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The Color Purple, The Musical: What in the Misogynoir?!
TW: mentions of rape, child rape, racism, and misogynoir.
Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple is a story loved around the world. So, when I saw that it was adapted to stage and touring the UK, my interest was peaked just enough to consider a visit to my local theatre the Royal & Derngate in Northampton. A Curve and Birmingham Hippodrome co-production, it came to Northampton in the first week of October. Largely, audiences that frequent my local theatre are overwhelmingly white – thus, watching The Color Purple it was a joy to my heart to hear Black people in my community engaging with the arts, because the last time I heard so many Black people attended, was for Our Lady of Kibeho as part of the R&D’s Made in Northampton season. This dates back to 2019, a production I reviewed for The Nenequirer showing that Northampton(shire) arts has work to do.
Social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram showed me the pretty unanimous positive praise for the Leicester-Birmingham co-production, while local critics also enjoyed it – including reviews from The Chronicle & Echo and The Nenequirer as well as further reviews by The Real Chris Sparkle and Northampton Town Centre BID. However, there were elements of the show that caused me great distress, no less than the perpetuation of misogynoir and racist stereotypes against Black men. It was deeply triggering, showing how historical trauma and vicarious trauma are ever present, including when white organisations have not done the work of protecting Black mental health when producing “Black-centred media.”
At the head of this cast, Me’sha Bryan gives a knockout performance as Celie (previous played by Whoopi Goldberg in the film) accompanied by Aaliya Zhané as Nettie, with Bree Smith as Shug Avery, and brilliant musical numbers grounded in the traditions of blues music that finds its origins in the trauma of enslaved Africans in the American South. They sang when “they got the blues” … and as far as performance and the commitment from the cast, I couldn’t ask for better.
However, whilst I have praised the musical numbers above, I did not believe it fitted with the tones of The Color Purple curating a rift between what the actors were saying and doing on stage, and the intonations of the music – as well as the lighting design. And despite the directorial position deciding the rape of a child wasn’t musical material (rightly so), the choice to have it as a passing detail with no further discussion, I found particularly off-key. This is one of the moments that highlights that The Color Purple may not have been musical material and better considered as a serious drama. I did not walk away feeling that bleak, much ado with contradictory lighting choices to character moods. The characters were feeling one away and lights did something else. By the by, rather than skip over the rape to maintain “the musicalness”, it may have been more effective to have done this story as a stage drama (with musical elements, if at all). The horrors depicted at the beginning of the novel are pretty nonexistent in musical.
So, this recent adaptation was a disappointment. Not from an acting point of view but behind-the-scenes pre-production elements like direction. The start of story includes a fourteen year-old who births two children after being raped by her father. So, the amount of trauma that exists around child sexual abuse and rape appear unconsidered when they glossed over these parts of the story. Furthermore, I do question if they consulted with any survivors when doing research for this adaptation. A ‘sensitivity consultant’ would not have gone amiss either, further to considerations of intersectionality and how cultural nuances in global, but still different Black communities, will be interpreted by white people, especially in provincial Little England.
Blown away by the musical abilities of the cast, stage productions (like much art) are often labelled as “escapist” so is not afforded the same criticality as for example – policing, education, sport and so on – we are all guilty of this and we can do better. This may be art; there were no redeeming Black characters, and Black men calling Black women “ugly” (written into the script) in full face of a white audience is cultural violence. In Northampton, the large white audience laughed at this example of ableist misogynoir, and in many ways this production felt to be played up for white audiences. Lots of white people are not used to seeing Black people as full human beings, and I do feel the play draws out our humanity. And by proxy centres white comfort with a Black aesthetic reinforced by white supremacy in media.
Disability justice activist Talia Lewis has released definitions of ableism every year since 2019. In January 2022, she discussed ableism as a violent social discourse that values people’s bodies and minds according to societally constructed ideas of “normalcy, productivity, desirability, intelligence, excellence and fitness …” Lewis (2022) states that these ideas are embedded in other violent discourses such as eugenics, capitalism, misogyny and white supremacy. The adaptation of these characters is only part of this debate, where another part may want to consider how this play has informed everpresent white superemacism pervasive across Northamptonnshire. It may impact how local white audiences may view Black people when they perceive that in this cultural text – ‘this is how Black people talk and act around each other.’
“This systemic oppression leads to people and society determining people’s value based on their culture, age, language, appearance, religion, birth or living place, “health/wellness”, and/or their ability to satisfactory re/produce, “excel” and “behave.” You do not have to be disabled to experience ableism.”Talia Lewis (2022)
In Homegrown (hooks and Mesa-Bains, 2017), bell hooks tell us “We have to constantly critique imperialist white supremacist patriarchal culture because it is so normalized by mass media and rendered unproblematic. The products of mass media offer the tools of the new pedagogy.” Theatre is no different to films, literature or television programmes. Watching the musical, it struck me how the numbers of people who haven’t done the work of unlearning their own white supremacy would be impacted by such an adaptation (yes, as we know all humans can reproduce these isms but in a global western context, however, white supremacy has put white people on the top of that racial hierarchy).
One instance of misogynoir and ableism was underpinned by the three Black women singers (their character names escape me) who were written as Sassy Black Women inherently “comedifying” Black womanhood. Brilliant singers, but were written lazily reinforcing a damaging cultural media narrative that diminishes the three-dimensional personhoods of Black women. This was offered with no alternative. The Hypersexual Jezebel (named after the “sinful” Biblical character) appears in numbers of characters while Sofia was written as the Strong Black Woman. Black men were then written as violent, comedic relief, illiterate, and other harmful stereotypes, and domestic abuser Mr Albert is redeemed to the sound of musical harmonies and joyful lighting.
At a Northampton level, the critics from local media revisited a culture of uncritically discussing art. Stories aren’t just stories but a product of the society that created them, and we are a society that finds it easier to challenge the criminal justice system than it does liberal arts institutions, in spite of both having a say in how Black people are viewed and treated. Despite “Black theatre” not being genre, we need more shows at the Derngate that centre Blackness in Britain. And whilst commissioning and hosting shows about ‘Black issues’ is not evidence of an anti-racist commitment, it would be nice to see more shows locally about Black people in the UK by Black people.
When we do get “Black stories”, they so often centre the US, most recently The Color Purple (Oct, 2022) and Two Trains Running (Sept, 2019) – denying local audiences a context for Blackness within the United Kingdom, while recentring American Blacknesses is gaslighting through art. In November, Dreamgirls centring American Blackness is coming to the Derngate. A co-production between The Curve and the Birmingham Hippodrome, this adaptation of The Color Purple was deeply problematic on many levels that local white critics may not have picked up on because of their whiteness – drawn in by a spectacle of a “Black show”, viewed through a white gaze that is unused to talking about white supremacy as a political structure.
The white audience for these misogynoir tropes specifically – largely one of laughter – reminded me of the white gaze, with white laughter as eased white supremacy. Whiteness continues to pervade through ‘acceptable racism’ where serious digs made at Black people in-text laughed at by white people may show how white people may think about Black people in designated white spaces. A Black man seriously calling a Black woman ugly and a white audience laughing at that is incredibly revealing – a comfortableness in spaces coded as white … and how white people may act when thinking and talking about Black people in private (i.e in spaces coded as culturally white and desgined to their comfort).
“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)
Art imitating life is one thing, but when life imitates art is another. White laughter at Black people in cultural media texts goes back to the days when blackface was on the BBC (until 1978). To see this platformed by a local arts institution then profiting from it, is revealing of how whiteness is performed and profited from, when white people think they’re not being watched. Creatives have a responsibility and so do those institutions that platform them.
Myself and fellow blogger @haleysread discuss this further in our prior entries about the scandal surrounding Jimmy Carr and Netflix. On that October evening, being one of the few Black people in the audience, it was incredibly uncomfortable. To consider art uncritically is to be entertained from a vantage point of privilege (or ignorance). Attending with my friend, to see unanimous positive feedback from the public made us feel a way, no less than from many Black people. We must always be critical; being critical is not the same as criticising, and those who are critical only take the time to be so because we care.
It is not about individual actors but about the lack of critique of institutional platforming in producing “art” that goes on to cause harm. Another fellow blogger Stephanie @svr2727 talked about misogynoir and the media in her recent webinar with the Criminology Team and Black Criminology Network. Violent mistakes in arts productions show a need not for more historical consultants, but sensitivity readers and empathy viewers. One cannot teach empathy, you either have it or you do not. Extending this gaze to screen media texts as well like Bridgerton and others, it is a further reminder that social scientists are needed at the very top of media … especially those of us that research about race, racism, and other forms of violence.
These cultural texts are rehearsed, edited, and considered by multiple hands before any public audience sees them. So, why are we still having to challenge? Simple: misogynoir, ableism, and whiteness are institutionalised and normalised socially and culturally into our day-to-day practice. No less than in “liberal” arts institutions.
“Nothing but a circus, with clowns and all.” – Malcolm X
Do You Remember the Time? At the Lynching Memorial
On September 11, 2021 I visited the Lynching Memorial, which is near the newly expanded Equal Justice Initiative Museum, From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration.
At the heart of the “National Memorial for Peace and Justice” (Lynching memorial) is a vast collection of giant, rusty metal, rectangular pillars, hanging tightly together like a neatly planned and well-looked-after orchard.
Etched in each are the names of (known) lynching victims by date.
We can see that, at times, entire families were lynched.
The pillars are hung so cleverly that one has to experience this artistic installation in person.
Nonetheless, the subject of white terrorism in the deep south is heavy,
Which is perhaps why Guests are invited to visit the nearby museum before the Memorial.
One needs time to prepare.
Naturally, sandwiched between enslavement and mass incarceration exhibits,
The museum also has an array of material on lynching.
This included a giant mural of jars surrounded by videos, infographic murals, maps and
An interactive register of every known lynching by county, date, state, and name.
I’m still stuck on the mural of snapshots of actual lynching advertisements, and
Pictures of actual news reports of victims’ final words.
These were the actual final words of folks etched forever in these hanging, rusty pillars.
Ostensibly, written by war correspondents.
Standing in awe of the museum’s wall of jars, I chatted with a tall Black man about my age.
He’d traveled here from a neighboring state with his teen son to, as he said,
“See how this stuff we go through today ain’t new.”
I recounted to him what a young man at the EJI memorial had showed me a few years ago:
A man’s name who’d been lynched early last century for selling loose cigarettes –
Just like Eric Garner!
Yet, even since then,
We’ve gotten the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor,
Or even Michael Brown, Walter Scott and Philando Castile.
Amadou Diallo was shot 19 times in 1999, standing on his own stoop
And while Jayland Walker got 46 bullets this year while fleeing on foot.
Tamir Rice was a little boy.
A little boy playing in the park. But his mere presence terrified a white man.
So he called 9-1-1 and the police showed up and shot Tamir within seconds!
We can watch the tape.
All of these martyrs are included in the museum’s growing timelines (sigh).
After their own legal work in representing the wrongfully imprisoned for damn near life,
EJI began collecting jars of dirt near every known lynching, and
If invited by local officials, EJI would offer a memorial plaque and ceremony commemorating that community’s recognition of historic injustice(s).
An open field sits next to the suspended pillars, filled with a duplicate of each pillar.
These duplicates sit, having yet to be collected and properly dedicated by each county.
These communities are denied healing, and we know wounds fester.
The field of lame duplicates effectively memorializes the festering denial in our body politic.
There are far too many unrecorded victims and versions of white mob violence, and intimidation, not just barbarous torture and heinous murder.
Outside of these few sorts of memorials,
We do have to wonder how else this rich history has stayed in our collective memories.
Too many Black families were too traumatized to talk and didn’t want to pass it to their kids.
We know many fled after any minor incursion,
Just as someone had advised Emmet Till to do,
And there’s no accounting for them and the victims’ families who fled and
Even hid or discarded any news clippings they’d seen of the events.
Yet, whites must have kept record.
Did whites collect the newspaper ads or reports of a lynching they’d attended or hoped to?
They made and sold lynching postcards, curios, and other odd lynching souvenirs.
Where are the avid collectors?
Plus, apparently, terrorists don’t just kidnap and hang someone to death,
So what did they do with all the ears, noses, fingers, and genitals they cut off?
Or eyes they plucked out?
Or scalps they shaved?
Many victims pass out from the immense pain of being tortured and burned alive, but still
I doubt all those pieces and parts got thrown in the fire, because, of course,
Plenty of pictures show entire white families there to celebrate the lynching like (a) V-day.
And in many ways, it was, and
The whites looked as if they would’ve wanted to remember.
Looks can be deceiving, but the ways whites were also bullied into compliance is real.
Still, my mother swears that some white families’ heirlooms must include
Prized, preserved pieces of Nat Turner.
Ooh, wouldn’t that be a treasure that would be.
Plus, given the spate and state of anti-Black policing and violence,
Our democracy, nay, our Constitution itself, is as rusty as these pillars.
The pillars resting in the field remind us not only the work left to do, but also, it’s urgency.
How many more pillars may we still need?
How many amendments
did will freedom take?
It goes to show how great thou art now!
Refugee Week 2022
Next week (20th-26th June) is Refugee Week, coming at a moment in time days after the first deportation flight of asylum seekers to Rwanda was scheduled. Luckily the government’s best efforts were thwarted by the ECHR this time. Each year Refugee Week has a theme and this year’s focus is healing. People fleeing conflict and persecution have a lot to heal from and I am pessimistic about whether healing is possible in the UK. My own research examines the trajectories of victimisation among people seeking safety. I trace experiences of victimisation starting from the context from which people fled, during their journeys and after arrival in the UK. It is particularly disturbing as someone who researches people seeking safety that once they arrive in a place they perceived to be safe, they continue to be victimised in a number of ways. People seeking safety in the UK encounter the structurally violent asylum ‘system’ and discriminatory attitudes of swathes of the public, sections of the media and last not certainly not least, political discourse. Even after being granted leave to remain, refugees face a struggle to find accommodation, employment, convert education certificates and discrimination and hate crime is ongoing.
Over the years I have supported refugees who suffered breakdowns after having their asylum claim awarded. They are faced with the understanding of the trauma they suffered pre-migration, compounded by the asylum system and the move-on period following claims being awarded. Yet this is no time to heal. In the wake of the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, no migrant nor British citizen with a claim to citizenship elsewhere is safe. There is no safety here and therefore there can be no healing, not meaningful healing anyway.
Despite my negative outlook on the state of immigration policy in the UK, there are some positive signs of healing for some people seeking safety. These experiences are often facilitated by peer support, grassroots organisations and charities. I recall one woman who had fled Iraq coming into a charity I was undertaking research in. When we met for the first time, she was tiny and looked much older than she was. She would pull her veil tightly around her head, almost like it was protecting her. This woman did not speak a word of English and the only volunteer Kurdish Sorani interpreter did not attend the group every week. The womens’ group I attended conducted activities which overcame language barriers and at the time we were working with tiles and mosaics on a project which lasted a few weeks. During this time I could visibly see this woman start to heal. She started to stand up straight, making her appear taller. Her face softened and she appeared younger. She started smiling and her veil loosened. She was relaxing among us. In my experience, I’ve noticed that the healing comes in ebbs and flows. Relief of being ‘safe’, compounding stress of asylum, making friends, waiting, waiting, waiting for a negative decision, being supported by NGOs, letters threatening deportation, having a ‘safe’ place to live, having a firework posted through your letterbox.
For me this week is about celebrating those fleeting moments of healing, since I spend so much of my time discussing and researching the negative. The University of Northampton is co-hosting a number of events to mark Refugee Week 2022, starting with a service being held to remember all those seeking sanctuary both past and present. The event will be held on Monday 20th June at 1pm at Memorial Garden, Nunn Mills Road, Northampton, NN1 5PA (parking available at Midsummer Meadow car park).
Monday will end with an ‘in conversation with’ event with University of Northampton doctoral candidate Amir Darwish. Amir is Kurdish-Syrian and arrived in the UK as an asylum seeker in 2003. He is now an internationally published poet and writer. This event will be run in conjunction woth Northampton Town of Sanctuary and will be hosted at Delapre Abbey at 7pm. You can find further details and book tickets here.
On Wednesday the University of Northampton and Northampton Town of Sanctuary will be hosting an online seminar at 3pm with Professor Peter Hopkins, whose recent research examined the exacerbation of existing inequlaities for asylum seekers during the pandemic. I’ve just written a book chapter on this for a forthcoming volume reflecting on the unequal pandemic and it was staggering – but unsurprising – to see the impact on asylum seekers. This seminar can be accessed online here.
The week’s events will conclude with a Refugee Support Showcase which does what it says on the tin. This event will be an opportunity for organisations working with refugees in the local area to show the community the valuable work they do. This event will take place on Thursday 23rd June 4-6pm at the Guildhall, St. Giles Square, Northampton.
This year the University has worked with a number of organisations to produce a well-rounded series of events. Starting with reflection and thought of those who have sought, and continue to seek sanctuary and celebrating the achievements of someone who has lived experiences of the asylum system. Wednesday contibutes to the understanding of inequalities for people seeking safety and we end Friday on a positive note with the work of those who facilitate healing.
No April Fools
The first of April has consisted of a steep 54% rise in what energy company’s can charge customers for using energy, with further rises set to occur in October. This coincides with rises to other bills such as council tax, national insurance and water within a climate of inflation. Previous to this many were struggling to make ends meet…what are these people supposed to do now?
Russia’s atrocities and Covid-19 have been blamed for the steep price increases and inflation. I suspect that employers will be using this as a reason to not increase the persistent low rises in wages that workers are receiving, all whilst their bosses are becoming richer and richer. Of course, both Russia and Covid will have a significant impact on the economy, however, it does not take a genius to be aware that people have been struggling to survive well before this, hence terms like, food poverty, period poverty and fuel poverty predate these issues. Also, so do the persistent low rises in wages for workers.
Apparently, MPs are due a £2,200 pay rise which whilst it seems low (2.7%) compared to inflation, a few MPs themselves (such as Zarah Sultana) have stated that they do not need this pay rise as they already receive a high paying wage.
Oh, and let us not forget that the increasing energy prices will ensure that privatised fuel companies such as Shell and BP continue to profit, with a predicted profit of £40 BILLION for this year.
Meanwhile benefits for those who are not formally employed and spend a higher proportion of money on household bills and rent are set to increase by 3.1% – a rise which will not cover these price increases.
How is it that employers and the State cannot afford to pay people more – but can ensure high wages for the already rich, privileged and powerful?
It is not surprising that the government’s measures to deal with the problem, such as one-off payments and energy loans, have been heavily criticised as inadequate and significantly failing to support the lowest income homes. The government employs a group of elites and many are completely out of touch with reality. Apparently the man presiding over these measures, millionaire Rishi Sunak and his billionaire wife, often donate to charitable causes, such as donating £100,000 to Rishi’s former elitist private school. Because a private school in need is a pressing cause…yeah right!
The opposition parties have rightly criticised the Conservatives take on this but listening to Keir Starmer’s bumbling take on what Labour would do to solve these issues is also worrying. During an interview he stated that windfall tax could be a solution ‘for right now’ with no feasible long term plan. My usual vote for Labour in May will be damage control against more Tory time in power.
A long term TAX on THE RICH to use this money to support those that need it is not even that simple, given that the government accepts donations from the super-rich it is unlikely that decisions would be made to genuinely reduce inequality between the rich and poor. The world will never be a better place if those in power continue to focus on their own interests and huge profits in place of looking after people. The rise in energy prices on the first of this month was no April Fools’ joke…I really wish that it was.
Higher education, students, the strikes and me*
It was somewhat disappointing to read some of the comments purportedly from a university student in our local newspaper the other week. Critical of the current UCU industrial action and its impact on students, the student suggested that lecturers knew what they were signing up for and should just get on with it. I found it interesting and somewhat incongruent with what the national student union stance is (actually, I was livid). I know there has been a response to the article from the local union representative and other comments perhaps suggesting that my previous blog should be read (I wouldn’t think anyone in their right mind would have signed up for what I described). But just to be clear, I signed (or my union did on my behalf) a contract that states I am required to work 37 hours a week with the occasional evening or weekend work and that the normal working week is Monday to Friday. I take the meaning of ‘occasional’ as the definition found in the English dictionary (take your pick as to which one you’d like to use), which is not ‘permanently’ or ‘all of the time’ or ‘ad infinitum’. I can only speak for myself and not for my colleagues, but I don’t mind working a little longer at times and working the weekend to do marking or open days, but I didn’t sign up to be working all of the time. So, for me the industrial action is not just about my working conditions but about a contract, a legal obligation, which I am fulfilling but my employer seems to suggest that I am not because I am not working far in excess of my contracted hours. That to me, is illogical.
I remember a discussion where a senior manager stated that bullying included giving someone excessive workloads. I wonder whether that means that most lecturers are being bullied by management, isn’t there a policy against that? And then I seem to recall that there is some legislation against inequality, would that not include paying lower wages to women, disabled staff and people from minority ethnic groups? Systemic bullying and discrimination, not a pretty picture in higher education.
But perhaps the most important point is that as lecturers we don’t want to impact our student’s education, and this shouldn’t be about us versus the students. It’s what management would like because it detracts from so many issues that plague our higher education system. Students should quite rightly be unhappy with their lot. A system that plunges students into a lifetime of debt that they will rarely if ever be able to repay and at the same time lines the pockets of private companies seems to me to be immoral. A system that requires students to pay extortionate fees for accommodation is completely bonkers especially when it means the less affluent students have to work to afford to live. A system that requires students to study for approximately 46 hours per week in semester time (If we accept that they are entitled to holiday time) seems overly punitive. Couple this with the need to work to afford to live and it becomes unsustainable. Add to that any caring responsibilities or anything else that complicates their lives, and it starts to look impossible. I and my colleagues are not really surprised that so many fail to properly engage, if at all, and that there are so many stressed students and students with mental health issues. Of course, if we add to that individual capabilities, think unconditional offers and low school grades and let’s be honest widening participation becomes simply a euphemism for widening deBt, misery and, more importantly establishment profit.
The students were on strike for one day the other week, someone asked me why, well I rest my case. Whilst I understand student anger about the strikes, that anger is directed at the wrong people. We all signed up for something different and it’s simply not being delivered.
*The first part of this entry can be found here.
Complaint! (For Sara Ahmed)
This poem comes inspired from the recent UCU strikes, and also the underpinning arguements of Complaint by Sara Ahmed. The institution protects itself, while removing those who complain (or in many cases, they remove themselves). It is also inspired by ‘Testimony’ by Irish poet Seamus Heaney.
As higher education burns,
they blame white lecturers who picket,
and the Black and Brown lecturers
no longer willing to be ‘paid in exposure’
to the hull of slave ships. Colonialism’s hot mouth
at the nucleus of HE’s epistemes,
so senior leaders blame lecturers
for neglect. Meanwhile, the upper echelons
play Monopoly with staff pay checks
students left to grieve assignment
work revolving around conveyer belts
like undead corpses between indenture and slavery
it’s a Tuesday morning
a fever of claret runs riot
across picketing lines
turn cloaks to justice and equality,
there’s just ice behind the scab
where hearts used to beat. Back in the 80s,
gay and lesbian activists stood in solidarity
with the miners; and Arthur Scargill
and co scurried to Jayaben Desai at Grunwick
from the main road, you can still hear the screams
of comradery, and ‘we see yous’ …
yet behind picket tea and biscuits,
there are teary smiles –
death behind the bags,
and behind the pyre …
smoke could be seen for miles.