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Is unconscious bias a many-headed monster?

When I was fourteen, I was stopped and searched in broad daylight. I was wearing my immaculate (private) school uniform – tie, blazer, shoes… the works. The idea I went to private school shouldn’t matter, but with that label comes an element of “social class.” But racial profiling doesn’t see class. And I remember being one of those students who was very proud of his uniform. And in cricket matches, we were all dressed well. I remember there being a school pride to adhere to and when we played away, we were representing the school and its reputation that had taken years to build. And within those walls of these private schools, there was a house pride.

Yet when I was stopped, it smeared a dark mark against the pride I had. I was a child. Innocent. If it can happen to me – as a child – unthreatening – it can really happen to anyone and there’s nothing they can to stop it. Here I saw unconscious bias rear its ugly head, like a hydra – a many-headed monster (you have to admire the Greeks, you’re never stuck for a metaphor!)

If we’re to talk about unconscious bias, we must say that it only sees the surface level. It doesn’t see my BA Creative Writing nor would it see that I work at a university. But unconscious bias does see Black men in hoodies as “trouble” and it labels Black women expressing themselves as “angry.”

Unconscious bias forces people of colour to censor their dress code – to not wear Nike or Adidas in public out of fear that it increases your chances of being racially profiled. Unconscious bias pushes Black and Asians to code-switch. If a White person speaks slang, it’s cool. When we do it, it’s ghetto. That’s how I grew up and when I speak well, I’ve had responses such as “What good English you speak.” Doomed if you do, doomed if you don’t.

How you speak, what you wear – all these things are scrutinised more when you don’t have White Privilege. And being educated doesn’t shield non-White people (British people of colour included) from racist and xenophobic attacks, as author Reni Eddo-Lodge says in her book:

“Children of immigrants are often assured by well-meaning parents that educational access to the middle classes can absolve them from racism. We are told to work hard, go to a good university, and get a good job.”

The police can stop and question you at any time. The search comes into play, depending on the scenario. But when I was growing up, my parents gave me The Talk – on how Black people can get hassled by police. For me, I remember my parents sitting me down at ten years old. That at some point, you could be stopped and searched at any time – from aimlessly standing on a street corner, to playing in the park. Because you are Black, you are self-analysing your every move. Every footstep, every breath.

And to be stopped and searched is to have your dignity discarded in minutes. When it happened, the officer called me Boy – like Boy was my name – hello Mr Jim Crow –  like he was an overseer and I was a slave – hands blistering in cotton fields – in the thick of southern summertime heat. Call me Boy. Call me Thug. No, Call me Target. No, slave. Yes master, no master, whatever you say master. This was not Mississippi, Selma or Spanish Town – this was Northamptonshire in the 2000s and my name is Tré.

Yes, Northamptonshire. And here in 2019, the statistics are damning. Depending on which Black background you look at, you are between six and thirteen times more likely to be stop and searched if you are Black than if you are White (British). And reading these statistics is an indication of conversations we need to be having – that there is a difference between a Black encounter with the police and a White encounter. And should we be discussing the relationship between White Privilege and unconscious bias?

Are these two things an overspill of colonialism? Are they tied up in race politics and how we think about race?

Whilst these statistics are for Northamptonshire, it wouldn’t be controversial to say that stop and search is a universal narrative for Black people in Europe and the Americas. Whether we’re talking about being stopped by police on the street or being pressed for papers in 1780s Georgia. Just to live out your existence; for many its tiring – same story, different era.

You are between six and thirteen times more likely to be stopped if you are Black than if you are White (British) – but you know… let’s give Northamptonshire police tasers and see what happens. Ahem.

Bibliography

Eddo-Lodge, Reni. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018. Print

Your Name Is Not BAME

My name is Tré Ventour and I am the Students’ Union’s Vice President BME Sabbatical Officer. When I’ve asked students what BME stands for, most have been clueless – Black Minority Ethnic. The same could be said for BAME – Black Asian Minority Ethnic. I was elected to represent ethnic minority students. But I’ve been asking myself how much longer will this 47% be an ethnic minority? At Northampton, they will soon be the majority. This 14,000-student university in which nearly 7000 fit into this BME box.

Pigeon-holed. To be put into a box. I don’t like to think in boxes. I try not to think in labels but in this world, it’s naive to be colourblind. In the education sector, in this day and age, especially at Northampton, to not see race is to ignore the experiences of nearly 7,000 students – nearly 7,000 stories about potential hate crimes, and what about BAME members of staff? We must see race. We must see sex, class, and gender (all genders).

To be colourblind is to live life high on privilege – to exist without the consequences of hate crime. Some people live with racism, sexism and / or homophobia all their lives.

Many say “there’s one race, the human race.” That may be true but how comfortable must you be in your existence to come to that notion? And then push that notion on those who experience racism on a daily basis.

When I’ve spoken to students about BAME or ethnic minority, they say “Just call me by my name.” Students are flesh and bone, more than acronyms. And I do what they tell me to do (in a manner of speaking / within reason). I’m not Vice President, I’m not Mr Ventour; I am Tré and I am here to help students, to represent students (of colour) – more so Black students that look at White authority and see invader. Who I have heard compare university to apartheid South Africa – one in, one out – to a Zimbabwe under British rule – De Beers, Rhodes and racism. Fear and exclusion.

Call them minorities, call them BME, call them BAME. Yet, this acronym just seems like coded language for Black. And at Northampton, when people say BME or BAME, they mean Black students, so just say what you mean, “Black.”

And if these labels, if these pigeon-hole terms help Higher Education solve issues like attainment perhaps it’s worth it. But what I can say is that not all Black experiences are the same. To be a Black British student is not the same as to be a Black international from Africa, the EU or elsewhere.

But to be a person of colour in this country is to be immigrant, British or otherwise. To be overly polite. To be overly grateful or gracious. To be a good immigrant.

The tyranny of populism

Page_of_Himmler_Posen_Speech,_Oct_4,_1943

Himmler (1943)

So, we have a new prime minister Boris Johnson.  Donald Trump has given his endorsement, hardly surprising, and yet rather than having a feeling of optimism that Boris in his inaugural speech in the House of Commons wished to engender amongst the population, his appointment fills me with dread.  Judging from reactions around the country, I’m not the only one, but people voted for him just the same as people voted for Donald Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky, the recently elected Ukrainian president.

The reasons for their success lie not in a proven ability to do the job but in notions of popularity reinforced by predominantly right-wing rhetoric.  Of real concern, is this rise of right wing populism across Europe and in the United States.  References to ‘letter boxes’ (Johnson, 2018), degrading Muslim women or tweeting ethnic minority political opponents to ‘go back to where they came from’ (Lucas, 2019) seems to cause nothing more than a ripple amongst the general population and such rhetoric is slowly but surely becoming the lingua franca of the new face of politics.  My dread is how long before we hear similar chants to ‘Alle Juden Raus!’ (1990), familiar in 1930s Nazi Germany?

It seems that such politics relies on the ability to appeal to public sentiment around nationalism and public fears around the ‘other’.  The ‘other’ is the unknown in the shadows, people who we do not know but are in some way different.  It is not the doctors and nurses, the care workers, those that work in the hospitality industry or that deliver my Amazon orders.  These are people that are different by virtue of race or colour or creed or language or nationality and, yet we are familiar with them.  It is not those, it is not the ‘decent Jew’ (Himmler, 1943), it is the people like that, it is the rest of them, it is the ‘other’ that we need to fear.

The problems with such popular rhetoric is that it does not deal with the real issues, it is not what the country needs.  John Stuart Mill (1863) was very careful to point out the dangers that lie within the tyranny of the majority.  The now former prime minister Theresa May made a point of stating that she was acting in the national Interest (New Statesman, 2019).  But what is the national interest, how is it best served? As with my university students, it is not always about what people want but what they need.  I could be very popular by giving my students what they want.  The answers to the exam paper, the perfect plan for their essay, providing a verbal precis of a journal article or book chapter, constantly reminding them when assignments are due, turning a blind eye to plagiarism and collusion*.  This may be what they want, but what they need is to learn to be independent, revise for an exam, plan their own essays, read their own journal articles and books, plan their own assignment hand in dates, and understand and acknowledge that cheating has consequences.  What students want has not been thought through, what students need, has.  What students want leads them nowhere, hopefully what students need provides them with the skills and mindset to be successful in life.

What the population wants has not been thought through, the ‘other’ never really exists and ‘empire’ has long gone.  What the country needs should be well thought out and considered, but being popular seems to be more important than delivering.  Being liked requires little substance, doing the job is a whole different matter.

*I am of course generalising and recognise that the more discerning students recognise what they need, albeit that sometimes they may want an easier route through their studies.

Alle Juden Raus (1990) ‘All Jews Out’, Directed by Emanuel Rund. IMDB

Himmler, H. (1943) Speech made at Posen on October 4, 1943, U.S. National Archives, [online] available at http://www.historyplace.com/worldwar2/holocaust/h-posen.htm [accessed 26 July 2019].

Johnson, B. (2018) Denmark has got it wrong. Yes, the burka is oppressive and ridiculous – but that’s still no reason to ban it, The Telegraph, 5th August 2018.

Lucas, A. (2019) Trump tells progressive congresswomen to ‘go back’ to where they came from, CNBC 14 July 2019 [online] available at https://www.cnbc.com/2019/07/14/trump-tells-progressive-congresswomen-to-go-back-to-where-they-came-from.html [accessed 26 July 2019]

Mill, J. S. (1863) On Liberty, [online] London: Tickner and Fields, Available from https://play.google.com/store/books [accessed 26 July 2019]

New Statesman (2019) Why those who say they are acting in “the national interest” often aren’t, [online] Available at https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2019/01/why-those-who-say-they-are-acting-national-interest-often-arent [accessed 26 July 2019]

The struggle is real

Stephanie is a BA Criminology graduate of 2019 and was motivated to write this blog through the experience of her own dissertation.

Last year was a very important time for me, during my second year of studying Criminology I began doing a work placement with Race Act 40, which was an oral history project to celebrate 40 years of the Race Relations Act 1974. The interviews that were conducted during my placement allowed me to get a variety of in-depth stories about racial inequalities of Afro-Caribbean migration settlers in the UK. During my time with the Race Act 40 project it became clear to me that the people who had volunteered their stories had witnessed a long line of injustices from not only individuals within society, but also institutions that makeup the ‘moral fabric’ within society. When exploring whether they have seen changes post and pre-Race Relations they insisted that although the individual within society treated them better and accepted them post-Race relations, to an extent there is a long way to go to improve the hostile relationships that has been formed with politicians and police.

The notion of hostility between politicians and the Afro-Caribbean community was reinforced, as the UK was going through the Windrush scandal which affected the core of every Afro-Caribbean household within the UK. This was extremely important for me as both paternal and maternal grandparents were first generation Windrush settlers. During the scandal my father became extremely anxious and the ramifications of the Windrush scandal hit home when some of his friends that came to the UK in 1961, the same time as he did, were detained and deported on the grounds of them being ‘illegals’. The UK Government used their ‘Hostile Environment’ policy to reintroduce Section 3 paragraph 8 of the Immigration Act 1971, which puts burden of proof on anyone that is challenged about their legal status in the UK’.

The UK government was ‘legally’ able to deport Caribbean settlers, as many of them did not have a British passport and could not prove their legal right to be in the UK and the Home Office could not help them prove their legal rights because all archival documents had been destroyed. This was a hard pill to swallow, as the United Kingdom documents and preserves all areas of history yet, overnight, the memory of my family’s journey to the UK was removed from the National Archives, without any explanation or reasoning. The anxiety that my father felt quickly spread over my whole family and while I wanted to scream and kick down doors demanding answers, I used my family’s history and the experiences of other Black people under British colonial rule as the basis for my dissertation. The hostility that they faced stepping off the Windrush echoed similar hostility they were facing in 2018, the fact that the British government had started deporting people who were invited into the country as commonwealth workers to build a country that had been torn apart as a corollary of war was a slap in the face.

Under Winston Churchill’s government, officials were employed to research Black communities to prove they were disproportionately criminal as a strategy to legally remove them from the UK and although they did not have any evidence to prove this notion the government did not apologize for the distasteful and racist treatment they demonstrated. It is hard to convince Black people in 2019 that they are not targets of poor similar treatment when they have been criminalised again and documents have been destroyed to exonerate them from criminality.

A final thought:

I have outlined the reasons why this topic has been important to me and my advice to any Criminology student who is going to be writing a dissertation is, to find a topic that is important and relevant to you, if you are passionate about a topic it will shine through in your research.

How literature failed me as a black student

My name is Francine Bitalo, I am 21 years old and a Criminology undergraduate at the University of Northampton. Coming from a black African background I have always had a strong interest in the Criminal Justice System and its treatment towards different groups in society.

My dissertation was based on the impact of police practices such as stop and search on young black men and their families. Whilst statistics present the alarming racial disproportionately which exist in many areas in the criminal justice system, it fails to portray the long-lasting effects it has had on Black families. For example, the daily harassment and differential treatment subjected to young Black men has forced black families to reinvent themselves to conform to institutional racism. Coming from a Black family myself and having male family member, the findings in my dissertation quickly became personal to me, as I could constantly relate them to the structuring of my own family. For example, the fact that it would take my father longer to find a job due to institutional racism, making my mother the breadwinner, or when my mother is preparing my brothers for police harassment and discrimination, but not me and sisters.

While conducting my research I was quick to learn that what literature may describe as a phenomenon, for many of us is a reality. If I am honest the writing stage of my dissertation was difficult for me because it was a passionate topic. I experienced a lot of self-doubt regarding my positionality for example, being a Black woman and facing my own forms of discrimination and now having to talk about the experiences of young Black men. I think my dissertation tutor would agree with me on this as I remember emailing her after I submitted my work expressing how I felt like I didn’t effectively capture the effects and the voices of the young Black men I interviewed, despite that being my main goal. I mean who would blame me, as a student, if I am honest I felt like literature really let me down for instance, when writing my literature review I found that literature neglected the subject of racism solely from the perspectives of young Black men, despite statistics showing them to being the largest group to experience institutional racism. At this point I had to laugh at the criminal justice system and its propositions to improving police relations as well as re offending.

With that being said the information I did come across I couldn’t help but sense the notion of white privilege lingering in the perspective of some scholars. I understand this is a strong claim to make however I say this because not only did literature provide little of the work of Black scholars regarding the topic, yet it was evident that most white scholars did not see the issue with stop and search and its discriminate use. Arguments for this were discussed in my dissertation for example, some argued that the process of racial socialisation in Black households were ineffective to police relations and the functioning of their services, which creates the notion that the Black community should submit to discrimination and harassment in favour of procedures and compliance during police encounter. Some tried to justify the disproportionality in stop and search by claiming that young Black men should be harassed because they tend to be out more especially in certain urban areas or the disproportionate targeting of Black minors is due to parental criminality. I felt there was a lack of accountability from white scholar thus, little understanding in the issue of race which is natural because their experiences do not allow them to understand. Yet this led me to ask questions such as why shouldn’t Black mothers have the right to prepare their sons for police discrimination, does it matter what time and area should a person of colour be around for them to be targeted at?

After completing my dissertation and getting a First Class I felt extremely proud of myself, the fact that I did not shy away from the research topic despite it being limited in literature. As a result, it was satisfying to know that I was able to articulate the experiences of others to a First Class standard. I hope this can encourage others to trust in their abilities and put aside any doubts especially when choosing a research topic. As a student writing a dissertation or even an assignment, I believe we should explore the unexplored, open the unopened and always be willing to discover and learn. Do not be afraid of researching something that is limited or has never been done. Lastly as my dissertation was extremely passionate to me I have decided to turn it into a personal project and continue researching the topic

Come Together

For much of the year, the campus is busy. Full of people, movement and voice. But now, it is quiet… the term is over, the marking almost complete and students and staff are taking much needed breaks. After next week’s graduations, it will be even quieter. For those still working and/or studying, the campus is a very different place.

This time of year is traditionally a time of reflection. Weighing up what went well, what could have gone better and what was a disaster. This year is no different, although the move to a new campus understandably features heavily. Some of the reflection is personal, some professional, some academic and in many ways, it is difficult to differentiate between the three. After all, each aspect is an intrinsic part of my identity. 

Over the year I have met lots of new people, both inside and outside the university. I have spent many hours in classrooms discussing all sorts of different criminological ideas, social problems and potential solutions, trying always to keep an open mind, to encourage academic discourse and avoid closing down conversation. I have spent hour upon hour reading student submissions, thinking how best to write feedback in a way that makes sense to the reader, that is critical, constructive and encouraging, but couched in such a way that the recipient is not left crushed. I listened to individuals talking about their personal and academic worries, concerns and challenges. In addition, I have spent days dealing with suspected academic misconduct and disciplinary hearings.

In all of these different activities I constantly attempt to allow space for everyone’s view to be heard, always with a focus on the individual, their dignity, human rights and social justice. After more than a decade in academia (and even more decades on earth!) it is clear to me that as humans we don’t make life easy for ourselves or others. The intense individual and societal challenges many of us face on an ongoing basis are too often brushed aside as unimportant or irrelevant. In this way, profound issues such as mental and/or physical ill health, social deprivation, racism, misogyny, disablism, homophobia, ageism and many others, are simply swept aside, as inconsequential, to the matters at hand.

Despite long standing attempts by politicians, the media and other commentators to present these serious and damaging challenges as individual failings, it is evident that structural and institutional forces are at play.  When social problems are continually presented as poor management and failure on the part of individuals, blame soon follows and people turn on each other. Here’s some examples:

Q. “You can’t get a job?”

A “You must be lazy?”

Q. “You’ve got a job but can’t afford to feed your family?

A. “You must be a poor parent who wastes money”

Q. “You’ve been excluded from school?”

A. “You need to learn how to behave?”

Q. “You can’t find a job or housing since you came out of prison?”

A. “You should have thought of that before you did the crime”

Each of these questions and answers sees individuals as the problem. There is no acknowledgement that in twenty-first century Britain, there is clear evidence that even those with jobs may struggle to pay their rent and feed their families. That those who are looking for work may struggle with the forces of racism, sexism, disablism and so on. That the reasons for criminality are complex and multi-faceted, but it is much easier to parrot the line “you’ve done the crime, now do the time” than try and resolve them.

This entry has been rather rambling, but my concluding thought is, if we want to make better society for all, then we have to work together on these immense social problems. Rather than focus on blame, time to focus on collective solutions.  

Documenting inequality: how much evidence is needed to change things?

In our society, there is a focus on documenting inequality and injustice. In the discipline of criminology (as with other social sciences) we question and read and take notes and count and read and take more notes. We then come to an evidence based conclusion; yes, there is definite evidence of disproportionality and inequality within our society. Excellent, we have identified and quantified a social problem. We can talk and write, inside and outside of that social problem, exploring it from all possible angles. We can approach social problems from different viewpoints, different perspectives using a diverse range of theoretical standpoints and research methodologies. But what happens next? I would argue that in many cases, absolutely nothing! Or at least, nothing that changes these ingrained social problems and inequalities.

Even the most cursory examination reveals discrimination, inequality, injustice (often on the grounds of gender, race, disability, sexuality, belief, age, health…the list goes on), often articulated, the subject of heated debate and argument within all strata of society, but remaining resolutely insoluble. It is as if discrimination, inequality and injustice were part and parcel of living in the twenty-first century in a supposedly wealthy nation.  If you don’t agree with my claims, look at some specific examples; poverty, gender inequality in the workplace, disproportionality in police stop and search and the rise of hate crime.

  • Three years before the end of World War 2, Beveridge claimed that through a minor redistribution of wealth (through welfare schemes including child support) poverty ‘could have been abolished in Britain‘ prior to the war (Beveridge, 1942: 8, n. 14)
  • Yet here we are in 2019 talking about children growing up in poverty with claims indicating ‘4.1 million children living in poverty in the UK’. In addition, 1.6 million parcels have been distributed by food banks to individuals and families facing hunger
  • There is legal impetus for companies and organisations to publish data relating to their employees. From these reports, it appears that 8 out of 10 of these organisations pay women less than men. In addition, claims that 37% of female managers find their workplace to be sexist are noted
  • Disproportionality in stop and search has long been identified and quantified, particularly in relation to young black males. As David Lammy’s (2017) Review made clear this is a problem that is not going away, instead there is plenty of evidence to indicate that this inequality is expanding rather than contracting
  • Post-referendum, concerns were raised in many areas about an increase in hate crime. Most attention has focused on issues of race and religion but there are other targets of violence and intolerance

These are just some examples of inequality and injustice. Despite the ever-increasing data, where is the evidence to show that society is learning, is responding to these issues with more than just platitudes? Even when, as a society, we are faced with the horror of Grenfell Tower, exposing all manner of social inequalities and injustices no longer hidden but in plain sight, there is no meaningful response. Instead, there are arguments about who is to blame, who should pay, with the lives of those individuals and families (both living and dead) tossed around as if they were insignificant, in all of these discussions.

As the writer Pearl S. Buck made explicit

‘our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is in the way that it cares for its helpless members’ (1954: 337).

If society seriously wants to make a difference the evidence is all around us…stop counting and start doing. Start knocking down the barriers faced by so many and remove inequality and injustice from the world. Only then can we have a society which we all truly want to belong to.

Selected bibliography

Beveridge, William, (1942), Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Social Insurance and Allied Services, (HMSO: London)

Buck, Pearl S. (1954), My Several Worlds: A Personal Record, (London: Methuen)

Lammy, David, (2017), The Lammy Review: An Independent Review into the Treatment of, and Outcomes for, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Individuals in the Criminal Justice System, (London: Ministry of Justice)

The logic of racism

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A few weeks ago, Danny Rose the Tottenham and England footballer was in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.  He indicated he couldn’t wait to quit football because of racism in the game.  He’s not the only black player that has spoken out, Raheem Stirling of Manchester City and England had previously raised the issue of racism and additionally pointed to the way the media portrayed black players.

I have no idea what its like to be subjected to racist abuse, how could I, I’m a white, middle class male?  I have however, lived in and was for the best part of my life brought up in, a country dominated by racism.  I lived in South Africa during the apartheid regime and to some extent I suppose I suffered some racism there, being English, a rooinek (redneck) but it was in the main limited to name calling from the other kids in school and after all, I was still white.  There was some form of logic in apartheid; separate development was intended to maintain the dominance of the white population.  Black people were viewed as inferior and a threat, kaffirs (non-believers) even though the majority were probably more devout than their white counterparts.  I understand the logic of the discourse around ‘foreigners coming into this country and taking our jobs or abusing our services’, if you are told enough times by the media that this is the case then eventually you believe.  I always say to colleagues they should read the Daily Mail newspaper and the like, to be informed about what news fables many of the population are fed.

I understand that logic even though I cannot ever condone it, but I just don’t get the logic around football and racism. Take the above two players, they are the epitome of what every footballing boy or girl would dream of.  They are two of the best players in England, they have to be to survive in the English Premiership.  In fact, the Premiership is one of the best football leagues in the world and has a significant proportion of black players in it, many from other parts of the world.  It is what makes the league so good, it is what adds to the beautiful game.

So apart from being brilliant footballers, these two players are English, as English as I am, maybe more so if they spent all of their lives in this country and represent the country at the highest level. They don’t ‘sponge’ off the state, in fact through taxes they pay more than I and probably most of us will in my lifetime.  They no doubt donate lots of money to and do work for charities, there aren’t many Premiership footballers that don’t. The only thing I can say to their detriment, being an avid Hammers fan, is that they play for the wrong teams in the Premiership.  I’m not able to say much more about them because I do not know them.  And therein lies my problem with the logic behind the racist abuse they and many other black players receive, where is that evidence to suggest that they are not entitled to support, praise and everything else that successful people should get. The only thing that sets them aside from their white fellow players is that they have black skins.

To make sense of this I have to conclude that the only logical answer behind the racism must be jealousy and fear. Jealousy regarding what they have and fear that somehow there success might be detrimental to the racists. They are better than the racists in so many ways, and the racists know this.  Just as the white regime in South Africa felt threatened by the black population so too must the racists* in this country feel threatened by the success of these black players.  Now admit that and I might be able to see the logic.

*I can’t call them football supporters because their behaviour is evidence that they are not.

Should reading be a punishment?

Carnagenyc (2009) Read!

Gillian is an Academic Librarian at the University of Northampton, supporting the students and staff in the Faculty of Health and Society.

I was inspired to write this blog post by an article from the BBC news website that my friend sent me (BBC, 2019). A reading list was used as a punishment for teenagers who were convicted of daubing graffiti across a historically significant building in the state of Virginia, USA. Normally such an offence would earn a community service order. In this case, due to the nature of the crime – using racially charged symbols and words, the Prosecutor and Deputy Commonwealth Attorney Alejandra Rueda decided education may be the cure. She provided the five teenagers with a reading list that they had to read, and write assignments on, over the course of their 12-month sentence.

“Ignorance is not an excuse” is a principle expressed regularly throughout society, yet are we doing anything to address or dispel this ignorance? Rueda realised that books may help these teenagers to understand the impact of what they’d done and the symbols and language they had used in the graffiti. She chose books that would help educate them about racism, anti-Semitism, apartheid and slavery, to name just a few of the topics covered in the reading list. These were the books that helped her understand the wider world, as she grew up. Rueda’s approach indicated that punishment without an understanding of the impact of their crime, would not help these teenagers to engage with the world around them. These books would take them to worlds far outside their own and introduce them to experiences that were barely covered in their High School history lessons.

It’s not the only time an ignorance of history has been highlighted in the news recently. A premiere league football player was investigated for apparently making a Nazi salute. Although he was found not guilty, the FA investigation found him to be appallingly ignorant of Fascism and Hitler’s impact on millions of people across the globe (Church, 2019). Whilst the FA lamented his ignorance, I’m unsure they have done anything to help him address it. Would he be willing to read about the Holocaust and impact of Fascism in Europe? Would being forced to read about the lives of people over 70 years ago, help him understand how a chance photograph can affect people?

Should reading be a punishment, would it help people understand the impact of their actions? As a Librarian, people often assume that all I do all day is read. For me, reading is a luxury I indulge in daily, when I’m at home. I find a distinct difference between reading by choice, for escapism, and reading because you have to. I remember studying English Literature at school and finding any books I was forced to read, quickly lost their charm and became a chore rather than a pleasure. I’m not sure reading should be a punishment; it could disengage people from the joy and escapism of a good book. However, I understand the value of reading in helping people to explore topics and ideas that may be well outside their own world.

There is a growing body of literature that reflects on bibliotherapy and how reading can help people in varying stages of their life (Hilhorst et al., 2018; Brewster et al., 2013). A recent report by Hilhorst et al., (2018) advocates reading to transform British society, address isolation and improve social mobility. I believe reading can help improve our quality of life, helping us improve literacy, understand complex social issues and offer escapism from the everyday. However, I hesitate to view reading as a magical solution to society’s problems. Some people advocate the literary classics, the numerous lists you can find online that extort the virtues of reading the finest of the literary canon – but how much of it is just to conform to the social snobbery around reading ‘good literature’, a tick list? We should encourage reading, not force it upon people (McCrum, 2003; Penguin Books Ltd, 2019; Sherman, 2019).

Reading can help expand horizons and can have a tremendous impact on your world view, but it shouldn’t be a punishment. What Rueda did in Virginia, is illustrate how an education can help us address the ignorance in our society. We should encourage people to explore beyond their community to understand the world around us. Reading books can offer an insight and allow us to explore these ideas, hopefully helping us to avoid repeating or perpetuating the mistakes of the past.

References:

BBC (2019) Graffiti punished by reading – ‘It worked!’ says prosecutor, BBC News [Online]. Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/stories-47936071 [Accessed 18/04/19].

Brewster, L., Sen, B. and Cox, A. (2013) ‘Mind the Gap: Do Librarians Understand Service User Perspectives on Bibliotherapy?’, Library Trends, 61(3), pp. 569–586. doi: 10.1353/lib.2013.0001.

Church, B. (2019) Wayne Hennessey: EPL player showed ‘lamentable’ ignorance of Fascism, CNN [Online]. Available from: https://edition.cnn.com/2019/04/16/football/wayne-hennessey-fa-nazi-salute-english-premier-league-crystal-palace-spt-intl/index.html [Accessed 18/04/19].

Hilhorst, S., Lockey, A. and Speight, T. (2018) “It’s no exaggeration to say that reading can transform British society…”: A Society of Readers,  DEMOS [online] Available from: http://giveabook.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/A_Society_of_Readers_-_Formatted__3_.pdf [Accessed 15/04/19]

McCrum, R. (2003) The 100 greatest novels of all time: The list, The Guardian [Online].  Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/oct/12/features.fiction [Accessed 18/04/19].

Penguin Books Ltd (2019) 100 must-read classic books, as chosen by our readers, Penguin [Online]. Available from: https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/2018/100-must-read-classic-books/ [Accessed 18/04/19].

Sherman, S. (2019) The Greatest Books, The Greatest Books [Online]. Available from: https://thegreatestbooks.org/ [Accessed 18/04/19].

A Love Letter: in praise of poetry

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,

they are vexations to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others,

you may become vain and bitter;

for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans


(Max Ehrmann, 1927)

Last week marked International Poetry Day (21 March 2019, to be precise) and it seems only right to consider this form of narrative in more detail. When I was younger (so much younger than today)[i] poetry left me rather cold. Why read short, seemingly impenetrable bursts of language when you could read whole books? To me, it seemed as if poetry was simply lyrics that no-one had got around to putting music to.[ii] Looking back, this may have been the folly of youth, alternatively, I simply was unable at that time to see the value, the beauty of poetry, both written and spoken.

Poetry isn’t meant to be consumed whole, like fast food to be gobbled in between anything and everything else, fuel to get you through the day. Neither is it like googling facts, just enough to enable you to know what you need to know at that instant. Instead, it’s meant to be savoured, to stay with you; like many good things in life, it takes time to ponder and digest. In turn, it takes on its own distinct and entirely personal meaning. It offers the opportunity for all of us, individually, to reflect, ruminate and interpret, at our own pace, according to our own place in time and space. The extract which opens this entry comes from Desiderata which carries particular resonance for me and my academic journey. It may or may not do the same for you, but it’s worth having a look at the entirety of the text, just in case.

An obvious criminological place to start to explore poetry, was always a favourite. Long before I discovered criminology, I discovered the work of Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). Starting with his novels, it wasn’t long before I stumbled upon his Ballad of Reading Gaol. With its haunting refrain; ‘each man kills the thing he loves’ it is difficult not to captured by its innate melody, as well as the story of the murderous soldier. After studying criminology and spending time in prison (albeit not serving a sentence), the verses take on a different dimension. It is difficult not to be moved by his description of the horror of the prison, even more so, given his practical experience of surviving in this hostile and unforgiving environment:


With sudden shock the prison-clock

  Smote on the shivering air,

And from all the gaol rose up a wail

  Of impotent despair,

Like the sound that frightened marshes hear

From a leper in his lair


(Oscar Wilde, 1898)

On the surface, poets like the Greek, civil servant C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933) have nothing to say about my life, yet his words make my heart ache. Cavafy’s tale of a mystical and mythical journey to Ithaka which seems to me to represent my educational journey in ways that I am only just beginning to appreciate. Replace the mythical Ithaka, with my all too real experience of doctoral study and you get the picture.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich


(C. P Cavafy, 1910/1911)

Furthermore, The Satrapy appears to represent ambition, desire and above all, the necessity of educating oneself in order to become something more. To truly realise your humanity and not just your mere existence, is a constant struggle. Cavafy’s words offer encouragement and a recognition that individual struggle is a necessity for independence of thought.

Your soul seeks other things, weeps for other things;
the praise of the public and the Sophists,
the hard-won and inestimable Well Done;
the Agora, the Theater, and the Laurels


(C. P. Cavafy, 1911)

Poets like Maya Angelou celebrate gender and race (among many other aspects), identifying intersectionality and the struggles fought and won, and the struggles still ongoing. Despite historical and contemporaneous injustice, to be able to shout from the rooftops Still I Rise in answer to the questions she poses, is truly inspirational:

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?


(Maya Angelou, 1978)

Likewise, Hollie McNish utilises her anger and frustration to powerful effect, targeting racism with the linguistic gymnastics and logic of Mathematics , demonstrating that immigration is one of the greatest things to happen in the UK. To really get the full force, you should watch the video!

Cos sometimes one that comes makes two
And sometimes one can add three more
And sometimes two times two is much much more
Than four
And most times immigrants bring more
Than minuses


(Hollie McNish, 2013).

To conclude, you have nothing to lose by immersing yourself in a bit of poetry, but everything to gain. The poets and poems above are just some of my favourites (what about Akala, Cooper Clarke, McGough, Plath, Tempest, Zephaniah, the list goes on) they may not be yours, but it doesn’t matter. Don’t rush it, read a little something and read it again. Let the words and imagery play around in your head. If it sings to you, try to remember the name and the poet, and you can return again and again. If it doesn’t sing to you, don’t lose hope, choose another poet and give their work a chance to inveigle its way into your life. I promise you, it will be worth it

Selected Bibliography

Angelou, Maya, (1978/1999), And Still I Rise, (8th ed.), (London: Virago Press)

Cavafy, C. P., (2010), Collected Poems, tr. from the Greek by Daniel Mendelsohn, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf)

Lennon, John and McCartney, Paul, (1965) Help!, [CD], Recorded by The Beatles in Help!. Parlophone, [s.l.], Apple

Wilde, Oscar, (1898), The Ballad of Reading Gaol by C. 3. 3., (London: Leonard Smithers)

[i] Lennon and McCartney, (1965).

[ii] Not always the case, as can be seen by the Arctic Monkey’s (2013) musical rendering of John Cooper Clarke’s I Wanna Be Yours


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