Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: clarifying humanity in Britain

In England, I met Yasmin Alibhai-Brown who writes brilliantly of the mirrors of racism in the US and the UK (see below and here). London is one of the most multiracial cities in the world and interracial marriage is now common (though not simply accepted as an early scene with Maggie Smith, in a wheel chair, spouting anti-Asian bigotries in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel underlines). And yet many white English people behave as if there is no longer racism, racism an unneeded topic to discuss. Or some Tories distinguish themselves by denouncing “racist coppers” as if they were distinct from the policies of divide and rule which, in fact, breed and maintain them. And then a powerful Asian-Briton advisor to the Mayor of London says there's no more racism; it’s whites alone who are oppressed.*

In addition, the weak but growing nationalist movement – a fascist movement – in a country which once for its life (for the life of humanity) fought against Nazism - viciously attacks any references to police brutality or the prison system and, too, is “accepted” (Britain currently has 17% of its prisoners serving life terms, other European prison systems 3 per cent – see the posts on joint enterprise here, here, here and here). As Yasmin elegantly and sadly comments toward the end, employers who give jobs to whites (rarely; it’s divide and rule in a depression) feel “patriotic”; Labor under Tony Blair was long silent about and sometimes cooperated in the American torture of Muslim-Britons; there is now a campaign against immigrants led by an odious Labour figure with Tory leanings, parallel to the Republican campaign in the U.S., which harms citizens as well (it diverts their attention from those responsible for unemployment and inequality), and the like.

In America, Barack Obama was elected President, an event, 40 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King and as an antidote to the degradation of the Bush-Cheney era, which stunned the world. And yet America has the world’s largest prison system and shortly after Obama was elected (December 22, 2008), the New York Times ran an editorial deploring that 4 in 100 poor black teenagers looking for work find a job (a 96% unemployment rate). Yet as Yasmin suggests, the overall unemployment rate among all Afro-Caribbean and African-Britons – 1 in 2 - may now be even greater than in the United States...

Yasmin gave me a tape of her powerful, lushly written, amazingly frank one woman play Nowhere to Belong: Tales of an Extravagant Stranger about her growing up in Uganda where British divide and rule pitted, often successfully, Asians against blacks. The story includes the rise of Idi Amin, rotten on this issue – nationalist against Asian Kenyans and expelling them - as on others. And it tells the tale of Mrs. Mann, a wonderful English Shakespeare teacher who came to teach in her school, how Yasmin aspired to be an actress, learned to name the tragedies of her experience through Shakespeare’s language (English civilization, as we Americans know, too, is rich…), and was cast as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet (the Capulets as Asians, the Montagus as blacks). She describes the political tensions rising to a peak just then, the Africans moving at last toward independence, the Asians, often making money from being merchants, sometimes echoing creepy racism, the British sowing, to the last moment, division...

An able incipient actress, Yasmin yearned for the part, but applied alone. No one else dared. A ridiculous male teacher gave a speech about how Romeo and Juliet shows the alternatives: obedience to fathers like him (silly Mrs. Mann) or death...Read superficially, Shakespeare is a textbook for vapidities (I once heard a famous professor of Shakespeare at Harvard spout similarly...).

Yasmin gave a stunning performance, won a fellowship to study in England, went home to celebrate, and was subjected to shame and beating by a cousin with her family sitting there, her father silent, drooping, never to be a commanding figure in the family and never to speak to her again – the brutality was finally stopped by a next door neighbor – because they had heard an embellished rumor that she had kissed a black man.

The play is shot through and ends with Alibhai-Brown's outspokenness against racism and other injustices in Britain. She was denied by her family her scholarship and vocation as an actress; yet she transforms this experience in the writing and performing of this play. As a woman raised in the awful midst of colonialism – which lived on divide and rule, still alive in practice in and against the multiracial England of today - hers is a uniquely powerful voice, an Asian voice, in one inflection an inheritance and transformation of British colonialism in India and Pakistan and its peregrinations, an extravagant stranger as she names it,** against the failure to recognize and honor each person as a citizen in Britain today.*** She also speaks for the migrant, the asylum-seeker, the stranger who alone can make the rest of us human...

Her father comes across as clever, distant and difficult. And yet, no human complexity – no experience of strangeness, familiarity and “sea-change” (“full fathom five thy father lies, of his bones are coral made, those are pearls that were his eyes…”) is missed in this play. At the end even not able to say good-bye (does one ever fully say good-bye to parents?), she realizes she has learned some outspokenness from him. We are all lucky sometimes in making the strange gifts we get from our families our own. “Extravagant stranger” is a resonant, even glittering name for Yasmin’s voyage.

For reviews and on how to get a copy of the play, see here and here

Racism and the UK Police
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
The Independent
Posted on 16/04/2012

Racism in the Police Forces 
I can’t impugn police officers who racially abuse and assault black and Asian citizens. In the last fortnight ten complaints have been brought against the Met [Metropolitan Police] by different black men who allegedly suffered racist insults and violence after arrest. One of them, Mauro Demetrio, recorded the experience on his phone. A new inquiry was launched into the case of 53 year old, black bus driver Kester David, found burnt to death two years ago in Enfield. The police treated it as suicide though the coroner recorded an open verdict. His family strongly believe the Met didn’t investigate with due care and professionalism because David was black. Mr and Mrs Lawrence faced that stonewalling when their boy Stephen was killed. [see the fine article on institutional racism by Hugh Muir here]. The IPCC [Independent Police Complaints Commission] remains, as ever, utterly hopeless.

Now Police Chiefs and Top Tories have got on their high horses and promise to rid this land of prejudiced coppers. Bernard Hogan-Howe, head of the Met has declared he is their ‘implacable enemy’ and will drive them out of the Met. Even Boris [Johnson, Mayor of London], (read further to find out why ‘even’) wants an official probe into the Lawrence case to check out if some officers behaved improperly. 
Why turn all blame on policemen and their forces? To cuss and diss them is displacement, a way of tossing off collective responsibility. 

Bob Morgan of Thatcham, Berkshire sent a pithy letter to this paper stating facts too long denied. Racist police officers, he wrote, only reflect our society, ‘where even discussing racism is so uncomfortable it is rarely done.’ I thank Mr Morgan for his acuity and candour. Such talk has vanished (been banished actually) from the public space. Britain has decided racism is over or an unsightly scratch on its radiant self-image or a profitable lie used by citizens of colour or, worst of all, perfectly OK and even understandable.

Disagree with any of the above and you get slapped by the right (metaphorically) and bullied by an army of malevolent internet ‘nationalists’, or are quietly categorised as trouble and dealt with accordingly. I now try hard not to bring up British racism because what follows is scary. I was recently told by a successful independent TV producer that the time was right for people like ‘that Sikh in a kilt. Funny, no chip on his shoulder, who doesn’t make whites feel guilty, not full of PC shit ’ Now you know why so few young black and Asian highflyers mention the ‘R’ word. 
Britain is uniquely open, delights in different cultures, where people of all backgrounds mix, work together and marry.

We have come some way since the blatantly racist sixties, but not that far. My friend the restaurateur Iqbal Wahab, a mentor for unemployed people says race discrimination is the elephant in the room, seen but ignored. 
Women know how a little progress is used to block further change. It is even worse for racial minorities who are supposed to be ‘grateful’ for being here trying the patience of the ‘host country’ by always asking for more.

So to Boris. He denounced the Lawrence inquiry as ‘hysterical’ a ‘witch hunt’, the recommendations more tyrannical than people suffered in Ceausescu’s Rumania. I couldn’t find any of these columns online- must have been buried in a box for prosperity. Or there is an election to win, black votes to get. His arts advisor, Munira Mirza has repeatedly asserted, without hard evidence, that racism is no longer that serious a barrier to life chances and that the excluded today are white working classes. People of all backgrounds have been failed by the powerful. To pit them against each other is a disgraceful political strategy. 
Figures show that over 50% of young black men are unemployed today, double the number in 2008. Trust me they are not all trainee rioters and drug dealers. Furthermore Black Britons are more likely to be unemployed than Black Americans.

When last did you hear a politician make a full and thoughtful speech about the evils of racism? I believe it was Jack Straw, when he announced the Lawrence inquiry. If there were others do send me names. Politicians frequently push gay rights and muster up concern for the disabled and women’s equality, though with this government pretty words are used to distract us from their iniquitous policies punishing women, the disabled and poorest. But still, at least we argue about those injustices. 
Race is buried under an avalanche of outrage over political correctness and of prejudices whipped up by the press, pundits and politicians against non European immigrants and Muslims the whole lot thought to be active or passive terrorists. Frank Field’s obsessive anti-immigration campaigns [a Labour parliamentarian and minister, close to the Tories, who recently denounced immigrants getting housing – see here] have made outsiders of us all.

Now those who give jobs to whites feel they are being patriotic, favouring true Brits. Nobody cares when Muslims who have never been tried are parcelled off to the US, and Blair and Straw casually wave off their complicity in rendition. The English Defence League and BNP have been accommodated by a nation that fought Nazi racism. That’s how bad it is. 
The police reflect what Britain has become. Racist cops burnt on the stake of righteousness makes our leaders feel better, but doesn’t address that terrible truth.

Published in The Independent

*Perhaps this person is an extravagant scoundrel…

**The notion of a stranger (as in the Athenian stranger in the Laws) is resonant in Plato. So familiar in the market in Athens and in Aristophanes’s play The Clouds (performed for all citizens), Socrates, for asking questions, is treated as a stranger and put to death. One might say that all poets and playwrights and philosophers are exiles in their lands – name truths that others do not want to see – or strangers. Extravagant stranger – one has to hear the beautiful words, inflected with the accents of Pakistan through Uganda (I lived in Pakistan as a teenager and recognize some of them), of a Muslim background once close to Hindus in India, and now British – to take in fully what this means.

***Empire still has a voice in the Bush-Cheney occupations and the continual fervor of the foreign policy establishments in the U.S. and the U.K. (note: Romney, if elected, will revive the dead, and even plans to attack...Russia).

Thus, the BBC is currently featuring the Reith lecturers by Niall Ferguson, an interesting economic historian and unintentionally comical advocate of empire or today, a neo-"con" (that is, authoritarian, imperialist and racist in public consequence, in no way a conservative who values habeas corpus and equal liberty),a howler for bombing Iran (a fool in love with death), from Scotland and, in childhood Nairobi, Kenya, his family far-flung participants and rentiers in colonialism, frozen intellectually in the cliches of his childhood, now at Harvard, a raggedy diadem...

The prominence of these broadcasts is inverse proportion to their decency and intelligence.

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