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A Punky Reggae Party

A photo booth on Oxford Street, London (summer 1977)

In June 1977, 45 years ago, I saw the Queen, albeit fleetingly, being driven past Piccadilly Circus en-route to Buckingham Palace for the culmination of the Silver Jubilee celebrations. I wasn’t there for the party. I was making my way to Camden Town and the rehearsal studios used by the Punk-inspired band Subway Sect, who my friend from school had joined as their drummer. The studio, part of a crumbling yard of railway buildings, some still bombed out from the War, would soon begin its transformation into trendy Camden Market. 

Punk shared an interesting crossover with Black music culture, in particular reggae. As teenagers, most of us growing up in the 70s were familiar with Blues and Tamala Motown, but reggae was new to me, especially the Heavy Dub style popular in the Jamaican community. The man largely responsible for my education was Don Letts, the House DJ at The Roxy in Neil St, Covent Garden. Originally a fruit and veg warehouse, between 1976 and 1978 the Club shot to fame/notoriety as the top Punk venue in London. The problem for the promoters was that in 1977 the scene was so embryonic there were as yet no home-grown punk records to play.  So, in the gaps between live bands, Don played what he wanted, namely reggae, which went down well with the mostly white crowd. To quote from his website: “he came to notoriety in the late 70s as the DJ that single handedly turned a whole generation of punks onto reggae”. In fact, the combination became so popular that Bob Marley’s Punky-Reggae Party released in 1977 as a 12 inch (Jamaica only) and as the B-side to Jamming, reached number 9 in the UK singles charts. Don’s choice of tracks from his Roxy days are captured in the critically acclaimed compilation Dread Meets The Punk Rockers Uptown (Heavenly Records).

Scroll forward a couple of years and I’m working as assistant van driver to my boss Morris, a Jamaican-born reggae fan. He was involved in the local music scene and sometimes I would help him set up a Sound System for private house parties, in and around Brixton.  We would use the work van, a sackable offence given the prestige brand name of our West End employer, but worth the risk. Think Small Axe: Lovers Rock, but with more sound gear and ganja-smoking Rastas, and you’ve got the picture.  While sometimes out of my comfort zone, it was uplifting to witness first-hand a community at one with its own identity while lobbying for change in wider society that remained indifferent at best.

It was also a time in London when the Metropolitan Police stop and search “SUS” law reigned high. I witnessed several occasions where Morris was subject to blatant racial harassment.  Once I was on a delivery to an exclusive residential part of Town. On these visits we played a game, coined by Morris, as Dropsy or Tipsy – would we be offered a Dropsy (cup of tea/coffee) or a cash tip for the delivery, typically a sofa or expensive Persian rug? The winner was the one who made the right call in advance. We parked in the street and as we got out several police officers on foot suddenly approached Morris and demanded to know what he was doing, despite the rather obvious fact he was at work. When they saw me, the situation cooled off, but the aggressive tone of the questioning was clear and present intimidation of a black man, whose only ‘offence’, while going about his legitimate business, was to be in a white, rich area. I wish I could say this was a one-off. Unfortunately, we all know that’s not the case. Another time relates to the shocking mistreatment he got crossing a picket line. The work van was kept in a British Road Services Depot at Elephant and Castle. We both turned up on the day a lightning strike had been called by the Transport and General Workers Union. I understand emotions can run high in these situations, but there was no excuse for the barrage of racial abuse he took from sections of the crowd. He brushed it off with characteristic good humour, but the episode tainted my view of trade unions ever since.

As this is a criminology blog I should probably throw in an example of real-life criminality. It happened mid-morning one Friday following a drop-off in busy Bishopsgate. Returning to the van I noticed a castor wheel on the pavement. “Looks like it’s come from one of our sofas” I remarked. It had. When we pulled back the shutter, the van was empty. Everything we’d loaded up an hour ago was gone. Sofas, walnut dressers, rugs, porcelain table lamps, all cleaned out. The castor was all that was left! Robbed in broad daylight, next to a bus stop. In panicked disbelief we asked those in the queue if they’d seen anything but we were wasting our breath. It was left to Mr Farooqui, the long-suffering Despatch floor manager, to take the heat from angry customers as he rang round to tell them the good news. Needless to say, management weren’t impressed and dished out first and final written warnings. Soon after we went our separate ways.

Meanwhile, the overlap between black and white youth culture in London was being fostered in creative ways. Rock Against Racism (RAR), founded in 1976 along with the Anti-Nazi League (ANL), a year later, were both set up to combat a surge in far-right extremism. Music, especially the cross-over between various genres including punk and reggae, was an important enabler in that it found common ground from which more overtly political discussions could take place.  I was one of the many thousands who, in April 1978, joined The Clash, Steele Pulse and others at Victoria Park, Hackney, in what was RAR’s finest hour. Also in the audience that day was Gerry Gable, the veteran anti-fascist campaigner and founder of Searchlight magazine, whose archive is hosted here at the University. I spoke to Gerry about this and he has very fond memories of the day and his role in helping it come about through his associations with both RAR and the ANL.

So, in the year of the Platinum Jubilee, has popular music culture continued as a positive force for race integration since the punky-reggae days of 77?  It’s probably a PhD project or two (dozen), but Bob Marley sums it up for me nicely:

What did you say?
Rejected by society
Treated with impunity
Protected by my dignity
I search for reality

If by the search for reality we mean certainty, then how certain are we things have changed for the better? My experience is that, on average, they have, and that music has played its precious role in bring people closer together. The key here is “on average”. If by reality we mean a search for legitimacy, there is evidence to the contrary. Differences of course remain, and there is no room for complacency. The one pledge we must agree on though is to never stop searching – for melody, for rhythm, for harmony.

The silenced hybrid voices in lecturing teams

Rightly so, there has been a lot of discussion in recent months about the struggles of full-time academic staff in higher education institutions in our previous posts: Higher education, students, the strikes and me*, The strikes and me: never going back! and Industrial action, knowledge, and blurred lines. For the sake of clarity, this post is not designed to distract from some of the very real problems they face. Instead, I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on the silent voices in lecturing teams: PhD Students who are also Visiting Lecturers (VL’s) or Associate Lecturers (AL’s). Having been both an AL and VL in the past for various higher education institutions, and simultaneously a self-funded PhD student, the experience of those who have very kindly offered to share with me their stories, struggles and often deteriorating coping mechanisms resonate with my own. I am grateful for the unexpected avalanche of responses I received from VL/AL’s from various universities on this very issue, including current and former colleagues. I should stress that this is neither targeted at any one individual university, nor do I claim that these are universal experiences for those in similar positions.

These students are hybrid beings, often stuck in a limbo of loyalty to their respective graduate schools, their fellow lecturing colleagues and the students they teach. Despite this, or perhaps more appropriately because of this, many VL/AL’s are not fully trained or integrated into the roles they are expected to play within the university sector. Firstly, adequate training is almost non-existent in most universities for new starters, who are often expected to simply jump into the deep end without adequate experience. What is available to VL/AL’s in helping with building knowledge and experience in higher education teaching is the offer for them to take ‘independent initiative’ in signing up to undertaking a Postgraduate Certificate of Higher Education (PGCert/PGCHE) which leads to a subsequent Associate Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy (AFHEA). The experience of taking this course and securing the Fellowship was highly positive amongst those who contacted me prior to the writing of this post, though of course this may vary depending on the institution. The problem is, the course is rarely, if ever, offered before VL/AL’s begin teaching and is often treated as a simple tick box exercise to boost departmental or institutional reputation through an increased number of Associate or full Fellowships within their ranks. Secondly, integration into their roles is often stifled by various reasons, including somewhat critical outlooks within their teams on emerging pedagogical research focused on student experience, misguided assumptions that they are ‘more students than lecturers’ and/or the belief by others that they are not likely to remain as permanent members of the teaching team. These issues relating to hybridity lead to VL/AL’s often feeling as though they do not carry the same “worthy status” by colleagues or the department of being co-creators of the curriculum, being included in important communication relating to decision-making which will affect their ability to carry out their teaching and learning sessions, or in generally expressing discontent for various issues which they are facing in their roles.

One of these issues related to low wages, which is a rather common issue affecting employees across most sectors, especially in the current cost of living crisis. It may seem rather trivial to those in higher education institutions tasked solely with ensuring maximum profit by quantifying the experience of teaching, but the struggles faced by those VL/AL’s on 0-hour contracts are widespread and damaging. Though there are distinct differences across institutions in how these contracts are managed, or how their staff are paid, many practices seem to be commonplace, such as for instance paying solely for hours spent actually teaching. In circumstances where academic staff may spend hours on end preparing for teaching and learning sessions, engaging in a subsequent wind-down of emotions potentially triggered from the sessions, and then engage in copious amounts of marking (sometimes as many as 100 scripts at the same time due to the bunching of deadlines), being paid only on the basis of having taught a 1 or 2 hour session, even at what may seem a reasonable hourly wage in other sectors equates to less than minimum-wage if the maths is done correctly. There are nuanced differences of course between those VL/AL staff who are self-funded and those on studentships or scholarships, the latter receiving a flat-rate annual “salary” alongside a tuition fee waiver. Having said that, those on scholarships or studentships tended to face other challenges throughout the payment process, including lack of automatic payments, breakdown of communication with those organising these manually, and the general slowness in being ‘set up’ for all the admin-related tasks expected of them (including email accounts, e-learning, lack of training etc.).

The challenges of 0-hour contracts, although they are not described as such within the contracts themselves, also include a looming sense of dread for VL/AL academics approaching the summer months, when they know that they will be left penniless by their universities. If on a full-time status, those who are self-funded and undertaking a PhD are also barred from claiming any kind of benefit entitlements due to the receipt of a postgraduate student loan from Student Finance England. It is important to note that the maximum entitlement for this loan is £25,000 over the course of what is, on average, a 3-5 year research project. The average tuition fee for research degrees is over £5,000 per year. At the most ambitious end of the PhD completion scale, undertaking a 3-year research project with a £25,000 loan, leaves a £10,000 remainint total which is expected to help the student survive for 3 years. Of course, most PhDs exceed the 3-year mark and, combined with the challenges of not being paid by their universities over the summer months, this takes a serious toll on mental health which paradoxically affects their ability to dedicate full focus on their research projects. It inevitably leads to VL/AL staff scrambling to “take on” additional modules of teaching in an attempt to save enough to make ends meet throughout the summer, which again leaves them with little time or mental strength to focus on their PhD research.

Mental health is an issue which spans across a variety of challenges faced by VL/AL’s undertaking a PhD. There are intersectional elements which are not taken into consideration by higher education institutions that take a serious toll on their ability to juggle between their roles as facilitators of teaching and learning, students undertaking a PhD, but also human beings with a variety of other important identities in need of comfort, reassurance and support. Many universities fail to recognise nuanced issues arising from increasingly consumer-focused, neoliberal and bureaucratic practices adopted, which leave those who already struggle due to their class status, race, gender, or parenthood, with even less support than one individual characteristic that higher education assumes can be tick boxed away through a single counselling session. Some of the responses I received drew attention to the intersectional nature of class and race, others class and gender, and some even a combination of all three with an inclusion of motherhood or parenthood in general. It seems that experiences have been similar in that many higher education institutions still fail to take into consideration how the challenges associated with each individual identity are exacerbated when combined. These include a lack of acknowledgement that (1) money is a real issue, (2) there are racial, cultural and religious barriers which often mean an increased requirement of attention on family and social life beyond work, (3) certain departments and faculties are still male-centric, (4) motherhood and parenting requires serious review of pay and workload, and (5) many subject or course leaders are failing to recognise their curriculum content and teaching/learning practices are essentially colonising their own colleagues. A former colleague even encompassed all of these identities: an ethnically minoritised working-class mother of two children. One cannot begin to imagine the mental health struggles someone in this position faces during summer months in an ever-failing welfare system.

Academics who have not been through similar intersectional struggles seem to be unable or unwilling to acknowledge even the existence of them and the genuine impact that they have for their colleagues who spend a large proportion of their day-to-day work life trying (on top of everything else) to resist barriers to gender identities, dispel unconscious racial biases within their teams, or simply to provide their children with the level of care, love and support that they deserve. It can lead to a continuous interplay of unconscious gaslighting by one’s own full-time colleagues – some quotes provided to me by respondents were: “I teach more modules than you do, so you’ll be okay”, “yes but we all had the same amount of marking”, “can’t you do it over the weekend?” and “you need to work on your time management skills”. Despite many of us spending years drawing attention to stigma, oppression, marginalisation and social inequality, deconstructing and reconstructing by-gone theories that reproduce hegemony, we seem to allow it to flourish so easily under our noses and within our own institutions. This can perhaps serve as a reminder for all academics within higher education institutions, but also those focused on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, to step up their game by adopting principles of co-creation and genuine participatory change. After all, while the ultimate goal may be the same, the journey must be mapped out by those who have already experienced, and continue to experience, the inclines.

Au revoir Le Pen, take the rest of the far right with you!

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY

The recent French election once again saw centrist Macron head to head with far right nationalist Le Pen. Macron won the election by a much narrower margin that the 2017 elections. I have an interest in the French elections as my parents live there and are not far away from applying for citizenship. For them, the prospect of a far right president was worrying.

The politics of much of the world has shifted to the right of late, often to the far right. Perhaps this hasn’t been a recent thing. Indeed, before this wave of Trump, Modi, and Le Pen, we had UKIP and for a while the BNP was making a lot of noise.  The writing was on the wall with New Labour and their many new immigration offences, Blair’s tough on crime and it’s causes approach, and not forgetting war on Iraq and Afghanistan. This was swiftly followed with then Home Secretary Theresa May’s hostile environment agenda which has been advanced again and again by consecutive Home Secretaries until we passed the point of no return with Priti Patel and her Nationality and Borders Act 2022 (it pains me to type ‘Act’ instead of ‘Bill’ – it’s black and white now) from which not the Lords nor God nor the best lawyers in the land seem have yet been able to save us from. What we see now is a Conservative government embedded with far right ideology, and this is not an isolated island in that respect.

This current uprising of the far right, racist, and xenophobic politicians is a global phenomenon. Modi, the far right Hindu nationalist is knee deep in his campaign against Muslims, revoking autonomy in Jammu and Kashmir (ironically – or deliberately – this took place on 31st October 2019, the day Britain was supposed to leave the EU), invoking the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 which disproportionately affects the citizenship of Muslims who now face the possibility of expulsion, and even outright attacks on Muslims.

Then there was Trump and the less said about him, the better. But let us return to France. This is the second consecutive election in which Macron has faced Le Pen and won. In France, elections are held in two stages. All parties and candidates go head to head in stage one and if no candidate holds a majority, a second round between the top two candidates takes place. In 2017, Macron won the second stage with 66.1% of the vote. This time around, the vote was much narrower 58.6%. Le Pen’s Rassemblement National party has ‘transformed’ since the 2017 election, with the party’s councillor for Gironde arguing that they are not the far right, and instead are localists and nationalists. Are they not one and the same?

In recent years, the rise of the far right in Europe has been fuelled by fears of refugees, terrorism, and open borders within the European Union. In addition to this, concerns over employment and poverty have contributed to this. It is not all about them, it is preservation of us.

In a globalised era, we have seen decades of erosion of the working class jobs of old combined with distorted perceptions of immigration and population changes. People living in poverty, unemployed or in insecure employment look for someone to blame and the someone tends to be them. So, parties who say they stand for the working man and oppose immigration become popular, not because voters are necessarily racist but because they are fearful and suffering. Bearing that in mind, where does that leave us now? The whole of Europe is facing a cost of living crisis, war on our doorstep. Here in the UK, inflation and interest rates are rising but wages are not. We cannot blame this on them, on people fleeing persecution, on people who come to the UK to fill the jobs nobody wants or are not qualified to do. This us and them narrative causes nothing but division and hatred, fuelling hateful politicians who – let’s face it – serve nobody’s interests but their own.

My Monday message: Choose love

Growth comes from discomfort

Getting closer to 30 has been really difficult. I had set goals for myself and I have not accomplished most of them. 

I thought I had everything all planned out and I knew what I wanted. However, life comes at you fast. I honestly wonder how our parents made this look so easy. 

The pandemic has also knocked us back a couple of years. Instead of focussing on goals and thinking about the future; we are simply trying our hardest to stay sane and survive each day. Remembering to breathe became the new main task. Making our  mental health a priority has become the most important thing.  

Trying to balance ‘living in the moment’ and thinking about the future is hard. My plans have changed so much over the last couple of years. I have more questions than answers. But I’m slowly learning not every question has to be answered straightaway. 

The pressure I feel being a first generation immigrant is enormous. I believe that every generation has to show a level of socioeconomic improvement. Finding a way to achieve this, whilst in a foreign land is extremely overwhelming. You are constantly reminded close to each day that you are an outsider and you do not belong here. 

Nonetheless, my mother did not work two jobs and not have any days off for me not to make it. This has always been my driving force. My mom always tells me I am being too hard on myself. She had the support from her relatives when she was home in our home country (Zimbabwe) and I don’t have the same luxury, as such I shouldn’t penalise myself for not achieving everything I want to achieve… yet. (The key word is ‘yet’). Just because it has not happened yet doesn’t mean it will not happen in the future. Delay does not mean denial. 

Facing career challenges based on your race is a hard pill to swallow. Not knowing who to turn to for advice is even more frustrating. I used to think all women regardless of race would empathise and they would want to help. As we all have one struggle in common; being a woman.  At least that should unify us… (so you would think). However, I have realised at times your level of ambition can be deemed as a threat. The same people might have  experienced a glass ceiling can be the very same ones who add to your oppression because you are seen as ‘competition’.  One of my mentors recently told me to relax in relation to my job searching as all institutions are not used to “aggressive job searches”. I find it pretty funny that the term “aggressive” will always be the main word used to describe Black people. How can a job search ever be aggressive?! Unless I’m standing outside your office threatening you to give me a job then yes, that’s aggressive. However, sending an email reminding a company to send me the new job specification they stated over the phone is not aggressive. In that moment, I knew she is an enemy of my progress. 

I used to calculate my career progression based on if I have moved up to a certain level or my pay grade has increased. But I am starting to learn the skills I have acquired over the years are far more valuable. My confidence has grown incredibly. I have found my voice. That is something that cannot be taken from me. I am proud of my level of courage and perseverance. These are qualities not a lot of people have. 

I am excited to see what 30 has in store for me. I have learnt so much. But there are a lot of skills I look forward to gaining in the upcoming years. I am slowly learning not to be so hard on myself. 

Note to self – do not forget who you are… You are destined for greatness. Everything you want is coming. Do not compare your journey to others. Even if others are not willing to help you; there is always a way forward. Go back to the drawing board and restrategise. No one owes you anything. So do not expect anything from anyone.

“Remember diamonds are created under pressure so hold on, it will be your time to shine soon.” – Sope Agbelisi

DIE in Solidarity with Diversity-Inclusion-Equality

As an associate lecturer on a casual contract, I was glad to stand in solidarity with my friends and colleagues also striking as part of UCU Industrial Action. Concurrently, I was also glad to stand in solidarity with students (as a recent former undergrad and masters student … I get it), students who simply want a better education, including having a curriculum that represents them (not a privileged minority). I wrote this poem for the students and staff taking part in strike action, and it comes inspired from the lip service universities give to doing equality while undermining those that actually do it (meanwhile universities refuse to put in the investment required). This piece also comes inspired by ‘This is Not a Humanising Poem’ by Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, a British author-educator from Bradford in Yorkshire.


Some issues force you to protest

the way oppression knocks on your front door

and you can’t block out the noise

“protest peacefully, non-violently”

I have heard people say

show ‘the undecided’, passive respectability

be quiet, leave parts of yourself at home

show them you’re just as capable of being liked

enough for promotion into the canteen,

protest with kindness and humour

make allusions to smiling resisters in literature

they’d rather passive images of Rosa Parks all honestly

but not her politics against racism, patriarchy, and misogyny

Photo by Sushil Nash on Unsplash

but I wanna tell them about British histories of dissent

the good and the bad – 1919 Race Riots

the 1926 general strikes, and the not so quiet

interwar years of Caribbean resistance to military conscription

I wanna talk about how Pride was originally a protest

I wanna talk about the Grunwick Strike and Jayaben Desai

and the Yorkshire miners that came to London in solidarity

with South Asian migrant women in what was 1980s austerity

I want to rant about Thatcherism as the base

for the neoliberal university culture we work in today

I want to talk about the Poll Tax Riots of 1990

and the current whitewashing of the climate emergency

they want protesters to be frugal in activism,

don’t decolonise the curriculum

they say decolonise

they mean monetise, let’s diversify …

but not that sort of diversity

nothing too political, critical, intellectual

transform lives, inspire change?

But no,

they will make problems out of people who complain

it’s your fault, for not being able to concentrate

in workplaces that separate the work you do

from the effects of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo

they make you the problem

they make you want to leave

unwilling to acknowledge that universities

discriminate against staff and students systemically

POCs, working-class, international, disabled, LGBT

but let’s show the eligibility of staff networks

while senior leaders disproportionately hire TERFs

Universities are gaslighting their staff and students, enough is enough (Getty Images)

staff and students chequered with severe floggings

body maps of indenture and slavery

like hieroglyphics made of flesh

but good degrees, are not the only thing that hold meaning

workers rights, students’ rights to education

so this will not be a ‘people are human’ poem

we are beyond respectability now

however, you know universities will DIE on that hill

instead,

treat us well when we’re tired

productive, upset, frustrated

when we’re in back-to-back global crises

COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, femicide,

failing in class, time wasting, without the right visas,

the right accents; Black, white, homeless, in poverty,

women, trans, when we’re not A-Grade students, when we don’t

have the right last name; when we’re suicidal

when people are anxious, depressed, autistic

tick-box statistics within unprotected characteristics

all permeates through workers’ and student rights

When you see staff on strike now,

we’re protesting things related to jobs yes,

but also, the after-effects

as institutions always protect themselves

so sometimes I think about

when senior management vote on policies…

if there’s a difference between the nice ones ticking boxes

and the other ones that scatter white supremacy?

I wonder if it’s about diversity, inclusion, and equality [DIE],

how come they discriminate in the name of transforming lives

how come Black students are questioned (under caution) in disciplinaries

like this is the London Met maintaining law and order …

upholding canteen cultures of policing

Black and Brown bodies. Decolonisation is more

than the curriculum; Tuck and Yang

tell us decolonisation is not a metaphor,

so why is it used in meetings as lip service –

Photo by Kevin Olson on Unsplash

why aren’t staff hired in

in critical race studies, whiteness studies, decolonial studies

why is liberation politics and anti-racism not at the heart of this

why are mediocre white men failing upwards,

they tell me we have misunderstood

but promotion based on merit doesn’t exist

bell hooks called this

imperialist heteropatriarchal white supremacy

you know Free Palestine, Black Lives Matter, and the rest

we must protest how we want to protest

we must never be silenced; is this being me radical, am I radical 

Cos I’m tired of being called a “millennial lefty snowflake”, when I’m just trying not to DIE?! 


Further Reading

Ahmed, Sara (2012) On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. London: Duke.

Ahmed, Sara (2021) Complaint. London: Duke.

Bhanot, Kavita (2015) Decolonise, Not Diversify. Media Diversified [online].

Double Down News (2021) This Is England: Ash Sakar’s Alternative Race Report. YouTube.

Chen, Sophia (2020) The Equity-Diversity-Inclusion Industrial Complex Gets a Makeover. Wired [online].

Puwar, Nirmal (2004) Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place. Oxford: Berg.

Read, Bridget (2021) Doing the Work at Work What are companies desperate for diversity consultants actually buying? The Cut [online].

Ventour, Tré (2021) Telling it Like it is: Decolonisation is Not Diversity. Diverse Educators [online].

Who’s to blame, Jimmy Carr or the system that feeds him?

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

NB: The term ‘white’ in this blog is being used to describe those racialised as white within the dominant culture of the UK, and those that benefit the most from white privilege. Though Gypsy Roma Traveller [GRT] communities may in cases be racialised as white, their culture sits juxtaposed to the dominant thus ‘not white enough’, so may not always be seen as white by white British people (see Bhopal, 2018: 29-47).

“Extending the gaze to whiteness enables us to observe the many shades of difference that lie within this category – that some people are ‘whiter’ than others, some are not white enough and many are inescapably cast beneath the shadow of whiteness” (Nayak, 2007).


Following Haley’s excellent blog on the Jimmy Carr debacle, I would like to bring another perspective. For those of us racialised outside of whiteness, I know I do not need to describe the litany of examples where those racialised as white portray racist hatred as humour on and off social media. Haley continues in writing, “Jimmy Carr’s [His] Dark Material stand-up comedy is the latest in a long line of everyday racism that has been subjected to a trial by Twitter.” When we challenge these “jokes”, at least in my experience I was told iterations of “stop being so sensitive”; “it’s just a joke”; “lighten up” and so on …

In her long-essay What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship to Coalition, Irish author-academic Emma Dabiri (2021) writes:

“I grew up in a culture of bantering and, ngl, I love a caustic riposte. And while in certain ways I resent the current policing of language, there is a distinction. I hate to break it to you, but a “joke” in which the gag is that the person is black isn’t a joke, it’s just racism disguised as humor. A joke told to a white audience where the punch line is a racist stereotype isn’t a joke, again it’s just racism; if there is only one black person present, it’s also cowardly and it’s bullying. Jokes of this nature probably aren’t funny for black people.”

Emma Dabiri (2021: 98)
Photo by Dorin Seremet on Unsplash

Whilst in my time writing for Thoughts I have engaged with many issues, one I have not yet written on is the ‘canteen culture’ of bantering I grew up in amid the English private school system. So, I am quite familiar with the culture of private schools having gone to them myself (aged 5-16) where racism (specifically anti-Blackness) against me was passed off as “a ‘joke’ in which the gag is … just racism disguised as humour”(Dabiri, 2021: 98). As a boy, Carr went to sixth form at Royal Grammar School, a selective boys’ school in High Wycombe in the image of a posh state school famous for projecting its boys into Oxbridge. Thus Jimmy Carr passed into Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

If there was to be a culture of ‘banter’ where Carr learned such behaviours, these selective schools and universities are a good place to start. For people not racialised as white, these places can be a new-kind of hell very much in the image of colonial-style racism. At school, in my experience there existed a toxic human concotion of racism (as banter) which infected not only the students but also the staff. It’s this sort of thing that may sit under the thinking behind Carr’s “joke”, and why he thought it was okay to make it in the first place. However, as much as I would like make this about him, this isn’t really about him at all.

Carr has had a very successful career of punching down on the marginalised and historically excluded, profiting from their suffering. For me, this is more about how large institutions like Netflix give platforms to people they know are bad news and let them espouse hatred anyway. Professor Sunny Singh tweeted how it is a “reminder that Jimmy Carr’s joke went through a whole production process in order to appear on @netflix.” When we consider how any piece of media goes through a rigorous editing / production process, the fact nobody questioned a Holocaust “joke” about Roma and Sinti people is a stark reminder of how white supremacy functions in media.

Here a white man makes a “joke” to an audience of mostly white people backed by a production team (largely white, let’s be honest) at a white institution Netflix … with ‘institutional whiteness’ hardening (Ahmed 2006; 2007; 2012; 2014; Hunter, 2015; 2019; White Spaces). Simply affirming what the late Charles Mills (2004) wrote where “… white supremacy implies the existence of a system that not only privileges whites but is run by whites, for white benefit” (p31).

The uproar to Jimmy Carr’s “joke” follows #ClanchyGate where author-schoolteacher Kate Clanchy was criticised for perpetuating racism and ableism in her 2019 memoir Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. She used descriptions like “chocolate-coloured skin” and “almond-shaped eyes.”Moreover, she referred to autistic children as “unselfconsciously odd” and “probably more than an hour a week” around them “would irriate me, too, but for that hour I like them very much.”

Like Netflix, her publisher Picador did not spot these in the editing process. Or they did spot them, and said nothing … reiterating the ableism, racism, and white supremacy that exists in publishing where rather than hold Kate Clanchy accountable, her colleagues like Philip Pullman berated women of colour who challenged her taking to Twitter and comparing them to the Taliban. The same three women of colour who have been erased from this discourse. The issue with Picador is a reminder of how predominantly white artists (not always … like Dave Chappelle in his Netflix special The Closer) with power are then platformed with no accountability when they cause harm (intended or not). Kate Clanchy has since gone on to find another publisher for her book after she was required to rewrite!!

Jimmy Carr follows Chapelle, Clanchy as well as Joe Rogan and his racist rhetoric. Not only is Carr’s just horrific, but it also reinforces the the discrimination Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller [GRT] people face in Britain where their cultures will be erased should the government’s crime, policing and sentencing bill reach fruition. The conversation around Carr’s “joke” reminds me how general opinion is still comfortable with racism so long as it is wrapped in ‘humour’. With the ‘free speech’ champions following behind. It’s also showing me the number of people that think racism only happens to those racialised as Black or Brown.

It is not so simple. The way we define racism is worthy of further discussion and analysis when we consider the racism that happens because of cultural belongings. As Emma Dabiri writes:

“The myth of a unified white ‘race’ makes white people, from what are in truth distinct groups, better able to identify common ground with each other and to imagine kinship and solidarity with others racialized as ‘white’, while at the same time withholding the humanity of racialized others. The ability of whiteness to create fictive kinships where differences might outweigh similarities, or where one ‘white’ group thrives and prospers through the exploitation of another ‘white’ group, all united under the rubric of whiteness constructs at the same time a zone of exclusion for racialized ‘others’, where in fact less expected affinities and even cultural resonances might reside.

In truth, this is the work of whiteness, who invention was to serve that function. Saying that all “white” people are the same irrespective of say, culture, nationality, locatioin, and class literally does the work of whiteness for it. But despite the continuities of whiteness – the sense of superiority that is embedded in its existence – we cannot disregard the differences that exist. This demands a truthful reckoning with the fact that the particulars of whiteness, as well as the nature of the relationship between black and white, will show up differently in different countries and require the crafting of different responses.”

(Dabiri, 2021: 45-46)

Emma Dabiri’s What White People Can Do Next (2021) follows David Roediger’s Wages of Whiteness (1991), Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White (1995), Matthew Jacobson’s Whiteness of a Different Color (1998) and Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People (2010), all of which in some way show how different white groups have modifiers attached when talking about “white people.” This must be discussed interlocking with other factors including culture, place/geography, and class. Through Roediger, Ignatiev, Jacobson, Painter, Dabiri, and other scholars, we can see how whiteness splits and mutates to serve its purpose of divide and rule, and really how white supremacy may also negatively impact against those read as white and ‘not white enough’ in different ways.

Photo by Adli Wahid on Unsplash

The late archbishop Desmond Tutu believed that our quest for liberating the oppressed must also come with liberating the oppressor too. He saw how white South Africans during Apartheid had become bitter and hateful as a result of the racism that pervaded through their lives on a daily basis. Visiting Israel as well, he saw the same thing in the Israeli state’s dehumanisation of the Palestinian people. As Tutu himself states:

“Part of my own concern for what is happening there [Israel] is in fact not what is happening to the Palestinians, but is what the Israelis are doing to themselves. When you go to those checkpoints and you see these young soldiers behaving abominably badly, they are not aware when you carry out dehumanising policies, whether you like it or not those policies dehumanise the perpetrator.”

Demond Tutu

That ‘dehumanisation of the Other’ is central to any system of oppression, and we see this again in Britain with the police’s treatment of Black people going all the way back to 1919. However, we also see it in the state’s treatment of GRT people, compounded by the policing and sentencing bill. On a local level, the dehumanisation of GRT communities can be seen again when we observe the comments sections of local news. The comments of everyday people reflect the racist policymaking of politicians. In the continuous persecution of racialised minorities more generally in Britain, we must also consider what racism does to the perpetrators and what this ‘dehumanisation of the Other’ has done to the cultural majority. Even scarier, what has this dehumanisation done to the people that do not even realise they are racist?

When that ‘dehumanising’ appears on big public platforms like stand-up “comedy” shows, we have a problem – essentially giving racism the green light underpinned by violent policymaking in government. So, the discussions around Jimmy Carr not only show me that there needs to be more conversation about how whiteness impacts those read as Black or Brown, but also how whiteness impacts those read as white or not white enough (GRT, Eastern Europeans and so forth). We have work to do and lots of it.

Jimmy Carr and Acceptable Racism

Hope by Elijah Vardo: https://www.travellerstimes.org.uk/features/hope-romani-artist-elijah-vardo

Jimmy Carr’s Dark Material stand-up comedy is the latest in a long line of everyday racism that has been subjected to a trial by TwitterThe context in which the joke is told is as follows:  

A wealthy white gorger man mocks Roma and Sinti people because of who they are. His mostly white gorger audience than laughs and finds this hilarious. This man’s stand-up is so successful that it is endorsed by Netflix, of which the CEO appears to be a rich white gorger man. Both Jimmy Carr and Netflix profit from dehumanising a marginalised group of people.  

If the joke had been delivered to audiences which were predominantly Gypsy Roma and Traveller people this would not have been viewed as funny. To adapt Emma Dabiri’s (2021, p. 98) work, ‘a ‘joke’ in which the gag is that the person is [a Gypsy, Roma or Traveller] isn’t a joke, it’s just racism disguised as humour’ (2021, p. 98).  

Carr’s joke should not be surprising as he prides himself on his use of homophobic, racist and misogynistic ‘career ending’ jokes and these jokes are enjoyed by many.  

The anti-racist Twitter reactions to this joke could provide some hope that many people are becoming more willing to challenge racism. Some Tweets were aimed at increasing the awareness and calling-out racism. Many Tweets were kind, and others were asking for Jimmy to provide a genuine apology. Although, Carr’s words (plus the support of the audience and Netflix) are a symptom of a racist society, so does the focus on Carr’s interpersonal actions mean that people are being distracted from the broader structural issues of racism and white supremacy?   

After scrolling though Twitter there was a clear divide between those claiming to be ‘anti-racist’ and those claiming that ‘the freedom of speech’ is more important than combating racism. This left me thinking,  

How do we get to a point where people are willing to recognise that oppressive systems impact us all, but differently, in some way shape or form?  

And; 

How could people be encouraged to fight against unequal and damaging systems in a way that encourages social change and forgiveness rather than hate and division? 

It seems that online activism might be useful for raising awareness and giving voices to those pushed out of mainstream media. However, if focused on just ‘calling out’ individual acts of racism whilst online there is a danger of being caught up in an online culture war and not actually doing much to change structural issues in the offline world.  

Whilst the Jimmy Carr Twitter debates continue, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which could further damage Gypsy Roma and Traveller lives is in the final stages of Bill passage. As well as this, inequality and misery is set to become further entrenched with the impending surge in energy bills. All of this is thanks to a government which is a mess, corrupt and devoid of any sense of morality. Even so, maybe Jimmy Carr should stick to making jokes about his own experiences of upper class tax avoidance next time.  

Note: Thank you to Emma Dabiri’s What White People Can Do Next (2021) for helping me to articulte my frustrations with online Twitter debates.

Hope’ by Elijah Vardo: https://www.travellerstimes.org.uk/features/hope-romani-artist-elijah-vardo
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