The Ugly Face Of Prejudice

When we judge based on appearances, we reveal our inner biases.

Not all child refugees look like this. By Ilgar Jafarov [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

CN: This post contains historical images that you will almost certainly find offensive.

It’s that time of year again — the time when the tabloids go wild about refugee children arriving in the UK and using our resources / claiming our benefits / stealing our jobs [delete as appropriate]. Given the amount of fuss the papers make about it, you’d think there were thousands arriving at Dover. But no, it’s not nearly that many. Would you like to take a guess at the number of refugee children the UK has admitted since April 2016? That was the date when the UK agreed to resettle up to 3,000 children from outside the EU that needed to claim asylum.

Well, we couldn’t be too far off that number, right? There are a lot of families fleeing war and natural disasters, and it’s only decent that a wealthy country like the UK does its bit. Maybe we even took in more than that, such is the level of need. Alas, Britain has not fulfilled its obligation. Since that time, 30 months ago, the UK has accepted just 240 child refugees — and the tabloids still claim that it’s too many. To put that number into perspective, 300 refugee children drowned attempting to cross the Mediterranean into Europe in 2017.

This week’s furore is over a child who allegedly looks like a 30 year-old man. There were similar stories a couple of years ago, with the same newspapers lapping up the same unverified claims — which were never found to amount to much. VICE UK investigated some of the stories that were featured in the Sun and the Mail Online, and found some striking similarities and approximately zero facts. The same thing happens every year: the gutter press whip up fear of migrants, leading to the stigmatisation and persecution of people who are already vulnerable and traumatised, and endless hand-wringing on talk shows drawing attention to a problem that does not exist.

The more recent reports are based on playground gossip and a WhatsApp message from one of the kids in his class — and parents of children at the school have accepted the rumours uncritically, when this could turn out to just be gossip and racist bullying. Children that arrive in the UK as refugees are assessed by border agency staff to determine their identity, age, and country of origin. If they are with their families and have documentation, it’s easier. If they don’t, the staff make a judgement based on their appearance and demeanour, and by asking them about details of their life and upbringing.

But don’t people abuse the system? Well, of course — just like any system, there are those that will abuse it. But to abandon the system, or to carry out more intrusive tests, would mean causing more harm to already vulnerable people. We know that the system works because people abuse it. For the 2015/16 year, two thirds of those undergoing age verification were deemed to be adults. So it’s not like we’re just letting anyone through on their word alone.

A report from the BBC highlights the dangers of making assumptions about refugee children. The individual in the most recent case was reported to the Home Office and removed from the school based on complaints from parents that were themselves based on hearsay. It’s important to point out that the individual concerned has not done anything wrong, other than looking a bit older than he might be:

“A pupil shared an image on social media with the message: ‘How’s there a 30-year-old man in our maths class?’
But some classmates from the school said they did not think he was as old as 30 and suggested he had been a victim of bullying.”

It might be the case that some of the other students do genuinely think he is that old — but this is a problem that we don’t tend to talk about much in the UK. In the US, people are more aware of the phenomenon of non-white children being perceived as older and more likely to have criminal tendencies. This has damaging effects in everyday life, and can lead to death if apprehended by armed neighbours or the police. Until recently I thought that was a thing that maybe only happens in America, but I’ve started to notice it happening here in the UK, too.

The converse of this is how white people often get seen as being younger than they actually are, and are therefore more innocent, more fragile — as illustrated by the way they get referred to as “kids” and “boys” who just need to grow up. It’s just “banter”, and “boys will be boys” after all.

I first made this mistake myself when I was waiting for my order in McDonald’s about a year ago. There were three black men in the queue in front of me; I thought they looked like they were in their early 20s. I was stood around with nothing to do (how bloody long does it take to prepare a single McFlurry, for fuck’s sake??) and so I couldn’t help but listen in to the conversation these men were having.

It was about 4pm, and I was on my way back home after a meeting. I learned, after just a few minutes in the waiting line, that they had just left football practice (that would explain the lack of school uniforms), and one of them had a birthday coming up in the following week. He was almost 14. Fourteen. A child.

I have no idea how old these guys are. By VOA- Nicolas Pinault [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I was alarmed at how I’d just assumed they were grown men. I mean, to me that’s how they looked — I couldn’t understand it. I want to say that we don’t have the same cultural conditioning here in the UK, but I know that’s not true. There are going to be subtle differences, but the racism’s just the same.

That was the first time I’d actually felt this bias myself. But it has also been happening elsewhere, with consequences. Black youths are disproportionately targeted by the police, being stopped and searched at a rate 8 times higher than white youths. In spite of the actions set out in the MacPherson Report, it would seem that institutional racism is still rife within the UK police force.

There’s an unspoken insinuation that non-whites are “other”, not to be trusted, somehow sinister based on nothing more than what they look like. They’re not “supposed” to be in a default white environment. And so the features of non-white boys have been picked up on and exaggerated to demonstrate that this pupil should not be in a class of white 15 year-old children.

The refugees are described as “hulking young men”, “bearded”, “with facial stubble”. So what? No-one bats an eyelid when white boys reach 6’ and beyond, or if they have a bit of bumfluff or stubble. There are primary school children who are taller than me — that’s just how kids are. They grow up. Plenty of them could be mistaken for adults, but we only make a fuss if they’re not white.

From “Dissertation on the natural variation which characterises the physiognomy of men from diverse climates and of different ages” via Internet Archive Book Images on Flickr.

Physiognomy is the discredited practice of deriving information about a person’s character based on their physical traits. It formed part of the basis for scientific racism, and we still hold some of the beliefs associated with it. Think of any caricature of someone from a non-white race, and you’ll recognise the exaggerated features said to be associated with that race, and by extension the components of their personality that we link to those features. From The Society Pages; an analysis of Vaught’s Practical Character Reader, published in 1902:

“The book is full of images in which the features stereotypically associated with Northern and Western Europeans, or the mythical Aryan race, are associated with sincerity, honestly, a work ethic, and every other positive character trait, whereas large and especially hooked noses and small, hooded, or almond-shaped eyes were indications of negative traits.”

That sounds very familiar: similar pronouncements were made about non-Aryans in Nazi Germany. We judge people on first appearances; we can’t help it. But some of the elements of that first impression come from bad places.

“Illustrations of Composite Portraiture, The Jewish Type,” by Francis Galton

When I was at school over 20 years ago, there were white boys with facial hair way before the age of 15, and they were never challenged on it. There just weren’t any non-white children at my school, and in areas where parents are going nuts over alleged refugee impostor children, there probably aren’t, either. There tends to be the biggest outcry over immigration in the places that have the least. It seems that non-white kids are being held accountable in ways that their white peers aren’t, and that this beard-policing only became a thing when non-whites with beards started appearing in our schools.

The same goes for black kids’ hair. My white peers had all sorts of bizarre haircuts — long hair on boys, undercuts, wildly asymmetrical styles, all sorts of colours. But the sight of a cornrow or a shaved-in pattern got you suspended until the ‘problem’ was rectified. It’s interesting that ‘black’ hairstyles were seen as rebellious and untidy when worn by white children — normally the feeling is that whites get a free pass on this while blacks don’t — but the fact that it’s the hairstyles worn by black people that get picked on tells us that it’s not really about hair.

A handy field guide from Vaught’s Practical Character Reader. Comparing human facial features to those of animals was a big thing among eugenicists. Easy to see how this could be used for ill.

It’s bad enough that these prejudices are institutionalised and translate into suspicion and bullying. But combined with the current political climate and government policies designed to instil fear into minorities, it makes racism seem normal. You only have to look at British newspaper headlines to see that. It’s prejudices like these that lead to the ill-treatment of refugee children; people who need our help and compassion.

And so the cycle perpetuates itself. Fearful of bearded, dark-skinned, statuesque young men turning up at the school gates, the public are hungry for media that understands them, that confirms what they were already thinking: they should not be here. Highlighting features that imply maturity, such as facial hair, height and darker skin tone is just an excuse for the real reason that nobody dares to name: racism.