Drugs, race and gender; and race and gender as drugs.

This is an essay about something I have been thinking about for a while: how protection of white women is often weaponised against minorities and especially foreign men. And about the strangely contradictory forces this sets up.  It was inspired by a talk I attended a few weeks ago. The talk was by Duncan Campbell, about the role of the press in driving public attitudes to drugs. It was held at the Museum of Drug Policy, during a residency in Tower Bridge for the drugs charity Release’s 50th birthday.  All of the quotes from the press below come from Duncan Campbell’s book We’ll all  be murdered in our beds! The shocking history of crime reporting in Britain.

Throughout the 20th century drug policy has been shaped by ideas about race and gender. In particular, by concerns about immigration and the need to protect white women from the corrupting influence of foreign men.

During the First World War the front page of The Times was taken up with an advert for ‘Fear Banishers’, thin tabs of fabric impregnated with heroin or cocaine that readers could purchase to send to troops in the trenches. They were freely available from a pharmacist.

But ambivalent attitudes to opium in particular hardened once it became associated with Chinese immigration to Britain. The press picked up on the figure of the Chinese opium seller as an explicit threat to white women. In particular they picked up on the figure of “The Brilliant Chang” (real name Chan Nan) a Chinese migrant who in the 1920’s became a folk devil renowned for corrupting young English women, after his trial in 1924.  Chan was reported to have an almost hypnotic ability to induce white women to try cocaine. He was said to be obsessed with English women, and would often demand sexual favours in return for supplying drugs. The Daily Mail assumed “that he did so explicitly as a member of the yellow race to degrade white women”. It was also said that “disgusting orgies” took place at opium dens. The Daily Mail declared “Men do not, as a rule, take to drugs unless there is some hereditary influence, but women are more temperamentally attracted”.

In 1918 the Daily Express informed readers “You will find the dope fiend, in Chelsea, in Mayfair and Maida Vale” before outlining an archetypal morality play about a woman brought low:

A young and attractive girl deeply interested in social conditions and political economy made the acquaintance of another woman through a mutual friend. Within months she had become a confirmed haunter of a certain notorious cafe. She had lost her looks and health. Before she closed her miserable existence a bare nine months later she had introduced four other decent girls to her practice of vice

The yellow peril was intent on corrupting white femininity in order to undermine the fabric of the nation, and it was up to white masculinity to protect both.

In the 1950’s the threat to white womanhood came from Caribbean migrants bringing jazz music and cannabis. The same press that raised fears over Chinese opium peddlers now raised the spectre of the hyper-masculine Caribbean male.  In 1957 the Times expressed alarm at the idea that “White girls who become friendly with West Indians are from time to time enticed to hemp smoking”. The combination of jazz music and “hemp” was said to elicit a frenzy, particularly among impressionable young women. One man reported that he had to call of his engagement because his fiancee had been ruined by attending “hemp cigarette” parties. It apparently took her months to recover.

During this period, Sapper – the pen name of H.C. McNeile, author of the popular (and highly jingoistic) Bulldog Drummond adventures, inspired a group of young vigilantes who “disgusted by the degenerate parasites of the west end, against whom the police were powerless”  would patrol the streets intent on rounding up “dope peddlers” and beating them until they agreed to change their ways.

Visible in these moral panics is a conflation of the drug itself,  with the migrant who apparently pushes it, and the character of white women with the moral status of the nation. Immigration introduces these tempting but degrading forces into the nation. The means of entry is the section of the community considered to be most vulnerable – both as individuals and as a collectivity – white women. The process parallels the manner in which the prohibited substance enters the body of individual women eliciting dangerous passions and most importantly the risk of racially inappropriate sexual liaisons. Lurking in the background to all of this is threatened, white masculinity.

Folk panics about drug consumption fuel antagonism against migrants by playing on white British masculinity. But they do so in an interestingly contradictory manner. It is the duty of white men to defend white women (individual women, and white womanhood as a concept) from the predation of drug-pushing, foreign men. White men are therefore both empowered and emasculated. Empowered by the authority vest in them  to protect (and by implication police) white women, and to inflict violence (either legal or extra-judicial) upon foreign men. Foreign men, are  portrayed as both an irresistible and alarming threat, but also weak and feeble. Unable to physically challenge white men they must rely on underhand tactics and target white women / womanhood.  But conversely white men are emasculated, if white women are at such a risk, surely that is a sign that white men have been failing to protect them? Surely if white manhood was sufficiently potent either white women would not need to seek out strange thrills on strange substances with strangers from abroad? Or at least they would not be able to, because white men would have kept the foreign menace at bay.   

White women conversely are both belittled, and deified. On the one hand, they are feeble-minded dupes (dopes), unable to resist the blandishments and exotic substances of swarthy foreigners. But on the other, they are pinnacles of femininity; further evidence of white supremacy, they are so irresistible to men of other races that they inspire these outlandish and nefarious schemes.  

I think that it is this contradictory dynamic that makes appeals to protect white femininity such a powerful drug for political mobilisation. The ego is continually built up at the same time that it is threatened with humiliation. Being unable to resolve this tension it is, in effective addictive, a drug.


Ben Fogle and the “Beautiful Massai”.

Ben Fogle doesn’t go exploring to colonise. He’s excited about the unknown. He just wants to shine a light on exciting peoples around the world.  When he goes to Papua New Guinea – as Benedict Allen notoriously did recently – Ben Fogle goes to introduce people to fascinating new environments, rich with flora, fauna and people. It’s like Blue Planet. Ben Fogle goes out to meet with the “beautiful Massai” people. He appreciates the Massai are beautiful, he doesn’t want conquer anyone. So what’s wrong with that?

Well, it turns out quite a lot. The problem with the attitude of Ben Fogle and Benedict Allen is that they talk about people as if they are a species. We see it a lot with discussions of aboriginal cultures, but it recurs across discussions of Africa and much of Asia – India in particular. Very often, the words used to describe people are overwhelmingly positive, and they are not necessarily untrue. But they complement in a very specific way. Discussion will often talk about the spiritual aspects of a people, their lack of an obsession with material culture that the corrupt, decadent West is enmeshed in. They are likely to be more in touch with nature. They may be beautiful.

It is worth noting that there is a subtext to much of this praise. “They” have not succumbed to all of the trappings of civilisation that “We” have fallen into. The corollary of this back-handed compliment is that they have not done so because they have lacked the sophistication to do so. Decadence is often, implicitly opposed to simplicity. Our fallen state may cause us to admire the honest simplicity of the Other. But we still consider them simple. Readily comprehended. Comprehending another culture is not the same as conquering it of course, but it often seems to be just as one-sided.

Even when this is not the case, with stereotypes that relate purely to physical or mental capabilities, its a problem. The most obvious examples relate to the sporting prowess of African-Americans, or people from east Asia’s affinity for maths. “Now now” you might say, “don’t be such a snowflake. Sure stereotypes are simplistic, but everyone does them and at least those ones are flattering. They must be harmless.”

Probably, everyone does have stereotypes, regional, national and hyper-local. But the fact that everyone does something doesn’t mean we can’t think critically about it. It matters who is doing something and where they do it. If the French have a stereotype about the English being unable to cook that might be somewhat insulting (and frankly implausible to anyone who’s tasted my carrot and coriander soup) but it has been almost a millennium since the Norman conquest. So your average Frenchman has very limited opportunities to put their stereotypical views of the English into practice, in any serious or harmful way.

However, the stereotype of African-American physicality can do real, even lethal harm. There is evidence that Black men in America are perceived to be larger and more threatening than similarly sized white men. Black men are also statistically much more likely to be shot and killed by the police when unarmed. The evidence indicates that police tend to perceive Black men as inherently more of a risk to themselves, and so are more likely to respond with lethal force.

In fact, all stereotypes are damaging in this way. Evidence indicates that people who believe a positive stereotype about a particular group, are more likely to believe a negative one. The stereotype sets this group, nation or ethnicity in the mind as fixed and uncomplicated. Once that hurdle is crossed, it is easy to ascribe other traits. They have stopped being a complex and contradictory people. Unlike us,  the complicated and sophisticated, they have become a species. They have been orientalised. Their traits are fixed and immutable. Like the Beautiful Massai.

TLDR – Ben Fogle, Benedict Allen (and probably everyone else) should read some Edward Said.





Oxbridge has a race problem because Britain has a race problem.

Oxbridge admissions procedures are once again in the press. An FOI from Tottenham MP David Lammy has revealed dismally poor progress made by Oxbridge since he last investigated this issue in 2010.

Oxbridge holds a totemic place in British culture as a bastion and litmus test for the elite. Trends in attendance tend to be used as an indicator of how accepting and progressive the British establishment has become.

It is absolutely right that Oxford and Cambridge should face criticism for their poor performance on this measure. But let’s not allow this to blind us to the fact that 1) this is driven the wider political and economic context  and 2) that context has got a lot worse for BME people in the UK since the last time David Lammy submitted his FOI.

To briefly deal with Oxbridge first; both universities should do more to widen access to BME students, as well as to students from lower economic backgrounds (NB the two crossover far more than is often acknowledged).

However, it is worth pulling back a little and reflecting on how well BME students are served by higher education in general.

graduate employment

Last year young Black graduates were 24% less likely to be in high paid employment than their white counterparts according to the Department for Education’s statistics. The statistics on graduate employment make for depressing reading for any Fresher, but for those black grads they are dire.

It is not merely graduates that are getting a raw deal. This month  the Runnymede Trust, Women’s Budget Group, RECLAIM and Coventry Women’s Voices produced a report charting exactly how life for BME people, and women in particular has been made harder by policy decisions put in place over the last seven years.

BME groups are overrepresented in those groups that have been hardest hit by austerity measures. 1.25 million BME households are now worse off as a result of government policies. The poorest fifth of families have seen an average of 17% drop in their living standards, but Black and Asian families within the bottom income quintiles have seen a drop of 19.2% and 20% respectively.

In 2014, Runnymede research also found that BME households are more likely to be suffering from housing stress. In three boroughs in London, Runnymede found that overcrowding was three times more common among BME than white households.

The evidence is clear on the obstacles imposed by trends like this on educational attainment. Poor housing is detrimental to children’s mental and physical health. Overcrowding makes private study difficult or impossible. In 2016 the All Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger found that increasing numbers of children were underfed. In 2015, a fifth of teachers reported that pupils in their schools were unable to concentrate due to hunger.  Given the over representation of BME groups in the lowest income groups it is likely that even if Oxbridge were to enact everyone of David Lammy’s recommendations, we would still have a serious problem with disproportionality in education.

In the context of David Lammy’s findings it is important that both Oxford and Cambridge take action to insure talented but underprivileged students who get the grades get accepted to study. But it is also clear that their chances of getting those grades are seriously undermined by the political and economic context in which they find themselves.  It bears repeating (though it should go without saying) that the problems of race in education neither begin nor end in Oxbridge.

My struggles with the word “Namaste”.

       ‘Namaste’ she says.

        I grimace.

“Hi,’ I reply.

‘Namaste’ she replies and raises her prayer hands to touch her bowing forehead. She has faded henna on her hands.

‘It just means hello,’ I say. She looks at me, confused.

‘Namaste, it just means hello. That’s it’.

Nikesh Shukla – Namaste – taken from The Good Immigrant

If you attend a yoga class, the teachers end by saying “namaste”. Generally, the teacher will encourage you to cross your legs, put your hands together in a prayer position and then touch them to your forehead, and repeat “Namaste” in a reverential tone. As a second generation migrant of Asian descent, this is an awkward moment for me. There are a number of reasons for this. Aside from the most obvious – I am catastrophically un-flexible, and sitting in an approximation of cross-legged even for this long is not a pleasant experience.

It is awkward because there is a particular cognitive dissonance that occurs in being induced to speak Sanskrit by an English person. It sits at the locus of a fleet of insecurities I have about my own identity.

I am half-punjabi. But I don’t speak Punjabi, beyond a couple of words. For a variety of reasons, my dad didn’t teach it to me and I never got my act together to learn it. About a decade ago I tried to learn Hindi, and while I was okay at it, it never took and beyond a few phrases. These I often deploy as joke with friends who speak Hindi or Urdu. Otherwise,  I am functionally incapable of speaking it now. This creates an awkward feeling with other second-gen South Asian migrants who can speak at least one regional language – or often two. They often expect me to speak it as well. The discovery that I don’t always makes me feel like an impostor. I have falsified a connection to a joint heritage I cannot really claim.

That feeling is not entirely unjustified. The truth is that my upbringing was overwhelmingly British. While I have family on my dad’s side who never lost touch with their Indian background, visits to paternal grandparents, aunts and uncles were brief intervals in an otherwise very typical middle-class, English childhood. I’m not religious, so there were no regular trips to a temple (a Gurudwara in my case) to anchor me in culture and traditions of the homeland. For about 10 years now, I have periodically put on a pagri, mainly so I don’t forget how to do it. But my ability to tie one – while passable, is put to shame every time I pass a sardar on the street with a properly tied turban.

There is, if not stigma, then a certain implied disapprobation attached to this. We intrinsically disapprove of people who integrate to the extent they lose touch with “their heritage”. The second generation city-slicker who goes back “home” and finds themselves woefully incapable of blending in, is a trope for a reason. I am sceptical about giving too much credence on overly prescriptive ideas of ‘heritage’. I think it risks becoming essentialist. Nonetheless the feeling of guilt associated with it has never quite left me, and I still find it hard to meet the eye of someone in my generation, when I have to tell them I don’t speak Punjabi. The sense of relief I feel on meeting another desi-descendent in my situation is palpable.

So imagine the feelings that roil inside, when the person putting my cultural familiarity to shame is white.

Already, i have spent an hour or so showing myself to be a bad Indian by being completely incapable of even the most basic yoga poses. This is supposed to be “my” thing, but i am having to apply block to cushion to blanket to even approach sitting cross-legged.

Then to cap it all, at the moment of peak discomfort, when the contradictions of my mixed identity feel at their most acute, the class all bow their heads, and we enchant “Namaste”.

Why should I be any good at this though? I think if you asked most people they would agree that having parents from the Subcontinent doesn’t automatically bestow affinity with every facet of the culture.

Yoga, in particular sits in a funny place. It employs the language, and the aesthetics of the Indian spiritual tradition that inspired it. But from Dr. Iyengar onward it has become increasingly divorced from it. A suite of different forms have sprung up during the course of the last century, often with only the most passing engagement with the philosophical underpinnings of the original meditative practice. The marketing that supports them, while it may mention peace-of-mind, meditation or a nebulous “wellness” will often focus as much, or more on the physical benefits. Yoga sits alongside Pilates and Zumba as an exercise option, a get-fit scheme.

I often get the impression that I am expected to object to this.  This new, bowdlerised, commercialised version of yoga. It trades on the spiritual vocabulary of ancient Hindu practices at £10-£20 an hour. Particularly as I am one of those people who get chippy about brown-face, white-washing and cultural appropriation. I disapprove of  people wearing headdresses to festivals.

But the truth is, I don’t really. Partly because I am not sure that appropriation is what has happened here. A lot of the schools of yoga that have sprung up came from enterprising Indians, who saw a niche in the market in the West and took advantage of it. While they may be taught by westerners now, go back a generation or two of instructors and you will often find yourself in India.

Carl Jung argued that yoga was fundamentally too alien a cultural practice to really be able to function in the West. He thought any meditative practice would need to be based on the cultural and spriritual traditions that had grown up in Europe. A glance at the class list of nearly any modern sports centre would be enough to disabuse him of this conjecture. Yoga has sprouted and grown here. It has become a largely new thing. And if in doing so it has separated from the religious and philosophical tradition that birthed it, well to be honest, I think that’s fine.

But the other reason is because I just don’t feel that much of an affinity to it. I only ever really encountered it in it’s western format. I don’t feel like there is much of the heritage that feels meaningful to me, at stake.

Which brings us back to my ambiguity about “namaste”. Somewhere deep down, I think I probably should care more. I should feel a connection to Indian culture and traditions. Whether or not “namaste” is appropriation should be a live question for me.  I should feel more of an affinity with that side of my family history. But I lack flexibility, lack language, lack a sense of spirituality and I lack the outrage. It is one word, which sums up a lifetime of letting the side down.


Guaranteed Not to Turn Pink

There is an episode in season 3 of liberal comfort blanket The West Wing called “The Indians in the Lobby” (I am sure no one would use that title now) which ends with two characters discussing how they will spin news that a new poverty measure captures thousands more Americans than the old one. Political fixer Bruno assures his colleague Toby that the news can be sold using a bit of canny framing, citing P.T. Barnum’s (almost certainly apocryphal) ploy to shift unmarketable white salmon with the slogan, “guaranteed not to turn pink in the can!”.

I was reminded of this incident when the latest immigration figures were released. They show a net increase of 246,000 by the end of March 2017. This is 81,000 fewer than in the year ending March 2016. Accompanying the hosannas in the right wing press, a few outlets noted a correction to the immigration statistics. The Office of National Statistics reported that, contrary to previous assumptions, 97% of students whose visas had expired had in fact returned home.

This seems a good example of what we might call the “white salmon” mode of thinking about immigration. We can either view this as a story about the government taking steps towards its migration target, or we can see it as a story about a long-standing bungling of immigration statistics.

A Frame’s a Helluva Drug.

That government and public were so happy to accept the first interpretation says a lot about the way immigration has been positioned as inherently problematic. For well over a decade, immigration has been discussed as something to worry about – and not only by the right. When the coalition government first announced its intention to bring net immigration down to the tens of thousands, even the Institute for Public Policy Research, a left-leaning think tank, discussed why the government would not achieve its target. But there was far less ink spilled on whether such precipitous decline in net immigration would actually be a good thing, even if it were possible.

This was one example of a wider problem. The last years of the Labour government were littered with self-flagellating proclamations from ministers declaring that immigration must be addressed. Always there was the coda: it’s time for an honest conversation. Well, the problem with continually declaring an intention to speak honestly is that it implies you have been lying in the past. Once that tone is set, voters are hard to convince, no matter how tough your talk is. So, immigration became even more toxic, and the tough talk arms race continued apace. Vans were sent to black asian and minority ethnic neighbourhoods telling migrants to go home. The government promised immigration levels that were legally impossible to deliver. Now, a prime minister repeats that promise, despite watching her predecessor fall from power after losing a referendum to a campaign that ruthlessly weaponised exactly that failure of delivery. And round we go again.

Virus-free. www.avg.com

Comedic licence:Daniel Kitson vs. Louis CK

Daniel Kitson’s latest show   Something Other than Everything includes a short section where he riffs on the fact that in the village he grew up in, people referred to the shop owned by an Asian family as “The paki shop”. He compares this to his nice middle class family, who called it “The sikh shop”, and ends with the conclusion the proper term would have been simply “the shop”. It’s a bit that has provoked some criticism. At the Guardian Nosheen Iqbal has written about feeling “winded” by his use of the word. Kitson can’t reclaim a word he’s never been called, she argues.

I want to talk a little bit about why I am willing to acceept Kitson using it in that set, when i might not accept others. In particular i want to compare it to Louis CK, and a routine he performed when he toured London last year.

Louis CK

In his routine, Louis CK talks about the crude racial stereotypes he employs to amuse his daughters. One character, “the quiet man” is a caricature of a Japanese man, another “the friendly man” is very clearly a stereotype of an African American. Because he does not openly identify each with a specific ethnicity, his daughters are unaware of the racial context and he feels he can get away with it.

Iqbal relates a history of intimidation, vandalism and threats of violence linked to the word, which Kitson’s set brought back to her. I was called the word a few times growing up, and certainly had to sit through my share of paki-jokes from other children. But i was not subject to the same level of violence and intimidation. So maybe that influences the licence I am willing to grant Kitson, which Iqbal is not.

In Kitson’s defence, I don’t think he was attempting to reclaim the word. Neither is he inviting the audience to congratulate him and themselves at achieving greater racial sensitivity than a Yorkshire village in the 1970s. Instead, the gag fits into a wider trope in the routine. Repeatedly he makes a statement or proclaims a value only to undermine it. This is not presented as evidence of Kitson’s smug superiority. Instead  it is evidence of chronic insecurity. Kitson continually tries to establish something he’s sure of, then reads something, or speaks to someone that fatally undermines his confidence. As a result the show loops round and round presenting ideas, dismissing them, and fretting whether he was right to do so.

In this context, the riff comes across more like a chastisement, to himself and the audience for their (presumed) willingness accept “the sikh shop” as an improvement on “the Paki shop”. To be honest, it’s not the best bit of the show,  you can see the conslusion coming so the intended bait and switch doesn’t really come off. But nonetheless, given the huge amount of reflection and self-examination, the continual questioning of his own ethics and justifications; I don’t find the routine troubling. I feel that in this show, Kitson has earned the right to make a joke with the word Paki in it.

Given that, why did Louis CK’s routine bother me? Similar to Daniel Kitson, Louis CK’s routines often engage in a very close analysis at how a particular phrase or comment works. Previous routines have engaged in a deep and nuanced dissection of how race, gender and privilege operate. Surely Louis CK has earned it, if Daniel Kitson has?

But, similar to Iqbal, I had the experience of feeling I was boring companions and friends who saw the routine. Most people I spoke to, who had seen it were pretty happy to go along with it. Louis CK had not openly identified his impressions with their obvious targets. The joke did not then hinge on a set of shared racial assumptions that he was inviting the audience to join him in laughing at.

Except it was, wasn’t it? A key component of the gag was: “here are some crude stereotypes of Black and Japanese people”. The transgressive thrill that Iqbal assigns to Daniel Kitson feels more appropriately applied here. Part of the rush is Louis CK giving the audience permission to laugh at crude racist stereotypes. But why was it necessary to do so? The gag was a 3-minute bit in an 1.5 hour routine. And that was a large part of the problem. Context is king. Kitson’s gag fell in the middle of a c. 2 hour routine that obsessively examined privilege, race and language. He continually challenged his own position as middle class man, and as a comic and examined the ethics of his words and actions. Louis CK just threw in some stereotypes with (to me) kind of flimsy ironic covering. He just hadn’t done the prep work to earn that kind of licence.

Why does any of this matter? Well in the grand scheme it doesn’t. But, I occasionally find myself getting into debates with people about whether a given artwork, or joke or statement is racist. About whether a given writer, or actor of comedian is allowed to say something. I think the difference between my reaction to Daniel Kitson and Louis CK explains a lot about my wider feelings on this. I don’t think comedians or writers have to stop saying any given word, or talking about any given subject. But words and subjects are not weightless, and they are not all the same. And the heavier they are, the more work i think you should have to do before you can throw them.


The Dialectics of Diane Abbott

Diane Abbott is the politician who best exemplifies the very different conversations about race that go on in the country even among people who profess similar values and beliefs. Consider the two statements below:

Diane Abbott has had a bad election. She’s conducted a couple of car-crash interviews that may or may not have been influenced by the illness that has caused her to step away from the role of shadow Home Secretary. Any politician who had performed so badly should  expect mockery, especially in the run up to an election.

Diane Abbott has been the recipient of a campaign of misogyny and racism that long predates the election but was ramped up in the run up to polling day. Racist and misogynistic attitudes (misogynoir) have absolutely affected the way she has been treated.

How can we square one these two attitudes?

It is telling that we even feel we need to. I have spent the day having conversations with a number of people with whom I share differing degrees of political territory. None of whom are radically right wing and none of whom have ever given me any indication they hold any genuine racist or misogynistic attitudes. To be clear, on the off chance any of them read this, I still believe that today.

Nonetheless I still believe they are wrong when they express only a version of the first statement and dismiss some version of the second. Several times someone has pointed out to me that Diane Abbott has simply been picked on because she is the weak link in the cabinet. That’s why Boris kept trying to crowbar her into his interview on the Today Program.

Thats why she features so prominently in Tory literature despite their being a number of other MPs that also make good RW character-assassination fodder.

But mockery of John McDonnell doesn’t cut through the same way.

Well that maybe, but that is not simply because she has made some gaffs. It’s because those gaffs feed into a well established narrative that has portrayed Abbott as stupid, lazy, uncouth and unreliable. Amber Rudd, Boris Johnson, Damien Green and even the notoriously camera shy Theresa May have all had shocking interviews this election. None have been picked up and amplified in anything like the way that Diane Abbott’s have.

In between Abbott’s now notorious interviews Jeremy Corbyn had a car-crash interview in which he flubbed the details of his own childcare policy. The story got nothing like the coverage that Abbott’s did.

In the day she stepped aside, an hour after the announcement George Osborne proudly tweeted an Evening Standard cartoon mocking Abbott for cancelling engagements  due to  ill-health.

In February David Davis tried to kiss Diane Abbott in the Commons bar. Much of the press the next day was full of stories about Abbott telling him to fuck-off. Not about Davis being an entitled, boorish, creep.

I’m not saying no other politicians get mocked, or get caricatured, or get unfair reporting, but Abbott gets all of it. And it is notable that while I haven’t had to debate this with all my white, male friends, all the friends I’ve had to debate this with have been white and male.

In 2012 Diane Abbott tweeted “White people love playing divide and rule, we should not let them. #tacticasoldascolonialism”. The result was an outcry. Whether or not she should’ve said is not the key issue here. (FWIW given the limits of twitter I don’t think it was a good idea). What was stark to me was how completely separate the conversations it sparked where, and how ethnically divided.

I frequently found myself encountering the same questions when discussing it:

Why was she tarring all white people with that brush? Wasn’t that racism? Why bring up the empire it was so long ago? Surely they couldn’t be held responsible for what happened before they were born? Why divide white people from ethnic minorities? Wasn’t that needlessly divisive?

Abbott’s comments were in keeping with many I’ve heard from BME people of hers and my  dad’s generation. “White people”is a fairly common stand-in for the empire when time or space make brevity an advantage, and colonialism is a common touch stone in discussion of race and politics. White people is also a description of people at the  top of an ethnically stratified power dynamic, and doesn’t refer to absolutely all people of that ethnicity, colonialism is the basis and driving force behind that dynamic. It’s really not that long ago.

Again, not every conversation with a white interlocutor involved explaining this background, but all conversations that required it, where with a white interlocutor.

Similarly, in conversations about Abbott’s treatment over the election, BME friends and colleagues automatically place it in a wider context. This context treats it as axiomatic that politicians who are Black, and politicians who are women will get punished for being in the public eye, in a way that politicians who are male or white will not. It’s not that no white people I’ve discussed it with have seen this context, but the clear majority of BME people I’ve spoken to have. There is a feeling that you can’t play the sort of role that Diane Abbott has played, as a Black woman and not get treated this way.

I would reiterate I think it’s perfectly possible to be critical of Diane Abbott’s performance without being racist or misogynistic, and I don’t think any of the people I’ve been debating with today are either of those things.

There have been, already a slew of articles debating this point so perhaps this one is extraneous. But it strikes me as telling that even people who seem to agree on race, often dont seem to be speaking the same language.

Big Mouth Strikes Again (obvs).

With depressing predictability Morrissey has decided to offer his contribution to a conversation that was in no sense crying out for it. As a rule, my policy on Morrissey is to ignore him and hope he’ll go away. But for whatever reason, this one particularly irked me. And as this blog is largely an outlet for things that irk me about race stuff, and at the risk of adding one more extraneous opinion to the pile, here is one.

In the past, Morrissey has tended to release his most offensive pronouncements to coincide with tours and new albums. But, that doesn’t appear to be the case on this occasion so I guess we have to take him at his word.  After all, he has form.

In 2007 he declared that he would never return to the UK because immigration had destroyed English identity. In 2010 he declared the Chinese were a sub-species because of their treatment of animals. Long before this his songs and statements had enough to make people uncomfortable – telling the “Bengali in Platforms” that he didn’t belong. Declaring that reggae was vile, much of this was then passed off as wit.

Alongside the obvious offensive nature of the comments, and the strong whiff of cynicism that accompanies many of his later outbursts; what really hits you in the face is his thudding lack of irony. For a man often hailed as an arch ironist, Morrissey apparently did not hesitate to lecture the English on losing their identity to foreign immigration – from his home in Italy.

The man who has written whole songs about the impact of British colonialism in Ireland, and castigated the English for not abandoning the memory of Oliver Cromwell is apparently completely blind to the role of British colonialism on immigration to the UK. The same forces that took Cromwell to Ireland generated the process that brought the Bengali in platforms to the UK to face Morrissey’s disdain. Instead, the son of Irish immigrants to the UK declares that immigration is the problem, and links it explicitly to terrorism…

Finally he declares that politicians are complacent because they are never at risk, within 12 months of a politician’s murder and an attempted attack on Parliament.

In the 1980s and 90s he mainly stuck to nostalgia for an imagined, lost-England cobbled together from Kenneth Williams and Eaton comedies. While this often strayed into dubious territory he normally managed to keep just (just) on the right side of the line separating provocative from openly bigoted. For years now, he’s no longer seemed to bother.

Maybe, he just meant to highlight the way politicians rarely seem to bear the brunt of their decisions. That’s a reasonable point to make. In the past, maybe he just meant to raise the issue of animal cruelty in China, that’s certainly worth addressing. But for a man who’s built his reputation on a stiletto precision with words, he certainly chose a clumsy crass way of expressing these views. So let’s take him at his word, maybe he’s just an aging chauvinist, who knew exactly what he wanted to say? Maybe.

What do I mean “Race is a process”?

Last week I got drunk with (among others) my friend Rob and we talked about what I mean by “Race is a process”.  I’ve been thinking it through for a week now and so I’d like to try and put down what I think I mean by it.

What is a process?

When we call something a process we mean that it requires a series of actions, that can be repeated for the same outcome and all of which are necessary for the given outcome to take place.

What if race wasn’t a process?

In order to get some clarity, it might be useful to think about what it would mean if race wasn’t a process. What could it be instead?

One way we often talk and think about race as a scientific phenomena. So we think about biological traits or markers, perhaps a result of genetics that demarcate identifiable and fixed groups within the species homo sapiens. I think this model underlies the crudest scientific racism: discussion of bell curves and genetic superiority of Aryan races.

The problem with this model is that the races identified don’t map very well on to the genetic markers we are told mark the boundaries of one race or another. Firstly, because evidence indicates that genetic variation can be greater between individuals within the same race, than between two individuals of different races.  Secondly, because the markers that identify people as one race or another are socially determined. This means that race is socially rather than biologically constructed. 

There is another, softer model that often operates in practice. This model views races as the equivalent of a breeds among animals. This model at least has space for an acknowledgement that the lines of demarcation are  the result of human action. Nonetheless it produces a model that is highly deterministic. In practice racial categorisation is a result of social and historical contingencies that render the kind of calculations of that produce dog breeds (for example) generally nonsensical.

So how is race a process?

What I mean by that is that race requires specific actions and theories to be in operation for it to manifest within society.  These processes involve (but aren’t necessarily limited to) ideas about skin colour, the heritability of traits through genetics, the role of parentage and the importance of phenotype in identifying a members of particular population. Also there are historical and political process that create and attach meanings and power relations to these various processes in order to fashion a race out of them, and define what it means to be a part of that race at any given time or place.

But race isn’t just a discourse

So far I’ve been implicitly contrasting race as a process with race as an ontology.  I think that works as a corrective to overly determinative views of race. But it’s possible to go too far and miss something important when we just think about race as a discourse, and I think I often do so.

Race is a process because processes can be physical in a way that isn’t necessarily captured by a “discourse”.

Other people’s perception of our race can impact on our bodies. Racism does not simply operate as an abstract discourse, the impact of which we must trace through studies and statistics. It also often operates as an extremely physical experience one that can beat and break bodies because of the physical traits they display.

It is easy to write as if we can wave the theory wand and dismiss race as a discourse. But that would ignore one of the most important things about how the process of race operates. In order to function the process of race also requires physical bodies to demonstrate whichever trait history and society have selected as a marker. More importantly, people’s experience their race is embodied. My conception of my race involves the physical sensation of the body which possesses the relevant traits, the skin of a certain tone, the nose of a given shape etc. The fact that those traits mark out a racial identity might be because of historical and social forces, the fact have them is because of an extremely physical process and I can’t escape the fact that they are felt, not just conceptualised.

The statement “race is a process”  doesn’t mean it is just a process.

Nb. I’ve edited this blog after some really helpful comments from Thomas Neumark. Huge thanks to Rob Waters for prompting me to think more clearly about this, and especially his thoughts on how race is actually experienced.


How race affects perception: Implicit Bias, and stop and search

I attended two events last night (I’m like that) that made me think about how race affects our perception, but also how perception affects the social construction of race.

The first event was a talk by an academic who uses neuroscience to investigate prejudice and dehumanisation. The talk explored the ways that the structure of the brain leads to implicit bias. (NB. what follows will vastly over-simplify a complexes process so apologies to any neuroscientist who may accidentally stumble on to this blog).

The second was the launch of a book of poetry by my friend Raymond Antrobus (That’s right, my friends have book launches, it ain’t no thing).

People are evolutionarily disposed to engage in social cognition in the company of others. We automatically imbue them with an inner-life and make assumptions and guesses about how others think about us. This process is automatic, but it is also flexible. We can extend it to inanimate objects in certain circumstances, like when we watch a puppet show, or a cartoon and temporarily credit the puppet or the coloured shapes with some (limited) personhood for the duration.

However, we can also withdraw it, in order to dehumanise someone, in a situation when it is socially advantageous. This process is in play, for instance, when we walk past a homeless person, but allow ourselves not to consider their experience in order to avoid giving them any money. While it seems heartless, there is an evolutionary mechanism at work here, an inability to turn off, or at least turn down social cognition would be mentally exhausting and render us less able to function particularly in situations where resources are limited and we may need an element of ruthlessness to survive. The fact that it served a purpose at one time, however does not mean it does not need to be resisted at others.

The flexibility of this process also allows us to employ time-saving heuristics when coming to conclusions about strangers. The largest number of social connections an individual can hold  in their mind is roughly 150. Beyond that, we lose track. This means that we often employ a heuristic to identify people outside of this 150-person social circle, and decide how to react to them.

One of the main heuristics employed, is stereotypes.  Effectively, absent detailed knowledge of another’s personality, we will generally grasp a number of cues and relate them to the dominant model of people who share those characteristics, which we have absorbed – often unconsciously – from our culture. This model allows us to decide how we will act around them, but it in order to turn them into a broad “type” we generally turn down our social cognition, and dehumanise the other.  These models can change over time, in the early 19th century a British person’s instinctive reaction to someone with a french accent would be very different to what it is now. However, at any given moment they are very powerful, and often require either a long time, or a very significant event to shift them.

Again, from an evolutionary perspective, a false positive is far less of a problem than a false negative, especially for something you might perceive as not only an outsider but a threat. Combined with our capacity to turn down social cognition, these stereotypes can produce responses that are not just prejudiced, but often violently so.

So in situations where people are free to operate on the basis of unconscious impressions; or are even encouraged to trust to a nebulous instinct, outcomes will often reflect these socially constructed dynamics. A classic example, of course, is stop and search. Police are meant to have probable cause (for most powers) but in practice it seems that actually there is a significant degree of implicit bias that determines who is stopped and who isn’t.

To indicate just how intimately the physiological and social are connected on this process, there is a theory that the stereotype of African-American men as violent, brutal and ape-like was so strong that police in America automatically perceive them as a greater threat than other men. In a controlled experiment to measure perceptions of threatening behaviour police routinely rated men of predominantly African descent as being a greater threat than men of other ethnicities. Not only this, but they also routinely indicated that they would react with force sooner in a hypothetical interaction.

Perhaps the archetypal example of this process is the airport security line. I have numerous examples of times i have been “randomly” selected for additional security checks. So does every non-white friend I know. Ray travels quite a lot, and in introducing this poem last night he discussed a little of his history of interaction with, particularly US immigration at airports.  He followed it with a poem that neatly encapsulated this experience. (NB. I’ve cut it down for space, but it’s called Miami Airport and it’s taken from a book called To Sweeten Bitter  published by Outspoken press, and you should check it out).

“ID/ Why  didn’t I see anyone that looked like you when I was in England?/why were you in Africa? / why don’t you look like a teacher? / is this your girlfriend? why doesn’t she look English…

you think you’re going/ to go free? / what did you not hear?