On Terrorism: Overcoming Your Fear of Words

Words are powerful. Sticks and stones may well break bones but words sow the seeds of doubt, fear, anger and every other emotion that makes people behave in strange and unpleasant ways.

Words with fuzzy meanings that often stay hidden when they shouldn’t and crop up where they are not needed are powerful. These words that no one really knows the meaning of, but that everyone is afraid of are also dangerous. They are the words who grant authority to those who use them and instil fear in those who hear them. There is an unspoken assumption that whoever is brave enough to use them is best suited to confront their consequences and so often we fail to remark when the repercussions of these words are as brutal as the words themselves.

One of these words is terrorism. Few of us really know what terrorism is but we are sure that its gravity is unparalleled. Terrorists are dangerous, evil, soulless monsters. We take no risks with terrorists because they are crazy, their ideology is incomprehensible and they will do anything to anyone with no remorse.

Terrorism, according to google, is the use of unofficial or unauthorised violence for political aims. This is not exactly the apocalyptic description of the clash of civilisations we now associate with the word, but a very accurate description nonetheless. Historically, terrorists have had very little in common in terms of their ideology, their stature during their era or their remaining legacy. Take Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, Mussolini or King Leopold II of Belgium as examples. International heroes, cult heroes or brutal dictators according to history, but all terrorists according to their contemporaries. They all used violence, or the threat of violence, to achieve their political aims as many freedom fighters and/or dictators do.

The words terrorist and terrorism have become so mutated in the media today that we no longer have any idea of when it is appropriate to apply them. A while ago Russell Brand pointed out that if he killed a bunch of people and said it was in the name of Christianity he’d be accused of insanity, not terrorism. Yet Lee Rigby’s murder, the “Sydney Siege” and #Leytonstone have all been blindly considered cases of terrorism which have inevitably propelled a climate of fear, the real victims of which will always be any and everyone who follows Islam.

We are quick to pick up on how crazy these terrorist monsters are but we are slow to have a real conversation about mental health and its effects on these cases. The fact that the family of the perpetrator of the attack in Leytonstone last week had tried to have him sectioned because he was so unwell was a lot slower to catch people’s attention than the relationship he had with his religion. Which of those two elements was more of a driving force in this event?

If you voted for David Cameron in 2010, and I tried to kill you screaming that it was for socialism, would your first thought be that I am a terrorist or that I am insane? A white man in Charleston shoots up a church in the name of white supremacy. Mental health. A white man in Tesco stabs a member of the public in the name of white supremacy. Barely even makes news. Man in a tube station stabs a passenger in the name of Syria, it’s declared a political act within hours and the Prime Minister finds it worthy of saying both the word “ain’t” and “bruv” in one sentence. Sorry, what just happened?

Whether the actions of Sydney’s Man Haron Monis, Lee Rigby’s killer Michael Adebolajo or last week’s perpetrator constitute uses of unofficial/unauthorised violence for political aims is anyone’s guess. Perhaps some were wholly clear in their political aims perhaps others were simply not capable of executing a political agenda due to their mental state. What is truly worrying about the way this situation is being addressed are the actions taken through counter-terrorism with the complicity of the citizens who live in fear of their neighbours because of stories like these being framed as a part of some kind of wider war.

The fear campaign launched by the US media following 9/11 was so intense and so effective that even today 51% of Americans believe that the CIA’s use of torture was justified. The average American is 187 times more likely to starve to death than be killed in a terrorist attack.

The word terrorism has become synonymous with war on ‘our’ soil which invokes a trans-national mesmerising panic. This fear of ‘terrorism’ is so tangible that support for anything being done that ‘keeps people safe’ is seen as a necessity. Fuelling this fear by rushing to place this label on events that may or may not have considered political intention is reckless and manipulative.

This use of a word which at its root is a synonym for horror, alarm, panic, shock or dread is so powerful that governments and intelligence agencies have been using it for years to launch all kinds of agendas from wars to border control. Today, the government program Prevent which civil servants are legally obliged to partake in permits a seriously worrying encroachment on the civil liberties of Muslims in the UK. The fear of something whose actual threat is almost impossible to gauge has led to an aggressive and punitive policy that silences the voices of Muslims all over the country. And all this begins with a word. If we just take this word, analyse it and the context that it’s being used in, we can finally begin to liberate ourselves from the fear that is so often used to acquire our silent compliance.

Please note: this is an edit of an earlier work. The original can be found here.

Is There Room for Black in the Union Jack?

As a Black person in the UK, unfair portrayal in the media, over-policing and a lack of power and representation in the political system can often make it seem as if the Black British identity is a contradiction in terms. Are we a part of Great Britain or are we simply visitors, permanently on the outskirts of ‘real’ British society? As cultures understood to be Black become a part of mainstream British consciousness, from Notting Hill Carnival to grime music, our place in society seems to, at least superficially, have been confirmed. Last night, a group of concerned individuals, four panellists with an audience of around a hundred, sat down to unpick the question: is there room for black in the union jack?

The first step towards understanding Black Britishness involved attempting to converge over a definition of Blackness itself. Beginning aesthetically, the chair challenged the panel to define his own ethnicity. With a mixed heritage from Turkey, Ireland, the Caribbean and more, how can we attempt to categorise him using a term whose meaning is so multifaceted. Surely Blackness is more than the aesthetic of having skin a shade somewhere between caramel and cocoa?

Regardless of your heritage, existing in the UK with skin dark enough for you to be perceived as Black, will result in a shared experience with those from the African diaspora. This of course was another key interpretation of Blackness. It was suggested that all those who come from Africa, whether modern day migration or historically through slavery, can be considered Black. Aesthetically, being North African is not the same as being Sub-Saharan African which can look very different from being Caribbean or African American. Again this would produce a range of experiences of interaction in white spaces. One thing that was not disputed was the idea that Black denotes a collective identity. Those who ascribe to being Black may not share nationalities or skin tones, and we may find huge cultural differences amongst ourselves, but somewhere along the line we’ve all acknowledged that we share Blackness.

The conversation then transformed into a more theoretical approach, based not on shared experience or identity, but on the social and political structures that uphold Blackness. Blackness was invented or imagined prior to the trans-Atlantic slave trade to create a system of hierarchy of humanity, which could defend treating those with black skin as sub-human. Race, it has been thought for some time, is a social construct. A construct to hold in place the divides in a society that contains both Black and white people. When describing the connection between Africa and Blackness, one panellist claimed that blackness was born not on the continent, but on the slave ships. This begs the question: can there be blackness without whiteness? By calling ourselves black, are we subscribing to an identity that was invented by an oppressive white power who developed the term in order to enslave us? In the French language the word négre was the term used to refer to their slaves, it is the root word of négritude, developed by Aimé Césaire in the 20th century. Translated into English it will sometimes read Black and it will sometimes read nigger.

A conversation on ‘political blackness’ as a useful or logical term then ensued as we debated the need for allies versus the need for all Black spaces in pursuit of the emancipation of the Black voice. A comparison to the term “politically female” was used to highlight one panellist’s view that the term was a “non sense” reiterating the connection between Blackness and Africa and referring to the term as the “bastard child of white supremacy”. Joshua, a member of Black Dissidents which is comprised of black and brown activists, rightly pointed out that Africa was drawn out of white imagination, just as blackness was; white supremacy plays a role in the construction of all of these identities. The fear that ‘political blackness’ could lead to spaces in which conversations sub-consciously become focused around the protection of non-Black feelings and even slip into anti-black discourse is a legitimate one born of political experience. Nonetheless, for multiple members of the panel solidarity amongst those that are facing oppression seemed to be a priority. In a global capitalist world, the black bodies that were used as capital to fuel the industrial revolution during the slave trade have been replaced by the black and brown bodies that are currently being exploited in the production of goods that most of us consume today. We rounded off with a quote from Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie who once said “I am not in the business of policing blackness”. We can define ourselves for ourselves without desperately attaching labels to others, which is what I believe we should endeavour to do.

Moving on to the idea of where we may fit into the Union Jack, we dipped into the concept of Great Britain which was built on the empire from which so many Black Brits came. Given the role of Black and brown exploitation and labour in the construction of the empire and hence the ‘greatness’ of Britain, there can be no union jack without Black. The difference is that white British people (in a very limited number of localities) are now faced with Black co-citizens rather than subjects, real human beings in neighbouring houses with equal rights.

This led, for some members of the panel, to a complete rejection of the question rather than a response. Questioning whether there is room lends itself to asking for room, which I wholeheartedly reject the idea of doing. The connections between the UK and the islands and continent that paint my heritage were forged long before my mother arrived at the port. That Black Britishness can exist is no more a point of contention than the existence of Britishness in any form.

The last section of the debate focused on “solutions” or rather, steps forward. As someone tweeted, unless we intend to make some kind of change is there a difference between healthy conversation and idle complaining? The response from the panel was a resounding yes, educating oneself and deepening an understanding of the society around you and your place in it, is always time well spent.

End everything. That was the suggestion put forward by OOMK zine member Fatoume. The system is so destructive and corrupt to the core that it allows for consistent racial abuse, the stripping of the humanity of Black people who are only ever allowed the opportunity to exist in one dimension, never given the space to be a fully-fledged individual. You cannot be Black, mediocre and successful. Black Americans are killed daily by the police force, Black Brits are 8 times more likely than whites to be stop and searched, racism is real and it keeps our bodies in a constant state of fragility.

Interestingly, I came prepared with a host of solutions on how we can better make Britain work for us as Black people and create a brighter future for our children through better education, self-organising, Black produced art, literature, media and so forth. The solution lay in the ethos that we need to make things for ourselves by ourselves in order to build the communities that we live in, so that we can be freer to be the people we want to be and do the things we want to do.

I had forgotten that as Steve Biko stated, and Joshua reminded us, “the most powerful weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed”. We are constantly policing ourselves by reshaping our speech and posture to appear less threatening. We internalise the racist values purported by the society that we grew up in and we manifest this through fear of Black male bodies on dark nights, worshipping thinness, straight hair and other quintessentially white standards of beauty and through the pursuit of wealth that we have been taught is to be valued above all else, even the freedom of those we would call our brothers or sisters.

First and foremost we must liberate our minds. Liberation is knowing both logically and emotionally that the ideology of hierarchy and exploitation that propelled the fusion of the Black and the British is not only inhumane and absurd but it cannot and will not negate your worth as an individual. You are a human being and you, your humanity and your culture are beautiful. The process of unlearning values that are at the foundations of the society you live in may well be unending, but liberation is believing in your own worth and equality and then forgiving yourself for having ever not done so.

I’ll end with a beautiful quote from Somayra Ismailjee: “In a system built to trample upon and exploit our existence, to suppress and deny our humanity, self-love is a revolutionary act. Knowing your own worth is essential to resistance, and recognising your own beauty a meaningful act of defiance.

Thank you to Active Media, Decolonising our Minds and Take Back The City for allowing me the opportunity to share the panel with such great thinkers and beautiful speakers. Thank you to Ramairo, Joshua, Fatoume and Kevin for a fantastic conversation.

The ‘Migrant Crisis’ and Losing My Faith In Humanity

“It is not possible to stop human mobility, if you try to stop it with violence, we are responsible for genocide

Leoluca Orlando, Mayor of Palermo

As a student of global politics, I learned huge amounts about colonialism, imperialism, trade, aid, debt and all the other issues that tend to cause the world’s problems. Above all though, I learned how complicit I was; how complicit we all are in perpetuating the political and economic conditions that allow such huge inequalities to persist, from the way we shop, to the way we eat and the way we travel.

Back then I believed that if we all knew; if we all really understood the damage that the way we lived had on those we couldn’t see, we would immediately radically readjust our way of life in the name of humanity. The Calais ‘migrant crisis’, however, proved me wrong.

Trying, as I do, to understand this world and the people in it, I pictured a scene where a family of desperate people seeking refuge arrive in a village. Do the people of this village a) think for a minute about where’s best for them to stay as there must be somewhere in the entire village that this one family can camp out in, explain the story to the local supermarket and maybe get them sorted out with some food until tomorrow when a longer term plan can be considered. Or b) um and ah about how terrible their plight is but also kind of shrug because you and your neighbours need your spare rooms for storage and their situation is sad but also you don’t really know these people. You might give them some food though, and if you come up with any ideas on how to help them, you will let them know. Or c) do you meet their arrival with rage and indignation, disgusted that they thought it was appropriate to turn up to your village in their hour of need (perhaps because it’s the most affluent village they knew of) and commit to showing as much hostility as possible so ‘their kind’ won’t get the impression they can survive here.

Knowing Britain, I thought option b) was the obvious choice. But no, no this time we’ve decided to do nothing in halves, and I’d say that c) best fits the recent reaction to the migrant crisis we now claim to be facing. Some may say that the difference between my analogy and the current situation is the scale of the arrival of the migrants to temporary camps in Calais. Really? 2000-5000 people between two countries of a combined population 130 million? Yawn, for want of a better word. Around 2000 babies are born every day in England and Wales alone, yet on February 29th headlines do not read “PANIC! POPULATION CRISIS RIFE AS UK TRIES TO COPE WITH 2000 EXTRA HUMANS”.

When my naïve, student self wanted nothing more than for the average citizen to see and understand the connections between our choices and the living conditions of the Chinese labourer or Palestinian child of war, it never occurred to me, not once, the fear that a threat to one’s ‘way of life’ could drum up. Neither did I consider that this fear could grow to such a magnitude and become so palpable that it would override the most basic human emotion of empathy.

Empathy, is all it would take to restore my faith in humanity. A sense of responsibility would simultaneously blow my mind and restore my faith in the education system (almost). When people migrate, they don’t simply pick a spot on a spinning globe (unless they are rich, white and adventurous). The movement of people follows the movement of capital. If we don’t want the migrants, we’ll have to give up the cash too. And if you think all this cash is ours because we earned it fair and square, think again.

migrant threat to wway of life

Regarding this language of a looming threat that these swarms of migrants are supposedly posing, the politics of fear need toning down. As this title suggests, I’m as big a fan of hyperbole as anyone, but when I use such disproportionately dramatic language, I’m usually ridiculed and laughed at. The only fear these speeches incur for me, is the fear that these politicians are actually being taken seriously. Otherwise, I genuinely struggle to understand what it is I am supposed to be terrified of, what daily delights will be torn from me should more people come through the tunnel?

This government’s welfare cuts have made it crystal clear that they are not interested in the well-being of poor, brown people and seem committed to the idea that poor, brown people should have as few links to the state as possible. So if you are already more or less committed to the idea of ignoring the existence of poor, brown people, what difference does it make to you if there are a few more thousands of them? Besides, my recently gentrified area could frankly do with a few more poor, brown people to curb the enthusiasm of culture vultures and property developers who I consider far more of a looming threat to my way of life.

Tammy, Keisha and Kendrick: Black Women’s Liberation and Section 80

Listening to Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly” I couldn’t help agreeing with this writer that the liberation that Kendrick both propels and embodies does not include black women. Nowhere on the record does Kendrick attempt to incorporate the oppression of women into his message or create an alliance between men and women of colour who may interact with societal structures in a similar way. Delving deeper into his catalogue I discovered Section.80, an ode to a generation of crack babies, bastards of the Ronald Reagan era and general fuckups, which confidently includes stories of women from this same milieu. On this album, he intentionally creates a tandem where the tracklist reflects Kendrick’s inclusion of both men and women in his reflection on today’s black millennials.

This enthusiasm to talk about issues that affect women, I met with mixed emotions. Keisha’s Song (Her Pain) was on my top played list, in isolation from the rest of this album, for months before I came across Tammy’s Song (Her Evils) which I listened to with narrowed eyes for a long time before sitting down to write this.

On first listen Tammy’s Song appeared to be a demonization of a woman for showing only a superficial loyalty to the man she claims she rides for whilst being ready to jump into bed with another man should her partner ever betray her (which he does). Worse she finally abandons men altogether instead opting for a same gender relationship. With this understanding, I foolishly almost dismissed the track as even worthy of analysis. However, Kendrick shows far too much empathy for “these vulnerable girls,” and the fact that Tammy and Keisha are such focal characters in the album makes the track as a demonization seem an incomplete analysis. On closer inspection I realised that Kendrick was not rejecting Tammy; he pitied her.

Tammy, a woman who takes knock after knock and finally finds a trouble free relationship, is not celebrated for the qualities she possessed that led her through a journey that seems to have a happy enough ending to me. Instead, her story is represented as an example of a broken society and those who endure it. Ab soul’s take on her story sums up the complete stripping of Tammy’s agency and power as he asks “what if Tammy came across a real man who didn’t play games like children?” My response to which would be, maybe she would’ve ended up in the same happy same-sex relationship that everyone seems to have confused with some kind of inferno on earth?

Kendrick’s apparent commitment to uniting the struggles gave me so much hope, but I couldn’t help but feel, the more I listened to the album, that he still wasn’t quite there. Of all the ‘evils’ that surround a woman’s existence the one you felt most strongly about was a ride or die chick who ends up dating a woman? Really? You think that’s our key, defining issue?

Kendrick’s empathy for the black woman who constantly falls victim to the whims of the men this society has created, forms an important part of his identity on an album that seeks to address the range of ills that the whole generation has experienced. Now, there may well be an element of tragedy in a woman whose life is dominated by failed relationships such that she gives up on finding a true love opting instead for a safe bet. But 1) I don’t think that’s how most women find themselves in relationships with other women, 2) how is this a useful starting point or contribution to understanding the issues that affect women or a black woman’s experience more generally? 3) How can we define these events as reflective of “her evils”, what exactly does Kendrick even mean by this term? Searching for the balance in that thin line between empathy and pity we have to simultaneously consider the structures that restrict Tammy whilst recognising her agency and ability to make independent decisions that best benefit her.

We have to find the balance between holding members of society, and society as a whole, accountable when needs be and stripping women of their agency and power. Women can do things for ourselves by ourselves and we urgently need to move away from the notion a woman who deems that her happiness will not be determined by men or male approval, is too angry/delusional/psychotic. Tammy, as Kendrick’s creation, gives us an insight on the perception of a woman who appears strong, confident with ownership of her own body and who is done with destructive relationships with men. This move is not perceived as empowering, intelligent nor self-loving, it is instead represented as an unfortunate choice made merely out of convenience. Why reject the idea that she is liberated or empowered and view her instead as the victim of whimsical men?

Conversely, I had no real issue with Keisha’s song until I held her story up to Tammy’s. Thinking about agency, power and responsibility, and especially considering Ab Soul’s commentary, the red flags begin to appear. Keisha is a young woman who was abused from the age of 10 before turning to prostitution which eventually seems to lead to her death as she is stabbed to death by her rapist. Ab Soul, reflecting on her fate, asks: what if Keisha was celibate? So whilst Tammy is stripped of her self-determination, Keisha is awarded hers? Perhaps I’m missing something, but the end of prostitution would in no way lead to the end of sexual violence towards women, as prostitutes are not the perpetrators of these crimes. Again, I felt like Kendrick had come so close, but so far to actually adding some positive fuel to the discussion.

After listening to Section.80 so many times I’d lost count, I essentially found I’d come a full circle. Where To Pimp A Butterfly’s black liberation doesn’t mention black women, Section.80’s celebration of the dysfunctional does, but does that mean that it takes any significant steps forward in the representation of women in hip hop? Not really.

Although, Tammy is rebranded from being loud, tough and emotionless, she is still merely represented as collateral damage. Keisha, or Brenda, or Sasha along with the many nameless women who’ve featured in hip hop through the years as useless tragedies make for a decent track, but they are songs which lack in any kind of enlightenment. Honestly, I didn’t need to look as far as the female characters in his work to gauge where Kendrick positions himself in relation to women as tracks like “Hol’ up” say it all. But a song which fantasises about sex with an air hostess (not because he likes her, just because he wants to dominate her and claim ownership to the first class life she represents) and in which he claims “I call a bitch a bitch, a ho a ho, a woman a woman” apparently wasn’t enough for me.

Kendrick Lamar may well be hip hop’s saviour, and maybe even the saviour of a generation of lost black men, but unfortunately, he isn’t mine. Sexism in the music industry isn’t going anywhere and there are so many more subtle ways in which it is embedded in the business, a reflection of the credits alone reveals a glimpse of this. The reality is, I’m not going to stop listening to Section 80, just like I never stopped listening to To Pimp A Butterfly after reading For Harriet’s analysis. The only thing that keeps me sane is knowing that elsewhere on the planet, there are droves of other black women being semi-liberated by Kendrick Lamar with me.

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.

On Gentrification

I won’t lie. The first time I had to queue to get into a bar in Peckham, I was outraged. Despite being from Lewisham and having only discovered the wonders of Peckham in my late teens, as a South London native I felt I deserved an automatic queue jump. When it became evident that I was fuming in vain, I jumped on my high horse (the 436) and rode off to a pub somewhere in Camberwell.

Peckham used to be a typical South London area with a high street that consisted of a Macdonalds, a Primark, a handful of black hair shops and a budget cinema. Over the past five or ten years that very high street has seen huge changes with many locals complaining of influxes of Shoreditch rejects congregating to sample the latest vegan* brunches and vintage fashion. As more and more shops catering to the hipsters and hipsters-in-denial have popped up and rents then have continued to increase Peckham has become the poster child for the gentrification of South London.

While I appreciate the availability of prosecco and proscuitto at a 15 minute walk from my house  my issues with the gentrification of South London run far deeper than frustration at excessive waiting time at a local bar. Growing up in a ‘deprived’ area of the UK, proprietor of the formidable Great British Pound, has always made me hugely sceptical of trickle-down economics. The idea that money that flows into the top will eventually find its way down to those who need it at the bottom is difficult to swallow when your borough has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the capital. Inequality in London is nothing new. Every year millions of tourists descend on the city to wonder at historic architecture, royal palaces and stolen artefacts pouring incomputable amounts into this wonderful city’s economy. Meanwhile, not too far South, overworked GPs and locals must campaign relentlessly to keep our hospitals open, because if not where else will the local stab victims, substance abusers and the mentally unwell be treated?

The deep set resentment that many feel towards the proprietors and customers of these new businesses and inevitably their new neighbours may seem difficult to grasp at first. Some newer residents may feel that if anything they are contributing by paying substantial prices for rent, food and nights out in the area, some who are more in tune may simply feel that they too are humans who need a place to live and have an appreciation of the neighbourhood. Fair enough. But it is worth acknowledging that the failure of trickle-down economics is more difficult to swallow when all you’re asking for is the money to trickle not from the top, but  across from those living on your doorstep. So as money flows into the hands of big landlords and savvy businesspeople who swooped in at just the right time, those outside of this network remain ignored.

Neglected areas are exactly that, they are areas where poorly paid social workers play mother and father to every abandoned or mistreated child (of whom there are plenty) and those with a community spirit spend their lives fighting tooth and nail to keep the community afloat, together. Their lives are made only harder as more money gets thrown forcing them to pay more for everything from rent to coffee.

Of course not every South Londoner is a hero, there are many happy-go-lucky “it’s shit but we love it” types and just as many “we might not have much but we’re a family” locals or even some “it’s not great but it’s all I know” ones. But there’s also an angrier, more bitter kind whose hardships were perhaps not so easy to overcome. Let’s call them the “I hate this place and everything it represents” South Londoner.

Growing up in an area like mine there are a million experiences available to the average teenager that shouldn’t be, from drugs and sex (and hence teen pregnancy) to the emasculating routine of stop and search and equally shameful procedure of getting mugged every other week. Many of those hit the hardest by the real issues of the borough, do not want to be there. Success would be to escape but they are trapped in a cycle of poverty that limits their options and confines them to that oh-so-trendy place. As superficial change  grows exponentially accompanied by that fearless freedom that comes with middle-class options, free to saunter down the street you scurried through as a scared teenager, reminding you once again of everything you never had, so then grows your resentment at still being stuck there.

This is no one’s fault and we are none of us perfect. I myself write this article from a fabulous three bedroom flat in Barcelona were vegan* brunches are advertised in the window of the café a few doors down from me, in an area, I am told, taxi drivers refused to go through prior to the 1992 Olympics, when it was populated predominantly by working class Catalans and immigrants from Pakistan, North Africa and the Middle East. It’s not obvious at first, the art galleries and bike shops that look like art galleries may distract you, but the ghosts of ghettos past are certainly there. Nonetheless, I take comfort in the fact that my awareness of this familiar situation encourages me to engage with the situation by educating myself in order to understand the local socioeconomic situation and contribute to long-standing local businesses that need the support, rather than just creaming off the cool of the area whilst showing no respect to those who must tolerate the high turnover of international hipsters with no interest in learning their language nor exploring their culture.

Gentrification is a reflection of the inequality and injustice that continually festers in our society. In the UK as inequality increases and the homeless are no longer ignored, but instead greeted by spikes at night as a reminder of their problematic existence, hikes in South London rents mean that those who have spent a lifetime in these previously neglected areas are simply being out-priced out of the area and the city alike.

The current issue is not that Peckham has changed. The issue is that Peckham hasn’t changed at all. A boy growing up in Peckham suffers the same hiked probability that he will become somehow become embroiled in violent crime as his counterpart did ten years ago. Despite huge efforts from local councils which have seen tremendous slashes in teen pregnancy statistics, a girl growing up in Peckham is still more likely to fall pregnant before her 20th birthday than a girl based in any other London borough, except neighbouring Lambeth.

I’m sure I was not the only child growing up in a neglected area who at some point experienced a profound epiphany which led to the understanding that actually I was not part of a national community in the way others were. The institutions and structures that govern us do not expect a 100% success rate which for me meant that many of my friends and neighbours would be unfortunately and inevitably among those who fell outside of those structures and would simply be forgotten, whether dead or in jail or just piss poor and angry their whole lives. It’s the realisation that actually not all that many people care about you and you can watch the children of Sweets Way N20 experience it here.

Pushing poverty from post code to post code seems to be a process that continually reproduces itself in society but the ignorance that often accompanies it is an individual choice. Today you can take a pleasant stroll through SE-anywhere, stop for a lovely coffee or maybe some delicious Jamaican food on the way and remain blissfully unaware of the ongoing local issues, from parents battling addiction and their children turning to crime to failing schools and crumbling hospitals.

Although no amount of cocktails and coffee can save our schools or hospitals, nor make the area any safer to grow up in, we can make the most of this transitional phase to learn about the issues faced by our neighbours that the media has consistently failed to communicate. It is easy to bury your head in your smartphone or cross the road at any sign of perceived danger but there is much to be gained by simply doing some research and befriending your neighbour. An area with such different worlds colliding is the perfect opportunity for us to discover the experiences of others and truly understand the fabric of our society, and perhaps then more young people growing up in the area might have the sentiment that someone somewhere noticed their existence.

*It’s actually a real shame that veganism is even associated with irritating hipsters, it’s supposed to be excellent for the environment.