Thoughts from the criminology team

Home » Empathy

Category Archives: Empathy

A racist and no solution

Photo by King’s Church International on Unsplash

I am a white, middle class some might say (well my students anyway), ageing, male.  I wasn’t always middle class, I’m from working class stock. I’m a university lecturer now but wasn’t always. I spent 30 years in the police service in a small, ethnically diverse, county in England.  I didn’t consider myself a racist when I was in the police service and I don’t consider myself a racist now.  Nobody has called me a racist to my face, so why the title? It’s how I’m constantly labelled.  Every time someone says the police are racist or the police are institutionally racist, they are stating that about me. Just because I have left the police organisation doesn’t change who I am, my beliefs or my values.  So, if the police are racist, then by default, I must be.

I’m not suggesting that some police officers are not racist, of course some are. Nor am I denying that there has been and probably still is some form of institutional racism within the police service, perhaps as a whole or perhaps at a more localised or departmental level. But bad apples and poorly thought-out, naïve or even reckless policies, strategies and procedures are not enough to explain what is going on in policing and policing of ethnic minority groups in particular. I’m talking about policing in this country, not across the pond where policing is very different in so many ways that it is hard to even suggest a realistic comparison. That of course is the first problem, what happens in the United States of America is immediately translated into what happens here.

As a lecturer, I constantly hear from students and read students’ work about the racist and brutal police, often interchanging commentary from the United States with commentary here in the United Kingdom, whilst also failing to recognise that there is different policing in Scotland and Northern Ireland.  Institutional racism, as defined by Macpherson, is now part of the lexicon, but it no longer has the meaning Macpherson gave it, it is now just another way of saying the police are and every police officer is racist. Some students on finding out that I was a police officer show an instant dislike and distrust of me and sometimes it can take the whole three years to gain their trust, if at all.  Students have been known to request a different dissertation supervisor, despite the fact that their research subject is in policing.  This is not a complaint, just a statement of facts, painful as it is.

As I try to make sense of it all, I have so many unanswered questions. What is exactly going on? What is causing this conflict between the police and ethnic minority groups? Why is there a conflict, why is there distrust? More importantly, how can it be fixed? Some of the answers may lay in what the police are asked to do, or at least think they are asked to do. Reiner suggests that policing is about regulating social conflict, but which conflict and whose conflict is it? Other authors have suggested that the police are simply a means to allow the rich and privileged to maintain power. There may be some merit in the argument, but most policing seems to take place in areas of deprivation where the disadvantaged are committing crimes against the disadvantaged. The rich and powerful of course commit crimes but they are nowhere near as tangible or easy to deal with. One the problems might be that the rich and powerful are not particularly visible to policing but the disadvantaged are.

Maybe some of the answers lay in notions of stereotyping, sometimes even unconsciously. Experience or narratives of experiences cause a wariness, even a different stance to one people might normally assume. Being thumped on the nose by a drunk, does tend to make a person wary of the next drunk they encounter. So, could stereotyping be a problem on both sides of the divide? My dissertation student that didn’t want me as a supervisor was later to reveal experiences of racist abuse aimed at the police officers she went out on patrol with.  Policing is dominated by white males and despite recruitment drives to address the ethnicity gap, this really hasn’t been that successful.  If it was meant to help solve a problem, it hasn’t.

I get the sense though that the problem is much deeper routed than policing.  Policing and the problems of policing is just a sub plot in a much wider issue of a divided society and one that is in constant conflict with itself.  If the police are guilty of racism, then it is society that has caused this.  Our society’s values, our society’s beliefs. An unequal society where the poorest suffer the most and the rich get richer regardless.  A society where we are all equal but only because someone somewhere said so at some time, it is not reality.  I think of Merton’s ‘American Dream’, I don’t buy into the whole concept, but there is something about not having opportunities, equally when I think of Lea and Young and the concept of relative deprivation, whilst not explaining all crime, it has some merit in that notion that the disenfranchised have no voice. 

As I write this I am conscious that I have commentated on a very emotive subject particularly at this time.  As I watch the events unfold in America, I fear the worst, action followed by reaction. Both becoming increasingly violent and I see the possibility of it happening in this country. I fear that the term ‘police racism’ will become another convenient label.  Convenient in the sense that the problems are seen solely as that of policing. If we examine it through a different lens though, we might just find that policing is simply part of the whole rotten tree, society. Fix society and you fix policing. If the label racist fits, it fits the society we live in.  

Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

When I grow up what will I be?

A 6 months old @flowerviolet

Wherever I go in life, whatever I do, as long as I am helping others and making a positive difference, I will be happy”

For many years, that has been my take on looking for jobs – helping people, and making a positive difference.

What will I do with my life? Where will life lead me? I’ll say my prayers, and find out!

As a child (between 5-9 years old), I wanted to be a nurse; I have a caring nature, and love helping people! Imagining myself in a nurse’s uniform, and putting bandages on patients and making them better, was something I dreamed about.

Life moves forward, and at the age of 13 I wanted to be so much!

I considered becoming a teacher of either English or Religious Studies. At 13, I loved English and learning about all world faiths. It fascinated me! My teacher had a degree and masters from Oxford University; and I absorbed everything I could! Religious Studies was my favourite subject (alongside art, drama and English) I also had my first, most profound spiritual experience, deepening my Catholic faith (written in more detail in chapter 1 of Everyday Miracles).

My hobbies included reading, writing and drawing. Throughout my teenage years, I devoured the Harry Potter books, the Lord of the Rings books, and Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books. I had a library card, and would borrow books from the library in my village and would read regularly at home. I wanted to be an artist and author, and would often write poetry and short stories, and kept a sketchbook to do drawings in. I dreamed of being a published author, and to be an artist – however, these were seemingly beyond my reach. I prayed to God, that I would be able to fulfil these life ambitions one day.

Alongside of this, I also did some charity work – any change that I got from my lunches, I would put in an empty coffee jar and save them up. I was given the rather cruel nickname, ‘penny picker’, which resulted in bullying from people across different year groups, because I picked up pennies off the floor and put them in my charity pot. Though I did get a mention in the school newsletter stating that the money I raised amounted to quite a large sum, and went to CAFOD, and a homeless charity. I have always done charity work, and still do charity work today!

In school, there were 2 sets in each year; the A-band and the B-band. The A-band were the high academic performers, and those who got high grades. The B-band was the lower set… the set which I was in… This meant that when it came to picking GCSEs, I could only choose 2, not 3, which the A-band students were able to do.

In my Citizenship and Religious studies lessons, I began learning more about the globalized world, human rights, and social issues. Here, I learned in great detail about slavery (slightly covered in history too), prejudice and discrimination, the Holocaust, and 3rd world issues, such as extreme poverty, deprivation, and lack of basic human necessities, such as water, food and sanitation. We even touched upon the more horrific human rights abuses such as extraordinary rendition, religious persecution, torture, and rape and sexual violence.

My ambitions began to evolve more, and I dreamed of becoming a lawyer and even a judge. I wanted to serve justice, make communities safer, and to do more to combat these issues. With my soft heart, and a love of helping people, I knew that being a lawyer would help with doing this!

Moving forward to Year 10; choosing my GCSEs…. I spoke with one of the school heads, and asked for advice. I was still adamant on being a lawyer, and so was advised to do drama and history. Drama as it would boost my confidence, public speaking and expressive skills. History, because of the analytical thinking and examination of evidence that lawyers need when presenting their arguments. I was very happy with this! I loved drama and I enjoyed history – both the teachers were great and supportive!

At the age of 15, I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome – this explained so much about me and my idiosyncrasies. Ironically, it was my drama and my history teacher who picked up on it, due to my odd gait, social skills, and how I processed information. At parents’ evening, both teachers discussed with my mum about the diagnosis, and getting support. It was a big shock when I spoke with each of my teachers individually about the diagnosis.

At the end of doing my GCSEs, I was a pretty average student with mostly C grades. When it came to picking A-levels, I was unable to to the subjects that I really wanted to do…. Philosophy, Theology, Law and Psychology…. After a few weeks of battling and trying to get onto a course that would accept me, I ended up doing Travel and Tourism, A-level Media, Applied Sciences and Forensics (which had a criminology module), and, in Year 13, I took on an Extended Project, to boost my chances of getting into university.

I felt somewhat disillusioned… I’m studying courses that will only accept me because of my grades – an odd combination, but a chance to learn new things and learn new skills! In my mind, I wondered what I would ever do with myself with these qualifications…

Deciding to roll with it, I went along. I was much more comfortable in my Sixth Form years as I learned to embrace my Asperger’s, and started being included in different socials and activities with my peers.

Those 2 years flew by, and during my science course, when I did the criminology unit, I was set on studying that joint honors at a university. Criminology gripped me! I loved exploring the crime rates in different areas, and why crime happens (I had been introduced briefly to Cesare Lombroso, and the Realist theories). I have always loved learning.

Fast forward, I decided to go to Northampton University to do Criminology and Education, and even had the hope that I may be able to get a teaching job with the education side. However, due to an education module no longer being taught, I majored in Criminology.

However, in my second year of studies, I did a placement at a secondary special needs college, and helped the children with their learning! All the children would have a day at a vocational training centre doing carpentry, arts and crafts, and other hands on and practical courses. Back in their classrooms, they had to write a log of what they learned. The students I helped were not academic, and so I would write questions on the board to guide them with their log writing, and would write words that they struggled to spell – my opportunity to help students with their education! Later in life, I worked as a Support Worker for students with additional needs at both Northampton, and Birmingham City University, so still learning whilst helping others.

July 2015, I graduated with a 2:1 in my degree, and I had been encouraged to do an LLM in International Criminal Law and Security – a degree in law! It was unreal! From being told I could not do A-level law, here, I was able to do a masters in law! I applied for the Santander Scholarship, and got enough money to cover my course and some living costs – basically, a Masters degree for free!

During those 2 years of being a part time post graduate, I set up and ran the Uni-Food Bank Team and continued with running Auto-Circle Spectrum Society. January 2016 saw a downward dive in my mental health and I was diagnosed with severe depression (When the Darkness Comes).

I learned to cope and found my own way of healing myself through art and painting (which I later began painting on canvasses and sold at arts and crafts fayres).

February 2018 – I graduate with my LLM; the first on my dad’s side of the family to go to university, and on my mum’s side, the first to have a masters’ degree.

Going back to the question of this blog; When I grow up, what will I be?

I will be everything that I ever wanted to be! I am now a published author (mentioned at the start of the blog), have done freelance writing and art (everything I have written on every platform used can be accessed here: Blog Home Page: Other Writing Pieces)! I got a degree in Criminology with Education, and a Masters degree in International Criminal Law and Security!

I have have utilised my knowledge of human rights to fight for the rights of Persecuted Christians, political and social activists, and write to someone on death row too! (Serving Our Persecuted Brothers and Sisters GloballyI See YouPrisoners of ConscienceWithin Grey Walls

I still do loads of charity work, and support my local food bank along the side too! (Brain Tumor Research; Helping Those in Need)

It’s safe to say that God answered every single one of my prayers, and even gave me strength in some circumstances!

Currently, I am working as the administrator of an an addiction recovery unit in my home village! A job I thoroughly enjoy – it is challenging, my colleagues are the funniest bunch I have ever met! I have learned so much, and am thriving!

Most importantly, as I’ve grown up, I’ve learned to be happy, learned to overcome all odds that are against me, and to always help others regardless of the circumstance. I’ve learned to be compassionate and strong ❤

Home educating in a pandemic

Give the children love, more love and still more love - and the common sense will come by itself” - Astrid Lindgren

My children are aged 5 and 7 and they have never been to school. We home educate and though ‘home’ is in the title, we are rarely there. Our days are usually filled with visits to museums and galleries, meet-ups with friends, workshops in lego, drama and science and endless hours at the park. We’ve never done a maths lesson: sometimes they will do workbooks, but mostly they like to count their money, follow a recipe, add up scores in a game, share out sweets… I am not their teacher but an enthusiastic facilitator – I provide interesting ideas and materials and see what meaning they can take and make from them. Children know their own minds and learning is what they are built for.

If there was ever a time to throw away the rulebook it’s when the rules have all changed. Put ‘home’ at the centre of your homeschooling efforts. Make it a safe and happy place to be. Fill it with soft, warm and beautiful things. Take your time. 

All this to say that what children need most is your love and attention. This is so far from an ideal situation for anyone – so cut yourselves some slack and enjoy your time together. You don’t need to model your home like a school. Share stories and poems, cuddle, build dens, howl at the moon, play games, look for shapes in clouds and stars, do experiments round your kitchen table, bake cakes, make art, explore your gardens and outside spaces and look for nature everywhere. This is the stuff that memories are made of.

As adults we don’t continue to categorise our learning by subjects – we see the way things are interconnected across disciplines, sometimes finding parallels in unlikely places. When we allow children to pursue their own interests we give them the tools and the freedom to make their own connections.

What’s important is their happiness, their kindness, their ability to love and be loved in return. They are curious, they are ready made learning machines and they seek out the knowledge they need when they need it.

It’s an interesting time to be a home educator – more children than ever are currently out of school and the spotlight is on ‘homeschooling’. I prefer the term ‘home educator’ because for me and my family it isn’t about replicating the school environment at home and perhaps it shouldn’t be for you either. 

Treat it as an extended holiday and do fun stuff together but also let them be bored.

“My Favourite Things”: samc0812

My favourite TV show - My favourite current show is Friday Night Dinner. My all-time favourite has to be Breaking Bad, I’ve watched from beginning to end three times!

My favourite place to go - Definitely has to be the beach, I always find being by the sea calming. My favourite place in the world is Thailand. I’ve never met such happy, friendly people. Thai street food is amazing and it’s a beautiful peaceful part of the world

My favourite city - London. I have so many memories of day trips, nights out and experiences in London. Every time I probably don’t spend as much time there as I would like actually considering how easily it’s reached from where I live

My favourite thing to do in my free time - Bake. You can’t beat a home-made cake. I’ve been baking a lot lately, my children are fed up of cake!

My favourite athlete/sports personality - I’m not a huge sports fan but I have a lot of respect for Usain Bolt. I watched a documentary about his life once, his commitment to training and resilience was incredible

My favourite actor - Morgan Freeman. He always seems to choose roles well that suit him. I don’t think I’ve seen any film’s he’s been in that I haven’t enjoyed

My favourite author – I don’t think I could choose. It’s not very often I read books by the same author for myself. I do with my children though, my favourite children’s author is probably A.A. Milne or Roald Dahl because they’re classics which never grow old 

My favourite drink - Chocolate milkshake… I’m not sure I’ve ever grown out of drinking chocolate milk!

My favourite food - Cheeseburgers. My friends call me a connoisseur of cheeseburgers because I eat them so much. Everyone I know asks me before trying out a new burger restaurant

My favourite place to eat - My mum and dads house. My mum makes an amazing roast dinner. There’s nothing better than a family meal, even if I do normally end up washing up at the end

I like people who - are open minded, honest and empathetic. I don’t see any reason to be anyone other than yourself. I also think the best way to learn and grow as a person is to remain open minded. As for as being empathetic, I think people show this in many different ways, sometimes it’s less obvious. I like to believe most people have some good in there somewhere

I don’t like it when people - are closed minded and argumentative. I think there’s a fine line between intelligent debate and opinionated argument  

My favourite book - Since I was a teenager my favourite book has always been Junk by Melvin Burgess

My favourite book character - Raoul Duke in Fear and loathing in Las Vegas. I find it interesting the way the character is a representation of the way the author views his life. Hunter S. Thompson was an interesting enough character without needing a fictional version

My favourite film - Interstellar. Space fascinates me. I like to ponder over the possibilities of time travel. I love that physicist Nolan Thorne was hired to make the explanation of a black hole accurate

My favourite poem - 
Warning by Jenny Joseph. I read it on my wedding day. It was actually the priest who suggested it, I think he saw I was a little bit of a wild, independent woman!

My favourite artist/band - I’ve been going to raves since I was 16 so most of my favourite artists are small and less well-known DJ’s. My husband Dj’s as well, so many of them I met through him, and are now good friends of mine. I don’t think I could pick just one 

My favourite song - This a tough one, I like so many genres of music. I guess if I had to choose one, it would be “The way you look tonight” by Tony Bennet because it was my wedding dance song and it always makes me think of my grandparents

My favourite art - My favourite type of art is portraits. I watched a documentary with artist Grayson Perry and he described how portraits are an interpretation of how the artist see’s that person. I like to look at portraits and imagine what I think that person is like

My favourite person from history - It would have to be Albert Hoffman. My area of research is mostly based in psychedelic medicines and drug policy. Albert Hoffman is the scientist who discovered LSD. He’s quite well-known for accidentally administering himself the first documented dose of LSD and riding his bicycle home. He was one of the first people to recognise the potential pharma psychological benefits of hallucinogens, I like to think one day modern science will make a strong enough case to revolutionise psychiatric care with substances like LSD. Although Hoffman discovered LSD in 1943 we still don’t fully understand the full complexities of how it works on the mind

The day after!

undefined

“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” This quote allegedly belongs to A. Einstein who imagined a grim day in the aftermath of a world war among nations who carried nuclear arms. 

It is part of human curiosity to imagine beyond the current as to let the mind to wonder on the aftermath of this unique international lockdown!  Thoughts wonder on some prosaic elements of the lockdown and to wonder the side effects on our psyche.  Obviously as I do not have a vast epidemiological knowledge, I can only consider what I know from previous health scares.    

The previous large-scale health scare was in the 1980s.  I still remember the horrible ad with the carved headstone that read AIDS.  One word that scared so many people then.  People were told to practice safe sex and to avoid sharing needles.  People became worried and at the time an HIV diagnoses was a death sentence.  Images of people suffering Kaposi’s sarcoma began to surface in what became more than a global epidemic; it became a test in our compassion.  Early on, gay people reported discrimination, victimisation and eventual, vilification.  It took some mobilisation from the gay community and the death of some famous people to turn the tide of misconceptions, before we turned the tide of the disease.  At this stage, HIV is not a death sentence and people who are in receipt of medical attention can live full and long lives. 

It is interesting to consider how we will react to the easing of the restrictions and the ushering on a new age.  In some Asian countries, since SARS in 2003 some people wear face masks and gloves.  Will that become part of our attire and will it be part of professional wear beyond the health care professions?  If this becomes a condition, how many people will comply, and what will happen to those who will defy them. 

We currently talk about resilience and the war spirit (a very British motif) but is this the same for all?  This is not a lockdown on equal terms.  There are people in isolation in mansions, whilst some others share rooms or even beds with people, they would rather they did not.  At the same time, we talk about resilience, all domestic violence charities speak of a surge in calls that have reached crisis levels.  “Social distancing” has entered the lexicon of our everyday, but there are people who simply cannot cope.  One of the effects the day after, will be several people who will be left quite traumatised.  Some may develop an aversion to people and large crowds so it will be interesting to investigate if agoraphobia will surge in years to come. 

In one of my exercise walks. I was observing the following scene. Grandparents waving at their children and grandchildren from a distance.  The little ones have been told not to approach the others.  You could see the uneasiness of contactless interaction.  It was like a rehearsal from an Ibsen play; distant and emotionally frigid.  If this takes a few more months, will the little ones behave differently when these restrictions are lifted?  We forget that we are social animals and although we do not consciously sniff each other like dogs, we find the scent of each other quite affirming for our interactions.  Smell is one of the senses that has the longest memory and our proximity to a person is to reinforce that closeness. 

People can talk on social media, use webcams and their phones to be together.  This is an important lifeline for those fortunate to use technology, but no one can reach the level of intimacy that comes from a hug, the touch on the skin, the warmth of the body that reassures.  This was what I missed when my grandparents died, the ability to touch them, even for the last time. 

If we are to come out of social distancing, only to go into social isolation, then the disease will have managed something that previous epidemics did not; to alter the way we socialise, the way we express our humanity.  If fear of the contagion makes us withdrawn and depressed, then we will suffer a different kind of death; that of what makes us human. 

During the early stages of the austerity we saw the recurrence of xenophobia and nationalism across Europe.  This was expected and sociologically seemed to move the general discussions about migration in rather negative terms. In the days before the lockdown people from the Asian community already reported instances of abusive behaviour. It will be very interesting to see how people will react to one another once the restrictions are lifted.  Will we be prepared to accept or reject people different from ourselves? 

In the meantime, whilst doctors will be reassessing the global data the pandemic will leave behind, the rest of us will be left to wonder.  Ultimately for every country the strength of healthcare and social systems will inevitably be evaluated.  Countries will be judged, and questions will be asked and rightfully so.  Once we burry our dead, we must hold people to account.  This however should not be driven by finding a scapegoat but so we can make the most of it for the future. Only if we prepare to see the disease globally, we can make good use of knowledge and advance our understanding of the medicine.

So maybe, instead of recriminations, when we come outside from our confinement, we connect with our empathy and address the social inequalities that made so many people around us, vulnerable to this and many other diseases. 

Never fear…. Spring is almost here

David Hockney (2011) The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire, 2011
https://shop.royalacademy.org.uk/david-hockney-arrival-of-spring-poster

There is no doubt, we are living in a time of crisis. Everywhere we look there are signs of disorder, disruption and chaos, impinging on our real and virtual lives. You can see it in the faces of family, friends, colleagues, the old and the young from children to pensioners, and everyone in between. There is nothing else on anyone’s lips beyond what they’ve heard, what they’ve seen, how they’ve prepared, or haven’t for this human disaster. Scientific words like Covid-19, Coronavirus, criminological words such as isolation, criminalisation and newly minted words; social distancing are being pushed into conversations. These appear alongside the more prosaic questions, which shops have bread? toilet rolls? milk? eggs? Is this open, is that open, can I get there, am I allowed to go out?

Over the past week I have seen this fear develop, evolve and spread. It threatens to swallow us all up in our panic. Many people, myself included, are desperately trying to maintain the everyday, the mundane, some routine, some semblance of normality. My institution is trying to be supportive, lots of extra email, how to move your teaching online, what advice to give students, how to look after your mental and physical health and that of others, at a time like this. All of this advice is well-intentioned and aims to alleviate fear, after all scientia potentia est, or so we are told.

The problem with trying to recreate our real lives in a virtual environment is far more profound than simply changing our modes of operation. When people are worried, frightened and saddened, no amount of pretending that it is “business as usual” will distract them from the everyday lived experience. We can pretend, but when you are worried about your own health, that of your family, when you don’t know where you are going to be able to get the basics of life from, and for many, how on earth you will be able to pay for it with limited or no income, everything else pales into insignificance.

So far we have seen so much evidence of privilege: those that aren’t worried because they’re healthy, those that stockpile food and other essential products, because they can afford to and those that isolate themselves in the lap of luxury, because they have access to money, property and contacts. All of which feeds the fear by the second, minute and hour. Competing with this negativity are the stories around kindness, the narratives from the NHS, the police, carers, shop workers, the list goes on showing that the human spirit is still burning strong, that we have a choice about our behaviour, our thoughts and our feelings. That we can make a difference, if only we want to.

This week has felt like a nightmare, so dark, so stressed, the walls are closing in on all of us, forcing us into confinement. We look out of the window and nobody is moving outside. It has all the ingredients of my favourite genre, dystopic fiction, but this time we’re all fully immersed and we have no idea how the novel ends. How many will die, how many will find their finances, relationships, employment, education disrupted and/or destroyed?

That changed for me yesterday, when I stumbled upon a message from the artist David Hockney. The message was incredibly simple ‘Do remember they can’t cancel the spring’. I should declare in advance, I am a little biased, he’s one of my favourite artists, but with Hockney’s simple statement he touched on a profound truth. We are humans, infinitely resourceful, extremely adaptable, incredibly social.

Look after yourselves and each other, if not face to face, then virtually. Check in, touch base and create a life line for each other. But also remember to take some time away from the screens, look out of the window and remember the world is still a beautiful place, filled with many wonders, including humankind.

David Hockney, (2020), Do Remember They Can’t Cancel the Spring
https://www.theartnewspaper.com/comment/a-message-from-david-hockney-do-remember-they-can-t-cancel-the-spring?fbclid=IwAR2iA8FWDHFu3fBQ067A7Hwm187IRfGVHcZf18p3hQzXJI8od_GGKQbUsQU

A $40 tip at the all-day-breakfast joint (A Prose about this American moment). #BlackenAsiaWithLove

20200105_163600

1st Sunday 2020 Sunrise over Lake Jordan, Alabama

It’s 6:20am.

I’ve stopped by an infamous breakfast food chain and ordered a bottomless coffee, and a breakfast combo that comes with two fried eggs, two different rations of fried pork and bottomless pancakes.

Waiting for my order, I notice that not less than four varieties of syrup rest on the table, accompanied by salt, pepper, and a ceramic cup full of packages of sugar and two varieties of artificial sweeteners.

A whole tub of single-serve full fat creamers comes with my bottomless coffee, which I promptly sent back.

 

The young lady serving is massively obese, as are most of the other people who both serve and patronize this business.

And this is business as usual throughout the south, and now most of America, particularly at these sorts of times, especially in these sorts of businesses.

 

The joint had only been open since the top of the hour, and so I could overhear the duty manager dealing out the day’s duty rations.

 

As two of the team followed her around, I heard her explain that she was reserving the spillover seating section for whoever showed up “super-late.”

Knowing management speak, I heard ‘super-late’ as a shaming label used to monitor and control behavior.

 

I heard her punctuate these instructions by explaining that someone’s shift had started at 5:30 yet they still hadn’t shown up.

 

 

“You ok, sweetie,” the young lady breezes over and asks me casually.

“I’m fine,” I quickly replied, adding: “It’s good, too,” as if she or the cook had actually hand-made any of this meal.

They’ve each opened a prescribed set of processed-food packages, followed heavily prescribed recipes, and followed heavily prescribed orders passed down from management.

And yet I do appreciate their labour.

 

In my capacity, I get to sit and muse about them, while THIS is their career.

Yesterday, while sitting in another infamously southern* roadside-mass-food-chain, my uncle mentioned that he was pleased to see that young people were working at these types of places again.

“Uh huh,” I hummed agreeingly as I panned the restaurant noting the youthfulness of the staff.

 

Since the 90’s and certainly since the recession, these jobs had become life-long career moves, where previously these were held down by early-career part-timers.

Whether paying their way through school or training, or beefing their resumes for eventual factory employment, these part-timer jobs weren’t suitable for adults as they come with few, if any, benefits…most notably, healthcare.

This satellite town, for example, sits just outside the seat of Civil Rights and grew during Jim Crow around a large paper mill that one can still smell miles away.

 

 

Back in my bottomless breakfast, my server keeps inquiring if I’m ok as she goes about setting up the condiments and flatware for each table.

 

I’m the only one here, which I remark upon.

This is the south, so that remark garnered a whole commentary on her part.

 

She detailed when they opened and closed, and that she’d recently shifted from the nightshift to mornings, as “making $10 here and $10 there don’t cut it.”

 

 

She then added that she’d served a party of 15 who’d left her a $40 tip.

She further explained that last year she’d served at a 1-year old’s birthday party, “because they didn’t have no cake.”

By now, I’ve gotten a good look at the server and sense that she’s in her mid-twenties.

 

As I listen, I, of course, contemplate what sort of tip I should leave: Would it be obscene to leave a $10 tip which I could easily afford. Afterall, I had shown up in what must seem like a large, expensive, exotic European vehicle (how could she know it’s my mom’s not mine; how would she know that I’m just passing through town).

 

 

This year, she continued, they had her “second birthday party right back there,” pointing to a far corner.

 

Remember, all I did to kick off this conversation was remark how quiet it was at this time in the morning.

From then on, the server kept offering me little tidbits of info each time she passed by.

I hadn’t lived in the south for many years, but it was still this sort of human interaction that drummed-up home for me.

 

“I’m gonna go ahead and do my syrups,” she quipped as she passed each table over lightly with a dry cloth.

 

Then, after passing to reassure me that my next helping of pancakes was on its way, she explained that the location was under new management.

Pointing to the woman I’d overheard earlier dealing out duties and instructions, the server said, “This one’s only been here since Sunday.”

It’s Tuesday morning.

 

Now, I notice that the server has leaned against a nearby chair, pausing with her other hand on her hip.

It’s as if settling in to tell me a good story. She is now giving me unsolicited insider information.

I start to realize and remember just how such interactions are so disarming. She had something to say each time she was within earshot, as if mindfully managing our shared personal space.

I smile at this realization, recalling the familiarity with which people speak in Vietnam. The distance of more formal ways of being and communicating seem silly here…and there.

 

I am simultaneously reminded of life in Mali, where people genuinely do greet anyone nearby, referring to those in their personal space with some term of familial familiarity depending on the relationship and perceived ages like auntie/uncle,  or else girl/boy-friend (teri- muso/ce), big/little- sister/brother (koro-/dogo- muso/ce).

 

It’s as if all of these experiences collide into the present moment, and I experience them all at once, like Dr. Manhattan.

 

The server then explained in detail how the previous manager had fallen ill and could therefore only show up intermittently.

Apparently, the point of all this was that they were hiring a manager, and sought someone outside the current team, because, as my server said, “We all know one another.”

“Don’t that make sense,” she said raising her brow, nodding grinningly.

“So, if you know anybody with management experience,” she said, then tailored off.

 

I suddenly wonder what Flannery O’Conner must have witnessed in her life and times in the dirty south.

I was on my way to grab a coffee at THAT internationally known coffee house, but passed this all-day-breakfast joint on the way.

 

I recalled the bottomless offers here and knew I could get more value here than a $5 Latte. Sure, I’ve got country music in the background, but at least it’s not tuned to conservative propaganda Faux News like in most other public spaces here in Alabama.

 

Indeed, for just a few dollars more, I’ve got access to bottomless filtered coffee and well more than any human should eat in any one sitting.

 

Besides, no one is in here posing, and, as I said, I got a side of free companionship.

 

 

 

 

 

*Infamously southern food consists of mostly fried foods negotiated in ingredients and meaning along the color line.

Things I used to could do without a phone. #BlackenAsiaWithLove

A Spoken Word poem for young people everywhere, esp Youth in Asia, who may never know WE LIVED before smartphones…and live to tell about it.

Walk.

Walk down the street.

Find my way.

Go someplace.

Go someplace I had previously been.

Go someplace I had previously not been.

Meet.

Meet friends.

Meet friends at a specific time and place.

Meet new people.

Meet new people without suspicion.

Strike up a conversation with a stranger.

Make myself known to a previously unknown person.

Now, everything and everyone unknown is literally described as ‘weird’.

Eat.

Eat in a restaurant by myself.

Pay attention to the waiter.

Wait for my order to arrive.

Sit.

Sit alone.

Sit with others.

Listen.

Listen to the sound of silence.

Listen to music.

Listen to a whole album.

Listen to the cityscape.

Overhear others’ conversations in public.

Watch kids play.

Shop.

Drive.

Share.

Share pictures.

Take pictures.

Develop pictures.

Frame pictures.

See the same picture in the same spot.

Read.

Read a book.

Read a long article.

Read liner notes.

Pee.

I used to be able to stand at a urinal and focus on what I was doing,

Not feeling bored,

Not feeling the need to respond to anything that urgently.

Nothing could be so urgent that I could not, as the Brits say, ‘take a wee’.

Wait.

Wait at a traffic light.

Wait for a friend at a pre-determined place and time.

Wait for my turn.

Wait for a meal I ordered to arrive.

Wait in an office for my appointment.

Wait in line.

Wait for anything!

I used to appreciate the downtime of waiting.

Now waiting fuels FOMO.

I used to enjoy people watching…

Now I just watch people on their phones.

It’s genuine anxiety.

Walk.

Walk from point A to B.

I used to could walk between two known points without having to mark the moment with a post.

Now I can’t walk down the hall,

Or through the house or even to the toilet without checking my phone.

I avoid eye contact with strangers.

Anyone I don’t already know is strange.

I used to could muscle through this awkwardness.

Talk.

Have a conversation.

A friend and I recently lamented about how you used to could have a conversation and

Even figure out a specific thing that you couldn’t immediately recall…

Just by talking.

I also appreciate the examples we discussed.

Say you wanted to mention a world leader but couldn’t immediately remember their name. What would you do before?

Rattle off the few facts you could recall and in so doing you’d jog your memory.

Who was the 43rd US president?

If you didn’t immediately recall his name,

You might have recalled that the current one is often called “45” since

Many folks avoid calling his name.

You know Obama was before him, therefore he must’ve been number “44.”

You know Obama inherited a crap economy and several unjust wars,

Including the cultural war against Islam. And

That this was even one of the coded racial slurs used against him: “A Muslim.”

Putting these facts together,

You’d quickly arrive at Dubya! And

His whole warmongering cabinet. And

Condi Rice. And

General Powell’s botched PowerPoint presentation at the UN. And

Big dick Cheney, Halliburton and that fool shooting his friend while hunting.

That whole process might have taken a full minute,

But so would pulling up 43’s name on the Google.

This way, however, you haven’t lost the flow of conversation nor the productive energy produced between two people when they talk.

(It’s called ‘limbic resonance’, BTW).

Yeah, I used to be able to recall things…

Many more things about the world without my mobile phone.

Wonder.

Allow my mind to wander.

Entertain myself with my own thoughts.

Think.

Think new things.

Think differently just by thinking through a topic.

I used to know things.

Know answers that weren’t presented to me as search results.

I used to trust my own knowledge.

I used to be able to be present, enjoying my own company,

Appreciating the wisdom that comes with the mental downtime.

Never the fear of missing out,

Allowing myself time to reflect.

It is in reflection that wisdom is born.

Now, most of us just spend our time simply doing:

Surfing, scrolling, liking, dissing, posting, sharing and the like.

Even on a wondrous occasion, many of us would rather be on our phones.

Not just sharing the wonderful occasion –

Watching an insanely beautiful landscape through our tiny screens,

Phubbing the people we’re actually with,

Reducing a wondrous experience to a well-crafted selfie

But just making sure we’re not missing out on something rather mundane happening back home.

I used to could be in the world.

Now, I’m just in cyberspace.

I used to be wiser.

The ‘other’ BBC worldservice. #BlackenAsianWithLove

The ‘other’ BBC worldservice.

If you google “BBC+Mandingo,” please be aware that it is NSFW. Use your imagination. Now, imagine an auction block. Imagine a slave standing there. Breeding slaves underpinned the ‘white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal’ system that placed their bodies upon that auction block. Hyper-sexualisation of Black bodies began right there. It is bell hooks’ Intersectionality lens that’s necessary for a holistic gaze upon consumer commodification.

Now, imagine that one Black boy in class, vying for attention just as any other adolescent, yet he’s got an entire multitude of hyper-sexualised images filling the heads of virtually everyone in the room. By the time they hit the locker-room, everyone is expecting to see this kid’s BBC. I’ve had many (non-Black) adults say that to me explicitly, inexplicably in any given situation where one might not otherwise imagine penis size would surface so casually in conversation. Hence, we can all imagine that with the crudeness of adolescent male vernacular: Your kid is asking my kid why his penis isn’t what all the rappers rap about. we-real-cool-cover

Why are so many commercially successful rappers’ fantasies reduced to “patriarchal f*cking?” Reading Michael Kimmel’s essay “Fuel for Fantasy: The Ideological Construction of Male Lust,” in her seminal book We Real Cool: Black Masculinity, bell hooks clarifies: “In the iconography of black male sexuality, compulsive-obsessive fucking is represented as a form of power when in actuality it is an indication of extreme powerlessness” (hooks: 67-8).

It’s auto-asphyxiation, a kind of nihilistic sadomasochism that says, if the world thinks of me as a beast, then a beast I shall be. Plenty of kids work this out by the time they hit the playground. “Patriarchy, as manifest in hip-hop, is where we can have our version of power within this very oppressive society,”  explains writer/activist Kevin Powell (qtd. in hooks: 56). Ironically, Powell came to fame in the 90’s on MTV through the original reality show aptly entitled “The Real World.”

Plantation Politics 101

Since at least 2017, commercial rap has been the most widely sold musical genre; it’s pop. Beyond roughly 700,000 sales, Black people are not the primary purchasers of commercialised rap, as explained in the documentary Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes. It takes millions to earn ‘multi-platinum’ status. Yet, while created by and for Black and brown people in ghettoized communities, it has morphed into a transnational commodity having little to do with the realities of its originators, save for the S&M fantasies of wealth beyond imagination. And what do they boast of doing with that power, read as wealth? Liberating the masses from poverty? Intervening on the Prison Industrial Complex? Competing with the “nightmareracist landlords like Donald Trump’s dad Fred? No! They mimic the very gangsters they pretend to be. Once Italian-Americans held hard that stereotype, but now it’s us. It’s always about power. Truly, ‘it’s bigger than Hip-Hop’.

We-real-coolThe more painful question few bother asking is why commercial rap music focuses so keenly on pimps, thugs, b*tches and whores? Like other commodities, commercial rap is tailored to the primary consumer base, which isn’t (fellow) Black people, but white youth. What is it about contemporary white youth that craves images of salacious, monstrous, licentious and violent Black people boasting about killing and maiming one another? Describing this mass commercial “Misogynistic rap music,” hooks states: “It is the plantation economy, where black males labor in the field of gender and come out ready to defend their patriarchal manhood by all manner of violence against women and men whom they perceive to be weak and like women” (hooks: 57-8). Plainly, the root of commercial rap’s global prominence is the reenactment of “sadomasochistic rituals of domination, of power and play” (hooks: 65).

Hyper-sexualisation is a form of projection onto Black people a mass white anxiety about our shared “history of their brutal torture, rape, and enslavement of black bodies” (hooks: 63). She goes on to explain: “If white men had an unusual obsession with black male genitalia it was because they had to understand the sexual primitive, the demonic beast in their midst. And if during lynchings they touched burnt flesh, exposed private parts, and cut off bits and pieces of black male bodies, white folks saw this ritualistic sacrifice as in no way a commentary on their obsession with black bodies, naked flesh, sexuality” (ibid). Hence the BBC obsession finds a consumer home safely in pop music!

“I am ashamed of my small penis,” a stranger recently mentioned to me in a grilled wing joint I happened upon here in Hanoi. The confession came from nowhere, having nothing to do with anything happening between us at the time. Is this the locker-room banter I always hear about? Are straight men really so obsessed with their penises? Given his broken English and my non-existent Vietnamese, I tried comforting him by explaining in the simplest terms the saying: “It’s not the size of the wave but the motion of the ocean.” Colloquialisms never translate easily, but I did at least deflect the subject away from ethno-sexual myths spread worldwide through contemporary consumer culture.

We’ve got to talk about ethno-sexual myths with openness, honesty and integrity. Silence is the master’s tool; silence = death! Further, echoing ‘black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet’ Audre Lorde, ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. I am Black in Asia, and there are perhaps no two groups of men at polar opposites of ethno-sexual myths. Like the hyper-sexualisation of women of colour, these myths reveal that neither Blackness nor Asianess is at the centre of these globally circulated myths. Hyper-sexual in comparison to who or what? Hegemonic heteronormative whiteness. Say it with me: Duh!

 

To get In-formation:

hooks, b. (2004) We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity. New York: Routledge.

Lorde, A. (1984) Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Berkeley: Crossing Press.

Empathy Amid the “Fake Tales of San Francisco”*

This time last week, @manosdaskalou and I were in San Francisco at the American Society of Criminology’s conference. This four-day meeting takes place once a year and encompasses a huge range of talkers and subjects, demonstrating the diversity of the discipline. Each day there are multiple sessions scheduled, making it incredibly difficult to choose which ones you want to attend.

Fortunately, this year both of our two papers were presented on the first day of the conference, which took some of the pressure off. We were then able to concentrate on other presenters’ work. Throughout discussions around teaching in prison, gun violence and many other matters of criminological importance, there was a sense of camaraderie, a shared passion to understand and in turn, change the world for the better. All of these discussions took place in a grand hotel, with cafes, bars and restaurants, to enable the conversation to continue long after the scheduled sessions had finished.

Outside of the hotel, there is plenty to see. San Francisco is an interesting city, famous for its Golden Gate Bridge, the cable cars which run up and down extraordinarily steep roads and of course, criminologically speaking, Alcatraz prison. In addition, it is renowned for its expensive designer shops, restaurants, bars and hotels. But as @haleysread has noted before, this is a city where you do not have to look far to find real deprivation.

I was last in San Francisco in 2014. At that point cannabis had been declassified from a misdemeanour to an infraction, making the use of the drug similar to a traffic offence. In 2016, cannabis was completely decriminalised for recreational use. For many criminologists, such decriminalisation is a positive step, marking a change from viewing drug use as a criminal justice problem, to one of public health. Certainly, it’s a position that I would generally subscribe to, not least as part of a process necessary to prison abolition. However, what do we really know about the effects of cannabis? I am sure my colleague @michellejolleynorthamptonacuk could offer some insight into the latest research around cannabis use.

When a substance is illegal, it is exceedingly challenging to research either its harms or its benefits. What we know, in the main, is based upon problematic drug use, those individuals who come to the attention of either the CJS or the NHS. Those with the means to sustain a drug habit need not buy their supplies openly on the street, where the risk of being caught is far higher. Thus our research population are selected by bad luck, either they are caught or they suffer ill-effects either with their physical or mental health.

The smell of cannabis in San Francisco is a constant, but there is also another aroma, which wasn’t present five years ago. That smell is urine. Furthermore, it has been well documented, that not only are the streets and highways of San Francisco becoming public urinals, there are also many reports that public defecation is an increasing issue for the city. Now I don’t want to be so bold as to say that the decriminalisation of cannabis is the cause of this public effluence, however, San Francisco does raise some questions.

  1. Does cannabis cause or exacerbate mental health problems?
  2. Does cannabis lead to a loss of inhibition, so much so that the social conventions around urination and defecation are abandoned?
  3. Does cannabis lead to an increase in homelessness?
  4. Does cannabis increase the likelihood of social problems?
  5. Does the decriminalisation of cannabis, lead to less tolerance of social problems?

I don’t have any of the answers, but it is extremely difficult to ignore these problems. The juxtaposition of expensive shops such as Rolex and Tiffany just round the corner from large groups of confused, homeless people, make it impossible to avoid seeing the social problems confronted by this city. Of course, poor mental health and homelessness are not unique to San Francisco or even the USA, we have similar issues in our own town, regardless of the legal status of cannabis. Certainly the issue of access to bathroom facilities is pressing; should access to public toilets be a right or a privilege? This, also appears to be a public health, rather than CJS problem, although those observing or policing such behaviour, may argue differently.

Ultimately, as @haleysread found, San Francisco remains a City of Contrast, where the very rich and the very poor rub shoulders. Unless, society begins to think a little more about people and a little less about business, it seems inevitable that individuals will continue to live, eat, urinate and defection and ultimately, die upon the streets. It is not enough to discuss empathy in a conference, no matter how important that might be, if we don’t also empathise with people whose lives are in tatters.

*Turner, Alex, (2006), Fake Tales of San Francisco, [CD]. Recorded by Arctic Monkeys in Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, The Chapel: Domino Records

%d bloggers like this: