Tuesday 17 August 2010

Is it 'cos I is Lewesian?

David James Smith and his family

It’s now just over a week since The Sunday Times published a feature by David James Smith (DJS) about the racism he, his black wife and their mixed-race children have encountered in Lewes since moving to the town in 2005. When I read the feature for the first time, I was indignant at halfway, and laughing so as to avoid crying at the end. I was, in a word, bewildered. It was like nothing I’d read before.

Once I’d collected my thoughts, I tried to summon the equanimity to defend DJS for having had the courage to spark off a thorny debate. We all know there’s still racism (and homophobia, misogyny, etc.) on the streets – and in the suburbs – of Britain, and it’s brave to point a finger at the perpetrators. Then again, having the pluck to start an argument is not inherently valuable, not unless you’re a) addressing the right target and b) making your case effectively and in good faith. I’m content that DJS struck on an interesting concern, and the question “Is racism still a problem in ostensibly tolerant places such as Lewes?” is an important one. The trouble is, he completely wasted his chance.

The feature’s hypothesis – that racism is rife in places usually considered pleasant – is set out at the beginning. The headline “England’s green and prejudiced land” and the standfirst “When our writer moved to Lewes, the BNP neighbour came as a shock, but it was the smaller subtle incidents of racism that most dented his faith” leave us in little doubt about the presumption-shattering endeavour at hand. So far, so intriguing.

So, what’s his evidence? The first exhibit is a former neighbour who, DJS discovered, was a member of the BNP. He names the man and, just for good measure, includes a photo of him. I read on in a state of trepidation, expecting to find out that this person had directed racist abuse at DJS and his family. No such revelations; the only dirt dug about the man is that he had, at some point, anonymously added “poisonous posts” on a racist US website. DJS’s public denouncement of his ex-neighbour is founded on speculation about “him on the other side of the wafer-thin walls that separated our semi-detached homes, spewing out bile on his computer in the small hours”.

Speaking of ‘wafer thin’, is that it? What does the manifestation of this man – regardless of his late night web-browsing habits, imagined or real – tell us about racism in towns like Lewes? Hardly anything. It merely reminds us that BNP members do actually exist, and that some of them exist in average houses in normal towns – not just in council properties on run-down estates in Bradford. No shit. DJS doesn’t even bother to cite Lewes’ general election results (594 votes for the BNP candidate), which would have at least given his anecdote some statistical context. Roughly one in every one-hundred voters in the Lewes constituency supports the BNP – there, I’ve done it for him.

Moving on, exhibit two is bonfire night in Lewes, for which a small group of people from a certain bonfire society dress up as Zulus – which involves ‘blacking-up’. I’ve no desire or grounds on which to defend this practice; it is, like the anti-Catholic rhetoric of bonfire night, outdated, unnecessary and oafish. But the question, again, is what does it tell us about the prevalence of racism in Lewes? Is there broad support in the town for ‘blacking-up’ – which would signal, at least, a worrying reluctance to put others’ feelings before the desire for ritualistic silliness – or would most Lewesians prefer to see it dropped from bonfire night proceedings? Unfortunately, DJS doesn’t seem to have asked around. [Sigh.]

So, he’s ticked off community (BNP ex-neighbour) and culture (bonfire night); next up, education. DJS describes how, having installed his kids at local schools, they become victims of racial prejudice. In the first instance: “Our eldest daughter’s dance teacher at the local secondary school also used the word ‘coloured’ to describe black people,” and in the second: “Mackenzie [DJS’s son] came home from school with the news that a mother had confronted him in the playground after school with an account that he had hurt her son,” which “We saw… in clear terms: a white woman’s perception of the tough little black/mixed-race kid who could do with a reprimand and was not to be believed.” Why clear terms? DJS states his conclusion as though it’s the natural one, self-evident to all. But it’s not. Was the mother in question being (excessively) protective of her child because she believed the boy who hit him was mixed-race? We’ll never know because DJS doesn’t grant the woman the right of reply.

On another occasion, a teacher grabs and yanks Mackenzie. Again, DJS makes the assumption that this happened because his son was mixed-race, and again, we don’t get to hear the teacher’s side of the story. The final example of “racism” at his children’s school is another one-sided account; a (different) teacher draws attention to his daughter’s hair: “The teacher turned to a colleague, making a big circle with her hands to exaggerate the Afro, laughing and saying it had been ‘all frizzy’ last week.”

Second-hand, one-sided tales from the schoolyard aren’t, I feel, the firmest or fairest type of evidence. Equally, though, I’ve no reason to doubt DJS when he tells us his kids were upset when these events happened. The image of a slighted child’s sad face is a powerful one, but the arena of debate is no place for sentimentality. What I want to know is whether the aforementioned happenings provide proof of racism and, if so, whether they indicate that racism is endemic in Lewes.

On the first point, DJS provides an answer of sorts. He recognises that the incidents he’s described do not constitute racist abuse of the traditional brand; they are, instead, “micro-aggressions” – smaller, less-overt specks of prejudice that add up to a hurtful smear. Here, he is using a term from a US academic discipline called Critical Race Theory, according to which “race is the centre of everything” and “negative perceptions about black people remain part of our daily lives”. Sadly, that’s about all that DJS tells us about Critical Race Theory. For one suspenseful moment, he tempts us with a morsel of meaty theoretical stuff… with citations and everything… No, it couldn’t last.

My initial reaction to the theory about “micro-aggressions” is that it’s interesting, and I’d like to know more about it. But I’m worried that it’s an idea that could easily be misapplied to instances where the “micro-aggressor” did not intend to cause harm. Were the teacher who described DJS’s daughter’s hair as “frizzy” and the child who described his son’s nostrils as “big” being aggressive? No, they were being insensitive. The distinction between aggression and insensitivity is an important one, containing within it the question of intent. Using a term implying deliberate violence, dubiously, to describe unwitting faux-pas, serves only to accuse, eliciting defensiveness, and does nothing to encourage empathetic behaviour.

Perhaps that’s the main problem here: DJS isn’t interested in making us weigh our words and actions more carefully. He just wants to pick a fight; he’s out to avenge the wrongs inflicted on his family – a journalist doing a vigilante’s job. Even when it seems he’s being nice about Lewes folk – conceding that there are some “decent, ordinary [and] accepting” people in the town – it’s stingingly conditional: “It is probably no coincidence, though, that our friends [in Lewes] are almost all ex-Londoners.” (I took this particularly badly because I’ve lived in Lewes for five years and grew up in a village that’s a walkable distance away, so I’ve little choice but to consider myself a ‘local’.) Who’s the one feeling like a victim of prejudice now? Yes, ‘tis I.

Enough, enough; I must draw this to a close. Almost every one of DJS’s anecdotes warrants, if not repudiation, then at least a paragraph of calm reflection… but I can’t go on, I’m running out of space and energy. He concludes the piece with yet more on education, telling us how a school in Brixton is getting brilliant results from its students by employing a draconian regime. At this point, it’s as though he loses his thread completely, launching into a long digression about the virtues of ultra-dictatorial schooling techniques: “Pupils move from class to class in total silence… they are not allowed to form groups of more than six… [they] line up in single file.” By this stage, DJS’s original question, “Is racism a lurking menace in pleasant-seeming places” is so utterly and blithely abandoned that it’s as though he’s given up on journalism completely, in favour of becoming a demonic headmaster. His dreamy conclusion imagines the paradisial school in Brixton magically wafting its way to Lewes and curing us all, by means of silent reading in small groups, of our narrow-minded, mono-racial despicableness.

For several days, I struggled to come to terms with DJS’s feature. I couldn’t understand how a national newspaper editor had deemed it appropriate for publication. Was I protesting too much, out of jealousy or repressed prejudice? All I knew was that I couldn’t put my astonishment into words (and, evidently, I’m still unable to write a concise blog post about the piece). Thankfully, a couple of friends I spoke to last week – both of whom are Lewesians, one a teacher, the other a journalist – were more succinct than I have been able, so I conclude with their comments. One recalled finding the feature so ridiculous that he’d thought it was a spoof. The other decided that it could, after all, serve an educational function: “If I were teaching journalism students how not to write a feature, this would be my set text. I’d challenge them to identify, say, 50 things wrong with it.”

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