Those of us who live on the margins of structural power – because of our gender, sexuality, race, religion and more – can tell you that life is a daily ritual of low grade violations, humiliations and harm, punctuated by occasional episodes of explicit violence. We can also tell you that this daily ritual of what social scientists call ‘microaggressions’ is harder to resist and challenge than explicit violence.
Any resistance is met with outright denial, ‘gaslighting’ – or being told that our experiences of harm are imagined – and even more aggression and violence from the very people and structures who are responsible for that harm.
Structural Racism in White Society
To paraphrase Sara Ahmed, to speak of the problem is to become the problem. In exposing the constant and institutionalised racism, Dr Priyamvada Gopal of Cambridge University has done exactly this: become a problem, a thorn in the side, an enemy not only of the elite institution that employs her but also of large sections of the British press (and society) that not only valourise and idolise her institution, but also see her and others like her as a threat to the status quo that benefits them.
British press has made much of the fact that Dr Gopal insists on using her correct – and achieved-through-immense-hard work – title. Many journalists and outlets are insisting on not using her title even now, exposing their own biases and hypocrisy. They would of course never resist or desist from using the appropriate title for a white, especially male academic. But the problem is not of titles alone.
The problem is of a structurally racist British society with an imperial hangover throwing everything it can to attack, smear and try to bring down an exceptional academic of colour who has the courage to challenge it. And this problem – born of a racist, sexist, imperial society – is not limited to Dr Gopal.
‘Microaggressions’ Against Non-Whites
For example, non-white (especially female) members of parliament have testified that they are consistently directed to the service lifts reserved for maintenance staff instead of the facilities for MPs.
Non-white doctors are often dismissed by white patients who do not think they are ‘good enough’ to treat them.
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On a personal note, I am fortunate to work at a less prestigious institution than Dr Gopal where service staff is mostly non-white and thus see me, one of the few academics of colour, as an ally and colleague. But not too long ago, the vice chancellor mistook me for a secretary at a faculty meeting (I was the only non-white person in the room so I suppose that was his excuse). And not a term goes by without at least one white student refusing to acknowledge my experience and expertise and demanding that someone ‘more qualified’ take over.
Dr Gopal’s justified and courageous stance is not against an imagined slight but a persistent, all-encompassing structure of injustice.
Neither is it for her benefit alone. It is a principled stance against a systemic and pervasive inequality that impacts many of us, whether we work in academia as faculty members or as baristas in the local coffee shop. It is a cry of rage from someone who has reached her extraordinary limit of forbearance.
Structural Oppression Not Limited to the UK
Let me be clear – there is nothing wrong with service jobs and facilities, or lack of titles. However, selectively applying terms of respect or titles that denote authority is deliberate, intentional insult. Mis-identification of non-white experts is not only an expression of implicit bias, it is also a subtle but clear message that we do not belong. These microaggressions are intended to put and keep us in our ‘place.’ They reinforce the message that not all our education, expertise, hard work, qualifications, income is enough to be counted as equal to the lowest within British white supremacist society.
Ironically, our very presence – mine, Dr Gopal’s and that of millions of us – in Westminster, in board rooms and universities, in art galleries and publishing houses – undermines the message and purpose of white supremacy.
Our bodies, minds, struggles and achievements – despite the odds – threaten and destabilise an increasingly sclerotic nation, mired in colonial fantasies and delusions of political and economic power. It is this unacknowledged decline that drives the angry attacks by British press and academia as well as sections of the public, not only against Dr Gopal but against all of us.
Before ending, I want to highlight one point: these dynamics are not limited to the UK or its universities. This is about who is excluded or included. And while specifics may change, similar dynamics also plague India where explicit and implicit exclusions and microaggressions are practiced against those on the margins – for reasons of gender, sexuality, caste, religion, class, etc.
None of us can fight injustice abroad, while remaining complicit at home.
(Dr Sunny Singh is a UK-based academic and writer. Her latest novel is called ‘Hotel Arcadia’. She can be reached at @sunnysingh_n6. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)