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We are not the same…respectfully

Disclaimer: whilst I can appreciate that it’s Women’s History Month and it would be appropriate that we all come together in support of one another, especially in the notion of us vs them (men). However, I am undoubtedly compelled to talk about race in this matter, in all matters in that sense. I can only speak on the influence of the women who are around me and of women who look like me. Black women. So, to the lovely white girl on twitter who felt the need to express under my thread how disheartened she was by the racial separation of womanhood in feminism … from the bottom of my heart, I am not sorry.

Sometime last year I stumbled across a book called They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South by the marvellous Stephanie Jones Rogers. The book protested against the belief that white women were delicate and passive bystanders to the slave economy due to masculine power in the 18th century. Instead, it explores the white supremacy of white women and the high level of protection they had which, which often led to the lynching and killing of many Black men and boys (Emmett Till, 1955). The book also looks at the role of enslaved wet nurses, as many white women perceived breastfeeding to be uncultured and therefore avoided it. However, while enslaved children were flourishing and healthy, many of the white babies were dying. As a result, Black mothers were forced to separate from their babies and dedicate their milk and attention to the babies of their mistresses.

Consequently, this led to the high rise of neglect and death of black babies as cow’s milk and dirty water was used as a substitute (Jones-Rogers, 2019). Furthermore, Rogers goes on to explain how the rape of Black women was used to ensure the supply of enslaved wet nurses. As you can imagine the book definitely does not sugar coat anything and I am struggling to finish it due to my own positionality in the subject. One thing for sure is that after learning about the book I was pretty much convinced that general feminism was not for me.

When I think about the capitalisation and intersectional exploitation that black women endured. I lightly emphasise the term ‘history’ when I say women’s history, because for Black women, it is timeless. It is ongoing. We see the same game play out in different forms. For example, the perception that white women are often the victims (Foley, et al., 1995) and therefore treated delicately, while Black women receive harsher/ longer sentences (Sharp, 2000). The high demand of Black women in human trafficking due to sexual stereotypes (Chong, 2014), the injustice in birth where Black women are five times more likely to die from pregnancy and childbirth than white women in the UK (University of Oxford, 2019) and the historical false narrative that Black women feel less pain than white women (Sartin, 2004, Hoffman et al, 2016).

So again, we are not the same…. Respectfully. 

It is important for me to make clear that we are not the same, because we are viewed and treated differently than white women. We are not the same, because history tells us so. We are not the same, because the criminal justice system shows us so. We are not the same, because the welfare system and housing institutions show us so. We are not the same, because of racism.

This year’s women’s history month was more so about me learning and appreciating the Black women before me and around me. As I get older, it represents a subtle reminder that our fight is separate to much of the world. There is nothing wrong in acknowledging that, without having to feel like I am dismissing the fight of white women or the sole purpose of feminism in general. I am a Black feminist and to the many more lovely white women who may feel it’s unnecessary or who are disheartened by the racial separation of womanhood in feminism, I am truly, truly not sorry.

P.s to Nicole Thea, Sandra Bland, Toyin Salau, Blessing Olusegun, Belly Mujinga and Mary Agyeiwaa Agyapong. I am so sorry the system let down and even though you are not talked about enough, you will never be forgotten.

References:

Chong, N.G., (2014). Human trafficking and sex industry: Does ethnicity and race matter?. Journal of Intercultural Studies, 35(2), pp.196-213.

Foley, L.A., Evancic, C., Karnik, K., King, J. and Parks, A. (1995) Date rape: Effects of race of assailant and victim and gender of subjects on perceptions. Journal of Black Psychology, 21(1), pp.6-18.

Hoffman, K.M., Trawalter, S., Axt, J.R. and Oliver, M.N. (2016) Racial bias in pain assessment and treatment recommendations, and false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(16), pp.4296-4301.

Jones-Rogers, S.E.(2019). They were her property: White women as slave owners in the American South. Yale University Press.

Sartin, J.S. (2004) J. Marion Sims, the father of gynecology: Hero or villain?. Southern medical journal, 97(5), pp.500-506.

Sharp, S.F., Braley, A. and Marcus-Mendoza, S. (2000) Focal concerns, race & sentencing of female drug offenders. Free Inquiry in Creative Sociology, 28(2), pp.3-16.

University of Oxford. (2019) NPEU News: Black women are five times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. Why? {Online}. Available from:https://www.npeu.ox.ac.uk/mbrrace-uk/news/1834-npeu-news-black-women-are-five-times-more-likely-to-die-in-childbirth-than-white-women-why {Accessed 29th March 2021}

What about women?

Strong women feel good about each other's success.
https://onedio.co/content/24-empowering-short-poems-from-feminist-poet-rupi-kaur-12146

This month marks Women’s History Month. It’s a time where I reflect on how privileged I am to be surrounded by a group of women who have added so much to my life just by being in it.  

I am also reminded of writers and poets (both past and present) like Woolf, De Beauvoir, Lorde, Walker, Kaur, Attwood and Evaristo whose words have not only added so much to my outlook on life but they also continue to remind me that as a woman I need to continue to listen, provide support and uplift other women. It is incredibly sad but necessary that we need to be reminded of the need to support one another.  

Women’s History Month has coincided with the murder of Sarah Everard, another of the many women who have been murdered by men whilst walking home alone. The policing and arresting of women at Sarah’s vigil, the justifications for such arrests and the events themselves are now being reported as false. Followed by the government’s predictable draconian response to silence and restrict protesting rights is maddening. And more importantly, the solidarity illustrated with women gathering to pay their respects to Sarah has now been spoilt due to these damaging enforcement responses.  

I find it so sad that commentary by some women surrounding the murder of Sarah had taken the stance of defending men. There are so many very good men in this world, and it is true that not all men are bad, but the reality is that men tend to be the perpetrators when other men, women and children are murdered.  

We live in a society which reinforces gender inequality, oppression and stereotypes about women to the point that women internalise misogyny. As a result, some women are quick to defend men to the point that, in some cases, men who are the perpetrators are presented as the victims. And the women who are actual victims are blamed for their own victimisation. 

This attitude towards women comes at the detriment of not allowing the space for people to begin to consider that femicide and gendered violence are the damaging consequences of living in an unequal society. The pain caused to the victims also becomes either diluted or made invisible. This is especially the case with Asian or Black women’s victim experiences, as these are rarely found within the news, and if shown, are rarely believed. 

There are many obstacles faced by women who attempt to flee routine gendered violence. Attempts to seek support can result in many women losing their homes, jobs and contact with their friends and families. As well as this, women who intend to report being victims of gender-based violence may battle to overcome the stigma that is attached to being a victim. For women with visas that state that there is ‘no recourse to public funds’ escaping violence becomes even more difficult, post Brexit, this now also applies to women from the EU. 

Whilst online debates occur surrounding Sarah Everard’s case, the reality is that many women are scared to walk alone. Many are also scared to live within their own homes due to the fear of violence. If we are quick to defend men in light of such tragic events how will we ever be able to support these women? How will they ever feel empowered to report being victims of crime? Yes, not all men are bad, but when a case like Sarah’s is publicised perhaps our first response should be  empathising with other women.  

Another Lone Gunman #BlackenAsiaWithLove #SpOkenWoRd

A lone gunman killed numerous people at a public place in America.

Another lone gunman shot up a school, another a nightclub, and

Another killed a kid walking down the street.

A few years ago, 

Another lone gunman shot up a movie premier, dressed as one of the film’s villains.

Another – armed with a badge-

Took a woman’s life after a routine traffic stop.

Plenty of his comrades routinely did the same.

Another lone gunman in blue, killed a kid playing in the park, and 

Another shot a man who was reaching for his wallet as he’d demanded.

Another shot a man with his kid in the backseat, while his girlfriend live-streamed it, and

Another took 8 minutes and 46 seconds to kill again.

Another watched while it happened, while

Another kept the crowd at bay.

Another. And another, and

Last week, in another American city, another lone gunman murdered more.

The lone gunman in blue responsible for safely apprehending this latest lone gunman said: This poor lone gunman just had “a bad day.”

We bide our time till next week’s breaking news.

Never Fear….Spring is almost here (part II)

David Hockney, (2008), Arranged Felled Trees https://www.flickr.com/photos/gandalfsgallery/49564201146

A year ago, we left the campus and I wrote this blog entry, capturing my thoughts. The government had recently announced (what we now understand as the first) lockdown as a response to the growing global pandemic. Leading up to this date, most of us appeared to be unaware of the severity of the issue, despite increasing international news stories and an insightful blog from @drkukustr8talk describing the impact in Vietnam. In the days leading up to the lockdown life seemed to carry on as usual, @manosdaskalou and I had given a radio interview with the wonderful April Ventour-Griffiths for NLive, been presented with High Sheriff Awards for our prison module and had a wonderfully relaxing afternoon tea with Criminology colleagues. Even at the point of leaving campus, most of us thought it would be a matter of weeks, maybe a month, little did we know what was in store….At this stage, we are no closer to knowing what comes next, how do we return to our “normal lives” or should we be seeking a new normality.


When I look back on my writing on 20 March 2020, it is full of fear, worry and uncertainty. There was early recognition that privilege and disadvantage was being revealed and that attitudes toward the NHS, shop workers and other services were encouraging, demonstrating kindness and empathy. All of these have continued in varying degrees throughout the past year. We’ve recognised the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on different communities, occupations and age groups. We’ve seen pensioners undertaking physically exhausting tasks to raise money for the tax payer funded NHS, we’ve seen children fed, also with tax payer funding, but only because a young footballer became involved. We’ve seen people marching in support of Black Lives Matter and holding vigils for women’s rights. For those who previously professed ignorance of disadvantage, injustice, poverty, racism, sexism and all of the other social problems which plague our society, there is no longer any escape from knowledge. It is as if a lid has been lifted on British society, showing us what has always been there. Now this spotlight has been turned on, there really is no excuse for any of us not to do so much better.


Since the start of the pandemic over 125,000 people in the UK have been killed by Coronavirus, well over 4.3 million globally. There is quotation, I understand often misattributed to Stalin, that states ‘The death of one man: this is a catastrophe. Hundreds of thousands of deaths: that is a statistic!’ However, each of these lives lost leaves a permanent void, for lovers, grandparents, parents, children, friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Each human touches so many people lives, whether we recognise at the time or not and so does their death. These ripples continue to spread out for decades, if not longer.

My maternal great grandmother died during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, leaving behind very small children, including my 5 year old nan. My nan rarely talked about her mother, or what happened afterwards, although I know she ended up in a children’s home on the Isle of Wight for a period of time. I regret not asking more questions while I had the chance. For obvious reasons, I never knew my maternal great grandmother, but her life and death has left a mark on my family. Motherless children who went onto become mothers and grandmothers themselves are missing those important family narratives that give a shape to individual lives. From my nan, I know my maternal great grandmother was German born and her husband, French. Beyond that my family history is unknown.

On Tuesday 23 March 2021 the charity Marie Curie has called for a National Day of Reflection to mark the collective loss the UK and indeed, the world has suffered. As you’ll know from my previous entries, here and here, I have reservations about displays of remembrance, not least doorstep claps. For me, there is an internal rather than external process of remembrance, an individual rather than collective reflection, on what we have been, and continue to go, through. Despite the ongoing tragedy, it is important to remember that nothing can cancel hope, no matter what, Spring is almost here and we will remember those past and present, who make our lives much richer simply by being them.

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

Reflecting on International Women’s Day

Disclaimer: In my experience this repels the boys from the yard

On International Women’s Day I wanted to write a blog to celebrate the incredible women who have inspired me, supported me, fought for the rights of women all over the world both past and present. Perhaps that post will come but I felt sadness and anger, rage that made me want to shout and swear from the rooftops that feminism is not done. Gender equality has not been completed. We may have advanced a few levels, but patriarchy is still alive and free right here in England as well as throughout the world. The reality is that gender equality is a myth. Ordinarily I’m more hopeful and positive and maybe the pandemic combined with finishing my PhD is pushing me over the edge. But as well as celebrating International Women’s Day I wanted to identify some of the areas in which there is work to do, both in the UK and worldwide.

On the week of International Women’s Day, the media has been filled with women, but not for the right reasons. Let us start with the interview broadcasted on International Women’s Day with Megan Markle and Prince Harry which highlighted not only her position as a woman but also the intersectionality of being a woman of colour in the royal family and the implications of this. The interview was responded in an appalling manner by Piers Morgan who questioned her experience of feeling suicidal which was then reflected on social media (never read the comments!!!). A woman’s experiences with mental health were questioned and ridiculed. Not long after the tragic death of Caroline Flack, people – including many other women – have forgotten to #bekind. The investigation over the disappearance of Sarah Everard was responded to by the Met police advising women in the local area not to go out at night, perpetuating a culture of victim blaming. A woman’s actions were being questioned. So here we are in 2021 with our internal thoughts and emotions and our external actions being judged by others. When women have spoken out about our right to feel safe walking home at night, about how we walk the long way home and hold a key between our fingers for protection, #notallmen resurfaces on Twitter, in a similar tone to #alllivesmatter last year. When one group renews a call for equality, the patriarchs and supremacists oppress harder. These are just a couple of examples in the media, the public domain, this week but there is also clear inequality in domestic life.

Twitter trending hashtags, 11th March 2021

Throughout the pandemic there have been numerous reports suggesting that women have disproportionately undertaken childcare which has had a devastating impact, particularly for single mothers. While data from the Office for National Statistics shows that home schooling is distributed equally in mixed sex couples, women have undertaken substantially more of non-developmental childcare – the bathing, bedtime routine, feeding etc. I recall the days of being a working single parent with a small child. With no after school club and no family available to chip in, I relied on childcare swaps, a childminder (who I couldn’t afford to pay more than a couple of days per week). It was a case of beg, borrow or steal whatever childcare I could get to get to work and would often miss lectures because I didn’t have any childcare (note to students – if you have childcare responsibilities and are struggling please do not hesitate to drop me an email. I have almost a decade of experience juggling kids with studies and I am always happy to share tips or just have a mutual rant about how hard it is!). I cannot imagine how I would have managed with the pandemic if my children were younger. I am lucky enough to work in a team where my colleagues don’t bat an eyelid when my teenager pops her head in asking for food or help with schoolwork but I do have friends telling me how their male counterparts have given them advice on how to juggle virtual meetings with parenting small children. Men (not all men – some men are excellent allies) having no clue how hard women have to fight as women to do it all – the career, the childcare, the housework, all while earning less than our male counterparts (currently 15.5% less). Of course the data on equal pay is complex but the bottom line is we get paid less, it’s harder to advance our careers because as we live in the bodies that produce babies and we have career breaks when we take maternity leave or go part time while the children are young – the only way that can change is if we choose not to have kids and we are criticised for that too!

I have so far established that the UK is hostile in the media and not equal in the home and employment but where do we sit globally? It was placed 21st on the Global Gender Gap Index 2020. Do you think you could guess which countries are higher than the UK? Go on, spend a minute and write down who you would expect to be in the top 20. Of course, there are the countries one might expect – Iceland is top of the list, Norway, Finland and New Zealand too. But let’s throw a curveball in there. Albania. Having worked with and interviewed many female Albanian asylum seekers and refugees who have usually fled Albania due to at least one but often many forms of gendered violence this comes as quite a surprise to me. Of course, I have a biased experience and have only come into contact with those who have had devastating experiences of patriarchy in the country. Rwanda is up there too within the top 10. Not long after the devastating genocide in Rwanda where women were brutally raped as a weapon of war (see here for a cheeky plug and an analysis of sexual violence in conflict in a different geographical context). Today, women make up half of the politicians in the country. Women have risen up and have taken power. In the UK I look at the female politicians in power today and in recent years and I recoil in horror. Priti Patel is probably (barring the Queen) the most powerful female politician in England. I witness first hand in my work with asylum seekers the harm she causes every day. Intentional harm, following in Theresa May’s footsteps to create a hostile environment for migrants. These women are not the people I want to look up to, or want my children to look up to. In fact, one of the few shared interests my daughter and I have is our disdain for these women.

The women I do look up to are those asylum seekers Patel and her band of merry men at the Home Office are trying to repel. Those who have fled situations that I, as a middle class white woman cannot even begin to comprehend. All the women who I have interviewed in my doctoral research had either fled gendered violence including forced and child marriage, domestic abuse, sex trafficking and honour violence; or their gender had intersected with other forms of persecution making their living situation untenable because they were women. They fled life or death situations to the point of leaving their homes, families and countries because their governments could not, or would not, protect them. They arrive in the UK and are faced with the hostile environment conjured by May and continued by Patel and both the Home Secretaries in between. They face structural violence in the forms of forced poverty, illegal detention, substandard and sometimes dangerous accommodation perpetrated under the mandate of women. All the while being vilified by the tabloids and swathes of the public. Some of my participants arrived here as children and were bullied in school because they were asylum seekers, being told that they were taking jobs and money. The bullies could not comprehend that they were prohibited by law from working and were given £5 per day to live on. They then hid their identities, never telling anyone that they were an asylum seeker, lying to their friends about why they couldn’t go on college trips abroad, why they couldn’t have a bank account, why they couldn’t get a job or go to university.

I want to celebrate Amira* who defied the odds. She came here when she was in her early teens, knowing just a few words of English. She worked hard to learn the language and passed her GCSEs and A-levels, gaining a competitive Sanctuary scholarship which funded her university education. I want to celebrate Drita, an Eastern European woman who was physically abused by her father as a child, forced to marry an abusive man who eventually left her destitute with three children. She then left her children with her parents while she sought work, got a boyfriend who sold her into sex slavery, set her room on fire to kill herself but managed to escape, picked up her children and fled a lifetime of gendered violence from every man she had ever met. She spent 2 days in a lorry with her children to get to the UK. Not really the UK, she would have gone anywhere, just out of her country to safety. These women are survivors. These women fought to stay alive. They fought to escape. They didn’t escape. They arrived here to face May’s legacy of a hostile environment. These women are terrified every time they have to report to the Home Office, every letter they get threatens them with detention and deportation and reminds them that they or on bail, literally equating them with a process usually found in the criminal justice system. These women are heroes and should be celebrated for surviving. On International Women’s Day yes, let us celebrate all that all we have achieved so far but it cannot end here. Each year we need a renewed call for action for women.

*All names are pseudonyms to protect the anonymity of participants

Late: The word that defines the UK’s Coronavirus pandemic management

Picture the scene. We are in Downing Street and the news media are awaiting another coronavirus press conference. Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England is ready. Sir Patrick Vallance the Chief Scientific Advisor is ready. Where is the Prime Minister (PM)? Late again.

I have this vision of our PM frantically scurrying around like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland humming “I’m late I’m late for very important date”. We might all smile at this vision but I’m afraid the analogy of being late is not a laughing matter when it is applied as the major theme for the UK governments management of what I described in a previous blog as the worst public health crisis in my lifetime. I also recall the PM famously using the phrase “A stitch in time saves nine” which is indeed true however in a pandemic being late or not sewing that stitch in time can and has cost thousands of lives.

In the week that has seen the UK pass 100,000 deaths it is right to reflect on the tragic loss of life. The call from government saying this is not the time to analyse why the UK has done so badly is in my view the wrong line to take. The government could learn a thing or two from the UK health care professions who for years have developed themselves as reflective practitioners. Donald Schon (1983) wrote extensively about reflection in terms of the creation of learning organisations who can both reflect in and on action. It is the former that has been sadly lacking in the UKs response to the coronavirus crisis. Reflection needs to be on the table throughout the pandemic and had it been, we may not have repeated the same mistakes. The management of pandemics is well documented in the medical literature. Professor Chris Whitty the Chief Medical Officer for England outlines how to manage a pandemic in this useful lecture at Gresham College.

Indeed it is also important to remind us of the words of Sir Patrick Vallance who when recommending the urgency of action in a pandemic implored that we “go earlier than you think you want to, go a bit harder than you think you want to and go broader than you think you want to in terms of restrictions.” My observation of the UK pandemic response leads me to conclude that we failed to do any of these. However, for this blog let’s focus on timing. Going early in terms of restrictions and other actions can have an enormous beneficial impact.

The last year has been to coin an overstated phrase “unprecedented” with many arguing that any government would have been overwhelmed and struggled to manage the crisis. Is this fair? One can look at other countries who have managed the situation better and as such have had better outcomes. New Zealand, Australia, Korea for example. Others will point to the differences between countries in terms of geography, population, culture, transport, relative poverty, healthcare systems, reporting mechanisms and living conditions which make comparisons inherently complex. 

With the current death toll in the UK so high and continuing to rise, and many scientists telling us that things will inevitably get worse before they get better the question everyone is asking is : What has gone wrong? In this blog I’m going to argue that in large part our problems are based on a lack of urgency in acting. I’m arguing that we have not followed Sir Patrick Vallance’s recommendation and in particular we have been late to act throughout. Below I will set out the evidence for this and propose some tentative reasons as to why this has been the case.

Firstly, despite a pandemic being recognised as the largest threat to any country (it will always be top of any country’s risk register) the UK was slow to recognise the impending crisis and late to recognise the implications of a virus of this nature and how quickly it can spread globally.  History informs us of how quickly Spanish flu spread in 1918. The UK was never going to be immune. Late recognition and poor pandemic preparedness meant we were late to get in place the critical infrastructure required to mount a response. Despite several warnings and meetings of the civil contingencies committee (COBR) the health secretary Matt Hancock was dismissive of the threat playing it down. Indeed, the PM failed to attend several early meetings giving the impression that the UK were not taking this as seriously as they should.

When faced with a looming medical/public health emergency it is important that the scientific advisors are in place early (which they were) and that their advice is acted upon. The evidence clearly points to a slow response to this advice which manifested itself in several critical late decisions early in the pandemic. The UK did not close its borders and implement quarantine measures allowing the virus to seed extensively in all parts of the community. Once community transmission had been established it was too late. It did not have in place a substantive testing regime, largely because we were unprepared. It very quickly became clear when we switched from community testing to testing only those in hospital with Covid symptoms that we lacked critical mass testing capacity and hence spent months trying to catch up. Evidence from previous outbreaks of SARS and MERS demonstrated how important mass testing was in controlling the spread, a position advocated by the World Health Organization (WHO). The UK saw case numbers grow rapidly and was slow to get the important public health messages out. Consequently, hospital admissions increased, and the death toll leapt. We were in serious danger of the NHS becoming overwhelmed with critically ill Covid patients.

Public health, medical and scientific experts suggested through their modelling exercises that the death toll, if we didn’t act quickly, could exceed 500,000; a situation socially and politically unpalatable. Therefore, in the absence of no known treatments and no vaccine we would have to resort to the tried and tested traditional methods for the suppression of a respiratory borne virus. Robust hand hygiene, respiratory/cough etiquette and maintaining social distance to reduce close social interaction. The logical conclusion was that to radically reduce social contacts we needed to lockdown. It is widely acknowledged now that the UK was at least a week late in introducing the first lockdown in March 2020.

In the meantime, the virus was sweeping through vulnerable elderly groups in care homes. We were again late to recognise this threat and late to protect them despite Hancock’s claims of throwing a ring of protection around them. The death toll continued to mount. At this stage both the Health (NHS) and care sectors were under enormous pressure and ill equipped to manage. The greatest worry at that stage was lack of adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Due to our ill preparedness we were late to provide appropriate PPE to both the NHS and the care home sector, exposing healthcare workers to undue risk. The death toll of healthcare workers in any pandemic is high and we were now starting to see this rise in the UK.

Another major criticism during the earlier months was how slow we were in ramping up testing capacity, tracking, tracing cases and ensuring isolation measures were in place. Indeed, concerns about test, trace and isolation continue today. However, lockdown and other public health measures did reduce the case numbers through the summer but inevitably the virus, which thrives in cold damp conditions started to cause further problems as we approached autumn and winter. Combined with this the UK saw a new variant of the virus emerge in the autumn with greater transmissibility. Cases started to rise again along with the inevitable hospital admissions and deaths. It appeared despite warnings from all scientists and health professionals that a second wave was highly possible we were late to recognise the emergence of a second wave of infections. The signs of which were there in September 2020. This led to a second lockdown in November when the advice from the scientific advisors was to lockdown in mid-October or earlier. This decision was compounded by a complex tiered restrictions arrangement to manage outbreaks locally aimed at the avoidance of unnecessary restrictions. Meanwhile the death toll continued to mount.

Notwithstanding the emergence of a new variant of the virus during the second lockdown everyone’s attention was switched to Christmas. The advice offered from government that restrictions would be relaxed for five days was met with incredulity by health professions who argued that this would simply allow the virus to be spread exponentially through greater household mixing. All the evidence at this stage pointed to household mixing as the primary source of transmission. As the situation worsened following the release of lockdown in early December it became obvious that the Christmas guidance had to change. To no ones surprise the advice was changed at the last-minute meaning everyone would have to rearrange their plans. The late change to the Xmas guidance probably meant more family mixing than would have happened had the advice been robust and communicated to the public earlier. Very quickly after Christmas we saw rapid changes to the tier management despite calls for a further lockdown. Cases rose rapidly, hospital admissions were now worse than in the first wave and scientists called for a lockdown. Consequently, we were late implementing Lockdown 3.

Throughout the pandemic the government has provided detailed guidance on restrictions, care homes, travel arrangements and education. It’s difficult to get this right all the time but the issuing of guidance was at times so late it became difficult to interpret the issues with clarity. Probably one the best examples of this relates to the advice provided to schools. Should they stay open or close? What should the Covid secure measures be? How do you construct bubbles of students to reduce social contact? Covid testing of pupils and staff? examinations and assessment guidance? However, the final straw was surely when schools opened in January after the Christmas break to only be told they had to close the very next day as we moved into Lockdown 3.

In conclusion it is said that to manage a pandemic you need a clear, robust strategic plan. The evidence presented here would suggest a lack of strategic planning with crisis decision making on the hoof. Some have argued that we have a PM who struggles to take the big decisions required, who procrastinates and inevitably is left with Hobson’s choice. If you couple this with a group of key ministers who appear to lack the competence to carry their portfolios we have the recipe for a disaster. The consequence of which means the UK has experienced a terrible outcome across a whole set of health, education and economic indicators.

References
Schon, D. (1983) The reflective practitioner: how professionals think in action Basic Books, New York
Whitty, C. (2018) How to Control an Epidemic https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rn55z95L1h8

A pit and no pendulum

Laughter is a great healer; it makes us forget miserable situations, fill us with endorphins, decreases our stress and make us feel better.  Laughter is good and we like people that make us laugh.  Comedians are like ugly rock-stars bringing their version of satire to everyday situations.  Some people enjoy situational comedy, with a little bit of slapstick, others like jokes, others enjoy parodies on familiar situations.  Hard to find a person across the planet that does not enjoy a form of comedy.  In recent years entertainment opened more venues for comedy, programmes on television and shows on the theatres becoming quite popular among so many of us. 

In comedy, political satire plays an important part to control authority and question the power held by those in government.  People like to laugh at people in power, as a mechanism of distancing themselves from the control, they are under.  The corrosive property of power is so potent that even the wisest leaders in power are likely to lose control or become more authoritarian.  Against that, satire offers some much needed relief on cases of everyday political aggression.  To some people, politics have become so toxic that they can only follow the every day events through the lens of a comedian to make it bearable.  

People lose their work, homes and even their right to stay in a country on political decisions made about them.  Against these situations, comedy has been an antidote to the immense pain they face.  Some politicians are becoming aware of the power comedy has and employ it, whilst others embrace the parody they receive.  It was well known that a US president that accepted parody well was Ronald Reagan.  On the other end, Boris Johnson embraced comedy, joining the panel of comedy programmes, as he was building his political profile.  Tony Blair and David Cameron participated in comedy programmes for charity “taking the piss” out of themselves.  These actions endear the leaders to the public who accept the self-deprecating attitude as an acknowledgment of their fallibility.   

The ability to humanise leaders is not new, but mass media, including social media, make it more possible now.  There is nothing wrong with that, but it is something that, like smoking, should come with some health warnings.  The politicians are human, but their politics can sometimes be unfair, unjust or outright inhuman.  A person in power can make the decision to send people to war and ultimately lead numerous people to death.  A politician can take the “sensible option” to cut funding to public spending directed at people who may suffer consequently.  A leader can decide on people’s future and their impact will be long lasting.  The most important consequence of power is the devastation that it can cause as the unanticipated consequence of actions.  A leader makes the decision to move people back into agriculture and moves millions to farms.  The consequence; famine.  A leader makes the decision not to accept the results of an election; a militia emerges to defend that leader.  The political system is trying to defend itself, but the unexpected consequences will emerge in the future. 

What is to do then? To laugh at those in power is important, because it controls the volume of power, but to simply laugh at politicians as if they were comedians, is wrong.  They are not equivalent and most importantly we can “take the piss” at their demeanour, mannerisms or political ideology, but we need to observe and take their actions seriously.  A bad comedian can simply ruin your night, a bad politician can ruin your life. 

Is justice fair?

There is a representation of justice.  A woman (lady justice) blindfolded holding the scales of justice in one hard and a sword in the other.  This representation demonstrates a visualisation of the core principles of justice: blindfold for impartiality, the scales for weighting the evidence and the sword, the authority.  The need for this representation is making the point that justice is fair.  To all people justice is an equaliser that brings the balance back to everyday life.  Those who break the natural order are faced with the consequences of the arbitration made by the system that assumes equality for all against the law.  

The representation of justice must be convincing in order to be accepted by the public.  The impartiality has to be demonstrable and the system forms a bond across all social strata.  Well, at least in principle.  There is a difference between representation and reality.  This is something we learn from early on.  As a kid, I remember a special ice-cream in a cup that had a little toy in the bottom of the cup.  It looked so appealing, but the reality never met my expectations.  Still, I continued to buy it, in anticipation that maybe the representation and the reality will meet.  Like the ice cream, the justice system, has a beautiful packaging that makes it incredibly appealing. 

Forged in the flames of the renaissance and the enlightenment, justice transformed from a convenient divinity to a philosophical ideal and a social need.  It became a concept that reflected social changes and economic growth.  Many of the principles of justice, like equality and fairness, carried forward from the classical era.  Only at this time these concepts were enriched with philosophical arguments influenced by humanism.  The age of exploration and knowledge added to the scientific rigour of forensic investigation and the procedures became standardised.  Great minds conceptualised some of theoretical aspects and transferred them in everyday practice.  Cesare Beccaria’s treatise On Crimes and Punishments demonstrated how humanist principles can affect procedure and sentencing. 

This justice system was/is our social “ice cream”.  Desirable and available to all citizens.  A system beyond people and social status, able to call individuals to account.  Unfortunately like my childhood “ice cream” equally disappointing, primarily because the reality is not even close to the representation.  The principles of justice are all noble and inspiring.  There is however something behind the systems that needs to be explored in order to understand why reality and representation are so far apart.  The guiding principle of any justice system from inception to this day is not to restore the balance (as so beautifully demonstrated with the scales) but to maintain the established order or the social status quo

On the occasions where societies broke down because of war or revolution, significant changes happened.  Those allowed some reforms in different parts of the system allowing changes, sometimes even radical.  Even at those situations the reforms were never too radical or too extensive.  Regardless of the political system, tyrannical, dictatorial or democratic, the establishment is keen to maintain its authority over the people.  For this to happen, the system must be biased in its inception about what we mean about justice.  If the expectations of law and order are given a direction, then the entire system follows that direction and all changes are more cosmetic than fundamental.  Quite possibly this explains what we recognise as miscarriages of justice as simply the inability of the system to be more tactful about its choices and arbitrations. 

Therefore, tax avoidance and drug use take a different level of priority in the system.  It is the same reason that people from different socioeconomic groups are seem differently, regardless of the system’s reassurance on equality and fairness.  Maybe the biggest irony of all is that the representation of justice is a woman, in one of the most male dominated systems.  From the senior judiciary to the heads of police and the prison systems, women are still highly underrepresented.  Whilst the representation of ethnic minorities is even lower.  Of course, even if it was to change in composition, that would be arguably a cosmetic change.  Perhaps it is time as society to use consumer law and demand that our justice system is like it’s been advertised…fair.       

https://www.pikrepo.com/flrpo/lady-justice-statue

Turning a blind eye: when people remain silent to abuse in the name of religion, tradition, and culture

The thought that people in the 21st Century are silent about abuse appears to be an absurd notion. There has been a significant development in how public opinion is increasing the awareness of the role of abuses that occur behind closed doors, and the responsibility of safeguarding to protect the most vulnerable. Case studies of Daniel Pelka, Baby P, and even the institutional abuses at Winterbourne View Hospital are significant signal crimes, having provided public opinion with the chance to progress its understanding of abuse behind closed doors, being able to question concerning behaviours and beliefs, and for this to be reflected within legislation; with abusers even being sentenced and imprisoned.

Abuses behind closed doors

I raise the progression made on abuses that occur behind closed doors; there is still far to go, however, institutional abuses that occur literally in front of these doors are still an issue in society today.

The power imbalance of the state and police department in recognising their responsibility for the murder of George Floyd is one of many examples of this; the image of the local authority leaning on his neck, with him pleading for his mother and his life, is an image that can never be forgotten. The issues of institutional racism can be traced back decades, with the MacPherson Report highlighting these issues following the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, but how far has society come to know about crimes committed within the family and community, to preserve the honour of religion, culture, and tradition? Deciding to leave one’s religious faith, has the potential to cause disruptions to the ideological framework of the family and community.

This decision appears to increase the level of threat the family and community may feel towards the individual as a result, with an increased likelihood of creating an environment of abuse to foster physical and psychological abuse. Being able to challenge such abuse, which occurs under the veil of religion, tradition, and culture, appears to be difficult. This might be due to how this type of abuse is maintained under collusion and coercive control within the family and community – with maintaining izzat (honour) being deemed the highest priority, instead of maintaining the dignity of the human being. His article aims to reflect upon the notion that apostatic-abuse occurs both in private and public worldwide due to the influences of power involved with this issue.

The definition of “apostate”

An apostate is a term used to describe people who once identified as religious, or with faith, or belief in God, or gods, and now identifies as non-religious. The transition of apostasy is difficult for the individual for a number of reasons, and the example of the Lion King is usually apt in explaining this issue (spoilers follow):

The moment where Mufasa dies, Simba (Mufasa’s son) is blamed for this and is shunned to leave the family home by his uncle Scar, and Scar further directs his hyena-followers to kill Simba. Simba evades the attack and travels across the desert alone and isolated for a considerable amount of time, where he eventually collapses.

The journey of Simba during this moment is similar to the journey of the apostate. The thought that a person can have a different opinion to that of the household can be divisive. For example, public opinion was ideologically divided in the United Kingdom over the recent decision to either remain in or leave the European Union. Having ideological differences on this topic, ruptured the cohesion within society, where family members even stopped talking to each other based on the ideological decision made. These political and ideological differences were used as a rationale by the murderer who sided with leaving the European Union, of Labour MP Jo Cox who sided with remaining in the European Union.

Apostates and their families

Sadly, the act of apostasy, where family members have ideological differences, can cause a similar threat reaction by families and communities towards their family member. When family members are strongly dedicated to the conviction of their ideology, faith, and/or scripture, the assertion of shunning the individual, using violence, and even threatening and causing death can be viable options to maintain the honour of their family home and community, is saddening. This conviction further facilitates an abusive environment to develop within the family and community, with family members silently accepting the abuse as a consequence for holding ideological differences. The reaction of the family members increases the likelihood of the person being isolated and shunned, which further creates an environment suitable for abuse to occur, and in similarity to Simba’s journey, this increases the likelihood of the apostate being left to survive on their own without support from the family that once supported them. The differences in thought and ideology create the dynamic of the family belonging to the in-group, and the apostate being identified in the out-group. This also appears to dehumanise the apostate, labelling them as a traitor to the values held dear by the family and community, thus perceiving abuse as an appropriate and acceptable punishment. The power held against the individual by the family and community increases the likelihood of secrecy and silence towards the harm that may be caused.

Abuses against apostates

The concern currently relates to how society appears to struggle with challenging ideas and beliefs, with origins based in religion, tradition, and culture. Regardless of its origin, however, abuse cannot be tolerated. Abuse is usually about a structural and personal power imbalance. The abuser uses that power as leverage to get the individual to do things, they do not want to do. One can appreciate that abuse of any kind, such as physical, psychological, neglect, and domestic violence, are all means to impede on the life of an individual. The cause for concern grows immensely when family members engage in acts of abuse against their own, and in cases within familial communities where the notion of abuse is hidden. Case studies from the past, such as Victoria Climbie, Shafilea Ahmed, and Surjit and Sarbjit Athwal, provide a rare insight into the damaging consequences of abuse within the family home. Some of the conditions that are similar between these case studies are that families maintained secrecy and a sense of order within the home to ensure the abuse remained hidden. The interesting similarity in these cases is how religion, culture, and/or tradition are used to rationalise the abuse – to maintain the notion of izzat; honour, within the family and community. This consequently creates an environment where the notion of honour is prioritised higher than the notion of humanity. Indeed, abuse cannot be tolerated, and for society to not tolerate such abuse, society needs to become comfortable with Maajid Nawaz’s notion that, “no idea is above scrutiny, and no person is below dignity”. What this means is that we can only challenge this type of abuse by becoming more comfortable with calling-out concerning behaviours and beliefs, regardless of their origin, and by adhering to the view of maintaining the dignity of humanity at all costs. Through this perspective, we can limit the number of vulnerable people that may be victims of such abuse, by not being silent to the abuses occurring behind closed doors.

Two key findings of the study

My recent publication, Apostates as a Hidden Population of Abuse Victims (Parekh & Egan, 2020), was the first research study to identify the worldwide abuses that apostates face within religious households. Two significant issues were found whilst completing the research.

Differences between ex-Muslims and ex-Christians

First, Muslim apostates were more likely than Christian apostates to face abuses in the form of assault (being shoved, pushed), serious assault (being hit, physically hurt, threats of death or injury), and psychological abuse (coercive control, stress, fear). The offenders in cases of apostatic-abuse are usually family members and members of their local community, who are acting under the guise of protecting, preserving and honouring their religion, tradition, and culture. Despite the lower number of people identifying as Muslim apostates in the study, they were significantly more likely to face this level of abuse, which questions the volatility towards apostates within some Muslim households across the world, and raises the wider question of how apostates may be perceived within Islam. The religious scriptures within Islam do not favour the apostate well, how else would a marginalised group cope with people who defect? Sadly, this has been integrated within the legislature of twelve nation-states, where the act of apostasy is still punishable by death, and in seven states where this act is punishable with a prison sentence (Humanists International, 2019; Humanists International, 2020). This shows a link between the way in which the religious scriptures are interpreted, actualised, and how religious sanctions are integrated within the criminal justice systems too. The power held by the state to kill its citizens is a concerning criminological issue; one that I would assert the state should not have, however, what appears to also be concerning is that the notion of human intrigue, inquisition, and intuition, are punishable. How can human beings flourish, if the very nature of being human is open to punishment? The recent case of Mubarak Bala in Nigeria is a testament to the concerns of this study. Enacting blasphemy laws appears to be positively supported as a way of preserving religious, traditional, and cultural values and practices, and by doing so, are perceived as favourable within the religious community. Bala’s post which critiqued Islam on social media was interpreted as insulting to Islam within Nigeria. As such, the full force of the religiously informed criminal justice system has been unhinged in its approach to deny Bala of his basic human rights. But, the power held by such traditionalistic interpretations of Islam, raises considerable concerns for people within a nation-state that may think differently. Cultural rules and values, under the guise of “honour,” are systematically embedded by families and communities to prevent individualisation and the demise of traditional cultural norms held by the parental migrant generation, which causes people to live fearfully within an Orwellian dystopia, enforced by the Sword of Damocles.

Apostates are less likely to report abuse to the police

Second, victims were less likely to inform the local authority of the abuses they were facing. Does this beg the question as to why victims are not reporting their abuse to the police? There are several reasons why victims struggle to report their abuse,  and a selection of the reasons are highlighted here. Firstly, does the police truly understand the extent of apostatic-abuse? Secondly, will the police understand the religious, cultural, and traditional significance of this act of abuse? Thirdly, what are the ramifications for the victim within their family and community if they disclose this abuse, and will this cause further retribution? Fourthly, if the victim is under the age of adulthood, will the police take their claim seriously? Fifthly, does the religious community have a sense of power and influence within society that, can be used against the apostate? Sixthly, if the victim is to report the abuse, will they be shunned from the family? Seventhly, can the victim report the abuse, if by identifying as an apostate, they are likely to be punished instead? The study was able to capture the voices of the victims, and the reasons why they struggled to inform the local authority. What becomes concerning is that, despite being abused, victims are still left powerless. The psychological impact of having one’s family member taking part in abuse for having a difference of perspective is open to severely damaging the victim’s perspective of how the world functions, and if law enforcement remains silent too, then this further increases the levels of helplessness felt by the victim. When victims are left in a state of helplessness, this questions the legitimacy of the state in being able to protect its citizens from harm. The rationale of religion, culture, and tradition appear to be sufficient in extending punishment onto the apostate, and for family members, the community, and even police forces to further their assertion that the apostate might deserve the punishment they receive. How dangerous is it then, for a religious person to question deeply held religious views? This is a pertinent issue that fails to be raised – an apostate was once religious. Hence, if a religious person begins to doubt the teachings of their faith, and this is deemed as insulting, then how do religious people remain safe under such draconian infrastructure? If a religious person starts questioning their faith, and this becomes the catalyst for abuse within the home due to notions of dishonour, then how likely is that religious person to continue questioning their beliefs, or raise alarm to the way they are being treated; especially if they are aware that the local authority is less likely to support them? The responsibility for reporting the abuse should not be solely on the shoulders of the abused. The poignant issue here is to highlight the social structures that are involved to inhibit the victim from being aware that they have the power to report the crimes being committed against them.

How to contrast apostatic-abuse?

So, what do we do when dark things and hidden wrongdoings are concealed by social norms? Apostatic-abuse, by its nature, is usually hidden due to the stigma of dishonouring the family and the community, with members maintaining social norms to protect the moral fibre of its community. The consequences of which, can be truly abhorrent for the apostate, where they might have experienced physical and psychological abuse, to being shunned, excommunicated, to even having their life threatened by people who they believed loved them. When abuse can proliferate under secrecy, this increases the difficulties for local authorities to become aware that such victims exist. The example of how activists in the United Kingdom have worked with local authorities to raise awareness of the damaging effects of forced marriage and female genital mutilation to victims and asserting the need to criminalise abusers is a positive step towards legitimising the effect of these crimes towards victims (Council of Europe, 2017; Raptim, 2018). Following a similar model, internationally, would be advocated towards challenging and supporting victims of apostatic-abuse (Metropolitan Police, 2020; NPCC, 2018; Safe Lives, 2017). This model would act as a catalyst to provide training to organisations within criminal justice systems to support their comprehension of this hidden form of abuse. This may also facilitate conversations with members of parliament to further increase support for this abuse being represented within the legislation. This is not an issue within an isolated geographical location, but a worldwide phenomenon. As such, recognition of this form of abuse for organisations that work to support victims would be influential in gaining insight into the effects apostatic-abuse can cause. This form of action, awareness, and support being provided by agencies of criminal justice systems, may reduce the influence of power that abusers may have on victims, as a result of this crime becoming recognised.

Apostatic-abuse is a crime that is maintained through secrecy, social collusion, and coercive control, to maintain power and control over the individual that decides to think differently from their family and community. Sadly, in some nation-states, this perspective has also been criminalised with legislation even advocating for the death of the individual or imprisonment. This remains a crime that is either hidden within families and communities or is carried out by the state, through blasphemy laws, as a form of appeasing the masses to show the integration of religious law to criminal law. When human beings are restricted to how they can think about issues that are pertinent to them, increases the feelings of closure, censure, and control that are not psychologically healthy for the individual. This article, along with the published research, are the first steps to highlight these issues and starting the conversation of how we can help hidden victims around the world.

References

Council of Europe. (2017). Female Genital Mutilation and Forced Marriage. Accessed on 1st August 2020: https://rm.coe.int/female-genital-mutilation-and-forced-marriage/16807baf8f.

Humanists International. (2019). The Freedom of Thought Report. Accessed on 1st August 2020: https://fot.humanists.international/download-the-report/.

Humanists International. (2020). Humanists at Risk: Action Report 2020. Accessed on 1st August 2020: https://humanists.international/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/3098_Humanists-International_Humanists-at-Risk-Action-Report_Amends-V2_LR.pdf.

Parekh, H., & Egan, V. (2020). Apostates as a hidden population of abuse victims. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, DOI: 10.1177/0886260519898428.

Metropolitan Police. (2020). Operation Limelight. Accessed on 1st August 2020: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/860625/operation_limelight_instructions.pdf.

National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC). (2018). Honour Based Abuse, Forced Marriage and Female Genital Mutilation: a Policing Strategy for England, Wales & Northern Ireland – Eradicating Honour based Abuse, Force Marriage and Female Genital Mutilation Together. Accessed on 1st August 2020: https://www.npcc.police.uk/Publication/Final%20NPCC%20HBA%20strategy%202015%202018December%202015.pdf

Raptim. (2018). 12 NGOs Fighting Against Female Genital Mutilation. Accessed on 1st August 2020: https://www.raptim.org/fighting-against-female-genital-mutilation/.

Safe Lives (2017). Your Choice: ‘honour’-based violence, forced marriage and domestic abuse. Accessed on 1st August 2020: https://safelives.org.uk/sites/default/files/resources/Spotlight%20on%20HBV%20and%20forced%20marriage-web.pdf.

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

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