Pressure: A Personal Reflection on British and Western Establishment Racism

I have been publishing social and media criticism for approaching two decades. It would have been longer but my entry into higher education was delayed by British racism. In these years of producing evidence, example and intellectual precedent-based material, this is the first time I have felt the need to write subjectively using ‘I’. But this moment in British history feels like the right time for a phenomenological reflection on racism and the Black experience.

I was born to mixed English/Caribbean parents during the postwar consensus. Very young Black or mixed-race children are like other kids, sometimes shielded from the worst of society’s hostilities that they might encounter later in life, by notions of ‘cuteness’ projected onto them by adults. This protection dissipates as the maturing child accrues autonomy. So primary school was at times enjoyable and not the worst of my experiences. That said, there was ignorance and institutional disciplinarily stereotyping.

I do recall a young classmate taking me home for tea. His working-class mum was a very nice but unworldly woman who asked me if I ‘could eat chips’. I don’t know if she thought I was a different species with an alien digestion or belonged to some severe cult that had eschewed fried potatoes, but she meant no harm and was sharing her food with me. In terms of national ignorance, there were equivalent stories from exclusively white parts of the United Kingdom of people coming out of their homes to stare when hearing of a Black man walking down the street.

As the only Black face in my class, I found even primary school could be trying. Whenever something went missing I was always selected to be grilled. This also involved being made to stand in front of the class for hours at a time, in the hope that I would break like some B-movie police suspect and confess all. On one occasion I desperately bolted for home. My mum came to school to insist there was no secret cache of teacher’s jewellery, school keys, stationery, etc., at our house, so could teachers refrain from subjecting me to this nonsense? (Even in twenty-first century Britain Black schoolchildren experience strip-searches.)

As things turned out, it was an Irish lad suffering—along with his mum—extreme domestic violence at home who was desperately acquiring ‘shiny stuff’ for emotional comfort. In the main, my experiences initially didn’t make me feel any different to anyone else, and things only dramatically changed for the worse when I got to high school.

One interesting moment at secondary school came during a Biology class. The teacher asked, If predators have their eyes on the front of their head, to facilitate their hunts, and by comparison prey species on their sides, so as not to be sneaked up on, why do humans have their eyes on the front of their faces?

I made the mistake of pointing out that humans are primates and have needed hand/eye co-ordination for climbing. My teacher could hardly contain his amusement. And clearly thought I’d got this right because I was closer to being a chimp than the rest of the white class, and was probably used to jumping about like a gibbon.

Such institutional, authoritarian, manifestations of racism underpinned much broader problematic incidents at high school. I was subject to a certain amount of discriminatory aggression, and while being subject to slurs like coon, wog, sambo, nigger, etc., had to fight racist bullies. Sometimes I would have to fight knowing I’d lose but aware that a ferocious show would put others off from subsequently taking me on. Here again institutional power played a part. In recent years the media had screened a sitcom called Love Thy Neighbour (1972–76) about a comedy racist character hurling abuse at Caribbeans living next door. My tormentors were getting much of their abusive vocabulary from this show. Racists are manufactured, not born.

Love Thy Neighbour

At one point I did take a friend’s advice and tried a few days’ truancy break. I had the misfortune of bumping into a police officer, whose idea of humour was to lock my thirteen-year-old self in a holding area with a gang of adult car thieves. I would encounter more of this police ‘humour’ throughout my adult life. Against the background of watching my back, I left school just achieving the basic Certificates of Education (CSEs).

Post-school, there was still the issue of fighting with or running from gangs of everyday racists or fascist skinheads. On one of the occasions when I got jumped in my twenties, I was hit from behind with a steel steering lock and giving a kicking as I hit the ground. The fact that I was seen dancing with a white girl earlier may have been a factor. These things were usually enflamed by opportunist politicians of the Enoch Powell type and an economic system that pitted Black and white working classes against each other. My resulting shoulder injury would flare up intermittently over the decades for the rest of my life.

I was lucky enough to have the UK National Health Service at my disposal at a time when it was properly funded and before the Thatcher to Blair service rationing had subverted Nye Bevan’s ‘Cradle to Grave’ vision. Even so, it often failed Black Britons, who among other things were subject to disproportionate mental health sectioning. My own worst experience involved institutional failings and prejudice. I had had an appendicitis operation that hospital staff failed to realise had gone less than perfectly. I was discharged in pain and over the following month it got worse, with medical staff insisting that I just had poor morale. I finally collapsed and was readmitted. When I was being admitted to the ward, one medical professional asked another, ‘What’s the matter with him?’

Gesturing in my direction, the colleague said, ‘They have lower pain thresholds to whites’.

When my operation scar was prodded by a member of the consultant’s team, it burst open in a large spurting arc of pus to reveal a major infection. I never got an apology for the suggestion my condition was merely an innate ethnic failure of character.

Having been failed by the school system, one summer in my twenties I paid a local teacher to tutor me in basic textual comprehension exercises and essay technique. The following autumn I then signed up for two Ordinary Level and one Advanced Level evening classes, to be completed inside a year. The following year I did another Advanced Level qualification. After being forced to wait a year for a space at my chosen institution, I subsequently entered university for my first degree aged twenty-seven—many years after my equivalent white contemporaries.

However, my attempts at educational gentrification did not spare me from the police attention that is disproportionately directed at Black Britons. Over the course of my life I averaged a police stop-and-search once every two years, continuing well into my fifties. One of the more memorable examples includes being pinned in the back of a vehicle by two drunken detectives, who while distinctly reeking of Scotch told me that if I opened my mouth, they’d take me down the cells and ‘kick the fucking shit’ out of me.

Police arrest a terrified man during the 1981 Brixton Riots, Photo: John Sturrock

I also experienced a traditional British police ‘all wogs look the same’ encounter. Outside of a university gym entrance, I was pinned to a wall by my throat until the police helicopter overhead radioed down that the real Black suspect was still off and running streets away. You’d think my sports/wash kitbag might have indicated to the officer that he was barking up the wrong tree…

In the middle of a downpour two officers in a van stopped me on my way home from the supermarket. In another example of police ‘humour’, they took great pleasure in protractedly demanding my details and business, while I got rain-soaked as they stayed inside their van. Just what danger I and my increasingly sodden Italian rolls supposedly were to the public was anyone’s guess. Perhaps at that time ciabatta was on a dangerous weapons list?

If you were stopped late in the day, there was always the risk of spending part or all of the night in the cells. I’ve had to accept such hospitality once or twice and I’ve never been prosecuted or even charged for anything. I took to placing my PhD title on my ID in the hope that passing as middle-class might take the edge off these experiences.

To the uninitiated, this might seem like a severe personal history but among Black Britons, these types of events are often treated as tame, standard encounters that easily occur in a society in which Black Lives Matter’s deaths at the hands of the police are regarded as mere policy.

Empire and white settler hierarchies are also an issue for Black citizens. My English mother married my Caribbean father in 1959. Large parts of the US were off-limits to our family because of segregation. Because I had a white mother, we were also effectively barred from the seventeen states making up more than a third of the country which—up until a Supreme Court ban in 1967—had anti-miscegenation laws. There were White Australia and White New Zealand immigration laws designed to keep out the Black Commonwealth. And the three white settler societies that seized statehood against the tide of postwar decolonisation—Israel, Rhodesia and South Africa—were all practicing variants of apartheid. Israel’s apartheid and eugenics policies were later revealed to even victimise Jewish people of colour—so even being Jewish would not have protected me there.

All of which confirms why, despite its racism, as a younger person, for my generation, I did then believe the United Kingdom was the best country in the world in which to be Black. I had a wonderful white extended family within Britain. Officially sanctioned segregation was disappearing. And outside of the witch trial tradition, there was no equivalent to US lynching.

Prior to the ‘Murdochisation’ of UK culture, the British Left was a force in anti-racist, anti-imperialist politics, supporting independence for India, freedom for Africa and Arab Nationalist movements, thereby reaffirming the legitimacy of ‘other’ identities. Harold Wilson’s Labour government kept Britain out of Vietnam. In keeping with its trade unionist and Chartist founding principles, the British Labour Party also had a socialist equality ethos of supporting the working class. The structural marginalisation that Black Britons experienced meant they were disproportionately ghettoised in the working class. Economic interventionist pro-working-class policies helped us. The unemployment welfare I needed once or twice were Labour Party policy. The subsidised evening classes for those on low incomes from which I benefited were Labour social policy. The mandatory non-means-tested student grant that supported me through my first degree originated from Harold Wilson’s Labour government.

All these policies and more were cut by Blairite neoliberal entryists, who used these resources to fund continuing tax breaks to the super rich. Young Black, ethnic minority and working-class citizens were now worse off, with less life opportunities than I or even their grandparents enjoyed at their age.

The other significant change factor was the Iraq and Afghan wars and others, which coincided with a massive rise in racism and delegitimisation of Black identities. How do you maintain your status as a Western person of colour after Tony Blair has entwined your national military and security apparatus with the US security forces that tried to break the civil rights movement, bugged Dr King, fed details of his sex life to the right-wing press, and had an assassination program for Black Liberationists called COINTELPRO? How do you stop your status as a person of colour from collapsing when after a million and more deaths in Iraq and elsewhere, your media and judiciary give the politicians responsible impunity? How do you complain about Black Lives Matter deaths at the hands of the police when your country’s security services are operating torture programme upon Muslim people of colour?

And once Blair had got away with the killings arising from returning UK foreign policy to a variant of its nineteenth-century racist-imperialist past, it was not long before the Israel lobby came out of the woodwork claiming they too were respectable. Sixty years ago someone on a current affairs show claiming that religion excused white colonial conquest and apartheid domination would have been treated like a member of the Flat Earth Society. These days, if Israel’s lobby doesn’t get double and more the white privilege of Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa supporters, we are told an anti-Semitism crisis is occurring.

As part of this lobbying, the privately schooled, Cambridge-educated Jewish ‘comedian’ David Baddiel has been trying to find a new career niche claiming that Jews are uniquely oppressed, and particularly by progressive leftists. There is insufficient space here to detail all of Baddiel’s history of rhetorical abuses of young women, Gypsy Roma people, invocations of Black physical primitiveness, etc. But it is worth mentioning that his blackface mockery of the locks-and-cornrows ethnic appearance of the footballer Jason Lee provoked the abuse of generation of Black children by those using Baddiel’s racist slur ‘Pineappleheads’. Baddiel’s provocations has provided a vocabulary for racist abuse, decades after Love Thy Neighbour had done the same, yet he is now corporate media marketed as an authority figure on ethnic politics.

The marketing of the so-called anti-Semitism crisis served to overwrite criticism of Israel’s 2014, two-month long bombing of Gaza and the huge casualties involved. If a postwar anti-Semitism crisis actually existed, it seems strange that most Jewish human rights activists, from Brits Harold Pinter and Miriam Karlin to Americans Rabbi Israel Dresner, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and Jewish Voice for Peace, have instead chosen to work combating other people’s oppression. There is no Jewish equivalent of BLM deaths at police hands. In the United Kingdom, those being killed and having their places of worship firebombed are Muslims.

I am not suggesting here, that I am the most racially oppressed person in the United Kingdom—I am not a Muslim woman wearing a niqab, for one thing. But Baddiel’s and the lobby’s victim narrative does not even measure up to my experiences. And the rebooting of the Western racist-imperialist and apartheid model does directly impact on those like me. I have a vote and UK passport, but no UK news channel or newspaper letters page would allow me to articulate the hazards I might face in non-tourist parts of Israel or if walking down the same street as the Azov Battalion. My Black British citizenship status is now second class in comparison to the interests of white people in other countries.

These latter examples are mere overspill from the forces being directed at Western-based Muslims. After Tony Blair hitched Britain to George Bush’s global lynch mob, the UK government launched its ‘Prevent Strategy’—part of an ideological culture war against Muslims who might be critical of the West. The mainstream media were happy to join in attacking the very notion that Muslims should be permitted grievances about Western racism. The BBC’s John Ware would later achieve infamy for fronting Is Labour Anti-Semitic, but in 2015 he made the equally dubious The Battle for British Islam. He attacked the Islam Channel for its slogan ‘Voice for the Voiceless, Voice of the Oppressed’. To irony-free Ware, Muslim complaints about ‘voicelessness’ should not be permitted a voice. More recently, Tory leadership candidate Penny Mordant was condemned for merely meeting representatives of the Muslim Council of Britain.

In the 1970s the Caribbean-British playwright Horace Ove coined the term ‘pressure’ to describe the Black experience of being attacked, controlled and blocked in every sphere of life—a situation with which Muslims are now very familiar. Given current realities, I can only hope that being Black in Britain is no longer the best the world has to offer.

Postscript

As a public relations stunt for his show, Baddiel finally apologised to Jason Lee, causing Lee to ask why it had taken 25 years. In the interim, Lee’s mother had died never to witness this apology.  She like most of Lee’s family had to stop watching him at football grounds because of the ‘racial stuff’ Baddiel had provoked. 

The type of Black experiences listed in this article rarely get media coverage.  On the other hand, the BBC covered a story of a Jewish Israel supporting student being squirted with brown sauce on a university campus.  They gave this web article more length than any individual article covering 82yr old grandad Muhammad Saleem being murdered in a racist attack and his killer planting bombs at three different Mosques

About the author

Gavin Lewis

Gavin Lewis is a freelance Black British mixed-race writer and academic. He has published in Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States on film, media, politics, cultural theory, race, and representation. He has taught critical theory and film and cultural studies at a number of British universities. He is a member of the British trade union Bectu.

More articles by Gavin Lewis

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