“Privilege is rarely surrendered lightly.” Acclaimed writer Kurt Barling and his daughter Naomi talk BLM, race-thinking, and resistance to change.
By Naomi Barling.
My father, Kurt Barling, was one of the first Black British lecturers at the London School of Economics and Political Science in the 1980s after finishing his PhD, became a longstanding BBC Journalist and is now a journalism professor.
I recognize with pride that my father was ‘woke’ long before this current spike in racial consciousness. His wokeness, open dialogue, and truth-telling came as a shock to many during his career. He spent much of his time making films like Who Killed PC Blakelock?, 41 Bullets, and Trouble at the Mosque that feature race as a key factor in social and economic inequality around the world. His book The ‘R’ Word: Racism, published in 2015, drew on his personal and professional experiences navigating this space.
In the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality, stereotypes, and racist tropes, I sat down with my father to explore his ideas about what he calls the “illusion of race.”
What is it about the word ‘race’ that you see as so oppressive?
Race as a scientific concept has been well and truly debunked. It has no real value in helping us identify differences within the human family. Skin color is not a variable which can meaningfully help us differentiate between groups of people. Just because we look different doesn’t mean we are. That being said, race is an enduring social construct which people continue to use to try to explain those surface differences. This is a language that I, as a person of color, did not invent. It was a box that people of color were put into for generations, with all that box entails. I do not wish to be circumscribed by other people’s definitions of who I am. I want to choose that for myself. Being British defines part of who I am. Black does very little to help people understand that I am, we are, the sum of so many parts. Holding onto race means holding onto the mythologies that are inherited with a redundant concept. It may seem counter-intuitive, but racism exists, despite the fact that race doesn’t, because our behaviors continue to be fashioned by the oppression associated with this historical false idea, riddled with illogicalities. Let’s hope the #BLM Movement takes us into a space where people actively recognize this, but also that the human ideas of justice, equality, and fair treatment should take center stage. This requires removing barriers that have been established across society and institutions, based on the false premise of race. Let’s not prolong the trap.
Fear of the “other” is often what ignites prejudice. How do you see us moving past this?
As long as people have had to negotiate cultural barriers, since ancient times prejudice, or pre-judging those we don’t know, has been part of the human condition. The more we know about the “other” in complex multi-ethnic societies, the more we should recognize that our differences are rooted in culture, class, and education. These differences should have the ability to be negotiated without defining outcomes for the individual. Britain is, for example, a place where a University education is and should be available to all. The more diverse leaders that emerge from these universities, the greater the chance that the idea that skin color defines an individual and their future will be challenged.
You talk about genetic liberation; what do you mean?
For a couple of centuries, the accepted belief was that skin color corresponds with fundamental human difference, which can be defined in biological terms as genetic differences. It used to be thought that the chemical codes that make us human could be aligned with skin color as a measure of our differences. That is simply inaccurate. Genes help us understand many things about the human organism, but genetic patterns do not co-exist with skin color. The idea that skin color is significant is simply overwhelmed by human complexity. Geneticists like professor Steve Jones helped liberate us from this race-thinking by showing us that color is only on the surface of the skin and does not explain our genetic make-up.
Do you think we live in a post-racial society?
We most certainly do not live in a post-racial society! Too many of the prejudices, inequalities, injustices, and discrimination people face are rooted in the historical mythology which underpins race-thinking. A post-racial society could only exist without racialized thinking. Do I think “it’s possible to live in a post-racial society?” That’s a more pertinent question. The answer to that is: once people understand and act on the idea that race is an incorrect way of understanding human difference, and move away from racialized thinking and begin treating people fairly, equally and justly without reference to race, then we could justifiably say we are in a society that has vanquished racism. It’s a challenge we seem closer to facing with the momentum of the #BLM movement. But never underestimate the forces of resistance to such change, privilege is rarely surrendered lightly.
What is your advice to the younger generation?
Think critically, call out the bullshit, and seek the truth. It’s a guide and not a target. With courage, and by facing the untruths of race, your generation can reach the holy grail of recognizing that value in others comes from continuing to negotiate difference.