Recently, the ‘I, too, am’ photo campaign against racial prejudice on university campuses has swept the country. Originating at Harvard University, it sparked further campaigns in Oxford and Cambridge where students of ethnic minorities write down everyday racist comments they have experienced at university. These comments may be perceived as innocent and harmless, but in a wider context of the marginalisation of ethnic minorities in society the realities are much harsher. The campaigns of Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge show how everyday racism affects students even in highly educated spheres and has been successful in sparking interest and awareness of racial prejudice, exemplifying the power of art and visual communication. Moreover, the campaign illuminates how racial prejudice is far from a thing of the past.
Racial prejudice can be traced back to Britain’s colonial era. British imperialism was based on the idea of the ‘white man’s burden’ where Europeans believed it was their moral duty to educate natives of the colonies, and used this to justify the domination of their countries. This ideology was carried out through the ‘othering’ process of the colonised subjects who were portrayed as primitive, backward and savage; also validating slavery. Ideas like these were spread through popular culture and imprinted in everyday imagery as seen with the ‘Pears’ Soap’ advertisement from 1899, claiming to be ‘a potent factor in brightening the dark corners of the earth as civilisation advances’. This shows how everyday imagery was a powerful force in spreading ideas of everyday racism.
Anti-Irish sentiment in Britain can be traced back to the Middle Ages when Pope Alexander III gave Henry II of England permission to invade Ireland on the basis of it being a ‘barbarous nation’ with ‘filthy practices’. In the early modern period following the advent of Protestantism in Great Britain, the Irish people suffered both social and political discrimination for refusing to renounce Catholicism. Following the Potato Famine many Irish people moved to Liverpool where Anti-Irish prejudice was widespread. This led to Anti-Irish stereotyping in Victorian Britain, such as the view that the Irish were alcoholics. Throughout Britain, newspaper illustrations and hand drawings depicted a prehistoric ape-like image of Irish faces to reinforce evolutionary racist claims that the Irish people were an inferior race. This can be seen in the 19th century example of cartoons from the British Victorian magazine ‘Punch’.
Racial prejudice is arguably also present in the UK’s police force, showing institutional racism which invades and damages society. Stephen Lawrence was killed in 1993 in a racially motivated attack by a gang of white youths. Furthermore, the police were later investigated for trying to avoid further probing into the racial motivation behind the attack. Racial prejudice here can be seen to lead to fatal consequences, and be ingrained into society’s institutions which hinder justice, exemplifying the danger behind everyday racism.
The period of decolonisation in post war Britain led to a massive influx of immigrants from the British colonies in the Caribbean, Africa and India. This fuelled fresh racial prejudice in Great Britain due to the changing dynamics of the country. The racial tensions were exemplified by the 1958 Notting Hill race riots. In 1959 there was also the murder of Kelso Cochrane in North London, an Antiguan immigrant to Britain who was killed by a group of white youths.
However, from 1959, activist Claudia Jones organised events to celebrate Caribbean culture “in the face of the hate from the white racists”. This led to establishment of the Notting Hill Carnival which first took place in 1964. The carnival now takes place annually and is one of the largest street parties in Europe, attracting around one million people in the past years. Claudia Jones’ artistic initiative has managed to raise awareness and celebrate racial diversity in Britain thus making it a successful counterbalance to existing everyday racism in Britain.
Today, we see the ‘I, am, too’ photo campaign have national impact on how students face racial prejudice. It is seen that everyday comments, which may seem innocent, add to a wider perspective of racial prejudice which has been inherent in Britain for as long as history can date. The impact of art and design was used in the Victorian era to promote racial prejudice, but recently, we have seen artistic outputs used to counter racial prejudice. Imagery has a strong impact on the way we see and think about things, which is why we need to keep producing positive imagery to make racial prejudice history.