Wed 11 Dec 2013

Oprah Winfrey case highlights difficulties of dealing with society's embedded prejudices

Oprah Winfrey has never been afraid to speak out when it comes to issues of race. While promoting her upcoming film The Butler, which explores America's racial history through the story of an African American butler in the White House, Oprah has recently commented, “There are still generations of people, older people, who were born and bred and marinated in it – in that prejudice and racism – and they just have to die.”

These comments come not long after the media storm caused by Oprah's allegations that a shop assistant in a designer boutique in Switzerland refused to show her a bag as it was "too expensive", citing this as an example of the kind of racism she faced on a regular basis and highlighting that institutionalised racism continues to be an issue today.

This kind of racism is notoriously difficult to tackle as it is much more subtle than overt racism, as the discrimination does not lie in the act, but in the motivation or rationalisation behind that act.

In the UK, the murder of Stephen Lawrence, who was killed in a racist attack in 1993 and issues in relation to the investigation led to the inquiry into the Metropolitan Police which found that the force was "institutionally racist". In his inquiry, Lord Macpherson described this as "the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin", which "can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes, and behaviour, which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping, which disadvantages minority ethnic people". The inquiry concluded that the death of Stephen Lawrence was not taken seriously because of his ethnicity, based on the presumption that black people in urban areas are more likely to be members of a gang or involved in knife crime.

There has been a huge drive in the UK in the last 20 years to address discrimination, leading up to the Equality Act coming into force in 2010, which protects people from discrimination on the basis of a number of characteristics including race.

However, Oprah's comments bring to light that despite massive efforts to eradicate racism in society, the issue of institutionalised racism is still prevalent today. According to Professor Dr Chris Mullard, a leading race relations expert and recipient of a CBE for his services to race relations, racism is "deeply embedded within the prejudices of a society" and "is not something you can get rid of in 10 years".

The biggest difficulty facing this kind of discrimination is that the act is racist due to the motivation lying behind it, and that is not always clear. Using the example of Oprah in the Swiss boutique, the shop assistant may have been telling her that the bag was too expensive for her on the basis that she was black, but she may have been telling her this due to another factor. In fact, the shop assistant in question has since responded saying that she didn't mean it was too expensive for Oprah, but she meant that she considered the bag was too expensive in comparison to similar bags on offer. This underlines the key difficulty in identifying when an act is racially motivated or for other, perhaps legitimate, reasons.

Is it therefore simply a case of, as Oprah is suggesting, waiting for the older generations who were more exposed to racism inherent in society, to die out or is there anything which can be done to prevent this kind of discrimination?

Professor Dr Chris Mullard has commented that the challenge for public bodies and society is to take steps and understand differences, and accepting these as natural and recognising these as a reality of our society, rather than something unusual awkward or just too difficult to address. Getting to the root of people's prejudices - not only in relation to race, but to gender, disability, sexual orientation, religion or belief - is by no means an overnight process and changing the attitudes of society is no small undertaking.

Oprah's experience also highlights that discrimination can be experienced in many different forums. Many people are aware of the protection available from discrimination in the work place, but are as many aware of the protections from discrimination that exist in terms of access to services and public functions, in connection with schools and further and higher education, occupation of premises and by associations? While the publicity machine that raged when the Equality Act came into force in 2010 focussed on employment protections, the Act has considerably broader application with members of the public entitled to seek redress in the civil courts where appropriate.

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