A week or so ago, in a closed Facebook group, a person posted a conversation they had with someone from an Indian call centre. The post made fun of this person’s accent, their use of certain words, and their command of English. This was posted to “cheer up” the other group members, as a joke on a dreary Wednesday morning.
Light-hearted banter, it was called. As a person of Indian origin, I did not find it funny. As someone who runs a think tank and workshops for diversity, I could immediately sense the underlying implicit and unconscious bias in this supposedly “funny” post.
Having lived in the UK for more than 20 years, I consider this my home. I love the British sense of humour; I love the sarcasm, the self-effacing and self-deprecating nature of British humour. However, there is nothing light-hearted or funny about making fun of someone’s accent because of their nationality or race.
The fact that numerous people seem to find it funny is not evidence of its hilarity, but rather shows that we live in a society that finds gross generalisations about people based on their race and nationality to be acceptable.
I am the only woman of colour living in a small town in the northwest, a region where the ethnic diversity is still only about 5 per cent, much lower than the national average, and I have to face such bias and prejudice every single day because of my skin colour.
“I did not mean to offend you, of course,” is something I am often told, implying I am the one with the problem, the one who is too sensitive, and the one who is different and has no sense of humour.
When people make comments based on hurtful stereotypes and claim it is a “joke”, they are not only othering me, but also suggesting that their intent is more valuable than my feelings. As a nation with a dark history of colonisation and oppression of people of colour, Britain needs to re-examine its attitude towards those of us who live here.
Language is a powerful medium through which unconscious bias and prejudice against certain nationalities is reinforced. Research shows that jokes which rely on stereotypes towards certain groups and communities create a climate where discrimination is normalised, shifting the social milestones for what constitutes racism and xenophobia. It alienates people like me, and it makes us feel isolated and different.
The potential consequences are clear – a society which creates divisions between its citizens is ripe for exploitation. It is these outdated and prejudiced ideologies which led lots of people to vote for Brexit in the first place. If you don’t believe that xenophobia and racism exists in this country, look no further than BNP campaigns, hate crime stats or the refugee monument in Liverpool which has been defaced three times since it was installed in July.
The old trope of “I’m not racist, I have black friends” is often used as a joke itself – a symbol of someone clearly ignorant to their own prejudices. The suggestion that because something is “funny” to one person it cannot be offensive to another is just as absurd, and legitimises bigotry while dismissing the need to protect those communities.
We must address this normalised language and understand the impact that unconscious biases have if we want to live in a country which is equal and fair, and where people like me are not judged – or ridiculed – based on the colour of our skin.
Pragya Agarwal is the chief executive and founder of the social enterprise The Art Tiffin