Archive for July, 2013

  • On tolerance

    ‘I see that we’re living in two different consciousnesses. It’s necessary for me to understand yours, in order that I survive.’

    When it comes to multiculturalism, the word tolerance has always irritated me. Britain is a tolerant society, we’re often told. That’s how multiculturalism thrives. But the word tolerance essentially means reluctantly putting up with any given situation. It doesn’t have the same meaning as the words embrace or welcome.  In the UK, the discourse of multiculturalism has always implied a white country graciously but somewhat reluctantly giving way to the presence of people of colour. The history of colonialism and immigration in this country doesn’t tally with this lie.

    We live in a society not particularly passively tolerant, but is instead host to many different cultures, tightly packed together, with plenty of tensions. Some are expressed, some buried. Until I looked at tolerance within racial power constructs, I didn’t really understand its meaning. The tipping point, I think, was coming to my own conclusions about power and race, as well as watching this documentary on vimeo, called ‘The Colour of Fear.’ I don’t know much bout it apart from the fact that it was released over 20 years ago. IMdb informs me that ‘Eight North American men, two African American, two Latinos, two Asian American and two Caucasian were gathered by director Lee Mun Wah, for a dialogue about the state of race relations in America as seen through their eyes. The exchanges are sometimes dramatic, and put in plain light the pain caused by racism in North America.’ 

    It’s an hour and a half of a rollercoaster of emotions for those of us interested in race dynamics, white privilege and racism. Do watch it when you have some time fee.

    I started thinking. In the conversation about race and racism, a great deal of us, black or white, recognise the injustice that has been done in the past. Fewer might recognise the less overt, structural injustice that still prevails today.  Even less will actually agitate to change it. But to move towards progress, one camp – black, or white – will have to concede. For too long now, those on the receiving end of racism have been the ones to change. We’ve quietly assimilated to demands of colour-blindness, doing away with any evidence of our cultural and heritage in an effort to fit in. We’ve kept our gripes to ourselves, changed our appearance, names, accents, and dress to fit a status quo that was never made for us. Considering the meaning of the word, this phenomenon might just be the best living descriptor of tolerance in 2013. We have bitten our tongues, exercised (not good, but safe) judgement, and tiptoed around white feelings in an effort to not rock the boat. We’ve bent over backwards in an effort to be awarded some crumbs from the table of power. Indeed, we’ve been tolerant up to the point of not even mentioning race lest we’re accused of playing the race card, or actually perpetuating racism by vocalising our opposition to it. So, some of us stopped doing that. Yet, racism is still rife- dangerously, violently rife. Someone has got to give, and I don’t think it can be people of colour any more.

    When I think of tolerance, I think of the bravery and honesty of the people of colour who – perhaps recklessly- put their life experiences on trial in an effort to persuade society that white supremacy was suffocating us. I watched the Colour of Fear and was genuinely impressed by the men of colour’s persistence in the face of white denial, and white adversity. In the face of a man who was dedicated to dismissing their experiences. Tolerance is the calm, yet passionate manner in which the majority of the men in the room rebutted his continually racist remarks, even after they had explained their experiences of marginalisation to him. Tolerance is a state of expecting this, yet never accepting it.

    There is untold strength in conceding to the denigration of your humanity daily, yet still finding the guts to voice your objections to it. And I can’t quite express my admiration for the men this documentary who were  welcoming and embracing to the bare faced, defiant man, who once confronted with evidence, pain, frustration and personal testimony, took the step to concede his privilege and treat them like human beings. It’s never ending, it’s heart-breaking, it is sad, but it is inspiring, too.

  • For Trayvon Martin

    There is something about the similarities of structural racism in the UK and the US that results in me awake at 4 O’clock on a Sunday morning crying about the loss of Trayvon Martin. Perhaps foolishly, I kept just half an eye on the progress of the trial of George Zimmerman, whilst going about my daily life. I thought the outcome of the trial would be obvious. George Zimmerman murdered an unarmed teenager. Zimmerman’s defence, branding Trayvon as ‘looking suspicious’, was textbook racism, racism as old as the days of slavery in which men with black and brown skin were marked as a threatening, dangerous, wild, and volatile. That stereotype still pervades today, it’s an ugly rigid style of patriarchal masculinity, it makes people believe that that black men aren’t capable of gentleness, kindness, of love and overall, of innocence.

    Innocence. That’s a characteristic not often equated with black skin. And as the verdict of the Zimmerman trial made its way to the UK in the early hours of Sunday morning I learnt that it was Zimmerman who had been found not guilty. His defence had asserted that Trayvon, by virtue of his dark skin and hoodie, was suspicious. His defence mounted around a claim that Trayvon had tried to attack him and that he had shot the teenager in self defence. And I knew that this verdict would mark Trayvon’s skin again, in death, as guilty.

    The trial of Zimmerman was, in practice, the trial of Trayvon. Not even death vindicated him from suspicion. He was guilty of having black skin, and in this day and age, to too many, black skin is a threat. Like female flesh and slut shaming, the black body is political whether we want it to be or not. It’s the unwilling home of a thousand projections and insecurities of an aggressively unjust status quo.

    The denigration of dark skin infects us as soon as we’re touched by society. I remember being very young and asking my mum when I would turn white, because even at 5 I understood that being black was a thing that was quite wrong and abnormal, something to avoid if you could. From decades old social experiments to aggressively Islamophobic rhetoric, normalised by seemingly sympathetic TV and radio producers in the UK, this rhetoric is socially constructed, continued and perpetuated by people who benefit from it and have a stake in its existence. People who can’t quite comprehend a world in which whiteness suddenly becomes visible, a world in which meritocracy is exposed as a lie, a worked in which white people no longer have the upper hand.

    I cried for Trayvon because the task of dismantling this social construct seems completely insurmountable. I cried because it felt a lot like we are condemned and consigned to a terrible history and at times like this it feels like it’s atmosphere is thicker than ever and we might never escape it, and I wondered about my future family and thought perhaps the kinder option might be to not subject any more little black boys and girls to a society that considers them subhuman.
    But it’s ok to feel down at a time like this. Sometimes you run out of anger and you just feel sad, and we all need space to mourn. So I’ll cry for Trayvon today, and fight tomorrow. Alice Walker said activism is the price she pays for living in this world. So if you’re dedicated to critical anti racism, then you and I owe it to Trayvon and the hundreds like him to continue speaking about race and racism, to continue going against the grain, to keep live in a state of transgression, to chip away at this ugly violent status quo whilst we’re here.

  • Martha-Renee Kolleh, and tackling racism head on

    This week, Martha-Renee Kolleh, a cafe owner living in Osset, nest West Yorkshire, took extreme measures to combat the racism that was slowly strangling her business.

    It was quite simple really. She put up a black and white sign in the window.

    Attention!’ it read. ‘Everyone be aware I am a black woman and always will be. If you are allergic to black people, don’t come in. But if you prefer quality wholesome meals in a pleasant and clean environment, come in. I don’t bite!’

    She told reporters that she had been experiencing customers leaving the cafe soon after seeing her behind the counter. She was proactive, testing her theory by hiring a white member of staff to serve customers and gauge reaction. She told the Daily Mail ‘She [the member of staff] did very well and we had a lot of custom, but as soon as I was back behind the counter, nobody comes in.’

    In the words of Kanye West, racism’s still alive. They be just concealing it. And, of course, the white reaction to an incident like this one is too often of instant dismissal, an earnest demand of PROOF, PROOF, PROOF, and a keenness to insist that you’re just imagining it. In Martha-Renee’s case, too many have accused her of ‘playing the race card’ to drum up a bit of publicity for her business. Because, can she know that it’s racism, they ask, almost breaking their backs as they bend and twist in an effort to avoid the problem. How can she truly know?

    Martha’s story tells us something significant about the subtleties and implicit biases of an embedded, structural racism. This is the sort of racism that doesn’t spit in your face and tell you to go back to where you came from, but will smile at you politely and tell you that you didn’t get the job this time because there was someone else a little more suitable, and a little more white.

    Those of us who notice these implicit biases are ignored, dismissed, ridiculed, discredited, or shouted down. At the very least, we’re told we are imagining it. Here are some facts that aren’t imagined. The police are 25 times more likely to stop and search black people than white people.  The overall unemployment rate of black women is 14.3 percent, compared to 6.8 percent for white women, while Pakistani and Bangladeshi women’s unemployment stands at 20.5 percent. Black women are concentrated in part time work. Employment tribunals have seen cases in which black people have seen job applications rejected when their names sound African, and invited to interview when their names sound British.

    These are the facts. Racism doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Racism is blindly perpetuated by those who indirectly gain from its continued existence. They might be your friends, your lovers or your political allies, but god forbid you utter the words white privilege, or point out the benefits they enjoy from a society that is structured towards white needs. As Lola Okolosie writes , you might just find that they consider you the racist for pointing it out.

    According to home office statistics, the number of recorded racist incidents have dropped by 8%, from  51,585 in 2010/11 to 47,678 in 2011/12. Something interesting is at play here. Perhaps those who aren’t comfortable around us are less likely to articulate it to our faces nowadays. But it’s still there, a stifling atmosphere that, instead of being lanced and brought to air, has settled like a irritating spot under the skin.  

    All the while, we continue to discuss racism as though it is only ever incident based, a series of terrible anomalies in which Good White People couldn’t possibility be implicated in, just in case their feelings get hurt.  We need a grown up conversation about racism in all its forms- overt and covert, insidious and blatant, the structural, and the interpersonal. Only then can we lance that boil and work towards ridding ourselves of what essentially, is a socially constructed disease.


  • Having a grown up conversation about racism

    Over the past few days, I’ve been initiating and collating responses to some burning questions about I have about racism and the barriers to progess.

    The responses I received were intelligent, thoughtful and considered so I thought I would share.

    You can read part one here, and part two here.