This isn’t about the furious row, nor the racism (real or imagined) that preceded it, nor the burning at the stake that followed it. It’s about the unexpected good thing that happened next.
But it’s already too confusing, so let’s start at the beginning.
English journalist David James Smith used to live in London. When he and his mixed race family moved to Lewes in east Suffolk, they settled in a much less racially diverse community. David is white. His wife Petal is black. She may well be English too, I don’t know. According to David’s blog, her family comes from Guyana in South America, the descendants of slaves. That’s David and Petal and their children in the photo on the left.
David is a journalist and wrote about what he and his wife interpreted as low level incidents of racism that their family had encountered since arriving at their new home. (That was off the back of a conversation he’d had about whether, now that Barack Obama had been elected, we now lived in a post-racial world. Answer: No. Two of his wife Petal’s relations had flown to Washington DC to be present at the inauguration.)
According to David (and, he says, his wife Petal) there were three main aspects to the local racism.
1.Overt racism: Not such a problem for David’s family, and not necessarily proof that the town is a hotbed of racism. He says he hoped the examples would encourage local readers to pause before dismissing his claims, and perhaps accept that predominantly white communities are not always as clued up about race and racism as they think they are.
Here are some of the cited incidents: “The mixed couple whose daughter had been excluded by school friends forming a ‘white club’ to which they told her she could not belong; the black African man who found he had to put up constantly with little racist jokes about his ‘tan’ or being invisible at night… if he challenged people they would have thought him touchy or over sensitive… of having a chip on his shoulder. An Asian man had been openly racially abused on two occasions in the town”
Assuming they’re all true, they’re all incontrovertibly offensive and unacceptable. Those claims did get local people annoyed, but tempers boiled over at what he said next…
2.Subtle racism – or simply being marked out as different: This is where David brought his own family into the mix.He talked about another boy remarking on his own son having big nostrils. According to David, he didn’t cite this incident as evidence that the other boy was racist, but to show that his son was being singled out and made to feel different because of his race. He says: In London, or Lusaka, or Limpopo, his nostrils would have been unremarkable, but here in Lewes we worried he would start to feel different, not normal.
People will say – people have said – ahh, its just his nostrils, everyone gets mocked for having big ears, spots, glasses, anything that makes them standout. But our son could have any of those things too. What anyone can’t have is his gorgeous African nose – something in our view to be admired and cherished not make him feel uncomfortable about. Perhaps that will change as Lewes becomes more diverse and more black people come to live in the town.
Here are two more examples: “Our eldest daughter’s dance teacher at the local secondary school also used the word ‘coloured’ to describe black people,” and, “Mackenzie [David’s son] came home from school with the news that a mother had confronted him in the playground after school with an account that he had hurt her son… We saw… in clear terms: a white woman’s perception of the tough little black/mixed-race kid who could do with a reprimand and was not to be believed.”
Stories like those three examples seriously ticked off other locals. More on their reaction in a moment. But first an admission from me. Because the original article in the Sunday Times magazine is behind a paywall, I cannot link to it directly. Worse – I haven’t even read it. However, I have read extracts on various different and news sites. At which point I should declare that the second and third personal stories above are taken second-hand from a critical (and considered) blog post by freelance writer David Bradford rather than from the original text.
3. Denial: This third aspect interests me. According to David, “one or two people had told [his wife] Petal there was no racism in Lewes. That troubled Petal, not because those people were being racist themselves but because it betrayed a lack of awareness. It was well meant, undoubtedly, but seemed to suggest those people thought Lewes was some kind of utopian idyll, which of course it is not… There were so many small incidents… Petal has a fantastic memory and remembered them all. She started to feel – she told me – like she was being silenced. Very visible in one way – everyone knew her or thought they did because she stood out by virtue of her blackness, but invisible because she was feeling things that others could not grasp.”
The implication being that insult is added to injury. Not only are you subjected to racism, but you’re also expected to deny that it’s happening. Torment with a twist.
Unless of course this subtle racism isn’t actually happening at all. Which is essentially the response of many angry Lewesians.
THE COUNTER CLAIM
David’s original provoked outrage. But not because locals were incensed that racism existed in their community. They seemed to accept – perhaps a little complacently – that there’ll always be a few “morons” or “bigots” in every community, and that racism is obviously wrong. But, as one critic puts it:
I don’t doubt that his wife and children are likely to have experienced some form of racism during their lives, but the reason why so many people here are livid is because the inference is that there is an inherent racist quality to Lewes as a town.
The calmer tone above is the exception. This is more representative:
I am fuming, indeed spitting feathers! How dare this man try stirring up racial hatred where non exists!
Not only do many see their town as no more racist than average – according to the local member of parliament it’s far less racist than other places. (See the blistering exchange between David and Norman Baker MP.)
And what really got people sizzlingly hot under the collar, was David’s interpretation of subtle interactions. So there’s been reaction on the Lewes People thread and much busier Lewes Forum like this:
My best friend went to my school in which he was one of four mixed race students out of over eight hundred pupils, he was never treated differently or made to feel targeted, this is probably due to the fact that he didn’t have a father scanning through every single conversation he had to see whether or not he was the victim of prejudice.
Racism boils down to intent, the intent of the the child nicknaming his daughter ‘chocolate brown bear’ was not to mock but to find a friendly name for her using something about her that made her special in that friendship, just as one of my friends called me ‘red’,
What [school] parent would now willingly invite him [David’s son] back to their son or daughter’s house, knowing that the father would seize on the slightest comment and write it up in a national newspaper, purely in the name of self-publicity and lining his pocket. Aren’t parents supposed to support their children, rather than turn them into victims?
Some accuse David of writing the article to generate publicity for his book, Young Mandela. Others say he makes too much out of having a neighbour who is a member of the racist British National Party (see previous) – undesirable sure, but hardly proof that the whole town is racist.
Others feel David is simply being determinedly over sensitive.
It seems that Mr Smith has gone out of his way to find examples of racism where there is probably unfamiliarity with his wife and children’s more cosmopolitan expectations but I feel confident any cultural “banana-skins” that have been slipped on are simply the result the locals trying to work out what is appropriate behaviour in unfamiliar territory.
Mr Smith, you’re like the Torquemada character in the Monty Python sketch who sees heretical skulldugery in absolutely everyone and everything (Nobody can escape the Spanish Inquisition!) You see racism everywhere.’Blackboard’ – that sounds a bit dodgy – ‘Blackmail’? definitely racist. And ‘Black Pudding’? don’t even go there… …If there is anyone in Lewes who is intolerant of others it is you Mr Smith. You’re a narrow minded little man who sees evil in everything… time – but accusing your son’s 8 year old friend of racism for telling your son he had ‘big nostrils’ is scraping the very bottom of your barrel of self righteous indignation… If anything, the kid could be accused of ‘differentism’ – but then, so can every kid who has ever lived be accused of that!
The blogger David Bradford, who I mentioned earlier, reckons that David does raise some very interesting issues, but on balance rejects his conclusions:
David James Smith recognises that the incidents he’s described do not constitute racist abuse of the traditional brand; they are, instead, “micro-aggressions” – smaller, less overt specks of prejudice that add up to a hurtful smear. Here, he is using a term from a US academic discipline called Critical Race Theory, according to which “race is the centre of everything” and “negative perceptions about black people remain part of our daily lives…
My initial reaction to the theory about “micro-aggressions” is that it’s interesting, and I’d like to know more about it. But I’m worried that it’s an idea that could easily be misapplied to instances where the “micro-aggressor” did not intend to cause harm. Were the teacher who described DJS’s daughter’s hair as “frizzy” and the child who described his son’s nostrils as “big” being aggressive? No, they were being insensitive. The distinction between aggression and insensitivity is an important one, containing within it the question of intent. Using a term implying deliberate violence, dubiously, to describe unwitting faux-pas, serves only to accuse, eliciting defensiveness, and does nothing to encourage empathetic behaviour.
Fair point – though when the so-called micro-aggressions mount up, they no longer feel like pin pricks and more like a multiple manifestations of a hostile environment. And speaking of hostile… The charmingly named 666, then pops up to predict:
I know whose effigy will be going up in smoke this 5th November….but of course that would be racist.
Ah, yes. Now things are starting to warm up…
Lewes is famous/notorious for its bonfires and parades to mark Guy Fawkes night. Fawkes (occasionally known as “the only man to enter parliament with honest intentions”) was arrested in the cellar of Houses of Parliament in London in 1605 before he was able to blow the place up – the gunpowder plot.
Some critics of the celebrations consider them anti-Catholic – an effigy of the Pope is usually set on fire and marchers carry “No Popery” signs along with their burning torches. But David particularly objected to one of the bonfire societies in which members “get blacked up and parade through the streets dressed as Zulus… seem[ingly] unaware of their capacity to cause offence.”
If they weren’t mad enough at him already, that was the last straw. Guess who joined the Pope on the bonfire. OK, to clarify… It was an effigy of David James Smith, not the man himself. Even so, I’d feel uncomfortable if my neighbours decided to burn an effigy of me.
Intimidation? Or just a sign of David’s local fame? After all, it’s not just him and the Pope who’ve been set alight. Other smoking celebrities have included Dubya Bush, Condoleezza Rice (as Wonder Woman) with Tony Blair in one hand (see bottom pic), and the latest “bunch of cu ts” – Prime Minister David Cameron pulling the strings of his deputy Nick Clegg. And it’s not all hate figures either – crocodile hunter the late Steve Irwin and Lord Nelson have also been fed to the flames. Barack Obama is a new edition.
So things aren’t looking good for David… Slammed by the locals, slagged off by his MP, his effigy set on fire at the annual commemoration of the defeat of treachery, his character impugned…
Having a dad who’s widely regarded as a complete dick is far more of a handicap then being black in a predominantly white town.
But then things take an unexpected turn. This is the point where I picked up the thread. This is the good bit…
THE GOOD BIT
So well and truly embattled, what does David James Smith do? Run? Hide? Mutter resentfully to liked minded mates? Turn to drink? (To anyone currently considering that option, I recommend Rebellion.)
mad fool brave man met a couple of hundred of his critics face-to-face for an open debate about what he’d written. Guardian journalist Hugh Muir covered the lively meeting.
Why did you do it, some [in the audience] demanded. Because this was my experience and I wanted a debate, the writer said. Why did you call us racist; will you apologise, demanded a woman at the front. I didn’t; I won’t, said David James Smith. An Asian man stood. I have lived here for 30 years and I have never had any problems, he said, encouraged by nodding heads. A white woman raised her hand. Initially, I disagreed with you, she told the writer. Then I discussed it with my half sister. The sister is mixed race, we learned. A poignant moment. The speaker was in tears.
Speakers asked whether more should be done; by parents at home, or teachers in school. And everything is possible, declared the poet John Agard. “We are Lewesians”, with “the gene for reflection” passed down by those who came here before us, such as Simon de Montfort and Tom Paine.
You spoke well, said David James Smith to a friendly face at the reception afterwards. You didn’t say I spoke well, said a critic, butting in. You didn’t, replied David James Smith. But they were almost smiling and it seemed good natured.
Some minds were changed. Some were already set. Others left promising to chew it all over. That’s the best you can expect, for these things aren’t easy. A good result, I’d say.
Yes. A good result. Hugh Muir’s slightly longer full article is here, and David’s own version is here. This conclusion fills me with delight and hope. It’s just great.
Oh… hang on a moment. Here’s a comment from the bottom of Hugh Muir’s “good result” article. Someone calling themselves ebba169 tells this story:
I grew up in Sussex, in a village not too far from Lewes. It was predominantly white, although a Pakistani family moved in when I was about 9 or 10. I didn’t notice or feel the village was racist in any way. His kids were at the same school as me (but quite a bit younger) and the parents were active in village activities. The father died when they’d been lving there for about 6 or 7 years and it was only at his funeral that I heard there’d been racist attacks on his house – dog turds and fireworks thrown through his letter box. I was really shocked. It’s a small place. I probably knew the person who did it. It shows, though, that the perceptions of the community that you live in could change radically depending on your perspective.
Right. Not feeling quite such delight now. But even so… Here’s the final paragraph from Hugh Muir again:
Some minds were changed. Some were already set. Others left promising to chew it all over. That’s the best you can expect, for these things aren’t easy. A good result, I’d say.
Yes. Still a good result.
23 responses to “How to come back from being burned at the stake”
Pingback: Blackwatertown -- Topsy.com This post was mentioned on Twitter by David James Smith: someone's gone to a lot of trouble to construct this thoughtful take on the great lewes race debate http://bit.ly/dJm3gb
One of the very best things I have ever read on this matter. I understand. I really do. I am Italian American. My grandchildren are of mixed race. Armonni, step grandchild is AfroAmerican, granddaughter Cryslynd is Haitian, Italian, and Cuban, and little Vincent is AfroAmerican, Italian, and Cuban. Fortunately, South Florida is 50% foreign born mostly South America and Caribbean and huge first and second generation Cuban so very mixed race here. Knowing I was a white guy some people were shocked at my post of 9/23/10 “Grandpa! Look, I Won the Tiger!” Thank you for your post Jesus came for all.
And there’s a lovely photo that goes with that post you mention at
UPDATE: Since posting the piece above, I’ve got my hands on the original article “England’s Green and Prejudiced Land” that was published in the Sunday Times. (Thanks David.)
So if anyone wants to read it, let me know and I’ll pass it on. (Too long to add to the post above.)
Hi, I’d like to see a copy of the original Sunday Times article – I’d be really grateful if you could send it. Many thanks
I will. Let me know if it comes through – or not.
I grew up in Miami, Florida during the fifties.
Signs were everywhere—on buses it was “colored seat to the rear,” water fountains in the park “white only,” and blacks were not allowed in public buildings or the race track, etc.
I didn’t understand it then and don’t now.
I think racism will always exist.
Yes this was 1958 or so. I will subscribe your blog now re Miami talk. I am still here.
Regarding this comment:
“I grew up in Sussex, in a village not too far from Lewes. It was predominantly white, although a Pakistani family moved in when I was about 9 or 10. I didn’t notice or feel the village was racist in any way.”
Few towns appear racist until someone from a different race moves in.
Regarding all the talk surrounding this particular situation, it’s clear to me that the journalist and his family were on the receiving end of some racist attitudes. Not all racism is cross-burning and lynching. There’s plenty of everyday, seemingly benign behavior as well. This deserves to be questioned, and those who would claim that doing so is “reading into things” or “being picky” likely don’t know what it feels like to be on the other side.
The concept of “micro-aggressions” is an interesting one. And by interesting I mean ridiculous. As a Jewish person, I have experienced anti-Semitism -from people I have considered friends. Do I think they meant to hurt me? No. DOes it mean that these kinds of private conversations about race and religion still go on? Absolutely. People have a tendency to sub-divide into sexes and shades, this side, that side. I don’t know why. Safety in numbers? Common experience? There is little worse than hearing a stranger stand next to you and casually comment: “I totally Jewed them down at that estate sale!” except, perhaps, having to then point out to that person that his or her comment is really offensive.
Unlike Maxi, I do believe racism (etc.) will end as people continue to inter-marry and adopt children from all over the world. Soon no one will be able to make any kind of assumptions about anyone’s families anymore. That would be kind of refreshing.
I grew up in the American south during the civil rights movement. I remember vividly the hatred my own father voiced for blacks. I remember even more vividly watching as police beat the black janitor of our school for daring to bring his children to a school festival. I left the south many years ago, and have lived in a number of states throughout the country. As the years have gone by, incidents of racism (that I noticed) seemed to decline, until it really no longer crossed my mind. That all changed with the election of Barack Obama. Friends have made statements which are blatantly offensive, and of course the Tea Party has more than their share of racists. My own pessimistic view is that so long as there are differences, there will be racism.
Having said that, I also feel racism is simply an extreme form of paranoia of anyone different. Being from the south, I’m sensitive to the views, expressed my many of my countrymen, that southerners are violent and ignorant. My sister-in-law (from New York) routinely makes fun of stupid southerners, apparently forgetting I’m from Tennessee. We seem to look for differences, possibly in order to feel superior in some way. I don’t know what the answer is, other than to treat everyone with respect, regardless of any differences.
I come from lewes from a mixed race family and was closely involved in the debate so I’d like to stay anonymous. I think alot of the upset in Lewes was not about the accusation of racism but the judgemental approach to the bonfire societies which are core to this small market town and build on a long history of resistance and radicalism.
I think it was great that David wrote the article. It is not what I would have written, but it is his family’s experience.
I think it is great that we had the debate – and many thanks to the volunteers who put in a lot of time and effort at short notice to make it happen. The debate that ensued is one I think should be had in more places – as people said we just don’t have the vocabulary to discuss racism , we don’t have the nuances of language and it is a very painful area of discussions with the history of slavery hovering in the background .
I felt that David and Petal spoke well at the meeting, as did others. However, I was disappointed by David’s ‘us and them’ mentality which he appears to cherish but which for me points to a 1980’s identity politics and a failure to understand and appreciate the much broader spread of human history and the movements and developments in this world we share. (For recent history you only have to have watched Ainsley Harriot’s tracing of family roots in ‘Who do you think you are’?
I was much more interested in John Agard’s (a local poet originally from Guyana and a citizen of Lewes for 30+ years) point about the ‘westernisation’ of our minds which affected how we view the world and what is normal – a kind of equivalent of Ngugi wa Thiongo’s ‘Decolonisation of the mind’.
I was also disapointed by David’s responses to people of dual or mixed heritage including requests to also use his media presence to document their stories which were different even contradictory to his. He appears to judge people with a different experience to his family’s to be somehow misguided or wrong where the very point which gained him kudos in the debate is that he was talking about his experience which is not right or wrong but it is his experience and cannot be denied.
I was deeply disappointed in the response of Norman Baker who I had previously considered a pretty sound person. His response in the local Viva magazine made him sound naive and ignorant – a bit of an ostrich with their head in the sand.
If I had access to the media, I would have written a deeper article than Hugh Muir’s which was very light and I think missed really capturing something very unique that happened.
Lewes has been a fantastic place for our family. It is a wonderfully creative town nestled in the chalk hills of the South Downs and after moving round the globe the best place we have found for bringing up our children. But it is not perfect. No where is. And I take responsibility for my part in making my community somewhere I feel proud to live and a nurturing environment for all our children.
So great for David with his bold pen but I’d like to hope that the channels stay open for more community conversations like this I want to hear more voices and see more activities on this and other diversity issues.
People who’ve never had to deal with racism or bigotry likely have a difficult time understanding the strategies necessary for getting on with life in the face of racist or bigoted affronts, large and small.
The most common tactic is simply to pretend that these affronts never happen or that, if and when they happen, they’re really not much of a bother at all.
It’s humiliating to admit that you’re a tempting target for mistreatment and disrespect for reasons entirely out of your control. And it’s humiliating to acknowledge the fact that the people who find you most tempting are usually among society’s least educated, least intelligent, and least productive. It’s almost an honor to be snubbed by a king, but there’s no dignity in being treated with contempt by a thug or dimwit.
Children, and the responsibility adults have toward those in their care, are another reason for down-playing or ignoring the full impact of racism or bigotry.
It’s neither easy, nor always possible, to strike a perfect balance between expressing appropriate outrage while at the same time demonstrating how important it is to not let the bad guys so easily ruin your day, to not let them think they can dependably rattle or derail you with an insult, slur, or worse.
David James Smith and his wife have to carefully manage a great many responsibilities at once, and theirs are responsibilities that most parents in Lewes will never face.
The Smiths have to teach their kids how and when to stick up for themselves, and that while they’re likely targets for bigots and racists, there are things in life far more important than taking offense and being afraid.
Middle England Does not take kindly to being challenged.It does not take kindly to debate. We are usual very subtle in our oppression.
Rural England is a wee bit stagnant & still. I know from my own experience that parts of rural Cheshire are unused to ‘different’ group moving in to live.I was quite shocked to hear anti-Polish comments there over recent years………existing residents feel very threated by “The Other”.Being “different” tends to seen as provocative in itself!
Yes , the situation you describe does sound racist to me.What is just as bad is the majority’s inability to engage on an equal level with those that feel abused.
Until I read the forum pieces and the burning business I thought this was a bit of a storm in a teacup but it does sound amazing to me. Is it really this localised? We have racism here of course but it’s a two way, actually many way street with so many ethnicities in Sydney particularly. Sort of water off a ducks back really. I’m referred to as a ‘Skip” quite often and there are many other slurs for just about everyone. It is dispicable in this day and age though that effigies are burned of anyone really. Shameful behaviour.
Hear me…hear me…
Planet earth is at risk of an invasion from outer space (NASA 22/11/2010 Science Space Journal). Every human being on earth be you blue, black, pink or white is in grave danger of being exterminated. We must unite to fight off this extra terrestrial invasion Nick Griffin of the BNP, Sarah Palin of the Tea Party and Oleg Gould from the German far right Nazi Party are just a few who have given support and will meet with Barrack Obama other world leaders, scientist and military heads of security at a meeting to be held in United Nations on January 21 2011 to seek a solution. Details will be published in every newspaper around the world. We must all act now to prevent this distruction, or should we just allow it to happen as that in my opinion will bring an end to all the misery and suffering a lot of us and past generations have been putting up with?
I hesitated before approving this comment. Initially I presumed it was aiming for irony, but then I read on…
Ah well, let a thousand flowers bloom. Spirit of openness etc.
One puzzling aspect though – how come this hasn’t shown up on Wikileaks yet? Clearly a global conspiracy of unprecedented proportions.
David James Smith now claims that his article merely intended to stir debate about racism, to make people more ‘aware’. Hmm, perhaps. But lets be clear about one thing – this isn’t a debate anyone can win with Smith – he simply invites us to open our eyes, to repent. No doubt some of the fury he triggered amongst the townsfolk of Lewes came from those convinced that ‘there’s no racism here’. Add this to the fact his effigy was, I gather, burned at the Lewes bonfire events this year and its easy to conjure a rather creepy, intolerant, small-town image of Lewes. But insofar as Smith can extend ‘an open mind’ to a different kind of criticism, here’s mine:
Let’s back off from Lewes for a moment and consider Britain as a whole, right now in 2010. One of the most impressive features of British society compared to 20 or 30 years ago is its diversity. Because my work takes me into dozens of schools I often ponder on the most vivid manifestation of the new diversity. Today, almost 20% of children under the age of 16 are from an ethnic minority. Nestled inside that amazing fact is Britain’s fastest growing ethnic minority – the category formally known as “mixed-race”. This group is growing at an exponential rate. But as I tour primary schools I notice something else. In the playground, at break-times, white, black and minority ethnic kids are inventing a model of colour-blind, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic harmony that could teach the adult world a thing or two.
So what we have is a generation bubbling up that has the potential to transcend and make nonsense of the divisive concept of ‘race’. In the past, the world outside the school-gate would put an end to any chance of a generational change. But the landscape has improved compared to the days when racism was a virulent social force (driven along by politicians, magistrates and the police). Today, it’s the rarity of racial tension and violence that makes it so shocking to us. And I’m glad we’re shocked. When I was at school in the 70s no-one seemed shocked that my PE teacher routinely called me ‘Paki’ because my skin is dark. Racism was endemic, something to laugh about on TV sitcoms while racist murders barely made headlines.
So I don’t think we need to let those who think ‘post-racial’ society is already upon us stop us from recognising how much has changed. We’re still on the wrong side of town, but we’re heading in the right direction now.
Social change doesn’t turn on a sixpence. The danger is that modern-day anti-racism squanders the opportunity to move forward and, therefore, holds progress back. On the subject of ‘racist Britain’, we too often apply every adverse experience BME people have with the default explanation of ‘racism’ – or ‘institutional racism’. We seldom stop to consider that BME citizen’s are disproportionately working class and that they are disadvantaged by poverty as much as any other factor. Today’s anti-racist mindset fails to consider how a culture of victimhood reinforces low expectations. I see this in the South London schools I work in. For example, African Caribbean boys have opportunities that wouldn’t have existed in the past. They frequently admit that they encounter little racism in their daily lives – unlike many of their parent’s experience of their own childhood. And yet they’ve internalised anti-racist messages about how their life chances are somehow permanently limited by a racism ‘out there’ in the world. Some of these boys just pull up their hoods and withdraw into a version of ‘blackness’ based on a debilitating victim-mentality. However, we’ve proven that when these boys have high expectations placed on them, a new message emerges – there is a way through – and they begin to excel.
David James Smith concedes, “racism is not what it used to be, not about open hostility”, but then declares it alive and well in all the “small, subtle incidents that many would not think racist at all but could be highly damaging to those affected, especially if they were children”. Apparently BME children lack any kind of resilience and are ‘damaged’ by “racist language in the playground”. Are they?
In British primary schools kids are always picking up on differences. Children can be flippantly nasty and when they fall-out they hurl whatever insult works best. BME kids do it too! And low and behold ‘Equalities’ officials are now highlighting the problem of ‘homophobia’ amongst African Caribbean and Muslim children.
So – a newsflash from one who works in many, many schools: children of any ethnicity can be nasty little sods. The playground is a messy place – of course they insult each other, they’re kids!
But no – this is all out of sight and out of mind once we’ve put on our race-tinted spectacles. David James Smith loves his wife and children and his concerns are entirely understandable in this sense. But he’s also on a mission. He gave the game away when he mentioned his visit to Professor Gillborn, a recent convert to American Critical Race Theory (CRT). CRT is a set of conclusions painstakingly searching for ‘smoking-gun’ evidence to back them up. It holds that racism is ever-present and betrayed by the ‘hidden operations of power’ central to ‘white dominated’ society. CRT holds that all ‘white identified’ people are implicated in maintaining a culture of white-privilege. “Depressingly, Gillborn told me that our son was walking around with a bull’s eye on his chest”, says Smith. Depressing indeed! Smith seems then to have walked away from this encounter with all the certainty of one who has seen the light. No wonder that he then compiles all ‘the small and subtle instances’ (which he can now call ‘micro-aggressions”) and invites us to view these as the tip of the iceberg, the unveiling of ‘England’s Green and Prejudiced Land’. If we disagree – well, I guess we just haven’t seen the light yet. Sorry David, you’re going have to admit a few pre-judgements of your own.
Engrossing for me to see this from opinions on this matter from Europeans.
Once again I find myself bowled over by the top quality comments people have left here. Apologies for the delay in acknowledging. I’ll respond to you all now.
@ Maxi – re: your experience of “white’s only”, “coloured seats to the rear” – it’s useful to be reminded how recent some abominations were, especially when they’re so ridiculous as to seem almost incredible. So thanks for the reminder. What strikes me particularly about the US apartheid-type signage and the equivalent in apartheid South Africa is how explicit it all is. A complete lack of shame.
@ Prof Charles Kinbote – Fair point. Monocultural communities can be complacent, and then blame an incomer of a different race for bringing in racism – almost as if they caused it – while in fact it was latent all along.
@ Renée – Sure, microaggressions may well be unintentional, but – as you say – need to be challenged nonetheless. My hackles rise when I hear someone describing a crazy situation as “a bit Irish” or their child’s tantrum as “having a paddy”. Then I calm back down and have a chat about it.
@ exileimaging – Your conclusion is the definition of decency. Painful and interesting about your father. For my parents it was religion rather than race that was the trouble. They reacted to sectarianism differently though, by embracing ecumenism, cross community events, socialising outside their religious lines, regularly interacting with other churches. So that informed my views.
@ Anonymous – Welcome and thank you so much for your first hand account of the Lewes racism debate. Thanks also for bringing up Ngugi wa Thiongo’s ‘Decolonising the Mind’. I enjoyed reading it. Haven’t done so lately, but I still have a copy. You can pick up your own copy from Amazon here http://amzn.to/dYyarE In return I recommend to you, “The Devil’s Own Mirror by CL Innes http://amzn.to/gDOWmj
But to respond to your point that David James Smith was intent on accentuating the negative in your shared community to the exclusion of all else – I don’t think that’s quite fair. He also mentions some positives, and his family’s continued residence is at least some kind of testament to Lewes’s continued appeal. From what you’ve said, I get the impression that you’ve thought hard about these issues too over the years and that you see room for improvement in local people’s attitudes – even if you don’t see things in the same way as journalist David.
You also said: “If I had access to the media, I would have written…” Well, you may not have the time or inclination, but should you fancy it, you are hereby invited to guest-write a piece on this story for this blog. (For the usual fee. Nothing. Well, it’s what I get. Oh alright – I’ll come up with some bizarre bribe if you twist my arm.)
@ Hugo – Good point, very well made. One does not want to have one’s life defined by the racism of others. Nor to self-define it in that way. It reminds me of moving from Belfast to Dublin and living with Irish people who just were. They weren’t Irish in opposition to anything, or in resistance to anything – they just were what they were. It felt transcendent and liberating.
@ Tony – re the stagnant UK communities. Nearly everyone in my local community is white. So are my kids. So racism isn’t something they’re on the receiving end of. What I’m vigilant against is that they’ll slip into prejudiced ways of thinking themselves. The most obvious one that springs to mind is the use of the word “gay” to mean pathetic or a bit rubbish. I’ve zero tolerance of that.
@ Baino – when it comes to bonfires and parades, people often cling to the defence that it’s traditional. Odd traditions are often worth preserving – for fun and to add variety to the world. Not everything has to be mucked about with just to make it seem new. But traditions can, do and should evolve – and it ‘s not rocket science to remove the most odious aspects. So for instance – harking back to my own background – I see no reason why an Orange Order parade in Northern Ireland couldn’t dispense with songs celebrating sectarian murder, gloating gestures at the scenes of recent killings and the use of bands linked to paramilitary organisations. You can have one without the other – an evolved tradition.
@ Adrian Hart – Welcome to you too. And welcome to your optimism. I hope you’re right. I’d inject a small note of caution. Alongside the positives you cite – for instance, the growth in the number of mixed-race people in the UK – there are other more depressing things to keep in mind. After the IRA ceasefires in N.Ireland and the decline in paramilitary violence, religious segregation actually rose, not fell. People were more likely to live in an area that was overwhelmingly Catholic, or overwhelmingly Protestant, than during the most violent days of the Troubles.In cities in the north of England there seems to be a trend towards similar religious/racial segregation – and a potentially worrying rise in the popularity of faith schools (aka religious schools, aka sectarian schools).
But I also appreciate your warning about turning the victims of racism into professional victims who define themselves in those self-defeating and self-limiting terms, (as Hugo de Naranja was saying too).
Thanks again everyone for taking the time to comment so thoughtfully.
My thanks to Blackwatertown. I do keep the ‘depressing things in-mind’ – but that’s really the whole reason for getting some perspective on this. If anything I wish I could be more optimistic. Old fashioned racism has ceased to be a social force in British society, and I believe children really could invent a generation that move’s things forward. The paradox comes when anti-racists feel their cause to be one of re-conceptualising racism as though it continued to have social force. Here the task is one of raising ‘awareness’ of both the overt and hidden operations of white ‘racist society’ whilst continually re-affirming non-white ‘racial identity’. I understand their position. After all, racism hasn’t gone away and we must fight against its manifestations right? However, Kenan Malik makes a good point in his groundbreaking book ‘Strange Fruit, Why both sides are wrong in the race debate’. In the book he speaks of a ‘politics of difference’ promoted by racists and antiracists alike and which has “turned the assertion of group identity into a progressive demand” such that “racialisation is no longer viewed as a purely negative phenomenon”. Today, children are as likely to be racialiased by anti-racist messages as anything else.
Blackwatertown is right about segregation in housing and education, but we might want to consider how the politics of difference bids to seal us all into separate ethnic boxes too. Mine (and Malik’s) is an unabashed universalist and humanist position. It sounds outlandish to many, but I think the well-intended but no less ‘racial-thinking’ of influential writers like David James Smith need as hard a challenge as racism itself.
Thanks (again) for the response.
The well-intentioned assertion of group identity can become a stultifying trap for those whose defence it was intended. It’s hard to avoid though, when defensiveness is so instinctive.
Your universalist and humanist approach is a better destination. It’s hard to get there though. But then nothing worthwhile ever did come easy.
(Click on Adrian’s name above at his comment to get his website – adrianhart.net which discusses: The Myth of Racist Kids – anti-racist policy and the regulation of school life.)
Burned at the stake. The Catholic Church condemned John Wycliff to be burned at the stake because he translated the Latin Bible into English. But he had already died by the time they got to him so they dug him up and burned what was left. Man, talk about resentments….