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Why Do Most of Britain's Public Transport Racists Seem to Be Women?

Are they easier to film? Are we more fascinated by female bigots? Or are they just getting more racist?

by Sophie Wilkinson
11 March 2015, 1:15pm

Screenshot via.

"We're racist, we're racist, we're racist / And that's the way we like it, we like it, we like it."

Aside from the illogic of a bunch of beered-up Chelsea fans goading black people to the tune of a song heavily popularized by Whoopi Goldberg's turn in Sister Act, February's videos of men being racist on trains were jarring for many reasons.

YouTube is full of videos of men being racist—the more violent the more popular, it seems—but until the recent videos shot on the Paris Métro and the London Underground came to light, most of the internet's public transport racists have tended to be lone women howling epithets as a shocked and awkward audience watches on. Women like Jacqueline Woodhouse, the 42-year-old from Romford who was jailed after a tirade on the tube, or the 34-year-old who said she hated white "Freemasons" on a bus in Hackney. And, perhaps most infamously, Emma West, the 36-year-old Croydon "tram racist" who wasn't technically alone, but was bouncing a toddler on her knee. Owing to the upset and injury racism causes to those who suffer it, it's worth exploring why we regularly see videos of British women being racist and why they—until recently—have seemed to make it into the news cycle over incidents of public male-perpetrated racism.

The West's film industry might be overburdened with men, but when it comes to hand-held citizen filming, it's just that much easier to film a woman. They're less physically intimidating than men—especially loud, racist ones. To gasps from the rest of the carriage, these women point fingers and lob bottles. But with every physical action they move closer to comeuppance—one is pushed from a moving bus, another has a bottle of beer poured over her head. She begins to cry, shouting, "I'm dying of cancer," her wig forming a too-neat bowl on her head. Others manage to avoid significant repercussions but are shamed online and arrested at a later date.

Another factor in why racist women end up being filmed more often is that for some reason it feels more surprising. A racist woman goes against our expectations, says internet psychologist Graham Jones. "A woman being racist is less expected than from a group of rowdy men. It is unexpected behavior, compared to the norm, which makes it more likely to be filmed."

A knock-on effect of this is that the videos are shared more. Jon Ronson, author of So You've Been Publicly Shamed?, tells me, "Women often have it a lot worse than men in the shaming world." A brief glance at the Google trends for the term "woman racist on train" and "man racist on train" show you female racists are searched for more, too.

Once the videos are online, the women are spoken about in the comments section using rhetoric that just isn't directed at men. Gender cannot, in any world, be seen as some kind of get-out clause, but the reaction to women being outwardly racist in a public space provokes responses like, "She is so angry 'cause God poked her with the ugly stick;" "The species belongs to a gender which in society believes they can do what they want to the opposite sex without consequence;" "I'd fuck her;" and, more to-the-point, "I would of just raped her." The guys leaving these comments seem like tourists to the cause of toppling racial inequality, only jumping in on the fight when it presents them with an opportunity to be vicious about a woman.

The archetypal image of a racist in this country is a white man shrouded in the St George's cross. It's one that has been hammered into us by the media for decades: all the photos from butcher-than-butch EDL marches, archive footage of racist attackers like those who murdered Stephen Lawrence and UKIP's testosterone-heavy polling results seeming to indicate, on a surface level, that British women just aren't as racist as British men. However, in 2013's British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey, the number of women self-identifying as having "some level of prejudice" was the highest it's been since 1983. Standing at 29 percent, it's still lower than men's 32 percent—but had actually risen by 5 percent from 2002, while the male figure has dropped by the same amount in that period.

"Women often have it a lot worse than men in the shaming world" – Jon Ronson

Racism is ignorance, it's anger, it's entitlement and privilege not knowing itself. Frequently, too, it's utterly baffling. Take the now infamous video of the woman on the Jubilee Line train at Stratford, losing her cool in an argument with a black passenger about personal space, saying, "You guys used to be slaves." You wonder what it was that blew the specific fuse that makes a person's mind jump from public transport etiquette to historic slavery.

When you watch these videos with the BSA stats in your mind, it does look as if more women are becoming racist. But are they? Or is it just easier to catch them in the act? Dr. Grace Lordan, from the London School of Economics, asserts that yes, "It is likely that it is easier to film females than males." However, beneath that, her own research of the BSA data has found that socio-economic factors could be playing a part in increased racism from women.

"Females who are part-time employed report higher levels of prejudice than other females," she says. "Overall, job uncertainty and scarcity encourages groups of individuals to form coalitions based on observed recognisable characteristics, such as ethnicity. From research in economics we know that competition for scarce resources can induce agents without discriminatory attitudes to aggressively discriminate."

Obviously it's not as easy as saying that austerity, and all its knock-on effects, is making British women racist. But since sweeping Coalition cuts were made to the public sector—which employs about two women to every man—58 percent of the job losses have been women's, says the Women's Budget Group. Women are also more likely to be on zero-hour contracts than men and are much more likely to do unpaid labour—housework, childcare, healthcare for the old and infirm. It's not just job insecurity that is making women financially unstable; the Fawcett Society speaks of a "triple jeopardy," where jobs and benefits to women have been cut and councils, finally free to make their own funding decisions, have been given tiny budgets from which they cut frontline services to those women who are most in need.

In some of the women's racist rants, you don't just hear prejudice—you hear a discontent with the UK and its Government. Jacqueline Woodhouse, who was jailed for 21 months for her racist outburst, said: "Fucking country's a fucking joke." When she realized a camera was on her she gurned, waved, and said, "He's filming, 'Hello Government.'" Emma West, who was handed a 24-month community order (the judge said she was clearly suffering mental health problems at the time of her racist outburst) said: "Britain is nothing now, my Britain is fuck all now."

In times of hardship, people cling to what they know. So, perhaps, these women have neither the patience nor the energy they think is needed to sympathize with someone else's fight for equality. Too many women's lives have become a series of queues; for jobs, benefits... for trains. And they're in those queues with nothing to entertain them but tabloid scaremongering and echo-chamber Facebook memes telling of an establishment that's encouraging people to push in in front of them.

Could it be that, as our industries become more feminized as a whole—evolving from blue-collar industries like farming and mining to service industries like nursing and shop work—the hackneyed fear of "them lot coming over 'ere and taking our jobs" has transposed from the minds of working-class men to those of underpaid, overworked women? It provides no justification, but perhaps some explanation to Woodhouse's comment, "I've been overtaken by people like you."

Another old racist cliché is, "They're comin' over 'ere to steal our wimmin"—and it's one that still holds in the media representation of minorities. From the grooming gangs of Oxford, Rotherham and Rochdale being referred to as "Muslims" in a way that none of the Yewtree defendants have been referred to as "Christians," to the death of Alice Gross at the hands of Latvian ex-convict Arnis Zalkalns being used by commentators to leverage debate on immigration caps, the sexualized fear of The Other lives on.

As for stereotypes of black men as hypersexualized, Omar Khan, of the Runnymede Trust, told me: "The prejudiced attitudes underpinning stereotyped attitudes about black masculinity have still not been adequately tackled, and clearly also affect the day-to-day experiences of black people, whether at work, on public transport, on the football pitch, or even just walking down the street."

The result is tangible in one video where a woman heckles an "Arab" man on a bus, saying, "You could be a pervert who nonces kids!"

Could it be that, as our industries become more feminised as a whole – evolving from blue collar industries like farming and mining to service industries like nursing and shop work – the hackneyed fear of "them lot coming over 'ere and taking our jobs" has transposed to the minds of underpaid, overworked women?

White male writers of sensationalist headlines might feel more comfortable if they maintain the myth that the perpetrators of sexual violence don't look like them, but it's nonsense and it's dangerous. While 34 percent of women on London's public transport report feeling unsafe, when they're probably surrounded by strangers, 85 percent of sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim.

"The overwhelming majority of women and girls who are raped or sexually assaulted or abused know the perpetrator before the attack," says a representative from Rape Crisis. "Quite often a rapist can be someone the survivor has previously trusted and even loved. The idea that men of particular races or ethnic backgrounds are more likely to be sexually violent is one of the many harmful myths that it is vital we dispel if we are to properly tackle sexual violence."

Where is this taking us? We can theorise that racism is learned, and maybe, if there are more female racists than just five years ago, it's because they've failed to bat away the spoon feeding them the lazy, right-wing media narrative that they are economically and sexually at risk of people who aren't like them. Women are, of course, capable of independent and critical thought, but we've seen plenty of other examples of young women so disenfranchised from mainstream society that they're left vulnerable to the barkings of extremism.

It would be fantastic to suggest education as a solution to racism. However, there are plenty of supposedly well-educated people who still perpetrate racism on a daily basis – it is ingrained in the very structures of so many of our institutions where white men are either active or complicit in holding women and minorities back.

What's needed is not only the right kind of education, but the time, resources and clear mind to access that education, and the emotional stability to understand who's on your side and who really isn't. And, in economically uncertain times, emotional stability can be harder to come by.

@sophwilkinson

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