Tag Archives: racism

How to Spot a Racist

What does a racist look like?

In the UK, we tend to think of racism as solely in interpersonal terms and as a person’s full-time preoccupation. It makes it harder for us to understand when a racist is anyone but a knuckle-dragging skinhead who wants to murder black people all day long.

So, Bannon’s recent overtures with senior Tories are (rightly) criticised, but are somehow being seen as a massive turning point here – as if some of his interlocutors, the architects of Brexit, weren’t at the very least comfortable being racist-adjacent if it won them the Brexit referendum campaign.

Everyone understands that Bannon is a racist, and it helps that he looks like the loathsome creep that he is. Conveniently, he is is conventionally unattractive – as if the peeling skin on his face is an outward sign of inward rot.

The reaction to him is different to the bemused humour that has greeted young hipsters who are affiliated to the alt-right. They are young, often conventionally attractive, dress well, went to good schools, come from middle class homes. But you can have all that and be a racist.

Racists can look like Bannon.

They can also look like a chummy, jocular guy with a good education. The kind of guy you’d share a laugh down the pub with; a witty, quintessentially clumsy Brit bumbling along with a cup of tea for a fawning media pack.

Mr Johnson. The man with a track record in casual racism, whose recent Burka comments are being attributed to his conferring with Bannon – as if Johnson needed the help. Instead of being held to account he is forever infantilised, and would appear, from much of the reporting, to have been led astray into real racism by one of the architects of the alt-right.

Racists can look like a member of your family who loves you but doesn’t like the other black people.

Or the wife who votes for Trump because she doesn’t realise that the “illegals” include her own husband. (He got deported.)

Yes, there are some racists who thinking about it all day long and it is the guiding value in everything they do.

But I think that for the many other people there are unexamined prejudices, abiding inconsistencies (yes, you can have black friends/lover/family members and still hold problematic views). Furthermore, racism, or racial anxiety is the most salient issue for them only once in a while – it’s a not a full-time gig.

In many ways, that’s worse. If you’re endangering me and people like me and you’re doing it all the time, I can see you coming. I can engage with you head-on.

But if it’s that you just don’t care….that your racism flares up like an occasional fever, it’s harder. The fact is, as a minority I need you to build the alliances for my own survival and sometimes you may come on board.

But equally, you might once in a while vote for someone like Trump because “economic grievances” and “someone spoke Polish at my local shop” and “the church is empty and while I’m not going to go I don’t like the gurdwara that’s being built nearby”…basically… you just don’t have skin in the game and gambling with mine doesn’t cost you anything.

And I’m still thinking through how to engage with that.

 

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London: A Question of Character

I’m genuinely concerned.

Tomorrow London may vote in Zac Goldsmith, endorsing his racist, scurrilous campaign. Like so many others, I used to like him. I respected his independence and his environmental campaigning. But the fact that he has allowed his campaign to be so debased has become a matter of character.

And character shows when the chips are down. Yes, he was behind in the polls, but the decision to go negative like this (and, worse, double down) shows that at best he’s weak and at worst, he agrees.

But the question now is, what’s London’s character?

Polls are meaningless after the General Election. They consistently show a Khan lead but the fact is, in the privacy of the ballot booth, people may vote for Zac – either as dyed in the wool Conservatives, or because he’s cute, or because the dog whistling has worked.

The only reason that will matter to the Tories (and all political parties) is the latter.

I really don’t care if we elect a labrador with a colander on its head I just don’t want Zac’s politics to win. I desperately don’t want my city to choose that. Even better would be if Khan, who has fought an honest and hopeful campaign (even while disowning Corbyn) wins.

It’s a question of character.

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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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Great vocals

I am actually too tired to tackle Emma Barnett’s rant on racism and the ISIS schoolgirls in today’s Telegraph. In summary: “There are real racists, like Chelsea fans and UKIP councillors. That’s full-fat racism. Saying the ISIS schoolgirls should be considered as adults is not racist. It’s my view. You don’t know me. I’m not a racist. Skimmed milk etc etc.”

My thoughts on this are basically:

1. *yawn*.

2. Being a “nice”person (or not being a UKIP councillor) doesn’t mean you’re not perpetuating a stereotype or upholding a racist structure. And no, I don’t know you. If the pre-requisite for calling out this behaviour was knowing someone, we’d never get anything done. However, if you’re hanging out with racists, that’s going to be questioned. And if you say or do things that are racially insensitive or racist, then, yeah, that’s going to be questioned too.

3. *sigh*

4. Racism isn’t a pantomime act; while the more egregious displays are violent or plain ridiculous and invite public opprobrium, the more garden variety racial insensitivity and/or implicit racism is much more common and much harder to counter. It’s often done through ignorance. And yes, while motives do matter, it still must be challenged. (even among allies/friends).

5. *bangs head on desk*

Actually, that was more than I planned to say. The reason I titled this post “Great vocals” is because I have been listening to some beautiful voices. The ones in this list are all male, as it happens.

My prize for group vocals: Naturally 7 singing a cover of Coldplay’s Fix You. Not sure why I always like Coldplay covers but can’t stand the band themselves.

My prize for bringing sexy back: Al Green. (of course)

And finally, the prize for just being so silky smooth: Gregory Porter. (yes, again. I will celebrate him and Hot 8 Brass Band about once a month, ok?)

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Shondaland

I’ve been catching up on my favourites list; articles and shows that I have bookmarked and not got round to reading yet.

One of these was Shonda Rhimes’ acceptance speech from October last year when she received the Sherry Lansing Leadership award for being a pioneer in her field. Shonda owns Thursday night TV with her shows Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder and Grey’s Anatomy. She is the first woman to have that sort of TV real estate and definitely the first Black woman to do so.

I have to say, I enjoy all her shows. They are full of action, drama, ridiculous, breathless dialogue and fabulous music. She also makes some great (though at times quite heavyhanded) points on sexism, racism and other issues. She makes the pill sweet to swallow. Her shows lack the subtlety and devastating finesse of The Good Wife or Damages, but they are punchy and assertive; much like the woman herself.

Her reflections on leadership and women breaking through the industry remind me of Hillary Clinton’s comment about cracking the glass ceiling when she lost the Democratic nomination to Obama.

“I know this isn’t an award because I’m a woman or because I’m African-American. I know that it’s really about breaking the glass ceiling that exists in the face of being a woman and being black in this very male, very white town.,”

“But I haven’t broken through the glass ceiling…If I had broken through any glass ceilings, I would know..If I had broken through a glass ceiling, I would have felt some cuts, I would have some bruises, there’d be shards of glass in my hair. … If I’d broken the glass ceiling, that would mean I made it through to the other side, where the air is rare. I would feel the wind on my face.”

“The view from here  —  way up here where the glass ceiling is broken  —  would be incredible. Right? So how come I don’t remember the moment? When me with my woman-ness and my brown skin went running full speed, gravity be damned, into that thick layer of glass and smashed right through it? How come I don’t remember that happening? Here’s why: It’s 2014. This moment right here, me standing up here all brown with my boobs and my Thursday night of network television full of women of color, competitive women, strong women, women who own their bodies and whose lives revolve around their work instead of their men, women who are big dogs, that could only be happening right now.”

She went on to pay tribute to all the women who have gone before her. It’s easy, as a woman living now, to forget that the privileges we enjoy are hard-won, that so many women fell at the first hurdles so that we could walk over them later.

My maternal grandmother left the home to work as a postmistress in rural Jamaica. My paternal grandmother was one of the first primary school teachers in her region in Malawi, outlived two husbands, built a life for herself and her children. Even in my small family, there are stories of breaking the mould, of the power of education for women, stories of sacrifice and strength. They paved the way for me; crucially, they and other women in my family expanded my ideas of what I, as a woman, could achieve. I have been nurtured, encouraged, challenged by a whole host of remarkable, understated women who would never make a song or dance about it, but who have powerfully shaped my life.

As Rhimes put it:

“How many women had to hit that glass before the first crack appeared?” Rhimes said. “How many cuts did they get, how many bruises? How hard did they have to hit the ceiling? How many women had to hit that glass to ripple it, to send out a thousand hairline fractures? How many women had to hit that glass before the pressure of their effort caused it to evolve from a thick pane of glass into just a thin sheet of splintered ice? So that when it was my turn to run, it didn’t even look like a ceiling anymore. I mean, the wind was already whistling through  —  I could always feel it on my face. And there were all these holes giving me a perfect view to other side. I didn’t even notice the gravity, I think it had worn itself away.

“So I didn’t have to fight as hard. I had time to study the cracks. I had time to decide where the air felt the rarest, where the wind was the coolest, where the view was the most soaring. I picked my spot in the glass and called it my target. And I ran. And when I hit finally that ceiling, it just exploded into dust. Like that. My sisters who went before me had already handled it. No cuts. No bruises. No bleeding. Making it through the glass ceiling to the other side was simply a matter of running on a path created by every other woman’s footprints. I just hit at exactly the right time in exactly the right spot.”

 

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Run Girl Run

CaptureA couple of adverts that made me smile today:

The “This Girl Can” campaign from Sport England, aimed at encouraging women to take up sport and overcome any worries about not looking pretty or jiggling around while doing it.

 

 

 

 

 

And Diet Racism. For people who aren’t openly racist, but who silently support the structure.

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Testing…testing

500px-I'm_back_baby!….and we’re back. I’m still working through my thoughts on Paris. Nigeria.

The lack of nuance.

The fact that no one deserves to die for what they say.

The fact that Charlie Hebdo was racist and islamophobic and quite frankly, not that clever.

The fact that even if they were, they should not have been killed for it.

The fact that we won’t give the majority of Muslims the benefit of the doubt that like most human beings, they abhor senseless killings and are as appalled as the rest of us and so we call on them to condemn and prove that they’re not all waiting to kill us.

The fact that the killings in Nigeria have been going on for years. And that’s not considered “news”, but this approach ignores the fact that framing matters. Nigeria is framed at a distance. France is close to home.

That matters.

Over the course of several days I’ve read tweets and articles that illuminate some of the things I’ve been feeling and turning over in my mind. I’ve put a few here:

Umournable Bodies by Teju Cole

No Clash of Civilisations in Paris Attacks by David Wearing.

 

 

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Out of the shadows

One of my favourite columnists, Ian Dunt, has written a great article on the grumpy reception of the UCL immigration report in some quarters and the fact that escapes so many immigration miserabilists:

“The weight of the evidence on the economic benefit of immigration is now so substantive that the debate can be laid to rest. This country is spectacularly lucky. We get people at the point in their life when they are net contributors, skip the bit at the beginning of their lives where you actually have to educate them, and very often the bit at the end where they cost the state in medical care. Meanwhile, our own older people leave Britain to go live in Spain in their hundreds of thousands, at precisely the stage of life where they are about to cost the state more. The fact Britain could be such a winner from this situation and still complain about it is testament to the stubborn negativity of many people on this island.”

Dunt identifies that the economic argument for migration is more or less settled now. And perhaps things are about to get interesting, as those staunchly opposed to immigration are left to talk about what really bothers them: difference. Danny Finklestein hinted at this a few weeks ago in the Times, as have a few other commentators.

“Without the economics to fall back on, anti-immigration campaigners, politicians and newspapers want to make up the facts. Instead, they should show some honour and fall back on the real argument that motivates them: cultural purity. There is no shame or offence in arguing that they do not want all these foreign cultures coming and changing the social landscape in the UK. It is a valid point to make and not a racist one. But let them argue it, rather than pretend it is about the economy. Economically, their policy proposal would do this country extraordinary harm. It’s up to them to show that the cultural benefits would be worth it.”

It may not be racist to talk about immigration or to feel uncomfortable about it – but we’re rarely honest about what exactly does cause that unease.

 

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In all honesty

Not that immigration is ever really off the agenda, but there has been a flurry of activity on the topic in recent days, particularly as the Tories continue to unveil increasingly desperate and unbelievable plans to reform EU immigration. Two articles, written by Matthew Parris in the Times and British Future director Sunder Katwala in the Guardian, really struck a chord with me, particularly as they sum up two sides of an argument.

In his article, Sunder argues that Britain’s pro-migration majority could be unlocked if they could voice their concerns without being condemned as racist – particularly as to be concerned about immigration does not automatically make you a racist. He cites some forthcoming research by British Future, that I look forward to reading, that shows that while most people are concerned about immigration, they recognise the contribution that migrants make the country. He implores the anti-racists to stop being so shrill about people who air their concerns about migration, because this shuts down the debate that everyone wants to have:

“There is clear evidence that there is an anti-racist majority in Britain, not just an embattled “anti-racist minority”.

Of course, it isn’t racist to talk about immigration – as long you do so without being racist.

That’s the debate people want. Anti-racists would have much to gain from that, if they stopped shouting almost as shrilly as the populist xenophobes – which only closes down the conversation that Britain’s moderate majority would like.”

I agree that the majority of British people aren’t prejudiced. But I have two problems with Sunder’s argument: false equivalence and insincerity (not from him, but in terms of these “reasonable concerns” that people have about immigration).

Yes, the anti-racists are muscular and rebut anti-migrant rhetoric robustly. Why is this? It’s not because we feel like we’re an embattled minority – but because we’re having to punch through a lot of noise. The virulently racist minority, despite their aggrieved persecution complex about how the jackboot of liberalism silenced and continues to silence their concerns about immigration, have their voices amplified and dignified by politicians and the majority of the media. They have a national platform. And while politicians bend over backwards to adopt the racists’ language and terms of reference for the immigration debate (also driving the news agenda and getting the front page headlines), they also cloak these concerns in a mantle of respectability and “common sense”. To the extent that – and here’s my second gripe with Sunder’s article – the root of their dissatisfaction, that apparently echoes everyone else’s,  isn’t even interrogated.

Because, while I do think it’s not racist to be concerned about immigration, it rarely finds its expression in the “moderate” way that Sunder longs for. Too often, it hitches its caboose to the overtly racist and prejudiced minority. And that- I think, is nothing to do with anti-racist counter-narratives, and all to do with the domination of what little public space there is to debate this issue by the frames, language and misinformation of the racist minority.

However, having said that I don’t think it’s racist to be concerned about immigration, I don’t think we ever scratch beneath the surface of that. It’s uncomfortable, isn’t it, the thought that any one of us may be harbouring prejudices? We often think of racism as the flagrantly prejudiced burning crosses/graffiti’d wall/violent attack variety, instead of its more common, nervy and slightly shifty and uneasy garden variety cousin.

Matthew Parris got to the heart of that with the most honest article on immigration I’ve read all year. He starts off by imagining a conversation with one of these “moderately” disgruntled anti-immigration types, in which the person identifies (as is often the case) pressure on public services and the indigenous population missing out as a key driver of her dissatisfaction with immigration. Parris then imagines that a politician suggests that she might solve the problem by putting aside a pot of money to help local authorities overcome any challenges and plan ahead to provide the services necessary for  a growing population, and to ensure that no one jumps the proverbial queue ahead of Brits (this doesn’t actually happen but that’s another story. It has become part of the anti-immigration canon now). Parris suggests that this person would probably still be unhappy, because, the truth is, the driver for their concern is fear. Fear of Other, fear of scarcity at a time of austerity, and sometimes, straight-up racism. Parris suggests this because we know from experience now that countering lies such as the one about access to services above with facts about the net contribution of migrants to Britain, and the rules for migrants with regards to benefits etc, has little to no effect.

So often I’ve seen commentators exhorting those defending migrants to drop the “dry” statistics articles and make an appeal to the heart. The truth is this – the statistics don’t work not because they’re dry but because the truth of the matter is besides the point. People are feeling a certain way and it’s not connected to reality. Parris suggests that the vast majority of people have not, in their own lives, been directly impacted by immigration, though they may worry about it on a macro level. That doesn’t mean that their feelings aren’t sincere. But just because you feel something (and I say this as a very emotional person) doesn’t make it real. Perhaps because the debate we’re actually having (on the supposed economics of it all, welfare etc) isn’t the real issue. Globalisation, insecurity, cuts to local services – we don’t discuss that.

And the fact that as the song in the deliciously mischievous musical Avenue Q goes, “Everyone’s a little bit racist” – well, at the very least we all have our prejudices – we don’t discuss that. We don’t interrogate why some of us just feel a bit bewildered by all the “difference”….on TV, in London…Britain…the 21st Century. It’s ok to feel that. But let’s be honest about how when we talk about immigration, we are often talking about a host of other things too. Things that make us feel a bit bad about ourselves. And perhaps the problem isn’t the Other, but lies a lot closer to home.

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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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