By Ruari Shaw Sutherland (Contributor)
As my train rolls through the Scottish borders and into England’s green and pleasant land, I read news of a furore surrounding a so-called plot by ‘extremist Islamists’ to ‘hijack’ the school curriculum in Birmingham. The story draws on prevalent anti-Islamic discourse, suggesting fear of Muslims and Islam, deploying terms such as ‘Islamisation’ – a staple trope of the racist far-right – as well the imagery of the ‘enemy’ gaining entry to our inner sanctum by means of a Trojan Horse[i]. It is perhaps not insignificant that Birmingham was the setting for one of the most controversial political speeches of the 20th century where Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South West, Enoch Powell, conjured up the cautionary image of rivers of blood in propounding his constituents’ fears about immigration[ii]. On approach to the city, my Virgin Pendolino lurches through Sandwell & Dudley – until recently a stronghold for the British National Party – and along the northern edge of Smethwick, a town which I know only for the infamous and highly successful 1964 Tory campaign slogan: “if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote labour”[iii]. This region clearly has a tense history of racialized politics.
Leaving Birmingham New Street, I pass a street stall where three young Muslim men hand out Qur’anic literature and duck into the famous flea market where I take delight in pouring over copied reggae CDs sold by an ebullient Rasta; another stall selling beautiful sari material; and yet more specialising in foods from local farms, pan-African groceries, and South Asian spices. With the city’s racist history weighing on my mind, I am sensitive to the interactions playing out around me and can’t help notice the group of white football casuals shiftily observing the Qur’an stand and the tense atmosphere between certain stall holders in the market. I overcompensate, trying to convey my friendliness by smiling maniacally; an act of positive discrimination which troubles me for reasons I can’t articulate but which perhaps hinge on Ghassan Hage’s[iv] contention that tolerance is evidence of an ‘empowered spatiality’ where the tolerated become “an object of the will of the tolerator […] never just present [but] positioned”.
Leaving Birmingham, I catch a train to a quiet suburb of Coventry, near to Warwick University, where I am staying in a bed and breakfast. After being shown to my bedroom, my host invites me down to the communal kitchen/dining area to meet the other guests. A frail young local man with a debilitating back condition has been staying here for 6 months whilst I’m told a Japanese Sociology student has been here 9 months but she is out for the night. The other two guests are young men, friends from Romania, who recently arrived to work as care-workers in a nearby nursing home and are sharing a caravan in the front garden. After spending the day alone, I am glad of the company and settle in to share drinks and stories.
Again, the racialized and xenophobic politics of the country, and the West Midlands in particular, is germane. After all, just last month UKIP took three out of seven available seats in the region at the European elections and party leader Nigel Farage’s comments on the criminal nature of Romanians come to mind[v]. The BnB owner tells me that Birmingham is much more accepting and welcoming towards ethnic minorities than nearby Coventry which he says has a reputation for being much more narrow-minded and intolerant. He advances refreshingly anti-racist views – something he attributes to his Irish heritage and his ancestors experiences of prejudice – and I begin to relax in the company of seemingly like-minded comrades. Conversation is broad ranging, from art to zoos, and the atmosphere is laid back, with the host and one of the Romanians using Facebook on their laptops and showing us the odd picture to punctuate and illustrate our chat. There is the feel of a backpacker’s hostel with the diverse assembled ad hoc community.
As we chat, our host patiently and meticulously sharpens a number of ornate knives which he explains are part of his extensive collection from around the world. Noting our interest, one of the Romanians, who has been showing us images of Bucharest and its surrounding countryside, pulls up photographs of ancient Romanian cultural artefacts and weapons which he restores as a hobby. He explains the processes and materials he uses in the renovation of each piece and their historic background. Flicking forward to an image of a modern 8inch military serrated dagger, he says: “this one is great for gypsies”. I assume an error of translation, but when pushed to elaborate, he proffers a voluble slew of extreme racist rhetoric about gypsies – ironically drawing on similar discourses of nature, culture and crime that Farage has deployed in relation to Romanians. He tells us that gypsies cannot be civilised, they are feral and it is in their nature to steal and rape, that they are biologically inferior and that the only way to educate them is in Auschwitz. He shows us images of gypsy castles, supposedly built on the spoils of criminal racketeering, and of the paramilitary force who roam the streets in Bucharest violently ‘dealing with the rats’.
My research takes me to some of the darkest corners of the internet - where vitriolic racism is the norm and this openly Nazi ideology is commonplace - but, although I am all too used to this rhetoric, it is shocking and upsetting to hear it first hand, particularly in such a banal and seemingly convivial setting. Our host, clearly flustered by the tension mounting in his kitchen, and feeling the need to remain neutral, says “you don’t know what it’s like for him in Romania. You can’t really judge him”.
I remonstrate with the Romanian for an hour or more. I ask him if he discusses his views online and when he confirms that he does I ask him to show me the sites he uses. He takes me to the ‘politics’ sub-thread of a Romanian motorcycling discussion forum and shows me some posts, translating the genocidal bile into English for my benefit. The seeming banality of the forum site strikes me, given the explicitly extreme nature of the sites which I monitor. At around midnight, the BnB owner asks us to appreciate each other’s point of view and refrain from further discussion because it’s “too heavy” for around his table. Not wishing to offend our host we agree to let our differences lie and I go hurriedly to bed, shaken and upset.
The next day I leave early to attend a conference on ‘race and racism in digital communication’ where the ambient nature of race-talk online is highlighted. I am reminded of Ezekiel’s[vi] metaphor: “If I grow up living next to a cement factory and inhale cement dust every day, cement dust becomes part of my body. If I am White and grow up in a society in which race matters, I inhale racism, and racism becomes part of my mind and spirit”. Raphael Ezekiel’s words seem particularly pertinent in an age where, through the proliferation of social networking, race and race-talk have taken on ever more ‘ambient’ qualities; contributing to the background hum of internet chatter.
I think a lot about last night’s interaction and wonder what it is that made it so shocking to me, given the nature of my daily research activities. I recall a similar feeling when, in the course of a piece of research a few years back[vii], I interviewed leading members of the far right English Defence League (EDL). The thing that troubled me about these interviews was the ease with which we chatted, the friendliness of the individual humans I spoke with, perhaps even their veryhumanness. These were people with whom you could converse amicably and share a joke, as long as you avoided certain inflammatory subjects. Of course, I had to introduce such topics in my interviews with the EDL and suddenly a seemingly unassailable wall was erected between us.
Perhaps it is the humanness and candour of the Romanian which caught me off guard. Raphael Ezekiel[viii] argues that “to present white racists as humans is not to approve their ideas or their actions. But to picture them only in stereotype is to foolishly deny ourselves knowledge. Effective action to combat racism requires honest enquiry”. Attention to the humanness of racists and the banality of their daily lives and interactions – structured by racialized and classed inequalities – is essential.
My host emails me the day after I check out to apologise that it ‘got a bit heavy with the Romanian guy’. Apparently the Romanian’s friend told him that the UK is very tolerant and ‘he’s not going to do well here if he spouts that extreme racist crap’. I can’t help but feel that it is only the explicitly extreme nature of his tirade – references to traditional Nazism and genocide – that separates it from increasingly mainstream and hegemonic anti-immigrant rhetoric about unemployment-rates, crime and perceived threats to a ‘way of life’. These are what Martin Barker[ix] calls “arguments from genuine fears” which operate to elide societal concerns with a theory of ‘race’, allowing for the justification of policy steps. Such ‘genuine fears’ have been deployed recently in the guise of the ‘Trojan Horse row’, where concerns surrounding Islam and the erosion of ‘fundamental British values’ have been used to justify punitive policy measures[x]. In a sense, what is more disturbing than the extreme racism of my Romanian acquaintance in such banal settings, are the banal, unremarkable, everyday racism, religious discrimination, and hegemonic discourses of incommensurable difference. It is these, after all, which inform, prop up, and ultimately, given the right conditions, legitimise their more extreme variant.
Ruari Shaw Sutherland is a PhD candidate in the Institute of Geography. His research looks at the politics of hate in a digital age with a focus on the contemporary production, circulation, and impact of hate ideology. He has been involved in grass-roots anti-racist politics for a number of years and his work aims to advance anti-racist agendas.
[ii] Barker, M. (1981) The New Racism, London: Junction Books
[iv] Hage, G., 1998. White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society, Annandale, NSW: Pluto Press, Comerford and Miller.
[vi] Ezekiel, R.S., 2002. An Ethnographer Looks at Neo-Nazi and Klan Groups: The Racist Mind Revisited. American Behavioral Scientist, 46(1), pp.51–71.
[vii] Sutherland, R. S. (2012), ''The Scottish hate us more than the Muslims...': The North/South Divide? A Comparative Analysis of the Agenda, Activities and Development of the English and Scottish Defence Leagues', Reinvention: a Journal of Undergraduate Research, British Conference of Undergraduate Research 2012 Special Issue
[viii] Ezekiel, R.S., 1995. The racist mind: portraits of American Neo-Nazis and Klansmen, New York, NY: Penguin Books.
[ix] Barker, M. (1981) The New Racism, London: Junction Books