One Saturday morning, while shopping on a busy high street in South London, I noticed a commotion outside a nearby store. I was initially at a distance, but I could see a number of uniformed police officers standing with a group of young Black men who appeared to be in handcuffs.
A large crowd had already gathered to witness the incident, which was not surprising given the widespread perception that police officers do not always treat Black men fairly, a perception that a recent study by Baroness Louise Casey reaffirms.
As I got closer to the scene, I could sense the growing anger and tension among the onlookers. Screams of “Enough with the brutality!” “Racist scum!” and “Stop terrorising Black men!” could be heard as people pleaded with the police to let the boys go.
In the midst of all the mayhem, the owner of the store emerged and began waving his arms frantically in an effort to clear the area. He had to yell over the noise to get his point across, which was that the young men were the ones terrorising him by vandalising his store and destroying his property after he refused to sell them alcohol because they didn’t produce IDs to verify their ages.
I continued to observe the crowd clash with the police and even with the business owner, who was the primary victim, and I couldn’t help but think about this typical response to such events. When a “person of colour” acts inappropriately or engages in misconduct and is justly held accountable for it, it appears that they are frequently portrayed as victims rather than violators. The usual reaction is to blame racism rather than the irresponsible decisions and actions that contributed to the unfavourable outcome.
Even though this incident occurred more than three years ago, it came to mind after reading some recent comments made by a member of the Scottish National Party in response to all the criticism that Humza Yousaf has been subjected to lately. According to Karen Adams, any questioning of Scotland’s new First Minister’s actions or competence is simply racist and “utterly disgusting”.
Indeed, some individuals may find comments such as “hopeless” or “Humza useless” disgusting, but this does not automatically constitute a claim of racism. Pam Gosal, a Scottish Member of Parliament for the Conservative Party who is also of Indian descent, said it correctly when she stated: “Throwing accusations so flippantly is extremely damaging.”
Karen Adams, who has been the representative for Banffshire and Buchan Coast for the past two years, wrote in The National that the “level of racism” directed at the first Asian and Muslim leader of the nation was astounding. Yet she neglects to mention that Humza Yousaf has been criticised for years, long before he became First Minister. Both the general public and other members of the Holyrood have often had problems with how he has conducted himself both publicly and privately. He has found himself in various controversies and mishaps throughout his career, with one writer even dubbing him the “Forrest Gump of Scottish Politics.“
The majority of negative commentary on Humza Yousaf centres on his past policies and poor performance in his previous ministerial roles, particularly in relation to the appalling and “shameful” wait times in the A&E departments and of cancer patients awaiting urgent treatment. Any other leader would be subjected to the same level of scrutiny and harsh criticism, and they already have been; he should not be treated differently. His “non-Whiteness” is not an excuse for holding him to a lower standard than his predecessors.
It’s important to remember that not everyone who disagrees with or dislikes a “person of colour” is a bigoted racist. In fact, it is common to find that people who are disliked by those outside of their group are also disliked by those within their own supposed group. This was the case with Meghan Markle, who was also unpopular with members of “BIPOC communities” at times, despite efforts by her supporters to portray her as a hapless victim who was only subjected to constant backlash because of her racial identity.
This in no way legitimises the vile abuse received by public figures, but calling things “racist” when they are not further dilutes a term that once had a very specific meaning. The boys who harassed a small business owner were not detained because of their ethnicity, and the First Minister is not being heavily criticised because of his Asian heritage.
Racism should not be used as a rationalisation to release people from accountability. Those of us who identify with so-called “marginalised groups” should not only expect but insist on being held to the same standards of behaviour and conduct as every other human being, as anything less demonstrates that we seek preferential treatment rather than equal treatment.
Ada Akpala is the founder of Different Voice Initiative. It is a space for learning to help people navigate in this world of uncertainty and disorder.