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Prison education: why it matters?

Five year ago, Dame Sally Coates released an independent report on prison education. Recently the Chief Inspector for Ofsted, Amanda Spielman and The HM Inspectorate of Prisons, Charlie Taylor, made a joint statement reflecting on that report.  Their reflections are critical on the lack of implementation of the original report, but also of the difficulties of managing education in prison especially at a time of a global pandemic.  The lack of developing meaningful educational provision and delivering remote teaching led to many prisoners without sufficient opportunity to engage with learning.   

In a situation of crisis such as the global pandemic one must wonder if this is an issue that can be left to one side for now, to be reviewed at a later stage.  At the University of Northampton, as an educational institution we are passionate about learning opportunities for all including those incarcerated.  We have already developed an educational partnership with a local prison, and we are committed to offer Higher Education to prisoners.  Apart from the educational, I would add that there is a profound criminological approach to this issue.  Firstly, I would like to separate what Dame Coates refers to as education, which is focused on the basic skills and training as opposed to a university’s mandate for education designed to explore more advanced ideas. 

The main point to both however is the necessity for education for those incarcerated and why it should be offered or not.  In everyday conversations, people accept that “bad” people go to prison.  They have done something so horrible that it has crossed the custody threshold and therefore, society sends them to jail.  This is not a simple game of Monopoly, but an entire criminal justice process that explores evidence and decides to take away their freedom.  This is the highest punishment our society can bestow on a person found guilty of serious crimes.  For many people this is appropriate and the punishment a fitting end to criminality.  In criminology however we recognise that criminality is socially constructed and those who end up in prisons may be only but a specific section of those deemed “deviant” in our society.  The combination of wrongdoing and socioeconomic situations dictate if a person is more or less likely to go to prison.  This indicates that prison is not a punishment for all bad people, but some.  Dame Coates for example recognises the overrepresentation of particular ethnic minorities in the prison system. 

This raises the first criminological issue regarding education, and it relates to fairness and access to education.  We sometimes tend to forget that education is not a privilege but a fundamental human right.  Sometimes people forget that we live in a society that requires a level of educational sophistication that people with below basic levels of literacy and numeracy will struggle.  From online applications to job hunting or even banking, the internet has become an environment that has no place for the illiterate.  Consider those who have been in prison since the late 1990s and were released in the late 2010s.  People who entered the prison before the advancement of e-commerce and smart phones suddenly released to a world that feels like it is out of a sci-fi movie. 

The second criminological issue is to give all people, regardless of their crimes, the opportunity to change.  The opportunity of people to change, is always incumbent on their ability to change which in turn is dependent on their circumstances.  Education, among other things, requires the commitment of the learner to engage with the learning process.  For those in prison, education can offer an opportunity to gain some insight that their environment or personal circumstances have denied them.      

The final criminological issue is the prison itself.  What do we want people to do in them?  If prison is to become a human storage facility, then it will do nothing more than to pause a person’s life until they are to be released.  When they come out the process of decarceration is long and difficult.  People struggle to cope and the return to prison becomes a process known as “revolving doors”.  This prison system helps no one and does nothing to resolve criminality.  A prison that attempts to help the prisoners by offering them the tools to learn, helps with the process of deinstitutionalisation.  The prisoner is informed and aware of the society they are to re-join and prepares accordingly.  This is something that should work in theory, but we are nowhere there yet.  If anything, it is far from it, as read in Spielman and Taylor’s recent commentary.  Their observations identify poor quality education that is delivered in unacceptable conditions.  This is the crux of the matter, the institution is not really delivering what it claims that is does.  The side-effect of such as approach is the missed opportunity to use the institution as a place of reform and change. 

Of course, in criminological discourse the focus is on an abolitionist agenda that sees beyond the institution to a society less punitive that offers opportunities to all its citizens without discrimination or prejudice.  This is perhaps a different topic of conversation.  At this stage, one thing is for sure; education may not rehabilitate but it can allow people to self-improve and that is a process that needs to be embraced.  

 

References

Coates, S. (2016), Unlocking Potential: A review of education in prisons, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/unlocking-potential-a-review-of-education-in-prison

Spielman, A. and Taylor, C. (2021), Launching our Prison Education Reviewhttps://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/launching-our-prison-education-review

Originally published here

Gypsy, Roma, Traveller History Month: #MakeSomeSpace

When I reflect upon my childhood, I recall the fondness that I have towards the Romany culture. I am reminded of the wonderful bond that my family had with horses, of good people, of the older generations of my family telling stories and singing Romany songs around tables at parties, of a strong sense of tight-knit togetherness and resilience when times got tough. I remember being educated about life from a young age and being taught the skills needed to be able to earn a living when it became difficult to do so. I am also reminded of the generosity involved in giving all that you can to your family and friends despite not having much. I especially think of this generosity in relation to the Irish Travellers that welcomed my brothers into their homes and provided for them when they were in times of need.

My instant thoughts about Gypsy, Romany Travellers (GRT) is that of fondness, but living in our society I have learnt that this is not the typical thoughts of the dominant public, media or government. When considering dominant media, public and government attitudes towards travellers, I am reminded of the GRTs that live in a society where people are prejudice because of long-standing stereotypes that have been created about their culture. I am also reminded of the lack of understanding and/or empathy that others have about the disproportionate amounts of social harm that those within the GRT families will encounter.      

Since the recent Black Lives Matter protests there has been an explosion of anti-racist efforts, which I am hopeful of, yet, even some of those who are passionately ‘anti-racist’ continue to either project prejudice towards GRT people or deny that prejudice towards GRT is a problem. Adding to this, anti-racist messages communicated via the media do not seem to apply to GRT. A recent example of this is Dispatches: The Truth About Traveller Crime which is like a thorn in my side. This documentary discusses GRT as though they are a group of ‘dangerous criminals’. With an ‘expert’ criminologist present within the documentary it becomes difficult for the public to understand the stereotypes and lack of understanding that the documentary includes.

This year I have been able to incorporate GRT into the modules that I teach. I am pleased that some students have been able to navigate themselves to information about GRT from organisations like Traveller Movement and Friends Families and Travellers as these provide me with some hope in terms of GRT awareness and inclusion. However, it seems that these organisations will continue to have many pressing concerns to deal with, especially as the recent government proposals included within the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill seem to be nothing more than another attack on the more traditional way GRT of life.

There is a worry for some GRT that upon moving into housing these cultures will decline. In terms of my own family my Nan was my idol, she was born in the 1920s in a traditional horse drawn wagon. Since moving into housing my Nan remained proud of her Romany heritage and she instilled this within my Dad’s upbringing. I only ever practiced aspects of the Romany culture in a marginal sense, and the decline of this part of my own heritage is connected to the social harm that my own family have experienced.

With GRT month I hope that more people question the prejudices that they have about others, I hope that people also question the media, government and supposed ‘experts’. You could begin by attempting to put yourself in the shoes of others, try to imagine how you would feel if society collectively judged yourself or your family despite knowing little to nothing about who you/they are. After all, this kind of overt prejudice that GRT encounter would not be acceptable in many situations if this was aimed at other groups, so why should it be acceptable when aimed at GRT?

Making a Criminal: A game on criminology

Summer is here and as we try to destress from another annus horribilis …let us play a game.  This is one of the mental games we play in a way to understand a discipline shrouded in mystery and speculation.  You will need no pen, nor paper, just your imagination and a few minutes. 

Clear you mind, isolate your thoughts and give yourself 5 minutes of time to complete. It is all about your imagination. 

Think of a criminal.  Try to think of their face first.  What do they look like?  Imagine their face, their eyes, the nose and the cheekbones.  Hair colour and style.  How’s the neck, the body type, the hands, the legs.  Can you tell their gender, age and their race?  Any other features?  What are they wearing? 

Now try to keep that image in your mind.  You have conjured your criminal and you ought to give them a crime.  What crime has this person committed?  Was it their first crime or have they done the same crime before?  What made them do the crime(s) they did?   

How do you feel about them?  What do you wish to be done about them?  What is your solution to your imaginary villain?  Do you think there are others like them, or was this the one that once removed from your imagination will become unable to generate more images? 

Our mind is truly wonderous.  It can conjure all sorts of images and for those of you, who, managed to engage and to get through the questions and to develop your criminal, well done. 

This approach was used when investigators tried to help people to recall events following a crime, usually involving violence.  The questions are reasonable, and it allowed you, at least those who tried, to form an image and a backstory.  This approach was later discredited, purely because it allowed our stereotypes and prejudices to come to the surface.  You see this game is not about crime; it is about your perception of crime.  It is not about those who do crime, it is simply about you. 

Bring back to mind your criminal.  Your details and characteristics are the projections that you make on what you think about the other, the criminal.  For example, did you think of yourself when asked to imagine a criminal?  What you don’t think you are a criminal?  Ah, you are one of those who think they have never committed a crime.  Ever!  Are you sure?  Not even drinking in the park in your teen years, or a little bit of speeding away from speed cameras? 

Still you do not consider yourself as a criminal, but as a person.  Which is why criminality takes such a hold of people’s imagination.  Criminals are always other people.  Crime is something unthinkable.  Our representation of crime is to evoke our fears and insecurities, as when we were kids entering a dark room.  The mind is truly wonderous, but it can also make us imagine the most horrible things.  Not that horrible things do not happen, but the mind reinforces what it hears, what is sees and what it experiences.  If any of you have experienced crime before, the face of the person who victimised you may become traumatically etched in your consciousness.  Part of that trauma will become fear; it is interesting to note that similar fear is experienced from those who have never been victims of crime. 

Previously, I mentioned investigative processes.  Our fear of crime and our desire to control crime has generated a number of approaches in crime investigation that have tried to unmask the criminal.  Unfortunately, many of those were based on imagination rather than fact.  Why?  Because of how we feel about crime.  Crime causes harm and pain and invokes a lot of our emotions.  Those emotions when tapped by investigators blind us and release our darker stereotypes about the others!                        

The ‘Dangers’ of Travelling

This month, during the brief lull between the teaching and marking season, I had allocated myself a bit more free-time than usual. I have not been able to indulge in my hobby of travelling for a while, so instead of this, I have been watching travel related-television programmes with the hope that these will provide me with some kind of joy.    

This attempt has been a partial success; an influx of comedy travel shows have worked wonders to uplift my spirits whilst simultaneously reminding me about the beauty of nature; animals, plants, sea, land…(and even humans).    

Covid has taken over travel related news at the moment, but in ‘usual’ times it does not require much effort to come across travel documentaries or news reports that seem to encourage prejudice by depicting other countries and travelling as being strange or dangerous. I do worry that this type of coverage might discourage people from wanting to explore the world.  

It is difficult to assess the extent to which the television influences our opinions, but when I was a bit younger and discussing my travel plans with others, sometimes I would be met with the following comments:  

Response: I would love to travel but I can’t  

Me: Why can’t you?   

Response: It is dangerous!    

Me: How do you know this?  

Response: …It said so on the television  

There are many genuine reasons that prevent people from travelling, such as, money, responsibilities, health, conflict, misogyny and racism etc. But I find the above reason to be such a shame.   

I have encountered many myths over the years which seem to have been gained from watching the television. Here are some of my favorites:   

Myth 1: If you see a [insert wild animal here], it will eat you alive  

My experience: Take crocodiles for example, these are not as bad as they seem. Yes, arguably crocodiles are death machines but I have seen many in the wild and I am still alive.  

Myth 2: The local ‘criminals’ are dangerous   

My experience: On very rare occasions I have witnessed crime being committed whilst abroad. I once sat on a coach full of people who were attempting to smuggle cocaine to Brazil. I have also stumbled upon situations which the media described as ‘riots’ and I have also witnessed a few thefts. In these situations, the locals were not a danger to myself, but crime seemed to be a way of being able to afford to live or the result of the occasional angry outburst amongst crowds of protesters, motivated by frustrations with the state.  

Myth 3: If you accept the hospitality of strangers you will be murdered in your sleep  

My experience: The chances of this happening are very slim. Travelling tends to restore my faith in humanity, the people that I meet whilst travelling can be incredibly kind and helpful.   

I found that whilst I was a student, I was able to travel to many places on relatively limited over-draft funds. I hope that the students that I teach are able to do the same, as travel really can broaden the mind. Although, maybe I am wrong for encouraging others to travel, as travelling also makes you very aware of the damage that has been caused to the world, and my own part with in it.    

We are Spartacus: the publishing industry and race

As one of only a handful of non-white authors on the British crime fiction map, I thought it might be worthwhile spending a moment reflecting on the worldwide rebalancing touched off by the George Floyd killing in America. Fear not. There’s no need to put on your tin hats and dive for the trenches. My purpose isn’t to haul anyone over the coals. But there’s little doubt that some of what I say might make for uncomfortable reading. More importantly, I will ask you to reflect, at a personal level, on what we mean by systemic inequality, particularly as it applies to the publishing industry.

Screenshot 2020-06-30 16.14.40

First, some background. My parents are from the subcontinent. They came to the UK in the early seventies, lured by the immigrant dream. The streets of London may not have been paved with gold, but they were paved with opportunity. My father, who was not literate, spent his life in honest labour, in an industrial bakery, while my mother raised children, demonstrating the much-lauded immigrant work ethic by slaving away at her sewing machine every hour she wasn’t feeding us or stopping us from poking each other’s eyes out with eraser-tipped pencils. She instilled in us the need, above all else, to study, to educate ourselves, to progress.

So far, so good.

But what if I were to tell you that my parents were, in a broad sense, xenophobes, too? Not overtly. They didn’t oppress anyone; or traffic slaves across the oceans; or pillage defenceless communities for profit. But their attitude towards black people – cultivated by the insular world they had grown up in – was, at best, indifferent, or, at worst, mistrustful.

Here’s a simple, unpalatable truth. Racism, in its most basic form, is a feature of most societies. It shouldn’t be. But it is. A simple example illustrates my point.

The outpouring of angst and handwringing currently gripping the world has seen celebrities across the globe express their views on racism (rightly so), only for some to discover that a seat on this particular bandwagon can be an uncomfortable one. In India, numerous Bollywood stars were called out for the disparity between their #blacklivesmatter tweets and the fact that they had fronted campaigns for skin-lightening creams. Across the subcontinent, lighter skin has traditionally been valued (usually alluded to in matrimonial ads by the rainbow-bending adjective “wheatish”), so much so that white foreigners, especially Brits, are treated with overt deference, while black people are routinely afforded a lesser welcome. An odd perversity, given that it was the whites that pillaged the subcontinent for three centuries while, with those of Afro-Caribbean descent, one might assume Indians would evince a colonial-era solidarity.

Let me be clear: this idea of a sort of universal xenophobic instinct does not in any way excuse or mitigate the horrors of the slave trade, or the enormous, long-term damage done to black people because of that terrible practice. Nor does it justify the entrenched, systemic prejudice that continues to colour western societies, prejudice that culminates in overt racism of the kind that permits white American policemen to routinely kill black men with little fear of reprisal, and prejudice of the less obvious kind that serves to keep black people ‘in their place’. My point was merely to demonstrate that, in the wider, global race equality agenda now under discussion, we all have a part to play.

Part of the issue is that many well-meaning efforts to redress the balance are hampered by a profound lack of insight into how unconscious bias can affect the lives of people of colour, in a million different, small, but, ultimately, debilitating ways. The problem is further hampered by an education system that often fails to properly tackle the ‘race issue’.

Yet, the problem must be addressed. Because the world has become a smaller place. The goldfish bowl has shrunk and we are now all swimming in the same seas. It behoves us to make the effort, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it is also the most effective means of progressing humanity towards a more equitable, more meritocratic, global society. If the Covid-19 pandemic has proven anything, it is how interdependent we are.

Coming, now, to the publishing industry. Cards on the table. Since my first book was published six years ago, I have received tremendous support from my agent, publisher, critics, bloggers, readers, event organisers, and crime writers. My experience is not typical. A simple look at the statistics tells us what we already know. Any way you slice it and dice it – diversity of publishing staff, published writers of colour, books featuring characters of colour – the industry is dominated by white thought and enterprise. Some of this can be ascribed to the fact that, in terms of population, BAME communities, by definition, are a minority. You wouldn’t expect there to be a 50:50 split along these dimensions. That isn’t the issue. The problem is the entrenched attitudes that make it so damned difficult for writers of colour to break into the industry and then to enjoy the same rewards and freedom of expression that is accorded to their white counterparts.

The world’s most successful crime writer, James Patterson, became famous with a series about a streetwise black detective, Alex Cross. James Patterson is not black. Nothing wrong with that scenario, in my opinion. Authors should not be constrained by artificial constructions of propriety. But, if the industry is being honest with itself, it will acknowledge that a writer of colour attempting to do something similar – trying, as it were, to write outside of their cultural straightjacket – is rarely accorded the same privilege. Questions of ‘authenticity’, ‘voice’ and ‘cultural appropriation’ suddenly come racing to the fore, like Cinderella’s ugly sisters questioning our right to go to the ball. Asian writers, for instance, are often expected to pen literary tomes about colonialism or exposes of the immigrant experience. Again, nothing wrong with that, and, indeed, brilliant writing is regularly published exploring those themes. But there are so many other stories that we would like to tell. White writers can be published writing about matters far outside their experience – wizards, serial killers, aliens. But for non-white writers, the same consideration is much harder to find. A lot of this is not the result of overt racism, but rather the mindset that accepts as perceived wisdom the idea that profitability comes almost entirely from white authors writing white stories, or writers of colour writing stories suited to their ethnic background. This thought is so prevalent in the industry that it may as well be an eleventh commandment.

A terrific article by Laura B. McGrath, associate director of the Stanford University Literary Lab, in a Jan 2019 issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books, entitled “Comping White” identifies the true nature of the problem. Paraphrasing her research, it goes like this: publishers buy new books by comparing them to books that have been successful. Is this the new Harry Potter? Is this the next Gone Girl? Given that the majority of books are white, the process becomes a closed loop, a vicious cycle. The industry buys and promotes white books because they sell. White books sell because they’re the only books the industry buys and promotes. Do you see the problem?

Making the gatekeepers more diverse, McGrath argues, will have only a marginal impact. It’s the system that’s at fault. The same applies to practically any walk of life that you might care to name – hence the reason so few people of colour in boardrooms, or lecturing at top universities, or opening Michelin-starred restaurants. White people have done all those things successfully before, so why take a chance on the unproven?

Until we change this structural, often unconscious, bias, all the current furore around race will do little to improve the prospects of the average BAME person.

Can readers help? Of course! By voting with their feet. By buying books written by authors of colour, readers signal to publishers that they won’t be put off by a ‘funny-sounding’ name on the cover, or a protagonist who doesn’t share their own cultural background. The only bar should be quality.

In an ideal world, a good story, well told, should stand on its own merits.

What else can we do? In my opinion, people shape people. If we want better, more thoughtful attitudes in the industry, we must all stand up and be counted. Solidarity is the name of the game. A solidarity of thought that acknowledges that a genuine change of perspective is needed. From agent to reader, all along the chain. What we need, in other words, is for all of us to stand up and say: ‘We are Spartacus.’

Vaseem Khan, author, Midnight at Malabar House and Baby Ganesh series

London, June 2020

“A small case of injustice”

Gilbert Baker

Pride as a movement in the UK but also across the world signals a history of struggles for LGBTQ+ community and their recognition of their civil rights.  A long journey fraught with difficulties from decriminalisation to legalisation and the eventual acceptance of equal civil rights.  The movement is generational, and in its long history revealed the way social reactions mark our relationship to morality, prejudice, criminalisation and the recognition of individual rights.  In the midst of this struggle, which is ongoing, some people lost their lives, others fell compelled to end theirs whilst others suffer social humiliation, given one of the many colourful pejoratives the English language reserved for whose accused or suspected for being homosexuals. 

This blog will focus on one of the elements that demonstrates the relationship between the group of people identified homosexual and the law.  In sociological terms, marginalised groups, has a meaning and signals how social exclusion operates against some groups of people, in these case homosexuals but it does apply to any group.  These groups face a “sharper end” of the law, that presumably is equal to all.  This is the fallacy of the law; that there are no inherent unfairness or injustice in laws.  The contention for marginalised groups is that there are presumptions in the law on purported normality that disallows them to engage fully with the wider community in some cases forced to live a life that leads all the way to segregation. 

Take for example “entrapment”.  Originally the practice was used by law enforcement officers to identify counterfeit money, later to investigate the sales of untaxed tobacco or the use of unlicensed taxis.  The investigation in law allows for the protection of the public, non uniform officers to pose as customers in order to reveal criminalities that occur in the dark corners of society.  The focus predominantly was to protect consumers and the treasury from unpaid tax.  So, from that how did the law enforcement officers use it to arrest homosexuals?  It is interesting to note we can separate the letter of the law as opposed to the spirit of the law.  This distinction is an important one criminologically whilst for the law enforcement agencies evidently there is no such distinction.     

The most recent celebrity case led to the arrest of George Michael in Los Angeles, US; the operation led to the outing of the artist and his conviction.  As a practice across many years, entrapment played a significant part in the way numerous homosexuals found themselves arrested given a criminal record, loss of employment and in some cases ending up in prison.  It is important to note that prior to the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, the biggest sexual crime in England and Wales was that of homosexuality (recorded as indecency or buggery).  It took decades for that statistic to change, although historically remains still the highest category. 

The practice of entrapment employed by the police demonstrates the uphill struggle the LGBTQ+ community faced.  Not only they had to deal with social repulsion of the wider community that detested, both their practices and their existence, but also with public officials who used entrapment to criminalise them.  This was happening whilst the professionals were divided about the origins of homosexual “anomaly” and how to deal with it, the practice of entrapment added new convictions and supplied more humiliation to those arrested.  For the record, the criminological community was split along theoretical lines on this; the classicists such as Bentham argued for the decriminalisation of sodomy whilst the positivists namely Lombroso considered homosexuals to be in the class of moral criminals (one of the worst because they are undeterred) . 

The issue however is neither theoretical, nor conceptual; for those who were aware of their sexuality it was real and pressing.  During the post WWII civil rights movement, people started taking note of individual differences and how these should be protected by privacy laws allowing those who do not meet the prescribed “normal” lifestyles to be allowed to live.  It emerged that people who were successful in their professional lives, like Alan Turing, John Forbes Nash Jr, John Gielgud etc etc, found themselves facing criminal procedures, following string operations from the police.  This injustice became more and more evident raising the profile of the change in the law but also in the social attitudes.    

In 2001 Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead addressed the issue of entrapment head on. In his judgement in Regina v Looseley:

It is simply not acceptable that the state through its agents should lure its citizens into committing acts forbidden by the law and then seek to prosecute them for doing so. That would be entrapment. That would be a misuse of state power, and an abuse of the process of the courts. The unattractive consequences, frightening and sinister in extreme cases, which state conduct of this nature could have are obvious. The role of the courts is to stand between the state and its citizens and make sure this does not happen.”

This was the most damming condemnation of the practice of entrapment and a vindication for all those who faced prosecution as the unintended consequence of the practise.  For the record, in 2017 under the Policing and Crime Act, included the “Alan Turing law” that pardoned men who were cautioned or convicted for historical homosexual acts.  The amnesty received mixed reviews and some of those who could apply for denied doing so because that would require admission of wrongdoing.  The struggle continues…    

Regina v Looseley, 2001 https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200102/ldjudgmt/jd011025/loose-1.htm

“My Favourite Things”: Flower Violet (Stephanie Nixon)

My favourite TV show - Don't really watch much TV, though I do love David Attenborough and his nature documentaries ❤ I also love the South Park series! 
 
My favourite place to go - Ulm; Southern Germany. My partner got a job working in Germany, so I visited him in July 2019. Ulm is a very homely, colourful and picturesque place, home to the Ulmer Münster (world's tallest church) and a beautiful Danube! 



My favourite city - Birmingham! My beautiful, vibrant home city!

My favourite thing to do in my free time - I love writing! I'm currently working on my second Everyday Miracles Book, I have a blog and I write in a daily journal, and monthly reflection 🙂 I also love walking, weightlifting and doing charity work and supporting campaigns

My favourite athlete/sports personality -Tatsuo Suzuki; an 8th Dan Wado-Ryu martial artist, who helped spread Wado-Ryu throughout Europe and the world

My favourite actor – I love Signourney Weaver and Saoirse Ronan

My favourite author - Lorna Byrne

My favourite drink - Latte - always love a latte ❤

My favourite food - Roast Duck

My favourite place to eat - I have 2 favourite places; one is Blue Ocean, which is Singaporean and Malaysian food, and the other is Bombay Brasserie, which does British and Indian food

I like people who - are compassionate, caring, open-minded, loving and respectful

I don’t like it when people - are rude, disrespectful, arrogant, prejudiced and wilfully ignorant

My favourite book - I've read many amazing books… my favorite at this point has to be The Dawkins Delusion by Alister McGrath, and all of the Lorna Byrne books; ❤

My favourite book character - Not too sure… I've read lots of books…

My favourite film - I don't really have a favourite film… I do love The Passion of the Christ though.

My favourite poem - "First they came for…" by Martin Niemoeller

My favourite artist/band - Tangerine Dream!!!

My favourite song - Too Hot for My Chinchilla, by Tangerine Dream. This song always makes me so happy

My favourite art - Star of Bethlehem by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

My favourite person from history - Jesus Christ ❤ Jesus changed the face of the Earth by demonstrating unconditional love to everyone he met. He preached love, challenged religious authorities, performed countless miracles, and changed people's lives for the better ❤
John 15:12 'My Command is this: Love each other, as I have loved you'

Information overload

If you’re anything like me, the last few weeks you’ve probably found yourself fighting your way through a tsunami of information that’s coming from all directions. Notifications are going into overdrive with social media apps, news apps and browsers desperate to deliver more and more content, at ever increasing frequencies. Add to this all the stories, videos and memes friends and family are also sharing and it’s hard to know where to look first. The sheer volume of content makes it harder than ever to know what is fact, fake or opinion. In honesty, it can all be a bit overwhelming.

How do you even begin sorting the information that’s being thrown at you when you can’t keep up with how quickly your news feeds are moving

1. Sort the fact from the fiction

There’s nothing like a pandemic to send the fake news mills into overdrive. Many are easy to spot, the 2020 version of an urban myth (My neighbour’s, brother’s dog is a top civil servant and says….) others are much more sophisticated and purport to be from trusted sources. The Guardian (Mercier, 2020) reports on the danger of these stories and the tragic consequences that can occur when people believe them.

Why are we so susceptible to fake news stories though? They use “truthiness” to play on our fears and biases. If it sounds like something we think could be true, if it confirms our prejudices or worries, we’re more likely to believe it.

Fact checking is more important than ever. Take a moment to think before you share – what is the source? where are their sources? For more tips on spotting fake news check out this guide (IFLA, 2020) or use an independent reputable fact checking site such as Full Fact. This blog article from the Information Literacy Group (Bedford, 2020) pulls together a selection of reliable information sources related to Covid-19.

2. Bursting your bubble

Personalised content from news feeds can be useful, but we often don’t even realise the news stories and content we’re seeing in apps has been chosen by an algorithm. Their purpose is to feed us stories they think we will like, to keep us reading longer. This can be convenient, but it can also be misleading. We get trapped in a filter bubble that feeds us the type of content we like and usually from a perspective that agrees with our own way of thinking.

Sometimes we need to know what else is going on in the world outside our specific areas of interest though and sometimes we need to consider viewpoints we don’t necessarily agree with, so we can make an informed judgement.

These algorithms can also get things wrong. My own Google news feed weirdly seems to think I’m interested in anything vaguely related to British Airways, Coventry City Football Club and Meghan Markle (I’d like to state for the record I’m not particularly interested in any of these things). This is without considering the inherent biases they have built into them, before they even start their work (algorithm bias is a whole other blog article in itself).

It’s human nature to want to hear things that agree with our way of thinking and reinforce our own world view, we follow people we like and admire, we choose news sources that confirm our way of thinking, but there is a risk of missing the bigger picture when sat in our bubble. Rather than letting the news come to you, go direct to several news sources (maybe even some that have a different political leaning to you, if you feel like being challenged). Be active in seeking news stories, rather than passively consuming them.    

3. Step away from the news feed (when you need to)

It’s a bit of a balancing act, we need to know enough to be informed and stay safe without spending 24/7 plugged in. We’re not superhuman though and sometimes we need to accept that just because it’s on our feed, we’re not obliged to engage. Give yourself permission to skip stories, mute notifications and be selective when you need to. We all have different saturation points, mine will vary day to day, but listen to yourself and know when it’s time to switch off. If it helps, set reminders on your apps to give you a nudge when you’ve spent a certain amount of time on them. The Mental Health Foundation (2020) have some tips for looking after your mental health in relation to news coverage of Covid-19.

If you need help finding information or want support evaluating sources the Academic Librarian team are offering  online tutorials and an online drop-in service. You can also contact us by emailing librarians@northampton.ac.uk

Cheryl Gardner

Academic Liaison Manager, LLS

References

Bedford, D. (2020) Covid-19: Seeking reliable information in difficult times. Information Literacy Group [online]. Available from: https://infolit.org.uk/covid-19-seeking-reliable-information-in-difficult-times/ [Accessed 31/03/2020].

IFLA (2020) How to spot fake news. IFLA [online]. Available from: https://www.ifla.org/publications/node/11174 [Accessed 31/03/2020].

Mental Health Foundation (2020) Looking after your mental health during the Coronavirus outbreak. Mental Health Foundation [online]. Available from: https://mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/looking-after-your-mental-health-during-coronavirus-outbreak [Accessed 31/03/2020]

Mercier, H. (2020) Fake news in the time of coronavirus: how big is the threat? The Guardian [online]. 30th March. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/30/fake-news-coronavirus-false-information [Accessed 31/03/2020].

Someday at Christmas. #BlackenAsiaWithLove

Now that folks have returned to their normal lives, and the Christmas credit card bills have arrived, let’s reflect on the reason for the season. To get you in the mood, the writer suggests listening to Stevie Wonder’s Someday at Christmas alongside this read; lyrics included here.

Someday at Christmas men won’t be boys
Playing with bombs like kids play with toys

Today’s divisions are so profound, and illiberal tribalism runs so deep, that I believe only art can speak to them – they not hearing me when people like me speak. I’m clearly not an illiberal tribe member, and as soon as I open my mouth, my ‘proper’ American English is dismissed alongside the liberal elite media, Hollywood, etc. The tribe dismisses us, I surmise, due to our training and faith in the transformative power of critical thinking.

“If Republicans ran on their policy agenda alone,” clarifies one article from a prominent liberal magazine, “they would be at a disadvantage. So they have turned to a destructive politics of white identity, one that seeks a path to power by deliberately dividing the country along racial and sectarian lines.” This is lit-er-ally happening right now as the presidential impeachment hearings follows party-not-morality lines. Conservatives are voting along their tribe to support the so-called leader of the free world. Are they free?

Words like ‘diversity’ sound threatening to today’s illiberal thinkers. Those who tout PC-culture as going too far may as well go ahead and admit that they are anti-evolution! Those who denounce implicit racial bias have little to say about any form of racism, save for its so-called ‘reverse’. Those who would rather decry ‘feminism’ as man-hating have little to say about actual misogyny. Yet, it is the liberal candidate/leader/thinker who is held to a higher standard. Are we free?

wonder-christmasSomeday in a world where men are free
Maybe not in time for you and me
But someday at Christmastime

We are in an era of supreme conservative/illiberal tribalism. That’s the unique We are in an era of supreme conservative/illiberal tribalism. That’s the unique ties that bind America’s 45, to Britain’s BJ to Germany’s AFD, France’s infamous National Front (now in its second generation), Italy’s Lega Nord, Austria’s FPO– yes, the F is for ‘freedom’- all the way to India’s leading Islamaphobe. Let’s not forget Poland’s tiki-torch bearing PiS party that filthy-up the European Parliament joined by their brethren from Denmark to Estonia to Belgium and beyond.

EU-far-right

EU’s Right-wingers!

Illiberal tribes are tricking masses of those inside cultures of power into voting against their own interests. This is not, as many commentators have noted, to suggest that their so-called liberal alternatives are virtuous. Of course not, but it’s clear that masses can be motivated through fear of the other, whereas organizing around widening the pool of cooperation and humane concern is simply not sexy.

Someday at Christmas there’ll be no tears
All men are equal and no men have fears

Today’s brand of conservatism is an entire illiberal ethic that clearly must be cultivated from birth. Either you get it, or you don’t. Imagine the folks they’re turning against, and tuning out in order to hold onto those values. Imagine the teacher, friend, colleague, schoolmate, neighbour of ‘foreign’ origin that a Brexiteer must wipe away from their consciousness in order to support the anti-EU migration that fueled the campaign. The ability to render folks as ‘other’ is not an instantaneous predicament. It’s well cultivated like a cash crop, say cotton, cane or tobacco! Going to the ballot box to support bigots can’t be an easy feat when we’re literally surrounded by the type of diversity we seek to eliminate.

Someday at Christmas man will not fail
Hate will be gone love will prevail

There are those who voted for Brexit under some false notion of British independence, despite clear and present evidence of British inter-dependence. Perhaps no nation has been more inter-dependent on its neighbors and former colonies than the British Isles. Yet this illiberal disease is global. Imagine the rich diversity of the Indian sub-continent, yet look squarely at the Hindu nationalism sweeping India right now (as if the Taj Mahal weren’t a global treasure that just happens to have a few mosques on board). Plus, I’m not the first to point out that the Jesus racists celebrate was Jewish and spent most of his life in what we now call the Arab world. No nativity scene without foreigners!

Maybe not in time for you and me
But someday at Christmastime

‘Someday at Christmas’ was written in 1967 for Stevie Wonder, then a 17-year-old bulwark of Motown. Wonder wasn’t yet writing all his songs, yet he was already introduced as the ‘Profit of Soul’. In 1980, he sang: “Why has there never been a holiday, yeah/Where peace is celebrated,” in a song aimed at getting Reagan to declare Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. Wonder won. Happy MLK day!

Happy_Birthday_Single_7_

Naturally, looking back we have to wonder if one could have predicted the impact Wonder would soon have on American music. He’d dominate pop music once he set out on his own, set his fingers to funk instead of pop, and began to bare his soul.

Someday at Christmas we’ll see a Man
No hungry children, no empty hand
One happy morning people will share
Our world where people care

In the summer of ‘67, Wonder’d released another record, I Was Made to Love Her, featuring plenty of his infamous harmonica solos. ‘Someday at Christmas’ was released four years before the other most infamous Christmas message song, John Lennon’s War Is Over. SMH, I get goose-bumps hearing a kids’ chorus sing melancholically “War is over/If you want it.” Much of the world was at war then, struggling to comprehend the incomprehensible devastation meted out on the tiny southeast Asian nation of Vietnam, from where I pen this piece – a virtuoso clash of titans. It’s not surprising that those two troubadours began their careers in popcorn pop, yet had to leave the genre to deliver their most potent, fiercest messages.

Lennon-war

Motown was decisively a Popular music machine, specifically crafted to appeal to the wider/whiter masses. Motown steered clear away from ‘message’ songs, a real keel in the heal of the likes of Stevie, Marvin Gaye and eventually Michael Jackson. Each of those Motown troubadours has penned plenty of songs of freedom and ecology, and the ethical interdependence between the two. Those guys must be liberals. Ugh!

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.

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