You Are Not An Honorary Black Guy.


Dear – ,

You are not an honorary black guy. You are a very specific type of white man, and upon reading a few sentences of this open letter you will recognise yourself within it. You are probably affluent, and have a small selection of black friends, who are themselves protected by affluence or even wealth from some of the harshest daily consequences of racism. You may even work in the entertainment industry, where your wider circle of acquaintances includes many black people. After many years of your friendship and acquaintance with these black people – most likely black men – you and your partner will occasionally joke with each other at parties that you are an honorary black guy. You go on holiday with black guys, you dance with black guys, you dance like black guys -whatever that means. You exchange black hand signs with your black guy friends, and you will probably join in their jokes about angry black women. It may never occur to you that in some sense they may hate being different as much as you think you crave it. Or maybe that’s the painfully unspoken and humourless joke: that they need you for access to those rarefied white spaces and you need them for access to those rarefied black ones. You are each other’s visa. You brandish them to your friends, and in turn they brandish you to strangers.

You are not an honorary black guy. What has happened over the course of the years is that you have begun to wear blackness like drag. But you will throw that blackness off the second you are confronted with an awkward conversation about racism with, say, your lovely, doting aunt, that one who helped you pay off your student loan but can’t resist slipping into diatribes about those foreigners ruining the country. She loves your friends, of course. It’s just the other ones she can’t stand. You never contest her views – you nod sheepishly and agree, even though in your heart you don’t.

Or maybe in your heart you do agree. Maybe you do think that if black people all simply pulled themselves together like the ones you know and presumably love, then they would all be fine. If this is how you think, then you don’t like black people. You may think you do, but you really don’t. No. You only like black people who have become affluent enough to prove that the enduring effects of racism do not exist. You only like black people who make it easy for you.

If you are still reading this, don’t stop reading now. Because it was not written for all white people, or even for all white men. It was written for you; for a very specific type of white man, the type who thinks he can have his racial cake and eat it. And you need to read this conclusion, which you will hopefully find devastating, but which in your cynicism you will probably dismiss: that there is no such thing as an honorary black guy. There are only those white men who appreciate black people as fellow and equally complex human beings, and those who do not. You, regrettably, are the latter. And, at some level, you don’t regret it at all.

The FIGC’s refusal to protect Moise Kean is the ultimate monkey chant

Several weeks ago, a black footballer playing in Italy’s top division was racially abused during a game of football, with monkey chants directed his way throughout the entire game. Following widespread anger, the Italian football authorities promised to look into the matter. They have just announced that they will not be taking action against the club whose supporters gave that abuse, stating that the chants were of “objectively limited relevance” – whatever that means. The Italian football authorities, the FIGC, have therefore decided, in effect, that the conduct of these fans is absolutely fine. After all, a lack of punishment equals encouragement to do more of the same.

I feel very sorry for Moise Kean, the young Juventus forward who received this abuse. I feel very angry at the football club of Cagliari, for creating an atmosphere where so many of its fans felt comfortable expressing their prejudices. I feel angriest of all, though, at the FIGC, because I suspect I know what they are doing with this decision: they are attempting to exhaust everyone who is opposed to racism. I suspect they are doing this because of the language they used: it is designed to infuriate. It is a form of “gaslighting”, where the person making a rightful accusation or sharing a just grievance faces such flagrant denial that they are made to doubt their own sanity.

Look at the language: that to call a black person a monkey is of “objectively limited relevance” to the issue of racism. It is actually difficult to think of something more racist than calling a black person a monkey – just last week, a leading British radio presenter was sacked by the BBC for his careless implication that he was doing so. Yet the FIGC are telling us that this doesn’t fall within their definition of racism. If this doesn’t, then what does?

“Objectively limited relevance”. What a revealing statement. It is the kind of statement you make when you feel so powerful that you face no repercussions for it. It is the kind of statement you make when you quietly agree with what those fans were chanting, because there is simply no way that anyone who cares about or is close friends with black people could allow a human being to be subjected to such humiliation without consequences.

Away from the football stadiums, humiliation kills. Cagliari is the capital of Sardinia, an island which in recent years has seen the arrival of many people fleeing conflict in Africa; many of whom have skin just as dark as Moise Kean. Many of those making their way to Cagliari drowned in the process, and one major reason they were allowed to drown is because a group of policymakers got together and effectively decided that those monkeys deserved it; that it was not worth spending their budget on boats to patrol the Mediterranean and rescue those desperately crossing the water. Somewhere a group of policymakers, in their own way just as callous as the FIGC, sat in a room and decided that black people were objectively less keen on being treated as fully human.

The FIGC are clearly expecting this issue to go away, since they are aware that we are living in the Age of Shamelessness – where the more outrageous your act of bigotry, the more likely you are to get away with it. And let us make no mistake – their decision is an act of bigotry. Like the policies that allow African refugees to drown, the FIGC’s refusal to protect Moise Kean is the ultimate monkey chant. But the FIGC are counting on one thing, and in this they may have been complacent; they have calculated that not enough Italians care about racism for this issue to remain controversial. Yet in March this year, a vast crowd took to the streets to protest against racism, with an estimated 200,000 people gathering in Milan. The resistance is not only there in Italy, it is proactive and it is organised.

Just a few days ago, I was playing football in Italy, at sadly a far less distinguished level than Moise Kean – though, thankfully, with a far better reception than he got from the fans at Cagliari. I was there as a guest of the towns of Tito and Matera, which during my stay shared the title of European Capital of Culture; I was taking part in a tournament of writers from Italy, Germany, Sweden and England, where England finished a creditable third. The most important action, though, took place away from the field. One night in Tito, the locals put on an event to welcome us; a gathering of young and old, black and white, children running this way and that, while a strikingly confident singer belted out a seemingly endless stream of karaoke hits. Right there, in the middle of small-town Italy, if anyone had tried anything like a monkey chant they would have been shown the door.

Seeing the fallout of the Kean affair, I think I needed to be reminded that there are many, many people like those open-hearted and open-minded residents of Tito; I needed to be reminded that, at times like these, many of them will speak up. It is only if they do, whether that be at dinner tables, in the stands or in boardrooms across Italy, that racist attitudes will become obsolete; that they will become, in the words of the FIGC, of objectively limited relevance to the future.

“I’m done being quiet.”

Below is a guest blog-post from Faye Treacy, a comedian, writer, presenter and good friend of mine, about misogyny and sexual harassment in the music world where she first made her name. (Her work is superb by the way: you can find her on Twitter at @fayetreacy and on her website.)

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So on Friday night I received a rather vile video on fb from a trumpet player I don’t really know or work with. He was aggressively exposing himself to me and his reasoning was ‘I’m drunk.’

Now this isn’t the first time I have received unsolicited photos/videos/messages. I could have guessed his age at being middle aged by the fact that he stupidly used the platform of Facebook messenger instead of snap chat so I’m sorry ‘mate’ but that video is now on the internet forever. You were drunk yes but you were also making a power move, like when other colleagues have shown me porn for fun on their phones over dinner or in WhatsApp groups. I also am aware this is a grey area and comes down to context. Sarah Silverman just thought Louie was being an idiot when he ‘asked’ (important word there) to wank in front of her, the open spots at their gigs obviously found this headliner way more threatening. A dickhead mate of mine sending me bad porn when we were younger for example, I don’t suddenly want him to lose all his teaching work if I chose to report him now but we need to look at it. We all do dumb shit. I grew up Catholic and used to call all bad things ‘gay’ even before I realised I liked girls as well as boys, which was a hard realisation and then insight into why I hated myself so much when I was younger 🤦‍♀️

I’ve been doing music most of my life. It’s opened many doors and satisfied my creativity, opened a world of better education my parents wouldn’t have been able to afford without the bursary’s and as a geeky kid in band I thought I’d found my tribe.. but as I got older, when puberty hit I noticed a trend… with geeky men, there come’s a lot of pent up resentment towards women.

Having a metre-long dick drawn on your locker at music college after your first stint of TV work, notes left in your case calling you a ‘slag.’ This wasn’t from children, this was from well educated middle class early twenty year olds. When are we going to stop making excuses for such behaviour?

I had a chat a few years ago with my favourite academic professor at the Royal Academy of Music and I giggled that I’ve probably grown a way thicker skin now.. he cut me off, he wasn’t laughing along and he said ‘no, since you’ve left we’ve got better at having girls in the brass department.’ I really hope that’s true as I can no longer giggle. It’s a disservice to my feelings and quite frankly my intelligence.

There has been a few sneers against the Royal Northern College of music for setting up a better pastoral care system, but honestly when I was at my lowest and I mean low, I could have really done with some support not just being told ‘oh he’s Scottish’ or ‘you can’t stop a pig grunting.’ I was aware by going to study I was putting myself in crippling debt for life and I was wondering how much then I was willing to put up with till I broke.

I then went onto study in America where I got fed up of the professor there massaging young female accompanists shoulders in his ‘weekly’ yes weekly masterclasses. I got tired so I returned to London and I went in search of other art forms to express myself cos I actually found the music world I’d experienced up till then quite toxic and it had left me with quite crippling stage fright.

And it worked, I’ve now continued to play with great bands and musicians and I’m proud to say have an up and coming comedy career. What ever people can call me from my college days, doesn’t hurt me anymore. Call me a slag, say I only get my gigs cos I’m a girl all you like but at least as far as I’m aware no one ever said I wasn’t nice…And I am nice but I just can’t be fucked any longer to be agreeable.

So Friday night after a 17hr teaching week, 7 gigs and 2 radio shows recorded I get into bed feeling proud with myself for once (and I’m so hard on myself) having had some lovely gigs at Top Secret comedy club I’m subjected to a video that was just disgusting.

Earlier this week I had a tweet asking how do we get more girls playing brass. I don’t think it’s a gender issue with who wants to learn a brass instrument, all little boys and girls love making fart noises, as the hilarious comedian Iliza Shlesinger recently put it in an interview little girls and boys find poop and farting hilarious as it’s funny BUT girls we’re just trained out of it, it’s for the boys to make jokes about.

I think we have a cultural problem that leads to many female brass students not sticking at it. I also think we have a massive class issue. When you can’t afford a car or a hotel when you’re building up your freelance work, as a woman you have to put so much trust in men. Some of us don’t have the older sibling looking out for us, some us didn’t come from Cheethams school of music/ NYO etc etc when you’ve got your old boy/girl club. (Although I am aware there has been some terrible stories to come out of some of those music schools.)

You have to share lifts with strangers, rooms and trust that you don’t wake up with some pervy function leader’s hand in your knickers. You have to make sure you don’t get drunk and put yourself in vulnerable situations, (why did you agree to share a room in the first place?!) walking home late alone cos you don’t want to spend half of your gig fee on a cab because you know already your rent’s going to be a week late.

I’m tired of being subjected to this.

Yes I’m a comedian, I take the piss out of myself and my failings on stage, I’m sex positive, I speak freely and I’m not easily offended but I’m tired. The world is moving forward but why does it appear the music world is still dragging its feet?

I’ve asked some male colleagues if they know this dude and their response has been, ‘he’s normally so sweet,’ or ‘have you slept with him before?’ Ffs!!!! Some of my female older brass mates have been like ‘oh ignore it,’ cos I’m sure they’ve seen it all before. You become desensitised when your a gigging musician to this type of crap. Some people have told me to share the video, however, I don’t want to subject it to people who really don’t want to see it. Some people have been like don’t share it, ‘HE might be having a bad time in life.’

Now, I’ve put shout outs before begging my male colleagues to communicate more, speak about their feelings. I think it’s devastating that suicide is the biggest killer of young men. But did you know the group that commits suicide the most isn’t actually young men it’s actually lesbians… yes women. My sister works with sex workers in Norway and shared that shocking stat with me. Another fact about women that isn’t shouted about.

So to my lovely men in the world of music if one of your mates is being a dick, have a word! Through hard work I’ve created a platform for myself where I will continue to speak up. The next hundred years isn’t going to be just written by men in the history books.

I’m done being quiet.

“Leaving Home (Citizen of Everywhere)”, my speech at the #BrexitWake at the Literaturhaus in Berlin, 29.03.2019.

I read the following speech at the #BrexitWake in Berlin, the night that the UK had long been scheduled to leave the EU.

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The strange thing about the UK leaving the EU is that a few years ago I left the UK, a place I called home, but now it feels like that old home is leaving me too.

Make no mistake, Germany is where I live now – not Berlin, but Germany; in its own way, I love Hamburg just as much as this city, with honourable mentions for Bremen and Dusseldorf. But when it comes to the heart, Britain is hard to quit. The UK is an ex-partner on whom I check up from time to time. We have long since parted ways, but I still care about them. Recently, though, I have seen them fall in with a bad crowd, and I am not sure that I recognise them anymore.

When the UK’s Prime Minister referred to people like me as “citizens of nowhere”, she meant to represent me as an outsider, as someone who roamed the vast global nowhere in search of their identity. The irony is that she is helping to make her own people citizens of nowhere. She has done her very best to ensure that they will be scornful outsiders, peering in from the edges of the world. Britain will still welcome investment from all over the planet, but its hospitality towards actual people has been questioned like never before. Though my Prime Minister has not been alone in her efforts, it is rare that a major politician has made politics feel so personal.

Part of me, a very small, quietly spiteful part, feels that perhaps Britain deserves to be an outsider. During its centuries as an insider, it did many things that shaped the world for the worse, and so maybe it will be less dangerous on the fringe. But there is is another far larger part of me, which remembers a more modern Britain which was better than that. That is the Britain I thought I knew, the Britain of my favourite teachers Janet Fallows and Andrew Robinson and Mark Freedland, who encouraged me to think critically and kindly at all times. That is the Britain of innovation in science and medicine and music, the Britain of compassionate legislation and the fierce defender of human rights, the Britain of my friends Justin in Norfolk and Tessa in Brussels and Jonny in Haiti. Recently, these better Britains have felt like a distant dream.

I have no gently poetic words to describe how I feel about the UK leaving the EU. Yes, the EU has its flaws. Look at the hard borders against Africa, the treatment of Greece. Yet it is still an institution that has protected us from the worst of what could have been, and could yet protect us from the worst of what is to come. If we judge the EU by those who would happily see it destroyed, then the UK’s decision to leave looks all the more worrying still. But we all know all this, that is largely why we are here.

I am very angry tonight. This is a time in history where we have never needed greater unity of purpose, and we are in an era where division grows by the day. And I do not mean political division between left and right. I mean division between people who want to have a plan about the planet we still seek to inhabit a generation from now, and people who don’t. I am disgusted by how climate change has become just another issue in the culture war. I am appalled by how ignorance has become a badge of honour. If recent years have reminded us of anything, it is that  “No” is not only an emotion, it is a political position. But “No” is very rarely a helpful solution.

In the UK we are faced, as is the rest of the world, with the prospect of catastrophic climate change within the course of our lifetime. We are fortunate because we are in a position to sit at a table and help to drive forward policies for progress. Yet we are walking away from that table, and in the process leaving our nation in disarray. Because this is not a dignified retreat from Europe – a bold stand taken by the brave British underdog. This is a daylight heist, which I believe will thrust my country’s politicians towards the arms of the rising far-right.

My country. Maybe I need to stop saying that. Maybe I need to stop reading so much UK news, and instead concentrate on what is happening here, in my slowly-improving German. I am no longer living in the UK, I am no longer paid in anything other than euros and dollars. Despite the very many challenges I have faced since arriving in Germany almost five years ago, I have found so much here that is truly special. It is not only my taxes that are here: my closest friends are here, Josh is here, Jennifer is here, Krisz is here. I hope that my future love is here. I have much that I adore in the UK, not least my beloved Manchester United, but recently I even have a new football team to support, the women’s team of Wolfsburg. (This week, we lost the Champions League quarter-final to Lyon – but we nearly beat them, and I can promise you we will be back. Next year, Lyon, we are coming for you. Next year.)

The British Prime Minister – not my Prime Minister, not anymore – was wrong about me. When she says I am a citizen of nowhere, I can reply, no, I am a citizen of everywhere. I belong everywhere all at once. I may not fit into many people’s traditional vision of someone from their hometown. Yet whether I do, or do not, I do not care. I am here to live, to love, to contribute to something much bigger and hopefully much, much better than myself. And, for as long as I am here in Germany, I always will.

A comment on Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher’s remarks about Raheem Sterling.

It was just a shock to hear them finally say it.

 

“What is the perception of Raheem Sterling in this country for most people, who buy papers and read media stuff online?” asked Jamie Carragher, co-presenting Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football show.  “The perception”, he said, immediately answering his own question, “is of a young, flash, black kid from London”. He continued: ““Anyone reading that, anyone writing that – I can assure you that is absolute, utter nonsense. It’s garbage. Raheem Sterling’s a mouse.” [1]

 

It was a relief to hear them say what so many had been thinking for so long, and to know that a conversation about this subject could at last begin. It was such a relief to hear the issue acknowledged at last. But, on waking this morning, there are further questions. Why did it take so long for Carragher and Gary Neville, one of the show’s other presenters, to speak up? Why did being perceived as a young flash black kid from London – which would not have been a crime in any case – lead to levels of abuse the like of which Neville said he had never seen?

 

Imagine that you are back at school and the senior pupils announce in assembly that a quiet and friendly classmate of yours has been mercilessly targeted by the biggest bullies in the playground for years on end, that they get it now, that he had come to them in confidence before and could not believe why it was happening. Your reaction might be: “well, yes, we knew that, we’ve seen him suffer for ages, at least now you can start to sort it out”. Or your reaction might be: “I saw it happening but didn’t want to say anything in case it turned the anger towards me.” Or your reaction might be: “why are you telling us? You’re the seniors, it’s your job to go to the teachers and sort it out.”

 

Whatever your response, it is obvious that football’s teachers – the Football Association and the football clubs around the country – and football’s seniors – the ex-players and pundits, the editors, the producers and the older commentators and journalists – have collectively failed Raheem Sterling. They have treated the abuse he gets as part and parcel of the game when it is clear from Neville’s own words that it is not. Just consider that Neville was in the same dressing room as Beckham the season he returned from his red card against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup, a season when the abuse against his best friend reached astonishing levels – and that Sterling was targeted by hatred that made this pale in comparison. That is a reality too horrific for many to contemplate.

 

This reality is so awful that many people will become numb to it and look away. There is something about discussing racism that makes many uncomfortable. Many black people often downplay it because it is too painful and don’t want to be seen to make a fuss. Many white people often downplay it because it is too grim to admit, yes, I see those attitudes among my friends and family. It’s why we move on so quickly from the game’s race-related scandals.

 

It’s too painful to reflect upon, isn’t? Many of us go to football to escape but here it is, putting society’s ugliness under a microscope. Eniola Aluko, one of the finest forwards her country has seen, saw her international career ended as the result of which her national team manager was found guilty of racially abusing her. [2]

 

When Rio Ferdinand’s family saw John Terry in court due to a charge of racial abuse against Ferdinand’s brother Anton, Ferdinand later revealed that “there were bullets in the post…My mum had her windows smashed and bullets put through her door, and ended up in hospital because of the stress.” At the time many might have seen this harassment as a series of isolated incidents – maybe many didn’t want to look, it was too painful – but now, in the current political climate, we can see that harassment as the extreme end of something worrying, unsettling and deeply wrong within our society. When we look at that harassment it perhaps explains why Ashley Cole, a pupil called upon to ask if he had seen a popular pupil abusing a fellow classmate, decided not to tell tales. [3]

 

That episode involving the two Ferdinands, Terry and Cole arguably ended the career of one of the greatest centre-backs the country has known – and he wasn’t even anywhere near the incident in question at the time. Most poignantly, it tore childhood friends apart, people who had come through the brutal world of professional football together. Whether or not they have been reconciled is not the point. The point is that these toxic dynamics have been allowed to play out time and again and the school’s authorities have chosen to look the other way.

 

Perhaps you find my school analogy more than a little patronising, maybe you find it infantilising or that it doesn’t fully work. That’s a shame – because the more I watch Neville’s comments on Raheem Sterling the more I see a schoolkid in the corner, getting pulverised or ignored by everyone who walks past, and every passerby knowing that, in this school of English football, there are some kids who just deserve it, you know the ones, some kids who are just due a kicking, you know how it goes, they might get spat on each lunchtime and maybe even punched now and then but they’ll come through it, they’ll be fine one day and we’ll all have a laugh about it looking back. Or maybe they won’t – maybe there’ll be a day when they don’t come into school anymore, where no-one will really know the kid well enough to ask why, and no-one will have the courage to name the bullies, because they are still there and scarier than before, they’ve got rich and powerful parents, and eventually no-one will talk about the kid, mention their names, and not worry about any of that because there is a new kid to bully now, a new reason to keep our heads down, get on with it, pass by the phlegm-covered kid and shamefully say nothing.

 

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[1] The full transcript of this segment has kindly been provided by Football365.com:

https://www.football365.com/news/full-sterling-transcript-neville-carra-discuss-abuse

 

[2] The incident involving Eniola Aluko is detailed here: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/football/2017/10/18/mark-sampson-found-guilty-racially-abusing-eni-aluko-drew-spence/

 

[3] The incident involving the Ferdinands, Terry and Cole is detailed here:

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/teams/england/11094964/Rio-Ferdinand-calls-John-Terry-an-idiot-and-says-he-does-not-speak-to-Chelsea-captain-or-Ashley-Cole-after-race-row.html

 

This is why you shout racist abuse at black footballers.

You go to football matches and shout racist abuse at black footballers because you have paid your money and so for the next ninety minutes you own every footballer in that stadium,  especially the black ones. You own their strengths and their flaws and everything you know or suspect about their personal lives. For that time, your mouth becomes a firehose of hate. You look at this black man and you think: this is my victim, my ground, my England.

Why is this your England? Because just enough people tell you that this is so. There are plenty of people around you in the crowd who will listen to you roar abuse and who’ll still share a drink and a joke with you at half-time and after the match. In relation to racism, they’ll fall into a few different groups. A few will be just as vocal as you. Others will wish they had the courage to shout as loudly as you do but they won’t, not yet. Others still will have black friends at home but will act as if it’s not their problem – they won’t even report you to the stewards. They will know they are cowards and a few of them will later tell their black friends how awful it was, looking anxiously in their friends’ eyes for some form of forgiveness for their inaction, as if black people are suddenly the fairy godmothers of football.

You think this is your England because you read the most popular newspapers in the country and they agree with you – they agree with you that black footballers, like children, must be seen and not heard, that the second they decide to do anything more than score spectacular goals they become a threat. Those newspapers remind you daily that there is no aspect of criminality to which a black footballer cannot be connected.

You think this is your England because – well, why wouldn’t you? You have a political system whose immigration laws have long discriminated against the exact same social group from whom these black footballers claim heritage. You listen to your radio and one of its prime-time presenters has a history of racism stretching back decades. You watch your television and one of its most high-profile producers once edited the most popular newspaper in the country at a time when it was referring to African men women and children as cockroaches at the very moment that they were drowning in the Mediterranean. You log onto Twitter and you see one of the most-followed presenters rolling his eyes as if you are just some lone wolf of racism and have not been emboldened by the years of hard-boiled bigotry that his media outlet and others have been diligently pumping out.

But you are at this game screaming because, at some level, you are worried that this is not your England, and this stadium is the safest place you can take revenge on black footballers for making you feel this way. These black men are crawling all over your football teams and your TV screens and your culture. If you stop for a moment you will worry about how many people seem to love this England, even with all these black men in its national team – and maybe, to your dismay, that’s even why they love this team more.

The black footballer is within earshot so you call him a black cunt in the hope that your words will land with the force of a whip. You hope the black player will respond there and then, in your mind making a champion out of you, but he does so later, online and at length. Somewhere, in a newsroom or a living room, there are countless others with the same bile in them as you, slightly more confident today than they were yesterday.

You still think this is your England because there are not enough people in your immediate circle, even if they disagree with you, who have the courage to tell you differently. Your England is small, bitter, brutal and fearful, and it always has been. Your England thinks it has black friends but would never allow them to date your sons and daughters. Your England desperately needs one corner of a stadium, one section of an angry crowd, its safe space. You ruled the world and now you can’t even rule a touchline. You can never stop shouting because if you hold your tongue for long enough the appalled silence in the crowd around you will forever remind you of what you have lost.

“Keep Kicking”, a post about Pittsburgh.

You began writing today before 6am – it was the only way you felt you could react to what was happening. You couldn’t sleep, your guts were on fire with the news from Pittsburgh, the attack on the synagogue that left eleven people dead. This thing that is tearing at you is not new. It has been there since the day Trump was elected, an event swiftly following which your sleep promptly dropped from six hours a night down to four. For the first few months that you lost a third of your sleep you denied why it was happening, but then you accepted it – that your body was telling you to be ready. You have rested enough, it was telling you, and given what is coming you have so much work to do.

In the early months after the election of Trump you didn’t know best to do, nobody did – maybe not even Trump himself, delirious with the unexpected thrill of his dangerous new pulpit. All you knew was that you were reminded of that scene from Titanic, the awful pause after the ship, having struck the iceberg, had cracked in half and was perfectly poised above the ocean, prepared to plummet. You had to write, even if the quality of the words that emerged was terrible. You had to write, just as you are writing now. You do this because the very act of motion is resistance, that if you stop kicking you drown.

You bumped into two friends earlier this afternoon. You thanked one of them for his furious Facebook posts about Trump’s latest outrages, and he confessed that he felt they were futile. They weren’t, you told him. Everything matters. Your fury matters. Once you are numb to it, that’s the end. We need to keep feeling. It is not inevitable that the very worst is ahead.

You had a beautiful day, even though it is hard to remember that. You visited one dear friend to celebrate her wedding to a wonderful man, and then saw another on her brief return to the city. Both of them are flourishing, doing better than they have ever done. Yet when you woke this morning, you didn’t think of either of them, but of Pittsburgh, and of the hurricane of hatred that Trump continues to unleash.

Your sleep patterns have improved these days, because you have become better at ignoring Trump, of not allowing him to ruin your day, even though the horror of what he is doing often settles across the skies like nuclear winter. But Pittsburgh has happened and the lack of sleep is back. You remember people writing that talk of white supremacy was exaggerated, that the Democrats were crying wolf over the terrors to follow his election, you even remember one friend airily remarking that the Trump presidency, restrained by America’s formidable institutions, would be a quiet one. You remember reminding people, as had countless others, that the toxic levels of anti-Semitism being pumped into the atmosphere would one day thaw some long-frozen and rage-filled plains, allowing ancient viruses to arise from them anew. You and those countless others gain little comfort from having roared these warnings, because this was never a game, never a sixth-form debate where the winner takes home a silver trophy and is treated to a three-course dinner. Like climate change itself, the crisis of extremism, long denied, has always been existential.

Yet there is some comfort – not much, but some. There is comfort because you know that hatred of this nature is predictable, and that the success of this hatred is not guaranteed. You watched from New York with pride as, in your adopted city of Berlin, a quarter of a million people took to the streets to protest not only against the rise of the far Right but crucially in favour of progress and hope. You commiserated with friends from Brazil as they looked ahead in fear to the possible election of Bolsonaro, a man offering ominously simple solutions to complex social problems, but at the same time you marvelled at what fine people they were, and you gained even greater resolve to make the world better for them however you could. We have to celebrate the wins, you tell your friends whenever you bump into them in the street, and we have to celebrate the small things. Everything matters! Everything matters – the briefest act of kindness, the gentle eye contact with the homeless stranger, the channelling of pain into hopeful art, the warmth in the hug when you welcome or say farewell to anyone beloved. Everything matters, even the stream of consciousness I am typing now. Maybe the paths forward aren’t clear, maybe we are still forming a vision of the future where as many people as possible can enjoy health and happiness, and maybe dry land often seems nowhere in sight. But, in the meantime, we need to keep kicking.

“How To Play The Race Card, In 12 Simple Steps.”

Since it’s World Mental Health Day, I thought I would share “How To Play The Race Card, In 12 Simple Steps: it’s an extract from a longer piece I am working on, a kind of self-help guide to sex, race, dating, mental health, and city life. (If of interest, please share.)

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How To Play The Race Card, In 12 Simple Steps.

If you must insist on being a dark-skinned black male in a major continental European city – let’s say, Berlin – then here – assuming that you intend to make your life a little easier – is how you go about it. Here, in a short, simple twelve-step programme, is How To Play The Race Card:

 

  1. Make sure there aren’t too many of you living in your apartment block. Any more than two is officially an infestation. Make sure there are not too many exotic emissions from your flat. Ethnic smells are fine – ethnic sounds and ethnic people are not. Outside, when approaching a local, make sure you greet them in their own language as soon as you are within earshot. Integration!
  2. When going through Customs, don’t look too cocky. You’ll get stop-searched if you look too free, if you’re too gleefully crossing borders. So what if you’re going on holiday? Suck it up – quell that smile. Halt that swagger.  The recommended facial expression, when you encounter immigration officials, is that of a dog taking its final walk – you must look utterly world-weary, careworn, whilst taking care not to avoid eye contact, lest you appear shifty. Remember: visibly broken souls do not smuggle drugs.
  3. Promptly follow every public criticism of the country where you now live with a phrase containing gratitude. For example: “That Nazi march was terrifying but the schnitzel here is nice.”
  4. If you are sitting on a crowded train yet everyone refuses to sit next to you, take advantage of the resultant space. Make a show of it. Manspread. Take a photo of the space and post it on social media, as an example of the Black Gap, the mystical force-field that often seems to appear around post-puberty black men in public. Save the photo on your phone and joke to yourself that you’ll save it for your grandchildren, you’ll enhance it with a sepia filter and you’ll all laugh at how toxic the times were back then. “Granddad, they must have thought you were an animal!” Reflect on whether you smell – look, it is possible. It could be that fellow passengers are utterly repelled by your smell. Later that evening, when you get to your partner’s flat for dinner, don’t tell them that a Black Gap appeared on the train next to you for that second time that week. Not until dessert is served, at least. You don’t want to ruin the mood.
  5. Each morning, before you leave the house, remind yourself that you aren’t ugly. Stare in the mirror and try to feel handsome before you head out of the door. Having a shave often helps – smooth skin feels more attractive. Stubble is for drunken men who have abandoned hope. For the smoothest skin, apply baby oil to your face immediately after a shower, then pat it dry. Don’t leave the flat before you feel handsome. There will be days when you don’t leave the flat.
  6. Don’t leave the flat. Remember that time you saw the bus driver wearing the neo-Nazi dress code. Remember the time you were racially abused by two white women at the top of your road. Remember when they put their hands on you – they actually touched you. Don’t leave the flat.
  7. Get on a plane to another country as if to escape but then come back because you understand that all you ever get wherever you travel is merely different flavours of racism, that the seasoning may be different but ultimately the meal remains the same.
  8. Don’t laugh it off. Don’t make a quick quip when the Turkish kids in the local park ask if they can see your huge cock. Don’t joke about your big dick. If you must, then when someone teases you about it, ask whether they would like you to fuck them with it. Don’t laugh it off.
  9. If you laugh it off that tells people it is fine, and it is not fine – you are not fine. Remember that you have seen other black people arrive in and then leave this country, exhausted at being treated so poorly. Ask yourself the simple question – do you have unfinished business here. If the answer is yes, then stay. If the answer is no, then run, my God, run. You are not a martyr.
  10. For the sake of sheer survival, focus upon the positive. There are people here who love you. People here who love you. Many, many white German people. They love you. Despite your struggles, you have found greater personal and professional support here than you have found anywhere else. Look how Look at the joy with which you are greeted at the local supermarket, at your favourite local restaurant. Brother, they call you. The Lebanese, the Vietnamese, the Sudanese embrace you.
  11. Remember that no matter how much you might feel despised or stereotyped, you are only ever one new conversation or great first date away from changing your life. Cherish your many friendships. Send text messages out of the blue to those who are dearest to you, telling them you love them. When they ask “whatever prompted that?”, then tell them “I am grateful for you, and whenever I feel grateful for someone, I tell them.”
  12. And finally, step number 12. Start wearing brighter colours. Pink, green, red, yellow, orange, even gold. Shine so that you are undeniable. Your skin is a spectacular canvas. Each time you are smiling and vibrant in a place that would rather see you dull and invisible, you will grow in hope. Keep loving, keep pushing. Keep loving, keep pushing. Keep loving. Keep pushing.

My Impostor Syndrome (my speech at Good Girls Eat Dinner, 22.08.2018)

Here is the text of a short speech I gave at the wonderful Good Girls Eat Dinner event in London on Wednesday 22 August 2018. I thought I would share it here in case it was of interest to anyone.

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Let me make a confession. I think that I have writer’s block. That may seem like a strange thing to say, given that I have been writing non-stop all summer. But let me explain.

Writer’s block isn’t the inability to write anything at all. After all, writers who have writer’s block still fill out their tax returns, they still reply to their emails – eventually, at least. No – writer’s block is something different. It’s the inability to complete, or even to begin, the work that you really care about. It is rooted in fear. And that’s what no-one warns you about the power of words. Sometimes, it is overpowering.

What am I afraid of? Well, I think it is this. Creativity is a muscle. If you don’t keep using it, if you don’t keep feeding it the twin proteins of knowledge and experience, then it wastes away. And over time I have begun to fear – that word again – that I have not worked hard enough, that I am not wise enough. I think that I have good ideas – maybe even great ideas – but, at present, I am not sure that I have the strength of creativity to hold them aloft.

This is not a good time to have writer’s block. My work is on very public display. I am about to begin my most ambitious programme of work yet. I am planning to update the first book that I wrote about football. I am planning to write a third book about football, to complete the trilogy that I started in 2007. I am planning to write a sequel to the sci-fi novel that I wrote in 2016, and for which I am still seeking a publisher. I am planning to write monthly essays about how to navigate the world of race and the world of bisexuality. I am preparing to write a book of short stories based on the four years I have so far spent in Berlin. As a musician, I am about to play three play of the most important gigs of my career to date. This is not a good time to be feeling any creative self-doubt.

But perhaps this period of fear is necessary. We all make our living in the world of words. We know just how powerful are the tools of our trade. Whichever way you voted, you can’t deny the force of the call to take back control or to make America great again. I am afraid because I am fiercely aware that, just like black lives, words truly matter.

How do I rid myself of this fear? How I stop being scared? I need to remind myself, first and foremost, that fear is a luxury. Just as I have writer’s block, I think that a lot of us in this room have climate block. I think that climate change – the heatwaves, the fires in the Arctic, the floods in Kerala – is a threat so terrifying that we feel immobilised before it, that we have to look away. We didn’t expect to have to deal with this in our lifetimes, but it’s right here, right now. And we don’t think we have the tools to deal with that’s coming. But we can start with words. We can start with empathy and with hope.

I have just arrived from Helsinki, where I have been advising a social enterprise, LYFTA, on how to raise media awareness of their brilliant work in almost 400 schools. LYFTA, with the aid of virtual reality technology, aim to connect students all around the world – the future of our civilization – through a series of interactive video exercises. When I return to my home of Berlin this week, I will be helping to launch a social enterprise, a cafe which pays a percentage of its profits to support local projects. Given the arrival of extreme climate change, I cannot afford to be afraid. I cannot afford to be too frightened to write.

The fear isn’t completely without foundation. I am thirty-eight years old and I worry that I have not done enough with the gifts that I have been given. In some ways those fears are valid. But this isn’t about me and it never truly was. This is about using every moment as courageously as we can not only to endure but to embrace what is coming. It’s about building community wherever we can. It’s about that kind word, delivered with a gentle nod and eye contact, to the homeless person. It’s about asking each other and ourselves why we aren’t doing better as a society. It’s about reaching through what may feel like justifiable rage for something which may make us collectively happier.

These may sound like nothing more than words. And that’s exactly the point. My address tonight is an invitation: an invitation not to dwell upon what is wrong with the state of our world, but what, with sufficient time, care and urgency, could be right. And if you, like me, feel overwhelmed by doubt, then start with a single sentence. You can keep it in mind if you find it helpful, maybe even save it on your iPhone as a reminder, stick it on a post-it note above your bathroom mirror or next to your desk. And that single, simple sentence is: “Fear is a luxury”.

All of us in this room are both fortunate. Words are our trade. In a time when winning arguments has never been more crucial, we are experts in the business of persuasion. I think we all know that we can’t continue as we are – that it’s going to take so much kindness, patience, and imagination to extract us from this mess. So let’s start now – whether it’s advocating with greater passion for a stronger renewable energy policy, or signing up for that shift at the local soup kitchen. Let’s not only do the best we can, but do better; and, crucially, let’s not be afraid.

My new post, on Redfish and Russia Today.

I feel sick, but most of all I feel naive.
 
Last week I spent a wonderful couple of hours in the company of a film crew, who interviewed me at length for a documentary they were making about xenophobia and austerity in the UK. A few days later, I was thankfully informed by Oz Katerji, an investigative journalist, that this company – Redfish, based in Berlin – was a wholly-owned subsidiary of Russia Today.
Charlie Davis of The Daily Beast had discovered this after some exhaustive reporting, and Katerji sent me a link from the article where Davis had published his findings
 
I didn’t quite retch when I found out, but my stomach certainly lurched. Yes, the referral came through a dear friend, but it is ultimately my own fault. I should have done my own due diligence – and a simple Google search would have revealed the above article.
 
Here’s the thing about the programme to which I contributed: I think that the topic is a vital one, and I think that the presenter did an excellent job of examining the issues in our conversation. I just don’t believe that Russia Today, given their stance on refugees, are honest brokers. In fact, I think that they are the opposite. Just the other day, they ran an opinion piece asking the Canadian government not to resettle Syrian refugees, on the grounds that they were either “potential terrorists or supporters of terrorists”. The article is here.
 
Yes, I know that Russia Today serve up entertaining segments about sport and other entertainment. But I object so strongly to their general political mission that, had I known of their involvement in this documentary, I would have declined the opportunity to appear.
 
I am very careful with the media appearances that I make, for three main reasons. First, I think it is very important not to become a talking-head, and become the “go-to guy” when it comes to talking about, say, racism in public life. I think that type of status as the “community leader” is very unhelpful. It implies one person speaks for a diverse group of people, which is dangerous. Secondly – though this might be hard for some to imagine! – I would quickly get sick of the sound of my own voice. But thirdly – and most importantly – I do not want to lend legitimacy to certain platforms. Though those organisations to whom I give interviews certainly have their flaws, the crucial difference is that they are not wholly owned by authoritarian states who jail and murder activists and journalists. (If you are not familiar with the following names – Natalya Estemirova, Anna Politkovskaya, Sergei Magnitsky – please Google them.) I do not know that I have always got the balance of my media appearances right in the past, but it is something I have come to care about deeply. The thought of my views being aired on Russia Today is deeply upsetting on a personal level and deeply worrying on a professional one.
 
Some people would say that I am an idealistic fool for turning down some of the media platforms that I have. Those platforms, after all, often mean more visibility and with it the possibility of vastly better earnings – speaking gigs, consultancy fees, and so on. There are some days – when I can’t send a relative a few thousand pounds to help with that operation or those couple of months of rent – that I agree with those people. I have turned down huge amounts of both exposure and money from people I have suspected to be unscrupulous. Why have I done this? Because, so far as I am conscious and not consumed by desperation, I don’t want to contribute to a worse world, and I think that we are being ushered into such a world by Russia Today.
 
Why am I telling you this? To learn from my example, really: to remind myself, and to remind you, that we have a choice. We don’t always have to say yes when someone puts a microphone under our nose. I don’t judge those of you who do – God knows that writing can be a precarious and thankless life, and if you have people who depend on you financially then it can be hard to reject that camera or that paycheque. Wherever possible, though, we should try to step away. Let’s do our homework, and find out for whose regimes or fiefdoms we may be the unwitting mouthpiece. Let’s at least know who we are working for, and make our judgements accordingly. Because if we are to be held accountable for ignorance and bigotry – as we should be! – then, at the very least, that ignorance and bigotry should knowingly be our own.