Blog | My Overground Experience: “Go and live in Afghanistan” [VIDEO]
New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Thursday, June 6, 2013 12:00 - 5 Comments
‘In vino veritas’ said the Romans: “the truth in wine”. They had it right, if a couple of glasses brings out the racist in you, don’t blame the drink, the racism was always there, the alcohol merely offered you the “courage” of your convictions. Last night, I saw plenty of such courage, manifesting itself in brazen xenophobic racism on my way home.
I was on the Overground train from Euston to Willesden Junction, had my iPad out, minding my own business, about to watch – as it happens – a new video that was going viral on Facebook by Hollie Mcnish on distorted perceptions of immigration in the UK. As the train pulled into Queens Park Station, I heard, from beyond my earphones, the distinct sounds of screaming and shouting. As is my habit, I was going to pay this no mind – this is London, after all – until I faintly heard something about “benefits” and “foreigners”.
I took my earphones out and tuned into the argument taking place between a middle-eastern youngster and a middle age white woman. I’m not sure what had happened, perhaps he bumped into her getting on the train, perhaps she bumped into him, I don’t know. The young chap, however, was apparently lo longer interested in continuing the argument and was heading down to the other end of the train.
Rather than leave it there, this lady decided to continue to spew hateful racist clichés about foreigners taking ‘our’ benefits and jobs, suggesting that ‘we all just fuck off’. I was initially amused, I thought this was quite comical, that I was witnessing one of those infamous tram moments. I pressed record on my IPad on instinct. I quickly discerned, however, that this was not funny, despite my laughter, and that this woman was holding us, myself and the other ethnically-varied passengers, hostage to her vitriol.
Let me be clear before I outline what happened and the reason I spoke up, this conversation was in no way about the incident in Woolwich a few weeks back. This woman tried to steer the conversation in that direction when I challenged her on the logic of her racist and xenophobic rant; when she had nowhere left to go she tried to silence me – I’ll explain how later.
As I looked around at the faces of the other passengers, disgruntled, eyes down, I realised that if I didn’t say something, we would all be stuck here until our journey’s conclusion, insulted and abused in this public space. In the present climate, following the death of Lee Rigby, the attacks on Mosques and Muslims, and the dramatic rise in the profile of the EDL, this incident made perfect sense, and this lady felt empowered to share with us her disdain for the “foreign enemies” she considered us to be.
As a country, whenever an incident such as the death of Lee Rigby takes place in the streets of London, we react, or more specifically the media and political institutions react by attempting to locate the source of the problem within specific communities – so the discussion, the public narrative, becomes about those foreigners, those Muslims, those White Chavs, those Black rioters, those Nigerians, or just some ‘other’.
By creating this social narrative the media are complicit in absolving the British establishment of the very real role they play in creating our aggressive, racist, and exploitative society, whether through neglect, mismanagement, or the denial of their participation – in this way the wider political and economic culture of the country is shielded from the discussion about the causes of our social ills.
When the media participates in isolating and singling-out minority communities in this country, ignoring the wider political and social context in which these incidents take place, such as the riots in 2011 or the death of Lee Rigby, then we all suffer, minority communities particularly, but also the whole of the UK, as we become increasingly unable to make informed political decisions because the mainstream media institutions are not putting the appropriate questions to the political elite, nor are they engaging in fair and balanced reporting – instead merely acting as rabble-rousers.
Rather than a problem located in wider society, in wider political life, which each of the incidents mentioned above are, these communities are pointed out by media pundits as ground zero – they are then in turn asked to apologise, to publicly condemn, to take responsibility as a community – as is the case in the so-called “Muslim paedophile ring”. White English communities are never asked to apologise for the actions of white individuals somewhere in the country.
[Warning: Strong Language]
And this is what that woman was saying to me on the train, once we had moved on from talking about so-called benefit stealing, she was telling me that those guys that killed Lee Rigby were Nigerian, they looked like me, and because of this arbitrary association I don’t get to participate in the public discourse about this country, I must capitulate or be silent – that she, a true ‘Brit’, can say what she likes because she is untainted, unlike me, by virtue of my associated colour. I am not allowed to refute the wild claims she was making because like those “Nigerian Muslim Terrorists”, whom I ‘look’ like, I am an enemy, a foreigner and aberration to ‘Britishness.’ And where is this so-called Britishness created? More often than not within the mainstream media outlets.
My response – not as eloquent as I may have liked – was basically: ‘do you condemn British people who kill or molest people in other countries, as individuals or in acts of illegal wars? Do you as an English person condemn that? Will you distance yourself from those atrocities?’ It was a rhetorical point, obviously, I didn’t expect her to answer and nor should she.
It’s not my responsibility, or hers, to condemn what those guys in Woolwich had done, I am not responsible or associated with that kind of act simply because I resemble the perpetrators in some fashion, neither are the rest of the Muslim and Nigerian communities, publicly required to denounce, condemn, or distance themselves from such acts, especially under threat of the removal of our right to engage in public debate about this country.
So not only are we being held hostage by a media narrative painting us as dangerous immigrant terrorist thugs, this narrative – as expected – is spilling over into the public domain, where we are again held hostage to the perceptions of others. It can manifest itself in myriad ways, some as subtle as workplace “banter”, others as loud and confrontational as that incident on the train.
I wrote that short message at the end of the film as a call to the public, of all colours and creeds, to reclaim these spaces – let us not let this become an acceptable reality within our environments.
When I said ‘teach them’, the racists bigots, their own history, I mean try as best you can to explain how the wealth and all that is good about this country was generated, not only on the backs of white ‘British’ workers, but also from the impact of Tobacco and Sugar trade on the industrialisation of this country, itself, of course, the result of 250 years of free slave labour from the Caribbean Africans and the Indentured Indian workers.
Tell them about how the colonisation of India for over 200 years generated trillions-worth of pounds in today’s money, how those from Ghana, Trinidad, Bangladesh and Egypt also fought for Britain in the first and second world wars, that they collectively lost hundreds of thousands of lives. Don’t’ let these people dominate the social and historical narrative with their warped and misguided notions.
When bigots talk about these so called ‘benefits’ that we are all here to apparently steal, remind them of the wealth that modern-day Britain has inherited from its age of Empire, and how it continues to reap the rewards from that historic relationship – that this is a principal reason why many follow the money trail right back to this country. The political elite knows and understands this historic international relationship; unfortunately British society at large does not in any meaningful way.
I am grateful for the couple who also spoke up with me towards the end of the clip. In this kind of climate those of us with reasoned minds must stand united against the tyranny of the ignorant media zombies and manipulative political powers – don’t try to distance yourself from the acts of individuals that have nothing to do with you, avoid existing in that kind of reactionary relationship with bigots, and when confronted with the type of attitude on the film: challenge it.
I am not interested in seeing this individual woman get arrested and abused in the streets. This woman clearly has personal problems she is dealing with, she is not an object for us to hate and ridicule, she is a person suffering within society, like many of us. Her outburst is reflective of a wider institutional problem within our country around notions of race, Islam, employment, education and Immigration, exacerbated particularly on this occasion by the way in which the mainstream media recently decided to present the events around the Woolwich incident; calling the suspects Muslim Nigerian Terrorists (despite being born here) while referring to violence by the EDL (despite it amounting to organised acts of terror) as the work of ‘thugs’. Not to mention the ongoing uncritical and dishonest discussion taking place around immigration, Islam and British foreign policy.
It is, however, not good enough to look at this one woman and say she is an isolated bigot, a ‘bad apple’. Unfortunately, she does reflect a well-documented shift in this country to the politics of the right. Phillip Miller’s recent article on the rise of UKIP within England has warned against exceptionalising Individual bigots such as Farage – in the same way we must guard against exceptionalising individual acts of racism within our society, as it allows the mainstream media outlets to masquerade as reasonable observers, when in fact it they often and deliberately act as the very source of these public outbursts.
I’n’I build a cabin
I’n’I plant the corn
Didn’t my people before me
Slave for this country,
Now you look me with that scorn
Then you eat up all my corn
We gonna chase those crazy…..
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