Interview with Professor Kurt Barling: The Disease of Racism

Mili Thakrar (United Kingdom)

September 2021

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Racism is happening everywhere. It is a plague that has been infecting our systems since the dawn of civilization. Addressing the issue of inequality is essential. Regardless of socioeconomic, gender, or racial identity, you should be talking about this, and you should be aware of it. You don’t need to be some big celebrity to make a difference; all you need is a voice. Accordingly, in this article, I will be discussing the views, thoughts, and perspectives of Professor Kurt Barling, author of The ‘R’ Word: Racism, as he reflects on the subject of racial inequality. 


Professor Kurt Barling, BA, MSc, PhD, SFHEA, is Professor of Journalism at Middlesex University. As well as having won many awards for his reporting, Professor Barling has written various books, including The ‘R’ Word: Racism. In over 25 years as a leading BBC broadcaster, he has produced numerous primetime documentaries, reported undercover from war zones, and been threatened with an AK-47 rifle. In the following interview that I conducted, he reveals how, even as a child, he knew that something was “deeply wrong about the categories of race, and how that affected people’s behavior.” As a BBC correspondent, Professor Barling was never allowed to give his “personal take on race and racism,” but when he became a professor, he decided it was time to commit to writing something and making an even bigger difference than he previously did at the BBC. One of the reasons why he believes that “honest” journalism is essential is because “young people need to be well informed in order to put their experience into a balanced context.” 


Writing about such a delicate topic as racism isn’t easy. It is not as simple as writers seem to make it look when they somehow, in Professor Barling’s words, “cover the sweep of history of ideas in as few words as possible.” Racism has prevailed for centuries, from human chattel enslavement to vituperative comments on the street. Discussing racism is of paramount importance; however, it is also a sensitive and controversial issue. Yet that was not the biggest challenge Professor Barling faced when writing his book. Instead, the greatest obstacle was to compellingly engage the reader with the idea that “race has deeply problematic roots and… that we will never deal effectively with the problem of racism.” 


One of the reasons why Professor Barling felt motivated to write his book was because, since childhood, he often asked himself why a person would treat someone differently because of the colour of their skin rather than the content of their character. He admits that, “once you have those questions in your mind from a young age, they never leave you.” In fact, Professor Barling was so inspired by this question, he travelled the world as a journalist exploring stories that “racism was at the heart of.” One of the main reasons he wrote The ‘R’ Word was because he believed “it was a good starting place to think about how we approach the problem, and how we might find more effective ways of negotiating difference.” 


The current Internet Age is very conducive to learning and, as a result, there are plenty of resources being propagated by many people seeking to increase their awareness of racial issues. I asked Professor Barling what we could do to be more active as a part of everyday life, to which he profoundly replied by talking about his son, Nathaniel. He mentioned that they were working together on a project that uses “Artificial Intelligence (AI), and Machine Learning in particular, to build a new approach to offering people straight facts aiming at the most truthful reporting possible.” (You can find out more information about the project at www.knowherenews.com on their free website). It is important to put the knowledge gained from resources like this into action. But one must be better informed in order to know where “best to make an impact.” Professor Barling wanted his book to be “read by all sorts of people, and particularly young people.” Thus, it is clear Professor Barling believes that we should take advantage of a resource previous generations did not have, such as AI and the internet, to learn about racial injustice. 


Over the last few months, social media has been filled with people lamenting their ignorance about these issues. A campaign even ensued to start ‘decolonising’ school curricula in a bid to better educate youth. It is thus worth ending on this point: You are not alone if you feel uninformed about certain aspects of history and unaware of the harrowing reality of the minority plight. Seeking an apodictic understanding, however, is inevitably difficult to achieve and perhaps a quixotic end to aspire to. In this vein, the advice that Professor Barling provides is this: “You cannot achieve everything, so you have to focus your energies on the gains you can make. But remembering that your good conduct can act as a lead to others helps to make a difference. And the further you move through life with this in mind, the more of a leader you can become in your field of interest.” You should not worry if there are things you are unaware of. That you are learning new things is not indicative of your ignorance. Rather, it reflects the effort you are making to enhance your appreciation of these issues. You should try to “understand the world, know the causes of things, and act upon that with like-minded people, and you can make a change to the world around you,” Professor Barling believes. See every day as a new learning opportunity. Take control of your education. 


Whilst more than half of UK employees have witnessed racism in the workplace, most have failed to report it or even reach out to the victim, either due to fear of consequences, doubts of where to report the incidents, or, rather injudiciously, not considering the matter significant enough to report. The responsibility to create change lies on all of us, and it shouldn’t be left exclusively to victims of racial discrimination to make reports themselves. As a result of the lack of these reports, the careers and lives of many people have been ruined. Professor Barling believes that “race is not the principal prism through which people of colour view their lives in Britain.” And when it comes to this, he suggests that people “should not let it put them off striving to improve themselves. But when they encounter challenges, they should build coalitions of like-minded people to challenge racist behaviour.” 


It is crucial that we fight for this worthy cause. Words of unity are powerful, but real and significant change in the fight against racism and white supremacy will only come through action. We must unify and fight this war against racism to end this metaphorical disease once and for all. For change only occurs with action, not just support. We must stand up for the injustice that has currently been plaguing our world. Unless we take action now, the thin line between what is good and what is bad will be forever broken and society will fall apart. It is up to us, including you, to change it. As Professor Barling reminds us in The ‘R’ Word: Racism, “keeping hope alive means recognising the limitations of ‘race logic’ and building on the successes of our accidental modern social experiment in Britain.”


Works Cited:


Batty, David. “Only a Fifth of UK Universities Say They Are ‘Decolonising' Curriculum.” The Guardian, 11 June 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/11/only-fifth-of-uk-universities-have-said-they-will-decolonise-curriculum.


Fuller, Georgina. “Half of Employees Have Witnessed Racism at Work, Says Survey.” People Management, 2 Mar. 2018, https://www.peoplemanagement.co.uk/news/articles/half-employees-witnessed-racism-work#gref.

Mili Thakrar is a London-based student who writes to inform, inspire, and motivate. She believes that it's vital to educate ourselves about the key issues of today. So, when she read 'The R-Word', she immediately contacted Professor Kurt Barling to discuss his writing, which then formed the basis of her article.

#Interview          #Social Justice

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