Tag Archives: fear

One Helluva Friday

Friday was the end of a long, hard week that saw me stifling tears (unsucessfully) in the middle of Clapham Junction station after a racist encounter.

Meanwhile, on a train to Liverpool the poet, editor and activist Siana Bangura was racially abused and physically attacked while fellow commuters stood by.

A few months ago a female friend of mine was punched in the face in front of her young child in a racially motivated attack on the way home from church. Passers-by stood by.

I hear more and more from my (particularly black female) friends that they are having racist encounters, some more threatening than others, many for the first time though they have lived in this country for years. Siana and my friend (and so many others) were told to “Go Home”.

The blame for these behaviours lies squarely with the racist individuals concerned. But, context: When the government puts this phrase on vans and posters; when ministers make rhetorical riffs on the theme for political gain and the media uses dehumanising language about people of colour and migrants – it creates a context of permissiveness. It says that your racist feelings are legitimate even if your actions are illegal and possibly socially unacceptable. I say possibly because in too many incidents people stand by, which is what happened in Siana’s case and that of my friend. It makes me wonder.

What happened to me on Friday was not comparable but I will say this: I felt a sensation that was new to me.

Fear. Usually I feel like I can hold my own, but that day I felt isolated and unsure.

I was accused of trying to steal a woman’s handbag in Superdrug. I think she felt I stood too close to her in one of the aisles because as I selected my product she started to mutter under her breath. I didn’t think much of it, though I did hear her say something about “space invaders” and concluded that she felt uncomfortable. But she moved away.

Then she came back and pushed right past me, slamming her shoulder into me. I left it.

I overheard her loudly telling a shop assistant in the next aisle that they should watch me because I was up to something. She talked about how London is “full of these people”. I left it.

Then the shop assistant came over to look at me. I challenged him and he backed off, but she kept on talking to anyone who would listen about what I was supposedly up to.  No one said anything but they came to look at me.

So I went over to her and confronted her. She had her back to me and when she spun around her expression was triumphant. As she ranted on about “black women like you” (me) she had supposedly encountered in her job working for a judge and I responded, she seemed exultant, as if she was proving her point. My anger was exactly what she wanted to see. When I realised this, I disengaged.

But it was more than that. I’m often teased by my friends for speaking Queen’s English. I’ve been called “proper” and even “posh”. Like most people of colour especially, I code switch depending on who I’m talking to. When the shop assistant came to talk to me I employed my most chippy, cut-glass accent. It worked and he widened his eyes and backed down, as if this was all a mistake. What if I had an African accent? What if my English was bad? I had already started to feel a hum of unease.

When I confronted the woman and she spun around with that triumphant look on her face I realised suddenly that I was in a double-bind. The hum became a drumming as I weighed up my choices.

If I let my rage fly she clearly wanted to manipulate the situation and might try to upgrade me from bag snatching to bag snatching plus abuse. But keeping a lid on my feelings was a capitulation in the face of her lies, lies which everyone apparently believed or at least were keeping an open mind about despite her very loud racist ranting. The shop assistants had already said that this was my word against hers and I felt that the only reason it was now a toss-up for them between me and the other lady was because my accent had thrown them off. I felt like I had started at minus one and was now on zero, but that she started at one. There wasn’t really a choice.

So I left. Mechanically, I paid for my products (?!) and left.

And when I got outside, I cried. I felt ashamed and humiliated and angry that I was feeling these emotions when I had done nothing wrong.

I felt angry that I had allowed this woman and her false allegation to get to me, that my accent functioned as some sort of patronus to prevent me from being directly accused by the shop staff. I was angry at their inaction, which implied that it was an objectively fair fight.

I was dismayed by the surge of emotion that had prevented me from doing anything sensible* (call the manager? and the police? ask for her to back her allegation or back down and ask for CCTV footage to prove my case? Take a photo and other details of the encounter for a complaint?)

But more than anything I was afraid because it felt like Superdrug was an alternative universe where this woman made the weather and I had to play defense and not get sucked in. Her words had an authority in that shop that mine did not. That’s what scared me. I realised that this situation could escalate and I was not on an equal footing.

This is nothing compared to what other women I know have gone though. It’s partly from knowing their stories that I felt afraid, unsure of where this would go, keenly aware that I had no one in my corner.

*and why did I just leave it when she started to kick off? Come on, woman.

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Mapping Fear

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A Question of Substance

this_is_what_a_feminist_looks_like_tshirtSome days, I don’t tweet at all. Other days, I explode. Today was one of those days.

Let’s cast our minds back to September, when Ed Miliband was roundly mocked for refusing to pose with a “Help for Heroes” wristband for the Sun newspaper’s campaign backing the charity for ex-servicemen. He refused because he has staked his reputation on standing up to the Murdoch press, and had been roundly lambasted for posing with a special copy of the Sun backing England’s World Cup football team in June. Now, it’s October, and David Cameron has been slammed because he refused (five times!) to pose with Elle Magazine’s “This is What a Feminist Look Like” T shirt.

I’m with David on this, as I was with Ed Miliband last month. A t-shirt, or a special edition of a newspaper, or a wristband – does nothing to advance the causes in question. Nothing. And no, “raising awareness” doesn’t count. Instead of badgering Miliband to pose with a wristband, why not press him to adopt policies to improve the lot of former soldiers in Labour’s next manifesto, and holding Ed and his party to it if they win the election? And do we need Cameron to put on a fancy T-shirt or to address the fact that cuts are falling disproportionately on women and ethnic minorities?

Furthermore, the Sun’s campaign for ex-servicemen does a lot of admirable work, no doubt, but it also benefits… The Sun. They can get the party leaders to jump when they ask, and they can punish them if they refuse. That’s another subtext to their “empty chairing” of Miliband the next day. The fact that he didn’t pose with them became the story and another useful stick to beat him with. As for Elle – they have been occupied trying to “rebrand” feminism. It doesn’t need it. It’s necessarily confrontational and difficult because you’re challenging power structures. In many ways, given his policies, Cameron refusing to wear the T-shirt is actually somewhat honest. Elle wanted their feature spread, and they didn’t get it. Good causes are becoming entwined with corporate interests. Neither Elle nor the Sun are impartial – otherwise we’d hear less about the alleged slight of being rebuffed for a photoshoot and more about what concrete policies could be enacted to further the cause or end inequality between men and women.

And the second thing that had me frothing at the mouth before 10am was Defence Secretary Michael Fallon’s non-apology for his earlier comment on British towns being “swamped” by immigration. He has said that his comments were “reckless”, and the BBC this morning said that he had been “slapped down” by No 10, but I have two issues with this.

Firstly, this dominated the weekend papers. Sure, he retracted, after dominating the news cycle over the weekend and this morning. So… the message got through, make no mistake. Secondly, No 10 never rebutted what he said. It looks like he has been (reluctantly and very slowly) shushed. Which fuels the conspiracy theorists who believe the immigrant invasion of Britain is being covered up by a liberal elite. For that matter, when he said it, not one journalist asked him to justify the claim. No facts, no figures. Boring, you might say. Yes, but in such an inflammatory debate that is fuelled by fear and xenophobia, facts matter more than ever. The average person may say such a thing, but Fallon is a Minister, he has a pulpit and he has staff to fact check for him. Either he didn’t, or he ignored the facts (that this is patently untrue). So either he is incompetent or deliberately stirring the pot. Whichever it is, it’s a case of style over substance. And he got all the PR he needed. Thanks, media, for not interrogating this at all.

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I know what you did last summer

I remember when summer’s were quiet, filled with fluff and cotton wool as everyone left the city on holiday. I guess it’s a year before the election, hence the immigration drive, but then it was that way last summer too. It’s just over a year since the Go Home vans and they’re gone, but the hostile environment campaign never stopped and if anything is ratcheting up a gear.

And so to an excellent (I need to say this slowly because I can’t believe it) piece by Dan Hodges in the Telegraph on the “consensus” on immigration that has finally been achieved among the main parties, mainly in response to the UKIP threat. It follows Cameron’s Eurosceptic reshuffle that promoted placeholders and right-wingers, giving an indication of what we can expect until May.

What jumped out at me in Hodges’s article are four (inconvenient) truths:

  • There really isn’t much to divide the main parties on immigration now:

    “With Clegg’s surrender, the final domino has fallen. For the first time in over half a century each of the three major political parties will enter the election calling for curbs on immigration. The anti-immigration lobby, which at turns has counted such diverse figures as Enoch Powell, Margaret Thatcher, Frank Field, William Hague, Nick Griffin and Nigel Farage among its number, has won.”

  • And that’s politically expedient because, basically, that’s the way public opinion is swinging

    “[the mainstream party leaders] know that migrant labour, at all levels of the economy, is vital to Britain’s prosperity. They have seen the OBR statistics that immigration is crucial to the recovery . And they know too that no one wants to hear it. That negative perceptions of the social, cultural and economic impact of migration are so embedded as to make any attempt to reverse them political folly.”

  • But, ultimately, just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s right or makes sense, which is why the parties are lying:

    “So our politicians embark on a greater folly. They tell the voters “yes we get it”. They pledge ever tougher measures to crack down on an imaginary tidal wave of Romanian bandits, and Polish benefit fraudsters. And then pray the voters won’t notice that despite the fiery rhetoric, immigration continues to rise.”

And the net result really is a horror story: Voters can see craven from a mile off, so they probably won’t be convinced by this scramble. But having legitimised the public’s fears by pandering to them, the fact that the parties will ultimately fail at their stated immigration aims (because: globalisation, economic reality etc) will only annoy people more, leading to more cynicism at politics, and fuelling support for people like UKIP (who, by the way, are left to sound vaguely dignified as they demand policies instead of repellent rhetoric, which is, as they quite rightly point out, disgusting – even if the policies they want are crackers).

But the saddest truth of all, and the one that I don’t think I’ve heard anyone articulate as eloquently as Hodges (pinch me someone, please!) is this:

“It would be easy to paint this capitulation as a triumph of prejudice. As we saw in the European elections, with Ukip’s toxic campaign, when immigration is debated prejudice is never far below the surface. In fact what we are witnessing is the triumph of fear. Despite our occasionally bombastic rhetoric, Britain is now a scared country, lead by scared men. With Nigel Farage circling them like Banquo’s tweed-clad ghost.

We have become scared of the outside world. Scared of changes in our own society. Scared of each other. Where once we looked to the future with optimism, we now do so with trepidation. Where we saw opportunities, now we perceive only threats: terrorists, scroungers, grooming-gangs, criminal overlords, cut-price cleaners and plumbers.

One day our confidence will return. When the economy stabilises. When the Ukip revolution is shown to have been just another passing political fad. When we realise the River Tiber is not foaming with blood. And when it does, we’ll point the finger at our leaders and say “why did they scare us like that?”. But they didn’t. We scared ourselves.”

Damn straight.

*Incidentally, my dissertation, that I am painfully giving birth to this summer, is concerned with exactly that – the politics of fear and unease

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