I recently wrote in response to the Quilliam Foundation’s report on child sexual exploitation (CSE). I asserted then, as I continue to do so, that to racialise both victims and perpetrators of CSE is damaging and exposes all our children and young people to harm. I mentioned an encounter I had with a young, Pakistani Muslim woman – I’ll call her Zara – who was a survivor of historical CSE and the pain that she felt at her experiences being ignored. Her brown skin, she told me, meant that she was not worthy of sympathy. For anyone who purports to care, that sentence is a kick in the gut. We have let Zara down – and she is not alone. Due to the hidden nature of child abuse, there will always be limitations in terms of our understanding of how abuse takes place and its impact on survivors. In the context of BAME children, this knowledge gap widens further. The polarised discussions that are playing out in our media succeed in ensuring that they continue to be marginalised. In doing so, it could well be argued that the media is guilty of exacerbating the risk.
In January, I spent the day at the Centre for Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse (CSA), hearing from black and south Asian professionals who themselves are working with BAME children and young people. This was an opportunity to share our experiences as part of the centre’s BAME scholars programme. The discussion focussed on sharing expertise and insights on the impact of racial bias, including the factors that influence society’s perceptions of BAME children and how those perceptions prevent us from effectively, and meaningfully, safeguarding children. Again, our media plays a critical role in fomenting perceptions.
How does racism manifest itself in Britain?
We know that BAME people living in Britain experience racism in many forms and that this racism has the potential to significantly alter their life experiences. To take one example, there is ample evidence and research which highlights the inequities of the UK’s Criminal Justice System. This includes the recent Lammy Review, which reports on the disproportionate representation of BAME people, both in terms of incarceration rates and length of sentences. The review raised particular concerns about the Youth Justice System, where 41% of those imprisoned are BAME. There seems to be a tendency to deny or minimise the role of racism as reasons for the disproportionality, and many will point to other factors such as poverty and unemployment. There is certainly something in this. However, contrary to the intentions of this assertion, it serves to provides further evidence of the impact of racism in the UK. Research tells us that the poverty rate is twice as high for BAME groups. They also have higher unemployment rates and are more likely to be paid less. Given this, why do we continue to assert that race can be a determiner of criminality, and are happy to engage in unsupported arguments; framing brown men as paedophiles, black men as thugs, but are unwilling to acknowledge the evidenced injustices of racism?
We must ask ourselves how these attitudes impact on a young person’s sense of identity. My FACES colleague, Melissa Llewellyn, recently wrote about the Gillette advertising campaign, which sought to challenge negative gender and racial stereotypes, recognising the damage that this does to both the individual and society more widely. Each of the professionals who sat in the room with me last week were able to recount numerous examples of how the internalisation of these narratives has caused palpable damage to the young people that they work with.
What challenges does this create in terms of safeguarding our children?
In an environment where people of colour and their faith or culture are perpetually portrayed as ‘bad’, it becomes difficult to see when those same groups are themselves being harmed – outside of those contexts which conform to racial stereotypes. In the case of Zara, and the 109 girls of Pakistani heritage who were amongst those identified as victims of CSE in Rotherham, there has been an outright refusal to acknowledge their abuse at all. I have often argued that the inability to discard racial stereotypes creates a gap in safeguarding frameworks which BAME children fall through. Asad, for example, is a young Muslim boy, also of Pakistani heritage, who was highlighted as being at risk of ‘extremism’ when he became withdrawn and began distancing himself from his peers. In actual fact, he was the victim of a long and sustained bullying campaign, and was holding back from classmates in order to try and keep himself safe. Another family’s concerns about their daughter Sarita’s abuse at the hands of an older man were dismissed because of the assumption that they held ‘backwards’ views around extra-marital relationships. In both these cases, ethnicity, race, culture and religion, were perceived as risk factors. To allow personal prejudice and bias to influence our reasoning is a manifestation of racism. Unless we confront this ugly reality, we cannot even begin to tackle the damage it causes. We will not only continue to fail in safeguarding young people like Asad and Sarita, but we become complicit.
I know that racism is a difficult subject to talk about, not least because the discourse tends to focus solely on overt displays of bad language and behaviour. Honestly, this type of racism is far easier to respond to. It is the ever present, subtle and covert forms of racism that are harder to tackle. It is the perpetuation of stereotypes and false perceptions. This racism is systemic and institutional. It exists in our schools and our workplaces. It is facilitated by our laws and propagated by the media. It is the conscious and unconscious bias of people with power and influence which ensures that equity of opportunity does not exist for all.
The experiences that I heard that day were difficult to listen to. This was not because I am naïve about the levels of racial bias that we face or that our young people are subjected to. I encounter these same attitudes and behaviours towards people of black and minority ethnic backgrounds on a daily basis, and have seen first-hand the hurt caused. This, in itself, was not news to me. The pain that I felt came from the knowledge that these were conversations that we could not have outside this ‘safe space’ that we had created. Outside these spaces, concerns about racism are, at best, diminished and dismissed at worst. They are met with ridicule, or accusations of gas-lighting and aggression. If we want to have these conversations outside this space, we have to be brave.
In writing this, and sharing the insights of my fellow scholars at the Centre for Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse, I am inviting you to join us in this ‘brave space’. Let’s talk about racism. Let’s talk about prejudice. Be ready to listen, and to act. Our children are depending on us.
“Every one of you is a protector and guardian and responsible for your wards and those under your care…” (Bukhari & Muslim)
My thanks to Daniel Morris, Reanna Vernon, Giselle Richelieu, Natasha Spencer-Corbin, and Zlakha Ahmed, whose insights and wisdom have been included in this writing. I am grateful for your clarity and openness.
Rehana Faisal (co-chair, FACES)