Filed under: Personal
It say’s a lot, I think, about the general banality of political culture in the UK that you really have to hang it out there and take risks just to try an get people to think about what they see, read, listen to and watch.
Yes, I produce an image parodying the Tories recent ‘Tosser’ Campaign that has proved to be controversial – not because the image itself is that controversial but because it was reposted to his own blog by a Labour Councillor, who understood quite a lot about what the image was driving at, and then used, by people who didn’t, as a stick to beat him with for their own political advantage.
Fucking depressing isn’t it – one more topic joins the long list on which its seemingly impossible to make a challenging statement or ask difficult questions without it all degenerating into a dick-swinging contest.
Just think for a minute of all the different things its nigh on impossible to debate rationally, without the politicos taking over and using it as a point-scoring contest to show who’s best at sucking up to the tabloid press?
How about the ‘war on drugs’?
There’s a fair old body of opinion out in the real world that takes the view that maybe legalising some, or even all drugs, might just turn out to be the lesser of two evils, that while no one really wants to see people fucking up their lives through drug addiction, many of worst ills that drugs bring, particularly in terms of crime, and especially organised crime, might be better tackled if we remove the one thing that feeds their profits and incentivises the drugs trade more than anything else – prohibition.
It an argument that may have merit, if only we were ever allowed to hear it, But the mere mention of even talking about legalising drugs send the tabloids in spasms of indignation, the political pissing contest kicks of, with everyone claiming that everyone else is ‘soft on crime’ and the debate goes nowhere, entirely drowned out by the very people who should, more than anyone else, be leading this debate and considering what it might have to offer.
Any while politicians fall over themselves to pander to the tabloids and wave their ‘I’m tougher on crime than you are’ credentials at each other, people die on Britain’s streets because of badly-cut smack, homes are burgled and people mugged to pay for drug habits that could be treated by rehab, and the drug barons get richer, and richer, and richer…
Our blind adherence to the ‘tough on crime’ credo is even, right now, putting the lives of British servicemen at risk in a foreign land, Afghanistan.
This is not difficult to figure out.
For many Afghani farmers, the only cash crop they can grow that gives then a living income is opium. These are people whose hearts and minds we should have been winning over to ‘our side’, but instead we go in there and start torching their sole livelihood and means of making ends meet – or rather we carry on doing that, as before we through them out, the Taliban were doing the same thing (at the West’s instigation), and the rest, as they say is history. A quick volte face from the Taliban, who now just lurve heroin because it both wins them the hearts and minds of the farmer’s whose fields we’ve been merrily burning and finances their arms expenditure, and whoops! Before you know it the Taliban are back, they’re bad and they’re gaining more support than ever.
And the few bright sparks who popped up to point out that this is exactly what would happen if we went all slash and burn on their fields without providing an alternative means of earning a living and that maybe we’d be better off buying their opium for pharmaceutical use and not torching it? Well they we quickly silenced, weren’t they, because is part of the ‘war on drugs’ and that means that you have to be ‘tough on crime’ – but not so tough on this particular cause of crime it seems.
One can see the same thing in so many other debates. A senior Police officer publicly pilloried in the media for daring to suggest that the word ‘paedophile’ refers specifically to adults with a sexual interest in prepubescent children – which is both its literal and ‘professional’ meaning within the field of psychology – and not to anyone and everyone who has sex with someone under the legal age of consent (16). The Times, of all papers, actually ran a poll asking whether it was right for Police officer to suggest that not all instances of underage sex are actually acts of ‘paedophilia’, even though they could have got the answer out of a dictionary.
Israel? Palestine? Don’t even try to go there. Each side has its own official narrative in which they’re the squeaky clean good guys (and victims) and the other side the evil villainous fascists, and any suggestion that maybe, in the real world, things aren’t quite so clear or straightforward is leapt upon immediately from both directions. That whole debate must surely be unique – the only debate in which is possible to be both anti-Semitic and Islamophobic at the same time, just for suggesting that neither side is absolutely perfect.
All of which brings me on to the subject of race, ethnicity and identity – and that image of course, which looks like this?
Is it racist, as some allege? Is it offensive? Ill-conceived? Just plain dumb?
And if it’s any of those things, in your opinion, then why?
That’s one of the most interesting, and not entirely unexpected things to emerge out of all this, the apparent inability of those complaining about that image to articulate their complaint in an meaningful sense – the basic presumption seems to be that merely having an opinion is sufficient to merit action being taken, without any effort whatsoever to explain, justify or validate that opinion.
The genesis of that image is not racism – I’ve been involved in anti-racist activism for more than 20 years on and off – but sheer frustration with the depressing state of public and official dialogue surrounding issues of race, ethnicity and identity. Yes, for my new found Tory fans, this is a lefty who’s thoroughly pissed off with the whole state of the ‘race relations industry’ in this country, and more pissed off than most because its something I’ve seen at work, up close and personal, good and bad, for a hell of a long-time.
I’m sick of the bullshit. Sick of the artificial taboos, the lines that no one dare cross for fear of causing offence, even if one is self-evidently capable of debating difficult and challenging issues with confidence and in their proper context. I’m sick of people relying on political correctness and trite euphemisms, by far the worst of which is “The ‘N’ word’ to cover their arses because they’re either too stupid to understand the real issues or too scared of inadvertently offending the stupid by saying something that might just be a bit controversial.
I’m sick of a system that for all its good intentions and all the good work that individuals within it do, is too often let down by its own intellectual dishonesty and inability to deal with the realities of racism.
I’m sick of the double standards and the hypocrisy, of dealing with too few honest, genuine people and far too many sanctimonious arseholes.
What I’m into is equality. Genuine, honest-to-goodness treat everyone the same equality, not the kind of ‘some people are a bit more equal than others because they’ve been oppressed in the past’ equality that some seem content to peddle under the guise of ‘promoting good race relations’.
Some of the responses I’ve had in the last day or two are just ridiculous?
It’s offensive. Why? Because it offends black people? Why? …… (no reply).
What is this, some kind of conditioned Pavlovian response? We’re all dogs that should yap and drool when someone rings the right (or wrong) bell? Can no one think for themselves anymore and articulate a coherent argument.
I mean FFS, the image plays with Blackface, the stereotype of the ‘Nigger Minstrel’ – I couldn’t have thrown you all an easier bone to gnaw on and yet no one would come right out and say, “it’s offensive, because…”. Jeebus, if you’re that short of an argument there’s a page on Wikipedia that explains it all for you.
Oh, and while we’re on that subject, how many people are aware that as well as Blackface, there are old theatrical traditions that take in Yellowface (oriental), Brownface (Indian, which most might recognise, but also Hispanic), Redface (Native American) and even Whiteface (not in the context of clowns but as is black performers singing ‘white’ songs in white pancake make-up – Arthur ‘Dooley’ Wilson, who played Sam in Casablanca, got his nickname from his signature tune, an Irish song called ‘Mr Dooley’ which he performed in Whiteface)?
How many people have noticed just how often Blackface is used in Tom and Jerry cartoons when a character gets blown-up – even if Boomerang are starting to edit out some instances in which its used, albeit inconsistently? What do you say if you’re watching TV with your kids and that comes on? Oh no, don’t look its racist, or Ha-ha the cat got it again?
Or maybe you look at that in context, think about how old many of the cartoons are and how they belong to a different era with different sensibilities, so maybe you’ll just let it pass.
Blackface is a cultural artefact, one with racist origins certainly but also with context – and context is what this is all about.
The image says nothing at all about Black people, or what it means to be Black – which is why everything in the image is fake. Completely artificial from start to finish, from beginning to end.
It’s been suggested that the references to ‘Homeboy’, ‘Niggahs’ and ‘Is it because I’s Black?’ were somehow putting words into Cameron’s mouth and suggesting he might stoop to saying such things. Of course he wouldn’t – I don’t think he’s that stupid and even if he were, someone would manage to stop him before he dropped such an obvious bullock. But then but for the last ‘remark’ which is a direct reference to Ali G (and a clue that this is about fakery) I have seen white people talk to Black youths and refer to them as ‘Homeboy’ and even ‘Nigga’ in the mistaken belief that they were somehow ‘talking their language’, ‘relating to them’ and ‘trying to engage with them’ - talk about making you fucking cringe when you see it as well, I just stick to hello and take it from there.
Why do some people make such idiotic mistakes? Because show them a Black youth and what they see is a stereotype, not a real person – and you have no idea how much I fucking hate that kind of thing.
The image plays around with a stereotype to show just how absurd and ridiculous stereotypes are and does so in a way that risks causing offence to some Black people as a price of almost certainly offending some Tories.
Because – and this is my opinion – the stereotypical orange permatanned wideboy used in the original ‘Tosser’ campaign is no less absurd, ridiculous and, to some, offensive – but then no one cared about that stereotype did they? All they were concerned with was whether ‘tosser’ is offensive.
I also chose Cameron, knowing that a few Tories would squeal and cry foul. I could just as easily have used Blair, with the same intent but with lesser effect – both are completely remote from the world I’m talking about. Bit of hint, guys – If every hospital you visit in your job smells of fresh paint, then you don’t live in the real world.
Its situations like these where the public discourse around race, ethnicity and identity descends into hypocrisy, if not outright farce. It’s okay to play with some stereotypes – to label poor, white, working class people as chavs and wideboys and have a damn good laugh, but chuck in a stereotype relating to a Black minority community and the knives are out straight away and the machinery of the race relations industry swings into action to demand that ‘something must be done’.
Unlike a lot of people who consider themselves to be anti-racist activists, I’ve spent most of my time working in white, working class communities – you know, that’s the place where the racism is, not the offices of the local authority, and I’ve seen first hand just how this kind of hypocrisy impacts on those communities, how it creates a sense of injustice (real or imagined) and a feeling that equality isn’t something for them, its just for Black people.
It isn’t, and I’ve never believed that, but you try telling that to someone who’s derided for being a pig ignorant white chav and has to just sit there and take it, because no one give a toss whether they’re made a figure of fun or exposed to public derision, and yet at the first hint of a slur on someone from a Black community, people are seen to crawling all over the situation to right a terrible wrong. Is it any wonder, that some of these people start listening to the messages put out by the likes of the BNP and start swallowing all their crap about how the country is being ‘taken over by foreigners’.
When was the last time you saw the CRE complain about an offensive white stereotype, other than when nationalism came into it and the complainant was something like Welsh, or Scottish? When did you last see a race equality body out working on a mainly white council estate? And if you have seen one doing that, or work for one that does it, please say so – I know of a few that could learn something useful from you!
Sorry, but if you got the idea into your head that being White and English means that you’re somehow automatically privileged and part of the dominant power elite in society then you haven’t been to a fucking council estate in a long time, if ever. Poor and powerless is poor and powerless no matter where you’re from or what your ethnic background might be.
So I took an image that I knew would rankle, added a few sarky comments, put it up and let it swing for a while, expecting that any blowback would come to only one place – here. I honestly thought that anyone else would else would think the image too hot to touch, and forgot in doing so, about people like Bob Piper who are smart enough to understand the nuances of the images, understand what I was up to and supportive enough to try and pull with me on this.
That’s the one thing I regret here, that Bob’s good intentions dragged him into this and have caused him problems that he doesn’t deserve and would not even have had were he not a Labour councillor – make no mistake this has only become a media ‘issue’ because of Bob’s public office, had he not reposted the image, this would have stayed safely online as a debate between bloggers, which is where it was intended to stay.
Why didn’t I say any of this in the first place, you might think? Perhaps if I’d have explained from the outset, then it would have kicked off like this?
Well that rather misses the point, because one of the real problems of this kind of debate is that people too often respond in a fashion that reflects how they want to be, and be seen, and not how they really are. If you explain what you’re about then many people don’t react naturally or honestly, they react in a way that they think puts them in a good light. They don’t say ‘that’s offensive’, they say ‘ah, I see what you’re doing’ and you lose the authenticity of the reaction. And without that authenticity it becomes impossible to drive the point home and shake people preconceptions about how they see the world.
Sometimes a shock is necessary to wake people up and make them think.
So, I’m not going to apologise for shocking a few people or even offending one or two along the way – if you thought, or even still think, that the image is racist then good for you, just try to think about why you see it that way. Is it because you thought about it or are you just buying in to a narrative promoted by others?
Actually, scratch that, slightly – there is one person who’s commented here who does deserve an apology for the offence caused, one that would have been forthcoming a little sooner had she not gone for insufferably smug in her remarks, and that’s Morag the Mindbender who, if she is, indeed, who the information left behind here when she commented suggest she is, has rather more cause than most to consider the Blackface image as being offensive. I’m not going to reveal anything more about her identity, but my understanding is that she has spent a considerable amount of time, in the past, living in the United States, where the cultural and historical connotations of Blackface are considerable more marked, more recent and much closer to the surface of the debate around race, ethnicity and identity. Writing for a primarily UK audience, one forgets that some cultural artefacts that appear remote enough to be played with reasonably safely on this side of the pond (and there is always a modicum of risk, anyway) are not quite so remote to those who lived in or are from the US – an omission that stems from my own Anglo-centric perspective, as I’m talking here about the public discourse in the UK and not the US.
And that’s part one – and I’ve got to go do a few family things now. Part 2, which expands on some of the themes here will be along later.
This work is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 England & Wales License.
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