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A month of Black history through the eyes of a white, privileged man… an open letter

Dear friends,

Over the years, in my line of work, there was a conviction, that logic as the prevailing force allows us to see social situations around (im)passionately, impartially and fairly.  Principles most important especially for anyone who dwells in social sciences.  We were “raised” on the ideologies that promote inclusivity, justice and solidarity.  As a kid, I remember when we marched as a family against nuclear proliferation, and later as an adult I marched and protested for civil rights on the basis of sexuality, nationality and class.  I took part in anti-war marches and protested and took part in strikes when fees were introduced in higher education.    

All of these were based on one very strongly, deeply ingrained, view that whilst the world may be unfair, we can change it, rebel against injustices and make it better.  A romantic view/vision of the world that rests on a very basic principle “we are all human” and our humanity is the home of our unity and strength.  Take the environment for example, it is becoming obvious to most of us that this is a global issue that requires all of us to get involved.  The opt-out option may not be feasible if the environment becomes too hostile and decreases the habitable parts of the planet to an ever-growing population. 

As constant learners, according to Solon (Γηράσκω αεί διδασκόμενος)[1] it is important to introspect views such as those presented earlier and consider how successfully they are represented.  Recently I was fortunate to meet one of my former students (@wadzanain7) who came to visit and talk about their current job.  It is always welcome to see former students coming back, even more so when they come in a reflective mood at the same time as Black history month.  Every year, this is becoming a staple in my professional diary, as it is an opportunity to be educated in the history that was not spoken or taught at school. 

This year’s discussions and the former student’s reflections made it very clear to me that my idealism, however well intended, is part of an experience that is deeply steeped in white men’s privilege.  It made me question what an appropriate response to a continuous injustice is.  I was aware of the quote “all that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing” growing up, part of my family’s narrative of getting involved in the resistance, but am I true to its spirit?  To understand there is a problem but do nothing about it, means that ultimately you become part of the same problem you identify.  Perhaps in some regards a considered person is even worse because they see the problem, read the situation and can offer words of solace, but not discernible actions.  A light touch liberalism, that is nice and inclusive, but sits quietly observing history written in the way as before, follow the same social discourses, but does nothing to change the problems.  Suddenly it became clear how wrong I am.  A great need to offer a profound apology for my inaction and implicit collaboration to the harm caused. 

I was recently challenged in a discussion about whether people who do not have direct experience are entitled to a view.  Do those who experience racism voice it?  Of course, the answer is no; we can read it, stand against it, but if we have not experienced it, maybe, just maybe, we need to shut up and let other voices be heard and tell their stories.  Black history month is the time to walk a mile in another person’s shoes.

Sincerely yours

M



[1] A very rough translation: I learn, whilst I grow, life-long learning.

Have you been radicalised? I have

Sylvia-Pankhurst_1

On Tuesday 12 December 2018, I was asked in court if I had been radicalised. From the witness box I proudly answered in the affirmative. This was not the first time I had made such a public admission, but admittedly the first time in a courtroom. Sounds dramatic, but the setting was the Sessions House in Northampton and the context was a Crime and Punishment lecture. Nevertheless, such is the media and political furore around the terms radicalisation and radicalism, that to make such a statement, seems an inherently radical gesture.

So why when radicalism has such a bad press, would anyone admit to being radicalised? The answer lies in your interpretation, whether positive or negative, of what radicalisation means. The Oxford Dictionary (2018) defines radicalisation as ‘[t]he action or process of causing someone to adopt radical positions on political or social issues’. For me, such a definition is inherently positive, how else can we begin to tackle longstanding social issues, than with new and radical ways of thinking? What better place to enable radicalisation than the University? An environment where ideas can be discussed freely and openly, where there is no requirement to have “an elephant in the room”, where everything and anything can be brought to the table.

My understanding of radicalisation encompasses individuals as diverse as Edith Abbott, Margaret Atwood, Howard S. Becker, Fenner Brockway, Nils Christie, Angela Davis, Simone de Beauvoir, Paul Gilroy, Mona Hatoum, Stephen Hobhouse, Martin Luther King Jr, John Lennon, Primo Levi, Hermann Mannheim, George Orwell, Sylvia Pankhurst, Rosa Parks, Pablo Picasso, Bertrand Russell, Rebecca Solnit, Thomas Szasz, Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, Benjamin Zephaniah, to name but a few. These individuals have touched my imagination because they have all challenged the status quo either through their writing, their art or their activism, thus paving the way for new ways of thinking, new ways of doing. But as I’ve argued before, in relation to civil rights leaders, these individuals are important, not because of who they are but the ideas they promulgated, the actions they took to bring to the world’s attention, injustice and inequality. Each in their own unique way has drawn attention to situations, places and people, which the vast majority have taken for granted as “normal”. But sharing their thoughts, we are all offered an opportunity to take advantage of their radical message and take it forward into our own everyday lived experience.

Without radical thought there can be no change. We just carry on, business as usual, wringing our hands whilst staring desperate social problems in the face. That’s not to suggest that all radical thoughts and actions are inherently good, instead the same rigorous critique needs to be deployed, as with every other idea. However rather than viewing radicalisation as fundamentally threatening and dangerous, each of us needs to take the time to read, listen and think about new ideas. Furthermore, we need to talk about these radical ideas with others, opening them up to scrutiny and enabling even more ideas to develop. If we want the world to change and become a fairer, more equal environment for all, we have to do things differently. If we cannot face thinking differently, we will always struggle to change the world.

 

For me, the philosopher Bertrand Russell sums it up best

Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. It sees man, a feeble speck, surrounded by unfathomable depths of silence; yet it bears itself proudly, as unmoved as if it were lord of the universe. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man (Russell, 1916, 2010: 106).

 

Reference List:

Russell, Bertrand, (1916a/2010), Why Men Fight, (Abingdon: Routledge)

‘The Problem We All Live With’

The-problem-we-all-live-with-norman-rockwell

The title of this blog and the picture above relate to Norman Rockwell’s (1964) painting depicting Ruby Bridges on her way to school in a newly desegregated New Orleans. In over half a century, this picture has never lost its power and remains iconic.

Attending conferences, especially such a large one as the ASC, is always food for thought. The range of subjects covered, some very small and niche, others far more longstanding and seemingly intractable, cause the little grey cells to go into overdrive. So much to talk about, so much to listen to, so many questions, so many ideas make the experience incredibly intense. However, education is neither exclusive to the conference meeting rooms nor the coffee shops in which academics gather, but is all around. Naturally, in Atlanta, as I alluded to in my previous entry this week, reminders of the civil rights movement are all around us. Furthermore, it is clear from the boarded-up shops, large numbers of confused and disturbed people wandering the streets, others sleeping rough, that many of the issues highlighted by the civil rights movement remain. Slavery and overt segregation under the Jim Crow laws may be a thing of the past, but their impact endures; the demarcation between rich and poor, Black and white is still obvious.

The message of civil rights activists is not focused on beatification; they are human beings with all their failings, but far more important and direct. To make society fairer, more just, more humane for all, we must keep moving forward, we must keep protesting and we must keep drawing attention to inequality. Although it is tempting to revere brave individuals such as Ruby Bridges, Claudette Colvin, Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X to name but a few, this is not an outcome any of them ascribed to. If we look at Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘“The Drum Major Instinct” Sermon Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church’ he makes this overt. He urges his followers not to dwell on his Nobel Peace Prize, or any of his other multitudinous awards but to remember that ‘he tried’ to end war, bring comfort to prisoners and end poverty. In his closing words, he stresses that

If I can help somebody as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody with a word or song,
If I can show somebody he’s traveling wrong,
Then my living will not be in vain.
If I can do my duty as a Christian ought,
If I can bring salvation to a world once wrought,
If I can spread the message as the master taught,
Then my living will not be in vain.

These powerful words stress practical activism, not passive veneration. Although a staunch advocate for non-violent resistance, this was never intended as passive. The fight to improve society for all, is not over and done, but a continual fight for freedom. This point is made explicit by another civil rights activist (and academic) Professor Angela Davis in her text Freedom is a Constant Struggle. In this text she draws parallels across the USA, Palestine and other countries, both historical and contemporaneous, demonstrating that without protest, civil and human rights can be crushed.

Whilst ostensibly Black men, women and children can attend schools, travel on public transport, eat at restaurants and participate in all aspects of society, this does not mean that freedom for all has been achieved. The fight for civil rights as demonstrated by #blacklivesmatter and #metoo, campaigns to end LGBT, religious and disability discrimination, racism, sexism and to improve the lives of refugees, illustrate just some of the many dedicated to following in a long tradition of fighting for social justice, social equality and freedom.

Divided States of America

 

For Criminology Post

Nahida is a BA (Hons) Criminology graduate of 2017, who recently returned from travelling.

Ask anyone that has known me for a long time, they would tell you that I have wanted to go to America since I was a little girl. But, at the back of my mind, as a woman of colour, and as a Muslim, I feared how I would be treated there. Racial discrimination and persecution is not a contemporary problem facing the States. It is one that is rooted in the country’s history.

I had a preconceived idea, that I would be treated unfairly, but to be fair, there was no situation where I felt completely unsafe. Maybe that was because I travelled with a large group of white individuals. I had travelled the Southern states, including Louisiana, Texas, Tennessee and Virginia and saw certain elements that made me uncomfortable; but in no way did I face the harsh reality that is the treatment of people of colour in the States.

Los Angeles was my first destination. It was my first time on a plane without my family, so I was already anxious and nervous, but on top of that I was “randomly selected” for extra security checks. Although these checks are supposedly random and indiscriminate, it was no surprise to me that I was chosen. I was a Muslim after all; and Muslim’s are stereotyped as terrorists. I remember my travel companion, who was white, and did not have to undergo these checks, watch as I was taken to the side, as several other white travellers were able to continue without the checks. She told me she saw a clear divide and so could I.

In Lafayette, Louisiana, I walked passed a man in a sandwich café, who fully gawked at me like I had three heads. As I had walked to the café, I noticed several cars with Donald Trump stickers, which had already made me feel quite nervous because several of his supporters are notorious for their racist views.

Beale Street in Downtown Memphis is significant in the history of the blues, so it is a major tourist attraction for those who visit. It comes alive at night; but it was an experience that I realised how society has brainwashed us into subliminal racism. The group of people I was travelling with were all white and they had felt uncomfortable and feared for their safety the entire time we were on Beale Street. The street was occupied by people of colour, which was not surprising considering Memphis’ history with African-Americans and the civil rights movement. That night, the group decided to leave early for the first time during the whole trip. I asked, “Do you think it’s our subconscious racist views, which explains why we feel so unsafe?” It was a resounding yes. As a woman of colour, I was not angry at them, because I knew they were not racist, but a fraction of their mind held society’s view on people of colour; the view that people of colour are criminals, and, or should be feared. That viewpoint was clearly exhibited by the heavy police presence throughout the street. It was the most heavily policed street I had seen the entire time I was in the States. Even Las Vegas’ strip didn’t seem to have that many police officers patrolling.

It was on the outskirts of Tennessee, where I came across an individual whose ignorance truly blindsided me. We had pulled up at a gas station, and the man approached my friends. I was inside the station at this point. The man was preaching the bible and looking for new followers for his Church. He stumbled upon the group and looked fairly displeased with the way they were dressed in shorts and skirts. He struck a conversation with them and asked generic questions like “Where are you from?” etcetera. When he found out the group were from England, he asked if in England, they spoke English. At this point, the group concluded that he wasn’t particularly educated. I joined the group outside, post this conversation, and the man took one look at me and turned to my friend who was next to him, and shouted “Is she from India?” The way he yelled seemed like an attempt to guage if I could understand him or not. Not only was that rude, but also very ignorant, because he made a narrow-minded assumption that a person of my skin colour, could not speak English, and were all from India.

I was completely taken aback, but also, I found the situation kind of funny. I have never met someone so uneducated in my entire life. In England, I have been quite privileged to have never faced any verbal or physical form of racial discrimination; so, to meet this man was quite interesting. This incident took place in an area populated by white individuals. I was probably one of the very few, or perhaps the first Asian woman he had ever met in his life; so, I couldn’t make myself despise him. He was not educated, and to me, education is the key to eliminating racism.

Also, the man looked be in his sixties, so his views were probably set, so anything that any one of us could have said in that moment, would never have been able to erase the years of discriminatory views he had. The bigotry of the elder generation is a difficult fight because during their younger days, such views were the norm; so, changing such an outlook would take a momentous feat. It is the younger generation, that are the future. To reduce and eradicate racism, the younger generation need to be educated better. They need to be educated to love, and not hate and fear people that have a different skin colour to them.

 

 

 

 

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