Tag Archives: racism

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Flags Matter

Flags are symbols, full of historical meaning.  Just ask Emily Thornberry.

Following the despicable shootings in Charleston, South Carolina last week, there has been renewed debate over the Confederate Flag, the banner under which the secessionist Southern states fought the American Civil War.  Some people claim that the flag is simply a symbol of Southern culture and ‘heritage’— that flying that flag is merely an expression of an independent, libertarian spirit.  But that is disingenuous.  The Confederate cause was explicitly racist, about fighting for the right to subjugate black people.  Ta-Nehisi Coate catalogues the unequivocal words of those men who rallied their fellows to the ideology of white supremacy, and argues “Take Down The Confederate Flag—Now“.   The recent discussion has unearthed this article by Christopher Hitches from 2008, where he excorates the former Governor of Arkansas and (at the time) Presidential Candidate Mick Huckabee for lauding those who would fly the Confederate flag.  A “straightforward racist appeal” for votes, Hitchens called it.

On a more positive note, watch this wonderful TED Talk, done in the style of a radio show, by Roman Mars (my favourite podcaster).  His show, 99% Invisible, is all about design, and the talk is about the importance of flag design.

Roman outlines the principles of good flag design, draws attention to some good city flags, some bad city flags, and some truly terrible city flags.  He also explains why we should care.

A well-designed flag could be seen as an indicator of how a city considers all of its design systems: its public transit, its parks, its signage. It might seem frivolous, but it’s not. .. Often when city leaders say, “We have more important things to do than worry about a city flag,” my response is, “If you had a great city flag, you would have a banner for people to rally under to face those more important things.”

 

bahar-mustafa

#KillAllWhiteMen? You must be joking

Bahar Mustafa, the welfare and diversity officer at Goldsmiths, is facing a petition for her removal after she allegedly used hate speech on social media.  Apparently she used the hashtag #KillAllWhiteMen.  Critics say this is inciting violence:  “Too befuddled by theory to know that killing is wrong“.

Obviously, someone elected to a position of authority and responsibility should be more diplomatic in their use of language so its probably right that she should be asked to step down.  But the story is a useful way to restate a point about ‘white privilege’ and ‘male privilege’ that I touched on a while back when Diane Abbott was accused of racism.

Its this: My white male privilege is such that when someone tweets #KillAllWhiteMen, I assume is a joke.  I read the hashtag and my natural reaction is that she’s indulging in hyperbole.  Banter. I get to make that assumption because I don’t live in a society that demeans or belittles me because of my race or gender.  Nothing in the mainstream culture or media undermines me or makes me insecure because of my phenotype or chromosomes.

Black people do not get to make that assumption.

Women do not get to make that assumption.

LGBTQ people do not get to make that assumption.

When any of these people see comparable hashtags (posted, usually, by white men) the threat feels real, and their outrage in response to such message is real and justified.  Conversely, when there is an angry backlash against people like Mustafa on petition sites and newspapers like The Daily Mail, the outrage seems (to my mind) quite false: a mask donned in order to better fight the culture war.

None of this is to defend Bahar Mustafa or to suggest that routinely posting antagonistic messages is admirable.  Rather, its just to point out that context is important.  While laws should be blind to race, gender and sexuality, our society and the interactions within it are not.  Words that bite in one context may be toothless in another.

Indeed, changing contexts mean there will be situations where white men would indeed feel menanced by a hashtag.  For example, if it were tweeted in Paris on 7th January, right after the Charlie Hebdo murders, messages like #KillAllWhiteMen would take on on a whole new meaning, and I’d think again.

charlie-hebdo

Round-up: Charlie Hebdo and the PEN Courage Award

Charlie Hebdo is not a racist publication. But even if it was, its stand against fundamentalist religion took courage and should be applauded.

Freedom of expression is being debated yet again, and this time my colleagues at the PEN American Center are in the middle of the discussion.  Six of its members have withdrawn as ‘literary hosts’ from the annual fundraising gala, in protest at the decision to award Charlie Hebdo a ‘Freedom of Expression Courage’ award.

In the New York Times, Peter Carey, one of the boycotting authors, is quoted as saying:

“A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?”

Salman Rushdie was also quoted in the New York Times piece, defending the award:

“If PEN as a free speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name,” Mr. Rushdie said. “What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.”

Continue reading Round-up: Charlie Hebdo and the PEN Courage Award

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Huckleberry Finn and Politically Correct Revisionism

The great thing about having an all-purpose blog is that you can write about things that are not in the news, and have no relation to current affairs. In this case, I thought I would post something I should have written a few weeks ago.

On the 14 of January, I was delighted to speak at the AGM of the Society of Young Publishers. The theme was banned books, and censorship. One of the questions was regarding Mark Twain’s book Huckleberry Finn. Apparently an academic in the USA named Alan Gribben decided to re-publish the book, replacing the word ‘Nigger’ throughout. What did I think of this?

This is quite possibly the perfect question for this blog, focusing as I do with questions of free expression and political correctness, and also how digital technologies affect publishing. How to reconcile the rights of people to publish what they want, with the uncomfortable Orwellian overtones that happens when you replace one word for another in a text? How to reconcile the bullying and harm that the dreaded ‘N-word’ can cause, with the historical context?

Continue reading Huckleberry Finn and Politically Correct Revisionism

BTNG

https://twitter.com/robertsharp59/status/261052006762942466

Earlier this week I had a short exchange on Twitter with Mercury nominated Eliza Carthy, who pointed me towards a ‘Bollocks to Nick Griffin‘ video put together by the Imagined Village collective.  Griffin had claimed Carthy’s English folk music as somehow the preserve of white people, so the musicians created a rude online rejoinder. Continue reading BTNG

On Diane Abbott's Racism

Labour MP Diane Abbott is in hot water, after some racist remarks on twitter:

White people love their divide and rule. We should not play their game. #tacticasoldascolonialism

This has prompted a predictable backlash, with Tory and Lib Dem MPs demanding she resign from Labour’s front bench, and Ed Miliband ensuring she make a swift apology.

I find myself having mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it can be read as straight prejudice. Swap ‘white’ for ‘black’ or ‘Muslim’ and the tweet would certainly appear classically racist.

However, I think there is an element of context that is missing here. When I read that later Abbott posted a clarification, claiming she was referring to colonialism, I was not surprised (her original tweet had a hashtag about colonialism, a fact not reported in the mainstream media). When she said ‘white people’ in the original tweet, I read it in precisely those terms. In the context of race relations and Black History I can see how ‘white people’ could (and should) be read as meaning The Established Elite. As such, when I read the tweet, I did not consider it directed at or referring to an avowed white person such as myself. Thinking about it now, Abbott could actually have written ‘men’ instead of ‘white people’ and I would have been similarly ambivalent, despite my also being a confirmed man, too.

In my head, I know that Abbott is being racist, because sweeping over-generalisations are the definition of racism. But in my heart, I am simply not offended. This might be purely because I am a particularly self-centred and over-confident individual, but I don’t think so. Instead, I think the answer lies somewhere in the fact that white people (or men, or tall people, or heterosexuals, or English people, or middle-class people, or Southerners, or any of the other politically favourable groups to which I am lucky enough to belong) are simply not used to being discriminated against in this manner.

The confidence that comes from being politically ‘privileged’ in this way, the confidence that comes from having pretty much every part of your identity affirmed and protected by the culture and the system, affords a certain immunity, on two fronts. First, and immunity to actually being offended. A mental block prevents the tall white middle-class heterosexual English man from considering the possibility that someone might be disparaging about him. “Surely there must be some mistake?” not “There they go again.”

Second – and this is the crux of the matter – there is a confidence that such sweeping generalisations will not actually harm me in any way. Being in part of the, shall we say, “preferred group” (which is not always a demographic majority), I know that the culture and the political system will ensure such ad hominems do not adversely affect my life, short term or long term.

This is therefore a difference between black-on-white racism and the more traditional white-on-black racism, or modern equivalents like, say, tabloid-on-Muslim racism. In the former case, the prejudicial statements simply aren’t as harmful. In the latter cases, they do much more damage because the society and the culture is not orientated to defend the subject of the abuse. Likewise with sexism, where the culture reinforces the narrative of male superiority. In this context, the ‘chav’ prejudice, so wonderfully described by Owen Jones, is extremely interesting. The targets of the racism are white, but it does have long term negative effects on the targets. Likewise with disparaging remarks about the Irish in decades past.

But I cannot ascribe a comparable vulnerability to the targets of Abbott’s ire, who are quite obviously elite. This is why I cannot bring myself, as a white person, to be offended. I cannot look into the souls of other men, but I suspect that many of the critics of Diane Abbott are actually less offended than they appear. The outrage feels distinctly faux to me, an opportunity for political point-scoring rather than a genuine defence of a vulnerable group. Do we really think that people will read Abbott’s tweet, and start treating white people badly? I would like to see a rebuttal to this from a disadvantaged white person who feels Abbott is harming them. So far, most of the outrage seems to be from distinctly elite MPs…

Robert Kilroy-Silk is a waste of space

Once again, real issues have been marred by people who do not know how to have an argument. I refer of course to the embarrassing piece of human discourse that was the Kilroy affair. The article at the centre of the argument was very bad, but in some ways the arguments against it were worse, because they lent credence to Robert Kilroy-Silk where absolutely none was due.

In years to come, historians will hold up the article as a prime example not of human ignorance or bigotry, but of human idiocy. It is likely that they will give short shrift to the article itself, which embarrasses itself with inaccuracies, sentence construction, and ignorance: Kilroy-Silk says that no-one can think of anything the Arabs have ever given us. To this, the long list of retorts begins with an ‘a’ for algebra, and continues from there.

His one vaguely pertinent point – that Arab states should not be supported – is given an entirely offensive new meaning by the fact that he confuses ‘Arab states’ with ‘Arabs.’ His “grammatical error” (if we assume that is what it was) betrays a general immaturity of thought – that to speak of a people, is to speak of their government, and vice-versa. It is not racist to criticise the policies of the state of Israel, the USA, or any of the Islamic middle-eastern states. I believe all deserve the criticism ten-fold. Indeed, it can never be racist to genuinely question the policies of anyone, or anything. However, it is the very definition of racism is to ascribe the policies of a few, to a whole race, for that is a prejudice. To rail against The Arabs, The Jews, The Americans is nonsensical, for they are groups of individuals about which we know very little except where they live.

It is therefore nonsense to say that Mr Kilroy-Silk has a right to free speech over this issue, because his article has nothing logical or interesting to say. It is as if he had declared that he was actually a Vauxhall Astra 1.6 convertible, and then someone said “Well, I disagree with him, but everyone has a right to their opinion.” With free speech comes the responsibility to string your words together in a proper order, a task at which Mr Kilroy-Silk has manifestly failed.

The right to free speech is also attached to the responsibility to research your topic. We should not expect everyone in the UK to understand that Iran is not an Arab state (indeed, their proximity makes this a forgivable mistake). However, such knowledge is a pre-requisite for someone such as Kilroy-Silk, who was commenting directly on the issue. The BBC took the ridiculous step of suspending Kilroy-Silk and his programme only after complaints were made. They should have sacked him immediately: not because they disagreed with the article, but for proving beyond reasonable doubt what a rubbish journalist he actually is. The Sunday Express should be vilified for printing what is unarguably shoddy journalism.

The editors at The Sunday Express are the chief culprits in this tale of human stupidity. Their response to the complaints was to remark that the article had been printed in April, and no one had complained! This is an argument that could be used to justify any of the holocausts that stain our history. If something is only made racist or wrong by the number of complaints received, then every unreported crime is acceptable… Perhaps during the article’s first publication, the complainants were reading a better newspaper. More likely, they were too busy complaining to the Express about something else.

Every day, the foolishness of our media, and the inability of our politicians to ever make a proper argument, draws me closer to my depressing conclusion: we still live in the dark ages, where false arguments justify false aims. Historians of the future will group this new century in with all its predecessors, and call it the pre-enlightenment age. They will not bother trying to learn anything from this era, for it is already stained with the mark of a village idiot. The controversy surrounding Robert Kilroy-Silk’s article is the latest in an infamous tradition of mad hatter tea-parties. Like the dormouse, we shall sleep through many more.