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  Opinion   Columnists  16 Apr 2021  Farrukh Dhondy | Racism exists in Britain, but it’s not always ‘institutional’

Farrukh Dhondy | Racism exists in Britain, but it’s not always ‘institutional’

In his words: "I am just a professional writer, which means I don't do blogs and try and get money for whatever I write."
Published : Apr 17, 2021, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Apr 17, 2021, 12:00 am IST

There were two incidents in my years at Cambridge University which I could possibly label racist


“The day dawns
Your Yoni yawns
The lingam says ‘good morning’’;
The night has gone
But the game’s still on —
That apple came with no warning.”
— From The Pirhana Purana by Bachchoo

There were two “incidents” in my years at Cambridge University which I could possibly label “racist”. On my first day, in conversation with my tutor, Meredith Dewey, he used an unfamiliar word. He asked if my room was comfortable and said: “The New Block has central heating, so we put all the wogs there.”


I hadn’t heard the “W” word before. I later asked my neighbour, Beresford, what it meant, and he said it was the abbreviation for “Worthy Oriental Gentleman”. The insult, I realised was in the implicit patronisation. I am certain Dewey meant no offence. He was not a racist, but it was an imperial term he’d been brought up with and hadn’t thought about. Not very many people, 40 or more years on, dare publicly pronounce the word. Like the “N” word or the “P” word (used for all Asians), it’s taboo.

That was verbal. The real incident of race discrimination I faced at university was in my second year when we had to live out of college in “digs”. I applied for several and was turned away from many because the landladies didn’t accept any “wogs” in their rooms. One got over it.


London was another fettle of kitsch. Yes, there were the same elements of race-based abusive words and the refusal by landlords to rent out their bed-sitters and bartenders refusing to serve you in pubs. There were assaults, certainly through racist motives, some serious, as the time in 1973 when a petrol bomb was thrown into the ground floor of the building where I had a flat on the second and had to leap out of the window of a burning building.

Even so, these may have been racist, but couldn’t be strictly classed as “institutional racism”. My first experience of the meaning of that phrase was when I got a teaching job at a school which had been established as an amalgamation of three schools -- Henry Thornton, which was a grammar school, all white except for two Indian doctors’ sons, Tennyson and Aristotle. The Tennysonians and Aristotelians were 90 per cent black with 10 per cent of white working-class boys. The amalgamated school was graded into 10 levels in each academic year. The division seemed institutionally pernicious as the top two grades were exclusively white and the bottom four almost uniformly black with the middle grades layered in a climbing graph of racial composition. There were no declared or transparent criteria for the classification. Of course, the school protested that the divisions were based on academic tests. After six months in the school, I was convinced they were not. It was an institutionally race-biased division.


Living and working in London and being a member of a radical political group, I was soon made aware that the police in every major city systematically picked on West Indians walking the streets and searched them, or invaded their gatherings, calling them drug raids.

It was not till the 1980s when, after the riots of black youngsters in Brixton in London, in Liverpool and Birmingham and the murder of a teenager called Stephen Lawrence by racist thugs, that Westminster set up independent enquiries into the causes and possible remedies of what was clearly an urban war between the police and blacks.

One of the enquiries by an impartial member of the judiciary, characterised the police forces as “institutionally racist”. Since that term entered the public vocabulary, it has been used to characterise very many institutions of Britain.


In the long shadow of the Back Lives Matter movement, BoJo’s government recruited a Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. The commissioners were eleven people. Ten of them from Asian and black communities and were representatives of several professions. They produced a 258-page report which, when it was published on April Fool’s day brought a tsunami of criticism. Not from the right-leaning press in Britain, which accepted and boasted about the report’s contention that Britain had no institutions which could be, on statistical evidence, condemned as “institutionally racist”.

The report was cautious in several ways but raised a storm of protest from black academics, writers, activists and liberal newspapers, some of whom questioned the “findings” and others who condemned it as a Tory government whitewash. I was made aware, gentle reader, of several of these objections. They were in the main not backed by statistical counter arguments to the report’s findings, but assessments of the “mood” and the feelings of those who would speak for the black communities — if there is indeed still such a single entity.


Some of the negative reaction to the report, which said for instance that the Chinese, Asian and female black students excelled in schools and left white and black working-class boys scoring the worst in exams and meritocratic progress. The report concluded that this was not endemic institutional racism in the educational system but was attributable to vast social factors.

I admit I haven’t read the report but will do. The fact that I know two of the commissioners and respect the acumen, honesty and view of at least one of them, inclines me at this point to sit on the fence. Ouch!

Tags: racism in britain, institutional racism in britain, racism on asian and african people, worthy oriental gentleman, racist remarks