, and ignored microaggressions or other racist slights to save their friends/company/colleagues face white people have not exactly reacted by thinking ‘hmm, maybe we should treat them better and as equal humans after all’.  It should therefore be no surprise when we get serious riots in the UK again.

We had serious nationwide race related riots across Britain in 1981, localised race related riots in 1975, 1985, 1987, 1991, 2001 and most recently the nationwide riots that spread after the shooting of Mark Duggan, a young man of white British and African descent, by Police in London in 2011.  The ingredients for another serious riot seem to be there today.  I know that I would be furious if I was constantly seeing news stories about people demonising my community and religion or deporting my grandparents.  All it usually takes to create the spark that lights the fire is one person in a position of authority, usually a police officer, doing something stupid.  We’re also so tied with the US today that something over there could very well lead to serious consequences over here.  Recently, I have seen more and more, predominantly young, British people on social media using the slogan All Cops Are Bastards (usually denoted by the acronym ACAB).  I disagree with the sentiment yet understand why people land at that conclusion when they see that the Police are protecting a broken system.  Remember, while the situation in the US has thematic similarities with the UK it is also substantially different.  Our Police have their problems, but they are not exactly the same as in the US.  Do not get completely caught up in US politics and forget the intricacies of what is happening and has happened over here.  They clearly need to completely over-haul their law enforcement somehow.  Maybe we will eventually need to do something comparable in the UK, but for me the more pertinent way to solve our problems is for all white British people, not just the Police, to reflect deeply on what their ancestors did around the world as a result of racist beliefs that continue to shape our lives today.


We still benefit from the racism, slavery, and colonialism done by white British people over several hundred years and should think with focus about making things right somehow.  We need to re-consider teaching antiracism in British schools.  A nuanced look at British migration, colonial and decolonisation history should become a mandatory element of the national curriculum as opposed to optional.  We do not need to hammer home negative messages or prevent children from taking pride in their British identity, but we do need to create a unifying multicultural British identity that everyone can take pride in moving forward.  However, for us to discuss and understand the good things that unify us, we also need to engage with some of the bad that divided us in the past and arguably continues to divide us.  You can’t for example discuss and commemorate the positive contribution of the Chinese Labour Corps to the British war effort during the First World War without also talking about how a number of the Chinese men who participated were forcibly deported from the UK in the early 1920s, some after already forming families.  People balk at the idea of reparations, but we widely accept as a society that we have an inter-generational responsibility to look after our elders by paying taxes that feed their pensions and healthcare, so why don’t we also see that we have a similar responsibility to right the wrongs that they and their elders caused, or perpetuated?  A good start would be for people to accept the historical relevance of #BlackLivesMatter and to broadly support all efforts to work towards racial parity.  For this to happen we need the public to fully comprehend the historic nature of these issues otherwise we will continue to protect an unequal system and repeat past mistakes.”

More Stories

VE Day and Covid: remember the ethnic minorities

History Professor Wendy Webster reminds us how the sacrifices of migrants and ethnic minorities in World War II were largely forgotten

Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre

Remembering the past to change the future, the Centre at the University was a finalist in the 25th Birthday National Lottery Awards

WWII Blitz comparison with Covid-19 conditions

Professor of Health History Barry Doyle considers the parallels between the two crises