Archive for December 2013

The First Law of Privilege

I have been thinking a lot about privilege recently.  Privilege, I think, is not inherently a problem.  The problem comes only when people who have no experience of a particular prejudice – racism, classism, sexism, and so on – act in a way which belittles the predicaments of those who are directly affected by it.  These acts are often unconscious, but that doesn’t make their effects any less dangerous.  I wrote the piece below in response to the fact that Parliament has only just had its first debate on the disproportionate deaths of black and ethnic minority people in custody, despite this topic being the subject of tireless campaigns for years.  I suspect that the exercise of privilege, be it conscious or subconscious, is a primary reason why it has taken so long for this debate to come before our country’s politicians.

“The First Law of Privilege”

They make you ashamed of your rage.
They call you the angry black man,
The hysterical woman,
The paranoid Jew.
They make you stand in fire,
Then complain when you yell about the heat.
They say:
“What are you playing the race card for?” –
But I have never known a membership card
That has closed so many doors.
They cause or prolong your pain,
Then tell you how it should be expressed;
If you don’t do so politely,
Then your case will be dismissed –
They talk over you,
Talk over you,
Talk over you,
Talk over you,
Talk over you,
Talk over you,
Talk over you,
Talk over you,
Talk over you –
Then get surprised when you shout.
They don’t think:
“We ignored them,
So they had to scream it out.”
For this is what The First Law of Privilege dictates:
That what to you is daily strife
Is, to them, mere debate.

My Ode to Football, commissioned for the FA’s 150th anniversary.

Earlier this year, I was commissioned by the Football Association to write a poem to mark their 150th anniversary.  We shot the poem, “An Ode to Football”, at Wembley and in south-west London, and it features guest appearances from several prominent figures in the football world, including Steven Gerrard, Arsene Wenger, Eniola Aluko, Gabby Logan and Theo Walcott. There are also several celebrity football fans who deliver lines of the poem, the best thing about which is that I can now say I have collaborated with Dizzee Rascal and Wretch 32. (Yes, it’s a bit tenuous, but hey, what the hell.)  The text of the poem is below, the video is at this link, and I hope you enjoy it; if so, please share.

“An Ode to Football”

This is football:

Yes, jumpers for goalposts in your local park

With the lamp-posts as your floodlights,

And no-one watching but the stars:

This is football –

Where the groundstaff cut grass with a barber’s care

Where the terraces forever sing hymns to their favourite players:

This is football –

Hot coffee in the stands on midweek nights

This is players squaring up

But never actually starting fights

This is football

Each battle lasts an hour-and-a-half

It’s that war of rival scarves

You can fight fair, or plunge to grass –

This is football

Imitating that voice that reads Final Score

This is transfer-window shopping,

It’s Deadline Day on Sky Sports

This is football

Last in that half-time queue for the loo then food:

This is Sir Geoff Hurst on Wembley’s turf in destiny’s pursuit

This is football

Humming Match of the Day’s theme tune as it starts:

Keeping your head down from thirty yards, and shivering crossbars:

This is football

This is panic,

Your defenders scrambling back

When they realised the other team sitting deep

Was just a trap

This is football, this is football

Cracked shinpads and all

It’s the innocent protest –

It’s the “I barely touched him, ref!”

This is football

This is not just 4-4-2 or 4-3-3

This is what you do when you go one player down, and then concede

This is football

This is that banter you get at away grounds

Which when you score that last-minute winning goal

Is not so loud

This is football

Cup tie:

You’ve gone to penalties to sever the knot

But your guts are all you’ve got

And sudden death now marks the spot:

This is football

Not prawn sandwiches

You can find it in all languages

It’s your spilled pint in the pub

When your team goes one-nil up:

This is football

This is that fanzine which calls it harsh but fair

This is catching coaches, planes and trains since your club needs you there

This is football

Practised against the wall, and in the hall

It’s those concrete playground moves

That have ruined all your shoes:

This is football

Lugging your team’s laundry home from Sunday league

This is playing online tournaments until sleep intervenes

This is football:

It’s a very big deal,

You can ask Bill Shankly

It’s that click-clack of the turnstile,

It’s that Gazza-needs-a-hanky

This is football

Brought to you by the Football Association

Formed in the Tavern of Freemasons

One-fifty years in the making

This is football:

Of all the sports, this is our nation’s favourite

And we speak to celebrate it

So if you have a drink, please raise it

Twitter’s gender problem: blocking, and trolling unchained

Twitter has amended its blocking function, a move whose implications have been set out by @hollybrocks in an excellent post.  “Previously”, she writes, “blocking someone meant that they automatically unfollowed you, and if they went to your page, they couldn’t see any of your tweets, photos, videos, links – anything.” Now, though, if you block someone they can still follow you and retweet your tweets. The only difference is that they can’t see what you’re saying about them. Effectively, Twitter is saying to people being harassed by unwelcome followers that they should adopt the policy of “if I cover my eyes, you can’t see me”.

I mentioned on Twitter that these changes enabled harassment, and I think it’s notable that the only people who wondered why this was were men. This, I believe, is because men have a fundamentally different experience on Twitter to women. My female friends seem to get far more harassment merely for stating their views than men do. They know, for example, that a common form of online aggression is to have someone who hates you constantly retweeting on your tweets to others, so that the can pile on the abuse. These new changes are making it easier for online abusers to hunt their targets in packs.

The issue here for Twitter is seemingly one of gender. It is difficult to believe that these changes would have been made if there were more women involved in making the major decisions for this company. Indeed, it appointed its first female director, Marjorie Scardino, only a few days ago, news which soon looks to be engulfed by this brewing PR disaster. As the same article notes, “Unlike Facebook, though, Twitter still doesn’t have any high-ranking female executives.” Scardino joins seven white males on the company board, each of whom are presumably oblivious to the online barrage heading their way.

Twitter is a global brand and product, and it needs to move swiftly to address the needs of its diverse users: particularly when it has inadvertently put many of them at renewed risk. If you would like to make the blocking function far more robust, then you can sign and share this petition, using the #RestoreTheBlock hashtag started by @dwalton1 and continued by @judeinlondon and @stavvers.



#OneBillionRising to end violence against women: right campaign, wrong leader?

Violence against women and girls is one of the world’s gravest problems: what’s more, in the cruellest possible breach of trust, it is most often perpetrated by men under the same roof. As noted by the UN and the World Health Organisation, “the most common form of violence experienced by women globally is physical violence inflicted by an intimate partner. On average, at least one in three women is beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused by an intimate partner in the course of her lifetime.” Fortunately, there is a global movement which has arisen with the aim to end this state of affairs. Unfortunately, in order to achieve its vital goals, its leadership may need to change.

Early this morning, a series of tweets from @Karnythia appeared on my timeline, which she subsequently and helpfully compiled as a Storify.  One of those tweets contained an article by Eve Ensler, the founder of the One Billion Rising movement to end violence against women. I should note here that the article, “Congo Stigmata”, carries a trigger warning, as its content may be deeply distressing to any women who have suffered violence. The article, which you can read here, is worrying for several reasons: it is difficult to provide a summary without briefly being graphic, for which I apologise.

The facts are these. Ensler, in an extract from her new book, relates her discovery of a form of cancer, which leads to the appearance of a fistula, or a hole, between her vagina and her bowel. Ensler notes “the cancer had done exactly what rape had done to so many thousands of women in the Congo. I ended up having the same surgery as many of them.” The inference we are supposed to draw is that Ensler has spent so long campaigning on behalf of these women that she has somehow been both spiritually and physically raped in solidarity with them. As noted by of one of her friends, “It doesn’t surprise me, Eve, of course. All those stories of rape over all these years. The women have entered you.”

Ensler spends a paragraph describing her fixation with holes – “Black holes. Infinite holes. Impossible holes. Absences. Gaps, tears in membranes. Fistulas.” – which she concludes with the sentence “So many thousands of women in eastern Congo have suffered fistulas from rape that the injury is considered a crime of combat.” The suggestion that Ensler has, by proxy, become a victim of a crime of combat.

Ensler then goes to the Congo, where she asks to view an operation on a woman whose genitalia are being repaired after sustaining an act of sexual violence. She writes that “she needed to see a fistula”. It is unclear whether the woman herself, tied up in stirrups, consented to Ensler’s visit. What we do know is that Ensler has a “need to know the shape of this hole, the size of this hole. I needed to know what a woman’s insides looked like when her most essential cellular tissue had been punctured by a stick or penis or penises.” Ensler continues, moving towards a conclusion that feels alarmingly voyeuristic: “As I stood there in mask and gown, I realised I had stopped breathing. This woman’s vagina was a map of the future, and I could feel myself falling, falling through the hole in the world, the hole in myself, the hole that was made when my father invaded me and I lost my way. The hole that was made when the social membrane was torn by incest. Falling through the hole in this woman. I was falling. I have always been falling. But this time was different.”

It is clear from these closing quotes that Ensler has experienced and survived profound horror of her own. Unfortunately, she has overreached with her analogy: she has objectified a woman of colour in a fashion so gruesome as to conjure colonialist undertones. As @Karnythia states in her tweets, “Eve Ensler is displaying the kind of “progressive” racism that hurts so deeply because it is supposed to be helpful…”the sheer gall of Eve Ensler to describe staring into this woman’s body while she was restrained to satisfy her curiosity.”

Where does this leave #OneBillionRising? Well, the organisation has brought exceptional visibility to a range of issues, but three problems immediately present themselves. First, the movement has been previously been accused of trading upon the experiences of women of colour. Secondly, it must be said that #OneBillionRising shares one highly problematic feature with the ill-fated #Kony2012 campaign. As with #Kony2012, the organisation is led by a charismatic leader in pursuit of a socially beneficial aim – for the arrest of Joseph Kony, read the eradication of violence against women and girls – who has grossly oversimplified and appropriated the issues. Thirdly, having seen the appalled reaction from so many women on my Twitter timeline this morning, many of whom have significant and sympathetic followings, I wonder whether Ensler will increasingly be seen as lacking the legitimacy to lead this organisation. The danger is that her status as a figurehead may undermine or overshadow the movement’s essential mission. An even greater worry is how much of her objectification of women of colour affects the day-to-day strategy of the organisation.

We shall see. The next stage of #OneBillionRising takes place in January 2014, and many of its achievements to date have been highly impressive, as Ensler notes in the Guardian this week. For example, she writes that “in Guatemala, Marsha Lopez, part of the V-Day movement since 2001, says the most important result of OBR was the creation of a law for the criminalisation of perpetrators who impregnate girls under 14 years old. The law also includes penalties for forced marriage of girls under 18.” In 2014, the goals of #OneBillionRising are thankfully more ambitious than ever, given the UN’s description of violence against women as “a global pandemic”.  A pressing question is whether, in the pursuit of those goals, Ensler is better off not on the One Billion Rising podium, but cheering on its work from the nearby crowd.

NOTE: Thank you to @Karnythia@irevolt@dreamhampton@ChiefElk, and @babywasu for their excellent tweets on this subject.


For Nelson Mandela: “The privilege was ours.”

Yesterday afternoon, I was walking to Oxford Circus to meet a friend when the grief finally hit me. I had been kidding myself that Nelson Mandela’s death wasn’t sad, really – he’d been ill for ages, and what’s more most people don’t make it to 95; especially those who fight for the freedom of their people. And then I thought: who was I kidding. It was absolutely heartbreaking. All that love and honour and glory and beauty just floating up, away and beyond. And, just on my way past the National Portrait Gallery on a bright December afternoon, my eyes were overrun with tears and I was grateful for the shadow of my woollen winter hat. Everyone who loved anything about Mandela will have their own fond thoughts about him. I tried to put some of mine into words, and these, below, are the only ones that came.

Your name is the best answer yet
To the question:
“How can you weep
For a man you never met?”
With your bare hands,
You carved freedom from stone:
You became a king
Long before they gave you a throne.
You gave self-respect to millions of fatherless men,
Made countless Africans find joy in their skin.
Rest in progress out there among the stars
And please remember
That the privilege was ours.


Mandela will never, ever be your minstrel.

Dear revisionists, Mandela will never, ever be your minstrel. Over the next few days you will try so, so hard to make him something he was not, and you will fail. You will try to smooth him, to sandblast him, to take away his Malcolm X. You will try to hide his anger from view. Right now, you are anxiously pacing the corridors of your condos and country estates, looking for the right words, the right tributes, the right-wing tributes. You will say that Mandela was not about race. You will say that Mandela was not about politics. You will say that Mandela was about nothing but one love, you will try to reduce him to a lilting reggae tune. “Let’s get together, and feel alright.” Yes, you will do that.

You will make out that apartheid was just some sort of evil mystical space disease that suddenly fell from the heavens and settled on all of us, had us all, black or white, in its thrall, until Mandela appeared from the ether to redeem us. You will try to make Mandela a Magic Negro and you will fail. You will say that Mandela stood above all for forgiveness whilst scuttling swiftly over the details of the perversity that he had the grace to forgive.
You will try to make out that apartheid was some horrid spontaneous historical aberration, and not the logical culmination of centuries of imperial arrogance. Yes, you will try that too. You will imply or audaciously state that its evils ended the day Mandela stepped out of jail. You will fold your hands and say the blacks have no-one to blame now but themselves.
Well, try hard as you like, and you’ll fail. Because Mandela was about politics and he was about race and he was about freedom and he was even about force, and he did what he felt he had to do and given the current economic inequality in South Africa he might even have died thinking he didn’t do nearly enough of it. And perhaps the greatest tragedy of Mandela’s life isn’t that he spent almost thirty years jailed by well-heeled racists who tried to shatter millions of spirits through breaking his soul, but that there weren’t or aren’t nearly enough people like him.
Because that’s South Africa now, a country long ago plunged headfirst so deep into the sewage of racial hatred that, for all Mandela’s efforts, it is still retching by the side of the swamp. Just imagine if Cape Town were London.  Imagine seeing two million white people living in shacks and mud huts along the M25 as you make your way into the city, where most of the biggest houses and biggest jobs are occupied by a small, affluent to wealthy group of black people.  There are no words for the resentment that would still simmer there.
Nelson Mandela was not a god, floating elegantly above us and saving us. He was utterly, thoroughly human, and he did all he did in spite of people like you. There is no need to name you because you know who you are, we know who you are, and you know we know that too. You didn’t break him in life, and you won’t shape him in death. You will try, wherever you are, and you will fail.

Not the Third World, but the Independent World

Words matter, they really do. A tweet has got me thinking. The message in question was sent by Sham al-Ghazali, or @bitterarab, a couple of evenings ago, and it stated that “The term Third World is just so outdated and has absolutely no relevance in today’s society.”

The “Third World” is an interesting phrase. We never studied the Cold War in that much depth at school, so it’s something which went unexamined. I grew up thinking that, if our civilisation was a set of leagues, the Third World was akin to some sort of third tier of humanity, where mostly poor and mostly dark-skinned people lived. I didn’t know for many years that the Third World, as a concept, was actually far more empowering than I perceived it, if not the opposite altogether: a group of nations, many of whom were scarred by the ongoing process of colonialism, refusing to align themselves politically with either NATO or the Communist Bloc. This, I thought, was a particularly bold stance in the circumstances, and deserved a better than a title which has come to imply that they are merely a third-class category of economically dependent countries.

From now on, I will therefore try to think of and refer to these countries not as Third World countries but as Independent World countries, a title which more clearly reflects the political stance – in some cases pragmatic, in many other cases brave – that they took during the Cold War.  Hopefully, this will help me to iron out a few more of the wrinkles in my understanding of history.