Empire Syndrome: Denial, Delusion and British Relocation

Travelling while black can be exhausting. As a British traveller you are often perceived by Americans, Australians and Europeans as a fellow ‘westerner’ and ally. This, combined perhaps with a complete lack of awareness of what it means to be a diasporic African, can allow people to feel comfortable enough around you to come out with some wildly offensive commentaries. Such comments can range from the mildly problematic to the outrageously racist but almost all of them are truly worth analysing.

I was once speaking with a New Zealander about her prospective relocation to Dubai for a tax free wage that would relieve the financial pressures of living in London, and finally allow her to start saving. She despaired having to adjust to a new culture and worried about things like covering up in the heat and not kissing her boyfriend in public. Her frustration culminated in this sentence: “I get that they want hold on to their religious values and stuff but they need westerners”.

My lips parted as I hoped to articulate some kind of response, but no sound escaped as I stood, dumbfounded. I know nothing about Dubai. But from her description of her life in London, she definitely needed Dubai more than Dubai needed her. The patronising tone behind the words “their religious values and stuff” had me completely floored. To dismiss an entire religion, culture or way of life as if it were small print to the greater story of My Life seemed painfully ignorant and self-involved. The arrogance of this statement marked me. As an immigrant arriving into a country solely to earn a better wage that you have no intention of paying taxes on, how is it possible to still feel such a sense of entitlement?

This brought into sharp focus a term I jokingly came up with years previously to explain some of the equally arrogant and ignorant things I would hear (almost always white) travellers say. The term empire syndrome, I decided, denotes the belief that ‘westerners’ have unparalleled rights to the world because the world has so much to learn from them. Empire syndrome is responsible for phenomena such as the selectively used term ‘expat’ and domestically can be connected to our unforgivably poor treatment of refugees here in the UK. It is the worrying belief, often manifested by British travellers, that there is always some element of contribution in being British abroad. The world needs the English language, British education and good, tolerant, liberal western values and here you are giving it to them! What commendable philanthropy!

The stereotype of the ‘Brit abroad’ as loud, proud and unapologetically ignorant is a label usually tacked onto ‘lads on tour’ type holidays in Spain or Greece that will later be made into a reality TV show. Of course, not all holiday-makers in on the continent are embarrassingly drunk and those who are quietly minding their own business always go unnoticed (indeed, positive stories of working class life, generally, go less reported). But in every brash British holiday maker is the hint of an attitude of “Here! Have my culture! It’s probably better than yours anyway.”

The ‘cultured’ middle classes tend to remain exempt from this label and many travellers whether to India, Peru or Madagascar are indeed polite and respectful in their attitudes and the way they interact with people. But more, in my humble experience, are simply incredibly polite neo-colonialists. These are the people who, with a straight face, will take one cultural norm they’ve ‘discovered’ from siestas to lateness to disregard for traffic signals, to explain why [insert entire state, continent or religion here] will always be behind the west. It is culture, not colonialism, pillage, unfair international trade deals or monopolies on means of production which is at the root of global inequality. How blessed the backwards people are to have you, Mr Neo-colonialist Sir, in their midst.

Academic discourse on foreign direct investment into countries with smaller economies, usually in the case of expansion of international corporations, tends to suggest that it is good a for a country’s economy. It provides jobs, teaches key skills, trains locals for future opportunities and brings in wealthy ‘expats’ who in turn contribute to the local economy. The problem with foreign direct investment, much like colonialism before it, is that it further weaves states who are at a structural disadvantage (because their exports are mainly raw materials and their currencies are weaker) into a global system of capital, built on inequality and exploitation, which will always benefit already wealthy states.

Whilst ‘expats’ who work for multinational companies may be spending money in local economies, they are making much more for themselves and whichever company sent them. Indeed, plantation owners in Guyana two hundred years ago were providing work to Indian indentured labourers, in the same way that most of your favourite high street shops are doing so across China and Bangledesh today. They’re hardly the heroes of history though, are they?

The delusional self-importance of ‘expats’ abroad has never failed to astound me on my travels, and the ignorance around the structures of inequality merely perpetuate it. No matter how poor the wages you pay or how little tax you contribute, the message is clear: the world needs western investment, western values and westerners and you are therefore helping.

The ideology of western cultural superiority reigns supreme, undoubtedly connected to the failure to teach the real and murky history of British travel and exactly what the UK would look like were it not for the empire. Until Brits confront the reality of how enriched this country has become off the very same places that some claim “need westerners” and begin to understand who needs who, empire syndrome will continue to reign and replicate the colonialism of the past.

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Culture for Profit and its Complications

To Pimp a Culture

A few years ago, in Trinidad, I was sitting with a man named Aldrick watching cars go by as the topic of oil came into conversation. Trinidadian oil must bring in a lot of money, I commented. He agreed the oil, the banks and the tourism, that was where the cash lay. “But the tourism I don’t like so much, you know, you start to feel when your country is spread out a certain way for tourists she becomes like a prostitute”. Between oil, banks and tourism I was surprised that what he had highlighted as most problematic for the country were its visitors, but the more I travel and see cultures being sold over and over again to those unfamiliar with it the more his words resonate with me wherever I go.
My family is native to an island not so far from Trinidad, a smaller perhaps even more paradisiacal place it is easily more touristic than T&T. I have been going back and forth to Barbados since I was a child, travelling with and to my family meant that it always felt warm and welcoming to me, home to my own mother, aunties, uncles, grandparents and so forth. Given my love for the place it never surprised me when friends or colleagues would praise it and tell me about the wonderful times they’d had there.

But it wasn’t until I travelled to Barbados without my family, just a few months before meeting Aldrick, and instead with a group of colleagues; two Americans, two Brits, a Rwandan and a Réunionese, that I discovered the welcoming sensation I felt was different from that described to me by tourists with no familial link to the island. Theirs was a well-trained smile that I recognised from years of working in the service industry, one that usually comes with the exchange of cash; a lasting handshake, heavy with the appreciation of custom and of course an island-wide willingness to go the extra mile.

Globally, one happy tourist means revenue and lots of it whilst one drop of tourist blood is expensive, especially in areas where tourism is the number one source of income. Hence travellers are treated with the utmost care, given everything they need and always reminded to come back.

This service industry smile is expected when you take a holiday, you pay for a service and you expect a smile. Most travellers however are also paying for a cultural experience and in a world where what the tourist says goes, that’s just part of the service. At this point things get awkward for me, when am I simply experiencing something new and when am I on the receiving end of a country pimping out its culture?

The examples of forced or insincere depictions of culture for profit are endless, wandering through Edinburgh I wondered if the men in kilts playing their bagpipes would bother if there was no one to take pictures. I was doubtful. In Salvador do Bahia where adult women dress up as the concept of ‘Mama Bahía’ the afrobrazilian woman who embodies the spirit of the Brazilian northeast. Similarly at Maasai Mara after a day of driving around taking pictures of lions and zebra tourists are offered a cultural experience of a traditional Maasai dance to complete ‘the African adventure’.

Often tourism is about giving people what they expect but unfortunately, so often our ideas about foreign countries are outdated, archaic or incredibly narrow. So as the economic need for tourism persists in order to entice tourists the image that is sold is one created by outsiders, for outsiders. Caribbean paradise means white sand and blue sea. In St. Lucia, a volcanic island where sand ranges from black as night to silvery yellow, white sand is imported from neighbouring islands. Here, this is not a cultural exploitation as much as a futile expenditure, white sand does not feel better under your feet, nor make the sea any more soothing. It just looks more like the postcard you are likely to send home.

The black sand beaches of St Vincent.

The black sand beaches of St Vincent.

As I stepped out of an airplane in Nairobi, Kenya last month the wall that guided me to passport control was decorated with paintings of ‘the big five’ wild animals you can find on safari intertwined with silhouette images of opaque  women with a traditionally ‘African’ shape appearing to be dancing or carrying baskets on their heads. My eyes narrowed. Imagining that this was my first trip to Kenya, or even on the continent where it resides, I wondered what my impressions would be. It almost seemed to affirm the stereotypes and preconceived notions of the country before passengers had even legally made it in. Something about it irked me.
This vague sense of suspicion or discomfort I felt at the airport was set aside for the next few weeks as my mind became distracted by beaches and lakes from Mombasa to Zanzibar. However a trip to the National Museum of Tanzania brought it all flooding back as the disappointment I felt cruising through this representation of a nation was overwhelming. As you walk in the first exhibition has a photo of Nyerere, ‘baba wa taifa,’ the first president of Tanzania elected in 1964 and the ‘father of a nation’. Nyerere’s socialist leanings and “villagisation” policies are thought to have deeply shaped the politics of Tanzania that we know today, a largely peaceful and stable country.

As I walk further around the images cease to surprise me and seem only to teach and show me anything about Tanzania that I would have lazily assumed. Spears, beads, recipes from “witch doctors”, portraits of white men who died hundreds of years ago such as the late great explorer David Livingstone, a man who made Tanzania what it is. Then there was my favourite stand of all, the AIDS stall. Despite our image of AIDS-ridden Africa, in reality most travellers in Tanzania will barely come in contact with people living with AIDS, the popular island of Zanzibar has a prevalence of 0.6 % whilst Arusha the biggest town in the Kilimanjaro area has a prevalence of less than 2%. As I became more and more distressed at why a national museum had decided to erect a stand about a disease wondering if I had missed the cancer or cardiovascular section of Catalonia’s history museum, I wondered how long it would take before an Ebola stand was a permanent fixture?
The AIDS stall made me reconsider how I had seen the whole museum, celebrations of ‘baba wa taifa’ then became a reiteration of the old lie that Africa was born in the 1960s after independence, negating centuries of East African history, which at best are referred to in the context of the European invasion as “pre-colonial” if they are ever mentioned at all. Even the language seemed to be lying to me, words like “tribe” and “hunter-gatherer” which were not in any local language but in the language of the coloniser and seemed to serve only in the exoticising of the land’s own people.

Firstly, let me acknowledge that as a British passport holder I do recognise the hypocrisy of complaining about the national museum of a former British colony when more often than not the stolen artefacts of former colonies reside in the British Museum, rather than the areas from which they were looted. But what exhausted me so much about the Museum was that it reflected this tendency not specifically of Tanzania or Tanzanians but of so many cultures within the African diaspora to present ourselves as the other, as the exotic.

Thinking back to these mysterious, faceless black women on the walls of Jomo Kenyatta Airport, it became clearer what had irked me so much. A woman with a big bum and a basket on her head isn’t exotic in Kenya, she’s just a woman (definition of exotic: “foreign, not native, strikingly unusual, unique). Through depicting just a woman as this image which should strike awe and wonder in the viewer, you are not only exoticising the banal but you are also commodifying the black female form. From the opening of the Eiffel Tower in 1889 which saw black women from the colonies stand for days on display with ‘exotic’ fruits around them, to a Taylor Swift video in 2014, the fascination of the black female form has stood the test of time, and black women’s bodies will likely be a commodity for generations to come.

However, objectification of women is just one consequence of culture for profit and the ‘othering’ of oneself. The recent debate on cultural appropriation debate has tackled some of the difficulties in drawing the line between a simple cultural exchange and exploitation. Maybe the scot in his kilt is adamant that tourists will not leave without knowing of the bagpipes that are an essential element of Scottish culture. Perhaps ‘Mama Bahia’ is so proud of her ancestors she wants every passer-by to know her. A recent article on the gentrification of Harlem which tackled the awkwardness in profiting from culture without falling into stereotypes and crude generalisations, asked the question “how do you monetize the cultural experience in a way that remains genuine and authentic?”

I do not believe this is impossible. Culture for profit often means that despite spending a substantial amount of time in a new place, you end up going home with the same stereotypes you came with. You go to morocco with flashbacks of Aladdin lingering in your mind, pay a snake charmer for a photo and leave with the same image that was buried in your brain somewhere before you arrived. This is both yours and the snake charmer’s fault. We as members of the African diaspora must be adamant in defining ourselves not in the context of the European colonisers or slave masters but as beings unto ourselves, and eventually develop a true independence beyond being nations of servers.

But tourism like any industry works on the basis of supply and demand, tourists demand the culture they saw in a film and local businesses supply it. So if we change the demands that we make as tourists we can become better-informed, more open consumers of culture. Don’t go looking for a dark continent full of magic and mysteries as described by Joseph Conrad. Read Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Adichie and expect to find other human beings who like you have a culture that dictates to a large extent their behaviour on a day to day basis. Stop looking for the other and instead look to see yourself reflected in the people you meet, and once you have established those similarities the differences become evident and from there too you can begin to learn of a culture.

NB The National Museum of Tanzania is not 100% bad, I did enjoy the rock art exhibition and the photography of the old East African coast.

Trevor Phillips: A Sacrificial Lamb

As reactions to Trevor Phillips “Things We Won’t Say About Race That Are True” flooded onto the internet, the message seemed clear, he’d missed the mark by miles and played into the hands of the bigots saying exactly what the far right wants to hear and giving them permission to say it. Starting with a brief glance at the Rothschilds and Jewish wealth accumulation Trevor Phillips takes a stroll through our most common stereotypes explaining to us the data that created them before inviting us not to run from them but to embrace our inner racial profiler and quit being afraid of being called racist.

Phillips has been accused of creating a “logically and morally flawed” film reflecting his own “coonery”, only telling half of a more complex story and has generally had his name dragged (further) through the mud by black commentators. Yet, watching it myself, I wasn’t filled with that same sense of anger and disgust. As disappointing as it is to see anyone on television who has an hour to talk about race relations in the UK on prime time television spend a huge chunk churning out old stereotypes without discussing any of the context behind them nor exploring how dangerous they can be and why progressive medias avoid talking about them, there was something incredibly satisfying about watching him do it.

Chimanda Adichie is always the best person to call upon whenever discussing the danger of a single story and her explanation of why stereotypes should always be considered damaging and not helpful, is flawless. Joseph Harker’s article and others that highlighted the press’ basic inability to “report nuance” did well to illustrate that Phillips’ facts may be true but so are a thousand others that he failed to mention which provide a fairer picture.

Nonetheless, I thank Trevor Phillips. This man has made spot the racist a much easier game to play, and that’s exactly what he intended to do. As the ‘it’s political correctness gone mad’ brigade continue to march up and down the country with their chests puffed proud and Nigel Farage soars in popularity under the banner of the voice of the voiceless, we would we be foolish to dismiss or neglect the issue that people do not feel comfortable in expressing their opinions on race in a public space.

I’m sure I was not the only black person to roll their eyes so hard as to induce a headache at the suggestion that the victims in the fight against racism are the gagged borderline racists who have been robbed of their basic freedoms while blacks and Asians can do what they want from beating their children to death to grooming teenage girls. But the fact remains if we silence those borderline racists and refuse to talk about race and racism, we cannot know what we are fighting, and so this silence becomes dangerous as unexpressed racist thoughts fester and those harbouring them become more desperate for a platform where they will be accepted in saying them. Enter Farage and co.

Jesus himself told us we must “know thine enemy”, so as anti-racists we must be committed to knowing and understanding the racist in order to contradict the logic of his or her values. In the UK people are so reluctant to talk about race, that trying to disprove the theories you feel they may be thinking but would never say is a tricky task for anyone pushing for racial equality.

In historian David Starkey’s Newsnight interview of August 2011, he revered one of the most famously racist political speeches in history (Enoch Powell’s rivers of blood) and blamed the riots on black culture and those who have adopted the Jamaican patois that intruded the English language. He was shot down by everyone in the room for interchanging black and white with good and bad and reinforcing a divisive us and them framework while dismissing the possibility of real social economic problems being at the heart of the riot. Yet he was never called out for being a racist. His views were labelled offensive and many articles spoke of him being accused of having racist views, but there was no inquiry, no further analysis and no official action taken. David Starkey is racist. He’s so blatantly racist it floors me how this isn’t a bigger deal. This bizarre hesitation to outright refer to him as such is part of the culture Phillips is talking about in which we are so afraid to talk about race and racism, including calling people racists, that David Starkey has somehow become accepted as the BBC’s rent-a-racist.

Outside of the pockets of diversity in the UK, and even within them at times, it seems there is a definite lack of understanding of what it means to be racist and a failure to have a real and useful conversation about race (see IamOther’s Ryan Hall attempt to do so below). It’s difficult to know for sure because it’s not very well documented as non-ethnic minorities with no experience of diversity are less inclined to write or talk about race. But when I ask you “what did s/he look like” and you feel the need to precede “s/he’s black” with “I’m not being racist but…” we have a problem.

Trevor Phillips’ documentary invites the viewer to a conversation. He invites the viewer to condemn the police for not prioritising stopping crime over appearing racist as well as to shed their guilt over thinking Jews are rich. He also invites us to wonder why a British Guyanese man from London was appointed to decipher the cultural significance of sexual grooming being perpetrated predominantly British Pakistani men from Yorkshire to Derby, and to see the error of our ways for assuming drug crime in Lambeth was a black thing when actually it was the Colombians that were running it. But no one did. The Daily Mail praised his bravery, The Telegraph embraced his inconvenient truths and the Guardian appreciated his mature approach to things. Racists and racist ideas need to be lulled out into the light for us all to see, to identify and to analyse, and fear of being called racist prevents that. If a black man said it first, you’re free to follow.

Perhaps I’m giving him too much credit here but to me it seemed to me that guilt for somehow creating UKIP in his efforts to stifle racist conversation (his interpretation not mine) had led him to a new approach: say all the most inflammatory things and see who fires back with the best questions and responses. Phillips welcomes us to talk about race in Britain. Tick. He paints a two-dimensional picture. Cross. He leaves the third dimension for us fill in. Another tick. It almost seemed like the whole documentary is a test and unfortunately, those that blindly supported him failed miserably, but the point is, at least we know what we’re dealing with now.

If You Love Hip Hop, Buy Some

These past months have seen some classic controversy in hip hop. Azealia Banks, famous for her 2011 hit ‘212’, made headlines once again for attacking superstar Iggy Azalea, adding to a long and drawn out feud the origins of which have never been clear, and in reality aren’t even relevant at this point. The difference was that rather than Iggy coming off as the successful, demure hip hop royalty and Banks as a racist, bitter lunatic, as had previously been the dynamic, some interesting questions were raised this time, largely due to Q-Tip’s 40 tweet long sermon to Iggy about the origins of hip hop as a socially and politically conscious movement born from black oppression.

Let’s be clear, I like that ‘Fancy’ track as well as ‘Work’ and I thank Iggy for good nights out with good friends. But, I can see where Banks is coming from. There are injustices in the world and that’s life, but when you are on the receiving end of these injustices, a shrug just isn’t as cathartic as ripping into an artist who represents the injustices that are holding you back.

It is normal for the public to be more impressed by something that surprises them than something that’s been done before, like for example an angry, black woman ranting about racism versus a skinny white Australian chick who has a decent flow and a bubble butt she knows what to do with. It has a lot to do with marketability and selling an image. We always want something different, something new or fresh, because music moves at the pace of light and audiences get bored quickly. The angry black chick routine has been done, white girls who twerk are the new talk.

In an interview with US radio station Hot 97, where the current battle began, Banks points out that “Iggy Azalea isn’t excellent”. From the few tracks I’ve heard, Iggy’s flow is okay albeit unoriginal, lyrically she is average and her content is pretty reminiscent of every other mainstream artist: sex, money and swag. To me she is a good pop act who raps, she isn’t an excellent hip hop artist. Banks also pointed out that Macklemore’s Grammy award winning album wasn’t better than Drake’s and Macklemore himself believes that Kendrick’s album was better than his. Her point is that quality black artists are routinely overlooked because their white counterparts are easier to sell. Referring to Iggy’s Grammy nomination she says “all that says to white kids is you’re great, you can do whatever you put your mind to” whilst reminding black kids “you don’t have sh*t, you don’t own sh*t, not even the sh*t you created for yourselves.” She has a point.

In hip hop terms the race line ends more or less there, I feel exactly the same way about Iggy Azalea’s ‘Fancy’ as I did about ASAP Rocky’s ‘F***in Problem’ and Wiz Khalifa’s ‘Black and Yellow’. Those songs represent for me the loss of the era during which I fell in love with hip hop, and the numb acceptance that I had to get over it if I were to enjoy a good night out. Being that I was only 16 when Nas’ ‘Hip Hop Is Dead’ album came out, I was too young to believe the best of it was over but too old to pretend the previous five or so years hadn’t already formed my relationship with and my expectations of hip hop. So I quietly retreated into my classics and watched lyricism and quality of content slip down the list of ‘important qualities successful rappers should possess’.

Since this recent drama was unleashed there seems to be a tirade of Iggy haters jumping on the bandwagon desperate to get a cheap shot in. Now Iggy knows better than anyone that haters are gonna hate and being a female in the rap game she also knows sexism better than most. This may explain why she feels her having a vagina is responsible for the negativity because as she points out, Macklemore doesn’t get treated like this. But neither does Macklemore avoid the issue of how his skin colour affects his success and how white privilege affects his country, and besides, Macklemore has definitely received a decent amount of criticism. Is it possible that Iggy, being a female in a male-dominated environment and constantly a victim of sexism because of it, much like a black person in a white dominated environment often held back by the colour of their skin, could be being a little over sensitive on the gender front? Maybe her and Banks have more in common than just a name after all.

The fact is Iggy’s continued refusal to talk about why Banks was really crying on the radio that day (because of the ongoing injustices faced by black people in the US, not because Iggy got to be a pop star and she didn’t) makes her look either ignorant, in denial or just racist. But I’m starting to wonder whether it even matters anymore. Where was all this vehement passion and outrage when Tyga redefined repetition with a track that used the word “rack” in it 30 times? Or when YG repeated “my nigga” so many times that white kids had to start singing along because you can’t just bounce to a track in a club silently for 3 straight minutes. Or when Bow Wow and Soulja Boy had a beef through the mediums of youtube and twitter not once attempting to put pen to paper and lyrically attack their opponents as you would expect two so-called rappers to do. Why are we so determined to keep hip hop in the hands of black people if this is all we intend to do with it?

Iggy Azalea is not the problem. The problem is that hip hop is a commodity and it was sold to the highest bidder somewhere between P Diddy deciding that he could be a rapper and selling millions of records to prove it and 50 cent giving up on making good music after his first album, because flavoured water made him a multi-millionaire. Anything that sells gets made and gets distributed, heavily, from white Australian females with a southern drawl to ignorant black men with no talent or story to tell but a willingness to be any and every stereotype a white audience will pay him to be.

The good news is: it is possible for us to take hip hop back. And by us I don’t mean black people, I mean anyone who really cares about the art and feels more than the vibrations of the beat when they listen to hip hop that relates to their truth. J Cole broke records last year in the first week of his album release because people love him for his lyrical content and dedicated fans actually pay for music sometimes. If J Cole fans were given more Kendricks and more Nas’ we would buy that too! This is the message that we need to be sending to the next generation of artists who are now choosing their styles, deciding what their content is going to focus on and figuring out how they can make a career out of their passion, not if you’re a female stay running between the gym and the surgeon’s office and if you’re a man make sure you have someone around who can verify your gangsta. There is so much innovation and diversity within hip hop, Azealia Banks is just one example of that, and if that’s not your flavour buy Dave East’s ‘Black Rose’, go and see Chance the Rapper live, support the artists you want to see succeed. If you can’t do that for hip hop, do me a favour and sit down and applaud when Iggy wins that Grammy.

Theresa May versus James Dyson and Why Are We Still Having This Conversation?

Home secretary Theresa May plans to expel international students after graduation as a means of controlling immigration. Sir James Dyson, inventor of the Dyson hoover, thinks this is a short term crowd pleaser which will lead to long-term economic decline. Nigel Farage believes the poor level of English of immigrant doctors is “scandolous”. A study by UCL found that in the last 15 years immigrants to the UK have made a net contribution to public finances. Why then are we still having this conversation?

The conversation I am talking about is of course the immigration debate. In the last election the Liberal Democrats didn’t even consider immigration an issue, but this year it seems it is all anyone can talk about. Immigration and benefit fraud are the two biggest non-issues that consistently made headlines in 2014, despite having essentially no negative impact on the economy that they are always accused of destroying. The statistics for benefit fraud speak for themselves. False benefit claims only make up about one sixth of unclaimed benefits. That is to say if all those who were legible for benefits claimed them there would be less money in the kitty than there is now. End of discussion.
BenefitFraud1609
The immigration debate  seems not quite so easy to quash however. A number of studies have shown that immigration has brought a wide range of benefits to both to the British economy and public services but people will not be convinced. Nothing makes this clearer than the rise of Mr One Policy and One Policy Only, Nigel Farage. By focusing on this one issue alone UKIP has gained enough popularity to force every other party to start developing their policies on immigration, with even Ed Miliband claiming it was an issue that Labour was taking very seriously. Interesting because ‘issues’ used to mean problems or concerns, things that we should be thinking about and addressing. I am not concerned about immigration and I do not think it is a problem.
                I feel genuinely confused as to what expectations those who demand changes to immigration policy actually have. Assuming the hope is that some robust policies on immigration will lead to a reduction of the number of immigrants in the country, how then will Britain be so greatly improved? More English will be heard on public transport, less of a language barrier with your doctor or nurse, less queuing at the doctor’s surgery or hospital, more places at the best schools and of course jobs for all!
               The idea that one immigrant gone means one more job for the angry and unemployed (or worse in work and still poor) has been disproved again and again. Those who have made no effort to understand the economics around this and genuinely follow the logic that more immigrants mean less jobs need to do their research. The idea that the NHS could survive without without immigrants is simply incredible, in the literal sense of the word. With a saving of £70 000 on nurses and almost £270 000 on doctors (of whom 26% are indeed immigrants), who arrive already equipped with training that the government then avoids paying for, a 100% British health service would be dire for the financing of the NHS. As for the best schools, inequality within the education system is by no means a product of recent times, although it is worsening as the cuts continue. It is a long held British tradition that those who can pay, do, and generally go on to great things. Our Prime Minister, for example, is a product of Eton College a school established in the 15th Century and which currently costs around £33 000 per academic year. Accessibility to the ‘best schools’ is therefore a difficult topic, private education considered.
              Again, those who do not know must teach themselves, but Theresa May pulling pointless policies out of thin air is only fuelling the ignorance that sustains this conversation. Theresa May knows full well that the lives of the angry and jobless will not be improved by the expulsion of foreign graduates. The same tactic was used on benefit fraud last year, when a law was created to cap benefits at £30 000 per year. The law may not be an issue, but the insinuation was, that there is a problem of people claiming benefits that needed to be addressed immediately. There wasn’t. Refer back to chart if doubtful.
              Continuing the immigration debate is the most transparent manipulation of divide of conquer politics visible today. Brits all over the country feel shortchanged as jobs are scarce, wages are low and everything is more expensive than it used to be. This isn’t the fault or the responsibility of the man or woman next to you, the problem is much, much higher up. The money that you feel is being held from you is not in the hand of the immigrant, he or she does not take your taxes nor cut your public services. The NHS is rife with problems at the moment, cuts to services have resulted in unprecedented shortages and a more urgent need than ever to import cheap labour, at the expense of huge brain drains on other countries. The big issue is not that your doctor’s English is a bit off-key.
               The fact remains that if the government spent more time taxing big businesses and mansions and took less from the National Health Service, the doctors of the NHS, home-grown or not, may have a better chance at doing their jobs to the best of their ability. Owen Jones said it best: “who has caused our country the most problems, the bankers who plunged us into economic disaster, the expenses milking politicians who have the cheek to lecture us on benefit fraud, the wealthy tax-dodgers keeping 25 billion a year from the Exchequer… or Indian nurses and Polish fruit pickers?”

I’ll admit, for me the immigration debate is personal for multiple reasons. As an emigrant who merrily waltzes around the world without facing too much hostility or visa drama, I am well aware of the fact that getting into Britain isn’t nearly as easy as it seems. Frankly, it would be downright hypocritical of me to condemn those with the intention of going to my country and making a better life for myself as I intend to continue doing the same wherever I please. Furthermore, there is so much ignorance around it, I feel frustrated constantly pointing out the obvious.  Britain had an empire. Britain spent centuries spreading the word of this wonderful country introducing its religion and education that every subject was forced to follow. It was so successful in its mission that dozens of countries that most Brits would not be able to locate on a map still learn the language, history and culture of the UK in school whilst worshipping images of Michaelangelo’s Jesus.

The English-speaking Caribbean would still be populated with Arawaks and other indigenous peoples had slavery not happened and Britain not relocated millions of people, who then went on to develop their own languages, customs and culture in their new land. Britain has been so influential in the historical development of so much of the world it makes sense that, in Britain, the rest of the world would have an influence too. You cannot spend centuries convincing millions of people that in Britain lies streets paved with gold and hope that with the advent of airplanes and cheap travel, they will not come and check it out for themselves.

Britain is a country built on the labour and riches of those abroad whether we like to talk about it or not. The luxurious lifestyle that we were so accustumed to and so outraged to have ripped from us, in an economic disaster that most of us had no control over, would never have been possible if it weren’t for its success in trade (aided by the gigantic empire) and cheap labour, whether Caribbean in in the 1960s or Polish in the ’00s. If you want to know what it looks like when immigrants come and take, take, take and give nothing back you should look at the land distribution statistics of Kenya, Zimbabwe or South Africa 50 years ago. A lot of countries are still trying to escape or recover from the crippling systems the bankrupted them and pushed them into poverty during the colonial period. Are we really so heartless as to turn away at the door the citizens of those countries who come only looking for what the UK has always claimed to offer?

 

No, You Are Not Charlie.

As the hunt for the shooters responsible for the attack on the Charlie Hebdo headquarters in Paris yesterday, Said Kouachi and his brother Chérif Kouachi, continues, a one minute silence and 35, 000 strong march in Paris last night demonstrated the unbreakable solidarity felt with those 12 journalists, police officers and visitors who were murdered on what should have been a normal day at the office. Globally they have been mourned; demonstrations in Berlin, London, New York and Montréal have all shown their support for the victims of the attack and the loved ones who are now grieving. It is certainly touching to see how many people can extend their condolences and take the time out to show their sympathy to other human beings they have never known or even known about.

For me however there is a pervading hypocrisy that I have not been able to ignore since the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie first began trending on twitter.

As I understand it, to be Charlie in the wake on this attack on a group of controversial cartoonists is to believe in free speech, and that no one should be punished for printing what they believe, even if it will inevitably offend or anger certain people. This is a sentiment which at its core I wholeheartedly believe in. Last year I remember following Al Jazeera’s #FreeAJStaff campaign as a group of journalists were imprisoned in Egypt for doing their jobs. I often hear tragic stories about journalists killed in their line of duty and as Rafia Zakaria pointed out yesterday over half of the 61 journalists listed by the CPJ as killed for doing their job last year were Muslims fighting extremists. There are few things as important as good journalism which tells the stories and spreads the messages that inform and educate people in order for them to understand the society around them. Often, I struggle to find the kind of brutally honest, agenda-free journalism that I am talking about.

Charlie Hebdo is an incredibly controversial publication that has made a number of enemies since its debut. Despite being branded racist or islamophobic, they continued to print what they deemed honest in a series of cartoons that offended masses of people and was often connected with a growing anti-islamic sentiment among the French public of today. Whether or not you believe that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were acceptable, simply playful, misunderstood, antagonistic, insensitive or downright racist, we all agree that no one should have died as a result of them being printed. But that does not make you Charlie.

In the UK comedians and public figures are constantly going through the rigmarole of saying something they mean or genuinely think is funny, getting in trouble for it, and then being forced to apologise and retract it, from Russell Brand to Jack Whitehall to Jeremy Clarkson. The infamously neutral BBC is constantly losing comedians and reporters to other networks such as Channel 4 or Al Jazeera for being too censored or too politically correct. Can any of their journalists really claim to be Charlie? The vast majority of US media representation of Israel does not leave a shred of space for even the most moderate pro-Palestine voice. Who among them can claim to be Charlie? Those who spend their careers attempting to make heard the issues that the mainstream media, powerful businesses and the political class would rather avoid suffer the biggest paradox in freedom of speech. They have the right to say whatever they like, but never have an audience for their truths. Once you have the crowd’s attention, there’s a script to follow, if you don’t want to follow it there is a queue of people behind you waiting to do so. None of those in it are Charlie.

And there is no obligation for them, or you, to want to be. I can objectively sympathise with the pointless loss of human life and simultaneously admit that I would have never dreamt of printing many of the cartoons I have seen in Charlie Hebdo. Often, if not always, telling your truth is going to upset at least one person, we don’t all agree on everything. By the same token all good things, political correctness included, are effective in their correct doses. Censorship does stifle comedy but if you spend an hour offending everyone in the room, there will be no one left to applaud, like anything it’s about balance. For me, ridiculing a president or a religious leader is not the same as ridiculing an entire religion, especially at a time where many members of that religion are already under attack from so many angles. I am not Charlie.

That is of course not the only reason I had no enthusiasm to join in this hashtag. The innate reluctance I felt at jumping on the bandwagon was later reinforced as more and more islamophobic sentiment became apparent as the day went on (#KillAllMuslims, for example, which was thankfully overrun by those as outraged and disgusted as myself in no time). I then realised that I didn’t want to be Charlie because I didn’t want to pick sides. This attack has nothing to do with me I don’t need to stand in solidarity with one thing in order to condemn another. It’s an unnecessary return the Us vs Them dynamic whose divisive effects I’ve always avoided. If it were simply Cold Blooded Killers versus Those With Sympathy, I would have far fewer reservations, but it never is. First is the sympathy, then the anger and before you know it we’ve declared war again.

If this was indeed the terror attack that it has been made out to be than it was really very well done. Strike Paris. Make a martyr out of ‘Charlie’ who will then become the best-selling symbol of liberty and democracy, erasing any murkiness that ever surrounded the magazine itself. As another terror attack inevitably breeds more islamophobia in a country already struggling to overcome its rise in fascism, create a wider base of young disillusioned Muslims in need of a purpose and a channel for their anger and frustration. Be the organisation that these young people turn to. That’s how you make a terrorist right?

Mike Brown, Eric Garner and Why The British Public Need to Care

Romain Brisbon. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Michael Brown. Trayvon Martin. Mark Duggan. Cameron Tillman. Sean Rigg. Latasha Harlins. Stephen Lawrence. Laquan Macdonald.

Here lie a few names which make up a much longer list of human beings, most of them teenagers, all black, some British, most American, all whose deaths have illustrated the huge flaws in the law enforcement and justice systems that are put in place to protect its citizens. From misunderstandings between neighbours to suspicious deaths in police custody to police brutality gone too far; all of these lives were taken by people who were never aptly punished for their crimes, except that of course of Stephen Lawrence, whose family fought for 17 years to yield a conviction of the teenager’s murderer after he was killed in a racist attack in south-east London in 1993.

In 1997 Tupac rapped “on earth, tell me what a black life’s worth// a bottle of juice is no excuse, the truth hurts” . This was in reference to the murder of Latasha Harlins in 1991, a teenager shot dead by a shopkeeper for appearing to steal a bottle of orange juice. Latasha’s killer was convicted but never sent to prison instead she paid a $500 fine, served 400 hours community service and was put on probation for 5 years. Latasha’s death left a bitter taste in the mouths of many black Americans and the following year the acquittal of the officers responsible for the excessive beating of Rodney King as well as the light sentencing of Latasha’s killer sparked the LA riots which went down in history as some of the worst the US had ever seen.

When asked whether he felt the Michael Dunn case (or the loud music murder) was ‘racial’ or not Grey’s Anatomy actor, Jesse Williams responded “it’s racial because it doesn’t happen to white people” . Let us note firstly that it is not racial because it is the case of a white gunman and a black citizen. Neither was Trayvon Martin’s case about a white male vs a black teenager, George Zimmerman who was acquitted of Trayvon’s murder in 2013 was latino. Latasha Harlins’ killer was Korean, not white. The police officer, who shot 14 year old Cameron Tillman dead in Louisiana this year, was black. This is racial because police brutality only affects the voiceless and marginalised, otherwise the police simply wouldn’t get away with it, and all too often the most marginalised are ethnic minorities and the poor. It’s racial because the justice system seems much more eager to lazily protect the killers of blacks than those of whites. A UK court will not hesitate to jail a black or mixed race teenager for 30 years for the murder of another black teenager, so why so must we wait 17 years in the case of a white killer? These cases have all demonstrated how the law seems more reluctant to protect its minorities than its majorities in a situation that occurs between two citizens. When one of those citizens is a police officer, the odds ae even worse.

In 2011 following the murder of black male Mark Duggan, for which the police officer who shot him was acquitted, riots, which began in Tottenham after protests outside the police station escalated, spread throughout a number of the UK’s major cities. The mainstream British media, leapt to the conclusion that the riots were the result of an unruly generation trying to create an excuse to grab themselves a new plasma TV or pair of Nike air forces. The moment has now arrived for us to attempt to put these riots in their correct context. In 1992, following the cases of Rodney King and Latasha Harlins, there were riots. In 2014 following the death of Michael Brown, there were riots. In 2011, following the death of Mark Duggan, there were riots. Riots clearly inflamed by the economic situation, by the ongoing neglect represented by cuts to social and public services, as well as by the time of year, but riots bred from an injustice just like all the others. Despite initial reports stating that Duggan was holding a gun when he was shot the inquest revealed that the police had shot an unarmed man and yet ruled the killing lawful, punishing none of the officers involved, clearly reflecting a deeper race-related injustice in society.

In the UK and US alike police brutality makes it easier for every young black male to feel personally attacked when Eric Garner, Mark Duggan or Mike Brown lose their lives in such situations. Ask any law abiding black male from a troubled area and he will tell you that he too knows what it feels like to be treated like a criminal. Stopped and searched, stripped of your dignity, assumed to be up to no good. Ask the family of Sean Rigg who died in police custody and whose cause of death has never been revealed if they feel like the police work for them or against them. Frustrated and disenfranchised people use the only power they can think of or muster up to make their voices heard and their anger felt. Injustice breeds civil disobedience. It did in LA in the early 90s, it did in the UK in 2011 and it’s happening today in Ferguson and in New York.

The case of Mark Duggan may be far rarer here in the UK than the seemingly routine shooting of young, black and often unarmed males in the US, but we still face a huge amount of tension between the police and minorities in the UK. The conversation that emerged from the LA riots put the issues faced by the communities who rarely get a chance to speak for themselves, into national dialogue and meant that those who previously had no awareness or reason to care about racism and police brutality and misconduct, could ask the questions that we should always be asking about how our authorities treat the powerless. However, following the riots of 2011 there was almost no public acknowledgement of a need for change and no visible action taken to improve the relationship and trust between black people and the police.

The watershed case of Stephen Lawrence highlighted for the first time for the British public, the institutional racism of the metropolitan police, and while we have witnessed positive change we still have so far to go. From the Brixton riots of 1981 to those of 2011 we see again and again the manifestation of this ongoing and toxic relationship which continues to destroy communities, yet we, the British public refuse to indulge in any conversation about race. It couldn’t possibly be a question of race because we got rid of that with the multiculturalism act, right? Wrong.

Our incredibly biased media that will allow you to believe that in the presence of a black male (and it is more often men than women, although women are of course also affected), you could be in danger. You thus have the right to be afraid or suspicious and if you happen to be a police officer, you may then manifest this fear or distrust through violence towards aforementioned black male. If you are not a member of the police, manifest this fear violently, and we’ll probably still forgive you.

So we can see why Tupac’s lyrics resonate so strongly with black communities on both sides of the pond. What is a black life worth if there is no justice for taking one? Until the IPCC can effectively punish officers for mistreating citizens undeserving of such abuse, black Britons will struggle to find confidence in the police. The problem is simple. The police routinely operate with greater disregard for human life possessed by those whose race or (lack of) riches make him or her, another powerless member of the masses.

If you want to imagine what Eric Garner went through, firstly you can listen to the 14 minute recording that wasn’t sufficient to yield a conviction, and secondly you can watch Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, which in 1989, twenty-five years ago, depicted the breakout of a riot following the death of a black male who is strangled to death by a police officer who initially intervenes to break up a fight. Twenty-five years ago, Spike Lee imagined a scenario to illustrate the effects of police misconduct, its unfairness, its brutality its devastating effect on the local community and yet twenty-five years later we still seem reluctant to heed his lessons so that we can accept and acknowledge the problem and take appropriate action to ensure this never happens again, in the UK and US alike.