Positive Action: Misidentity Politics and Levelling the Playing Field

If two athletes limber up to start a race and we place one at the start line and one in the changing room, how can we expect the latter to finish at the same time?

For many ethnic minorities, this is the scenario. Far too often they aren’t even permitted to run the race, let alone start remotely close to the line. Whilst those who are fortunate enough to exist in the dominant majority – notably, through no choice of their own – are permitted the privileges that toeing the starting-line allow, ethnic minorities are new to the race. They still have to learn the rules and how to make them work in their favour. Add to this that far too often they are not equipped with the correct tools to run – no running shoes and a track full of potholes.

Whilst the metaphor of athletics is just that – a metaphor – it is a realistic way of envisaging the levels of structural discrimination faced by many ethnic minorities. This idea is by no means victimising ethnic minorities, or attempting to invoke pity, but demonstrates the institutional and structural prejudices that must be conquered at every turn. Remarkably, the very fact that ethnic minorities are still succeeding in education and in the workplace, despite these hurdles, speaks volumes.

Positive action and access programmes serve as effective ways of levelling the playing field.

This is evidently a contentious issue; on both sides of the Atlantic. Here in the UK, this includes trolls on social media, who, from the place of undeniable privilege white skin allows, lament their own personal lack of opportunities, posit the reverse racism theory, and state that focusing on race is just another attempt to divide us – all comments which have no foundation in the wider truth of structural discrimination.

It is ironic to hear people, regularly, speak of positive action as a magical concept invented within the last 20 years to give ethnic minorities an unfair leg-up. Instead, it is a well-known fact that the entire history of Western countries has been built upon the premise of positive discrimination for Caucasian individuals. Inherent racism necessitates the concept of positive action programmes.

The truth of the matter is, reverse racism does not and will not ever exist. It is made-up, fabricated, an illusion. You may face socio-economic deprivation– an issue which must be addressed in its turn– but the fact is, you will not be discriminated against because of the colour of your skin. If you walk into a room as a white person, the visual element of your ethnicity means that you are more likely to be considered, and your voice more likely to be heard.

Of course, there is the matter of what we are teaching ethnic minorities to believe. Destined to fail, or to miss out, the call usually is, or telling people of colour that they cannot achieve. But don’t be fooled. Ethnic minorities know the experiences they face, in fact, we face them every day. Whether we choose to take up positive action opportunities, however, should be a personal choice.

The principal narrative thus far has been that positive action is solely about race. But what some fail to realise is that race is just one component of the wider issue.

The BBC documentary, ‘Will Britain Ever Have a Black Prime Minister?’, presented by British actor David Harewood, investigated the obstacles facing Black Britons specifically. Referencing the 2011 census, statistics show that 40% of black children grow up in social housing, which is one indicator of poverty. When wealthy children overtake poorer children in development by the tender age of five, this has knock-on effects. Whilst this is also a class issue, 40% as opposed to the 25% of their white counterparts who grow up in poverty is a stark difference. Positive action not only seeks to aid those who are ethnic minorities, but addresses the issues which they are more likely to face. These are lived experiences which often mean lack of contacts, opportunities and access to top education.

So, perhaps we can state positive action programmes should be adapted to inclusivity of both race and class. Dr. Kimberle Crenshaw, leading scholar of critical race theory, states that ‘although many agree the ‘system is rigged’ economically, few are aware of the ways in which racial inequality has been structurally embedded within society’. Candid discussions on race, she says, are desperately needed. So instead of trying to write off positive action as some sort of pity party, perhaps actually listening to the needs of affected communities might help. Who would’ve thought it? 

Programmes such as bursaries here at King’s can help. Looking out toward the wider world, there are a myriad of schemes seeking to bridge the gaps systematically created by a fundamentally inequitable society. Many of these initiatives seek to address both class and race in equal measure.

Positive action is not hurting anyone. In fact, it merely opens the door for those who’d have otherwise missed out. It is structural and systematic racism that necessitated positive action programmes in the first place, and, unfortunately continues to necessitate them today. Whilst it would be fantastic to live in an equal world where everyone starts the race at the same time with the same conditions, this is simply not the case. Ending positive discrimination only further cements the systematic advantages which have been in place for white and indeed privileged individuals since time immemorial.

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