Monday, 26 May 2014

My First Encounter with Racism.

I must have been about five or six at the time. I was a late start at primary school as my mum had dawdled over whether or not to send me at all (she contemplated homeschooling). My first real friend came from a similar family background as I did. We were both children of unemployed family units, I came from a single-parent family, whereas he had seen his parents split early on and his mother later remarried. Neither his father nor his stepfather worked (as far as I knew), just as my mum survived on benefits and credit cards. She attended college while I was little and went on to study at university and she looked for work wherever she could. The media campaign against single-mums and their children had been under way for many years by this time.

We had a lot in common as shy sons of the under-class so maligned by middle-class journalists. Then one day we were in the playground and he turned to me and said "These Asians are going to take over". It perplexed me. I didn't know what he meant. I had never heard anything like this before, or at least I hadn't noticed it, certainly not at home. He was convinced that there were so many Asians in Britain that they were going to "take over". This was long before 'Islamization' became the new buzzword of the Far-Right. Over the next few years my friend and I played video games, collected Pokemon cards, and stuck together in tough times. Still, it bothered me when he complained that Sikhs are allowed to carry knives and other such petty concerns. He often said the Asians (when he used technical language) should've been "wiped out".

My mother was blunt when I asked her what to think about my dear friend's comments. She told me it was racism. Pure and simple. No doubt the press had a big role in shaping my friend's perceptions. His family swallowed a lot of it on face value. He was on board with the 'War on Terror' and was destraught over Kevin Bigley's death because his mother was. "We're helping them!" he said. He was signed up to all the rightward trends. When UKIP was on the rise in the early part of the last decade my friend's family took to putting up UKIP campaign materials in their front room window. It was common-sense for him that we should leave the EU before we're swamped with Poles. England was a beleagured nation in his mind, dislocated, broken, and infected with undesirables.

The strength of the nationalist narrative is in its appeal to real grievances in the North and the Midlands. The national industries are gone, the old lifelines of working-class people have been decimated, and everywhere jobs are even more scarce. These were the blank slate years of the Nineties. Blairism was on the rise as John Major's 'Back to Basics' disappeared down a whirlpool of sleaze and hypocrisy. Thatcherism had wiped out the labour movement and fed public assets to the private sector. The most convenient way to explain away the problems of society was not to analyse its systemic contradictions (who has the time for this?) but to externalise them. The EU is running our country. The foreigners took the jobs and the benefits and even taking over our football teams.

Of course, the media has done a wonderful job of demonising asylum seekers and the benefits system and the EU. Not to mention the way they have set out to undermine the term 'racist' and its tone of condemnation. My friend insisted he wasn't 'racist', all the while insisting that the blacks all look the same, the Asians are taking over and should be exterminated, everyone who isn't 'white' should be deported and the government should stand up for the 'white' English. He later moved on to voting BNP and had little idea that the Party represents everything the British fought in Nazi Germany. He was more concerned by the losses of the England football team than by D-Day. He insisted that the people who died on the shores of Normandy did not die for him or his country. Not that he was pro-Hitler. I don't think he was aware of all the implications of what he thought.

That's ideology for you. It's not what you think, it's what you do. In the world he lives in there are only racial formations and he has to take the side of his own kind. Class is abstracted away, only ancestry and skin-colour matter. It breaks my heart that there are still working-class people who think like this. It merely enforces their predicament and closes down any possibility beyond the existing order. It keeps the working-class in its place. As Noel Ignatiev put it "We cannot say it too often: whiteness does not exempt people from exploitation, it reconciles them to it. It is for those who have nothing else."

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