Weaponising victimhood

Trevor Phillips once said to me – only half joking – that newspapers should have identity correspondents, just as they have economics or environment correspondents. Certainly there appears to be an inexhaustible appetite on the part of media outlets for stories that focus on social divisions, real or imagined. Usually these are framed as moral parables featuring virtuous victims, usually female, ethnic minority or gay, and contemptible wrong-doers who are male, white or straight. Sometimes the perpetrator is institutional – often, as with the Windrush generation controversy, the British state itself.

The common denominator with all these stories is the simplistic conclusions that we are supposed to draw. Men are beasts. Whites are oppressors. Britain is bad.

There are many other incidents of mistreatment or conflict in our society that never make headlines because they don’t feed these narratives. A trivial dispute between neighbours; an act of unkindness by a shop keeper; a sick joke by a colleague – all bad but hardly worthy of general concern. Unless there is a ‘social justice’ angle that can be divined (or manufactured), no one else gets involved.

Even where there are genuine problems or injustices worthy of wider attention, the true essence of the issue is often obscured, sometimes willfully, because some politically motivated people are determined to recast it in accordance with their agendas.

Recently there was an awful incident at Nottingham Trent University involving a young black female student called Rufaro Chisango who made a recording, whilst in her bedroom in a hall of residence, of drunken fellow students yelling racist taunts in the corridor. The dormitory manager was initially slow to respond but the University acted swiftly once she posted a video on social media and it went viral. National newspapers got involved and there was a massive outpouring of sympathy.

A lot of people then tried to claim that the incident proved that racism is rife in higher education. But is it?  Even if there were a dozen groups acting like this in universities each year, it would still be a tiny percent of the entire student population. It is not news that people can be really horrible to each other, even well educated university students but it’s certainly not the experience of most ethnic minority Britons or foreign born students that they experience this sort of behaviour regularly, if at all, at university.

By and large, most young people are pretty tolerant and positive about diversity. People do insult each other racially, usually behind each other’s backs (and of course ethnic minorities can be racist in this sense too – I know Asian friends who laugh at ‘goras’) but it’s not commonplace and much of it is jocular, even if in bad taste. The evidence from a recent NatCen survey shows that just one per cent of the country admit to being “very prejudiced” against other groups and most of these are older (24 per cent admit to being “a little prejudiced” but invariably when this survey is mentioned the two figures are rolled together and it is reported that 25 per cent admit to being prejudiced).

I suspect that many young people have become so inured to anti-racist education in schools and colleges, that they have come to see PC as an ironic joke in itself, like calling someone ‘gay’ as an insult. The kind of laddish, offensive comments that young people sometimes make should also been seen in the context of hyper sensitivity around language – a lot of young people rebel against taboos almost as a matter of course. That doesn’t make it right but it suggests something else is going on.

The second story which was framed to make us believe that Britain was a racist cesspit was the Windrush scandal. The Government’s attempt to impose a hostile environment on illegal immigrants inadvertently caught a small group of older people of Caribbean heritage who had not needed papers when they first arrived in Britain as they were deemed citizens in the first place (and all Commonwealth citizens in the UK had been granted indefinite leave to remain in 1971). The state’s bureaucracy didn’t treat them with care or make the presumption of innocence usually afforded to citizens. Their experiences were deeply distressing and were the fault of officials working under a badly designed process; a process that should have been more sensitive to these historic groups who might struggle to prove their status. 

But was this really about race as many commentators have judged? Stories exist of foreign-born white people experiencing a similar level of Kafka-esque misery at the hands of the Home Office, and the top three countries for forced deportation are all white European: Romania, Albania and Poland. The real lesson is not one of racism, as in the deliberate targeting of ethnic minority groups, rather it is that the process of immigration enforcement needs to be improved.

Unless one believes that any constraint on illegal immigration is inherently racist then some kind of ‘hostile environment’ for illegal immigrants is inevitable. Obviously, being an ethnic minority (in the sense of your parents or grandparents originally being from another country) means a greater risk of being affected. But this is a question about citizens and non-citizens, and how the state should police the distinction. 

None of this is morally clear-cut, but there is a lazy instinct on the part of some commentators to put Britain in the stocks and throw rotten fruit. This agenda is not driven by immigrants themselves, most of whom – Windrush nothwithstanding – have a broadly positive story to tell about their experiences of Britain and can at least speak with a sense of balance and perspective.

Rather it is driven by people who are acting according to a political agenda, who want to seek out and seize upon any instance of racism as proof that Britain (and the British people) are stuck in some neo-imperialistic mindset. They claim to act on behalf of the underprivileged and yet despise the attitudes of those working class people (white and ethnic) who express concern about issues like illegal immigration. I don’t doubt that some are well intentioned, but some seem to be more driven by their own prejudices than the reality of people’s lives. 

 

Portraits of our mothers

I recently visited the newly opened photograph exhibition “Devotion: A Portrait of Loretta” at Autograph ABP in Rivington Place, east London.

Over a number of years, the artist, Franklyn Rodgers, photographed his mother Loretta and her close circle of friends, building up an extraordinary series of large-scale portraits. The size and grandiosity of the works combine with a remarkable intimacy, achieved by the artist’s close relationships with these women. They are portraits which reveal defiance, strength, vulnerability, pleasure and layers of personal history. These are women of the Windrush generation, but they are also a son’s view of them, and that relationship of love, adoration and fear is writ large across the walls.
It is fascinating to see “ordinary” people treated as historic subjects – on the scale of eighteenth century history paintings, and it is powerfully moving. We often think of the Windrush generation as they appeared in those black and white photographs in their porkpie hats and smart Sunday suits, but they grew up, had families and continued their histories for many years afterwards. For us to look at these photographs is a potent reminder that the world changes with them and we must too.
The show is paired with another exhibition upstairs – Marcia Michael “I Am Now You – Mother”. Michael’s photographs of her mother and herself are graphically intimate and at times uncomfortable to view. The closeness and nakedness is disturbing in such a small space, yet, it is also a familiar child-parent relationship. You can feel her same feelings of connection and searching in the past, yet, remaining trapped in the present. This is a visual essay on matrilineal history, but also an immigrant child’s yearning to find an identity in family and country. Like Rodgers’ portraits, it touches a raw nerve and is very much worth seeing. Both artists capture something of the complexity of second generation identity and the mix of emotions we share.
Both free and open till 7th July 2018.
http://autograph-abp.co.uk/ 
 Image: Franklyn Rodgers, Loretta Rodgers, 31 January 2006

Artists4Brexit: Response to Matthew Parris

It has long been a curatorial fantasy of mine to organise a re-staging of a boxing match that took place in 1972 between the German artist Joseph Beuys, regarded as a giant of modern art, with a local art student of his.