On white (male) supremacy, reparation, and the power dynamics of co-writing – a personal process commentary

“These days, of course, everyone knows everything, that’s why so many people, especially most white people, are so lost.” (James Baldwin, 1974, p. 59)

I was brought up in a frankly racist and misogynistic environment.

This sentence, now that I’ve written it out, has turned out far too flat and bland for what it is intended to convey. Or is it that I have produced a flat and bland sentence, to veer away from the surface, and beneath it the substance, of what I (a white man) am really needing to own and attest?

After all, it is immediately evident that I have projected both the malignance and the responsibility for it into my environment, by the simple device of deploying the passive voice: as who would bewail “look what they did to me”…. So: let me try again!

Fear and hatred of people of colour and of women – unconscious, subliminal or out there in plain sight – is what I not only took in from my upbringing; I took up these stances and attitudes – uncritically – and I embodied them and acted them out in various ways.

Now this sentence, in contrast, feels very stark. Straight away I want to append a mass of qualifying statements, so you don’t get the ‘wrong’ idea. I won’t give you a ‘for example’, because that would be to smuggle one of these ‘qualifiers’ in – but the temptation is very strong. It’s a full-time job and a life’s work, untangling those knots inside me that my own mind has fashioned along the way.

In fact, as I write this, I realise that this urge to qualify, disarm, explain, contextualise, differentiate from (possibly) more overt or egregious examples, and generally to smooth off the edges of anthropoemic othering, is part of the whole inheritance and discourse: epitomised in that toxic old trope, the one that goes ‘don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends are…’

In any case, I perceive clearly that the very best thing to do is not to qualify that second statement of mine. If I were a woman of colour, would I allow this white man leeway or mitigation? Well, it’s not at all for me to say, but I certainly suppose that I might do only or particularly if I were habituated to or conditioned or controlled or coerced into doing so by the likes of me…

However, I realise that I am not in fact asking for leeway, or for slack to be cut. What I am looking for is the chance to make reparation. I am probably not going to earn myself such a chance if I start out by worrying about the impact upon my status and social capital of speaking truth to my own power.

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The process of co-writing, and of co-operating and col-laborating more generally, brings all this complexity vividly into focus. The flat little hyphen in ‘co-writing’ (and this is also the case, for example, in the ‘co-facilitating’ of a group, or in the ‘co-production’ of a service development project with service users) is often there to obscure and perpetuate a power differential in which one person leads and the ‘co-’ or the ‘co-s’ must follow in their wake.

I am not invested in perpetuating that differential: this at any rate is what I tell myself, and that is certainly how I theorise it. I want and need and intend that ‘co-’ to signify an active practice of equality. Yet I discover that I – the same ‘I’ – desires to take charge; to lead; to mobilise; to drive the project forward; to break new ground.

Now – being kinder to myself than likely I deserve – I can see this on some level as the operation of the force of habit and pattern, over and above the creativity of re-imagining power relations. If ‘naturally taking the lead’ has been the practice established over time, then my impulse or reflex to continue it, to iterate those same old moves, will be strong, and it will take a lot of carving out new paths in the forest, before there’s a genuine choice when a fork in the road presents itself.

But if my desire to ‘take charge’ is driven by habit and pattern, then the grim fact remains that its roots are therefore easily traceable back to the toxicity that infused the development of the practice in the first place – that toxicity which inheres in the received ‘obviousness’ that a man is going to be the leader (not to mention the highest earner) of this or any group that consists of one man and two women.

Moreover, I note the discourse which establishes that a white middle-class public-school-educated man is supposed to be ‘obviously’ the ‘natural’ leader of Empire, the ‘natural’ holder of such and such a mining concession, the ‘natural’ governor of such and such a province; the ‘natural’ dispenser of arbitrary justice, whatever values local wisdom and culture might uphold.

Such a specimen as I, according to this discourse, is held to be – holds himself to be – ‘naturally’ superior to the other, however the other may be constructed….but see how I have drifted back into the distancing of theorising here!

It is I (not merely ‘such a specimen as I’) who must make amends here. I am the one who is having to carry on grappling with it, because I am still caught up in it. There is no effective difference worth arguing over, as between the ‘reconstructed’ and the ‘unreconstructed’ me – I am still perpetuating white (male) supremacy, if I don’t change my practice.

I deploy my status and social capital, as well as such experience and expertise as I can bring to bear, in order to interrogate power dynamics and relations of domination in the workplace (and beyond). Now, I don’t suggest that’s a bad thing, or a project not worth pursuing. I simply find that the logic of it inescapably presses upon me the realisation that I replay the power dynamics, even as I endeavour to dismantle the structure of my own power.

This is my process (drawing to a close here, because for me to bang on about my process indefinitely, would certainly be to replay the problem!) To make a reparative offering, I don’t see how I can do other than to say what violence it was and is that I did and am doing.

It is not enough to perceive and theorise this violence at the structural level. It is not enough to note that I am a white man and so, yes, I am the beneficiary, by definition, of historical structural violence (in my recent blog about Writing critically about race and racism, I’d be rated a mere B3 there for “evasively identifying Whiteness and White supremacy as a thing in the other?”; or at best a B4 for “apologetically acknowledging themself as a ‘beneficiary’ of Whiteness and White supremacy”). That was not enough at the start of this piece of writing and it’s not enough at the end.

Yes, I happen, by circumstance, to be a white man; but I am actively the perpetrator and perpetuator of these several violences. It is not only circumstance that is at work here.

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The secret heart of co-writing, I have come to understand (perhaps, of co-existing at all!), is, for me at any rate, to begin by giving up the idealised fantasy of how the piece would look if I wrote it myself (as if there even was such a thing as a single voice!); and to know, right from the outset, that the co-equal and creative intersection between two or more minds, across those myriad differences that both divide and connect us, will produce something richer and unexpected, more likely breaking of new ground (at least at the micro level): and, by definition, more precious.

Acknowledgements

This piece arose out of the work of the Equality Working Group at the Bethlem Hospital – and more specifically out of a collaborative writing project which prompted the three of us who were directly involved to agree to each write a ‘process piece’ about the experience of co-writing. To both these colleagues – Michelle Michael and Rachel Allen – I am particularly and profoundly grateful. I have slightly adapted my own piece for this blog.

Reference

Baldwin, J. (1974) If Beale Street could talk. Reprinted 1994. London: Penguin Modern Classics.

Writing critically about ‘race’ and racism from within the in-group – an evaluation tool-in-development

“Unfortunately, many confuse White allyship with White saviorship – engaging in performative acts of helping others for benefit, self-image, or recognition …  White saviors espouse more of a charity model or paternalistic view of helping those they consider “less fortunate” while still maintaining notions of White superiority and social/emotional distance.” (Williams et al., 2021, p. 272)

“Beware of horses/I mean a horse is a horse of course/but who rides is important…” (Run The Jewels, from ‘A Report to the Shareholders/Kill Your Masters’ (2016))

“While … white people may think they are being right on by opposing racism, no one will really be able to embrace the mission of tearing “this shit down” until they realise that the structures they oppose are not only bad for some of us, they are bad for all of us.” (Jack Halberstam, from the introduction to Harney & Motem (2013), p.10)

Might a White man write about ‘race’ and racism and racial retraumatisation? A middle-class, middle-aged White man, what’s more, and one with plenty of social capital and standing within the in-group: one who’s lived long enough to benefit substantially and wittingly and actively (as opposed to simply by virtue of being born into the inheritance) from the power and proceeds that flowed from the plunder and pillage that was the Middle Passage and ‘New World’ racialized chattel slavery?

I ask, because lately (and shamefully late in the day) I have been attempting such writing, both on my own and in co-writing partnerships; and because, although I don’t know how my own contributions have been received, I am uneasy about my own practice and I do also understand and respect that there is apt and justified and widespread scepticism, as to whether such an attempt can be pulled off in any helpful way (see e.g. the work of Monnica Williams and colleagues on Racial Justice Allies and of Guilaine Kinouani and colleagues at Race Reflections).

It’s a vexed question, then – it may be vexatious even to ask it. On what authority – if any – might such a question be asked, and such a project of writing ventured? In what circumstances – if any? By what means or in what way – if any? What audience might such an author be imagining and how might he find his way to a place from which to address that audience? How might he find words with which to address such an audience, if he were able to stand (metaphorically speaking) before it? How might such an author (I, that is to say, or anyone in my shoes) rise to the challenge that “genuine allyship requires identifying and decentering Whiteness, empowering others even when this involves peer conflict, and engaging in reciprocal vulnerability” (Williams et al., 2021, p. 272)?

Furthermore: why – if at all – is it any different to address an audience in writing, than it is to speak to, to present one’s thoughts in person to such an audience? It seems on the face of it clear enough that it would be incumbent upon me to at once recuse myself from any panel or programme that would offer me a public platform from which to speak about ‘race’: to ‘present my work’, at the inevitable expense of multiple others better qualified to speak of such matters. Why, then – if at all – would my act of writing be any different: in my presumption, in my displacing of other voices, in my re-assertion of the ‘matter-of-fact’ of being in possession?

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I pose these questions; and in posing them here, I replay, at least to some extent, the very violences I am looking to interrogate. In asking the nominative question “who am I, to pose these questions?”, I may expect the vocative retort: “who are you, to pose these questions?” I do not propose to occupy the space to try to argue a right or claim to the space I occupy in writing this – and yet, there is a conundrum here, one that perhaps I can only avoid by not occupying the space.

Why I want to venture into the space, what I want to try to achieve, is briefly to offer a kind of evaluation tool-in-development. I undertake to use the tool-in-development to hold myself to account, for the manner of my venturing into the space, and also in case I should venture into the space again. It’s a measure with which you the reader in turn may hold me to account (and, if it makes any kind of ethical sense, I hope it may be adopted, adapted and developed for others to use). Meanwhile, think of it as a kind of ‘j’accuse’, if you will; with me as the person who stands (self-)accused, in advance.

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I’ve drawn up this tool-in-development in five different dimensions, each relating to an aspect or quality of the authorial interrogation of ‘race’ and power. Under each head, I have offered five positions, expressed as active gerundive verbs to signify the agency of the author in his ethical choices, and in ascending order of ethical value (as I would see it).

The tool-in-development begins with positions (number (1) in each case) that re-assert or replay relations of domination; moving through perhaps less toxic but still distinctly unhelpful moves (2) and (3) in each case) towards a minimum position (4) below which it would be clearly unacceptable to fall and landing with (5) an ethical stance to aspire to in all attempts to address the subject.

The first dimension is the way in which, and the extent to which, considerations of ‘race’ and intersectionality are addressed in a piece of writing. To give an example I am not proud of: I have in the past written about reciprocal violence – the violence between in-groups and out-groups – without taking the White minority Global North in-group as an example or epitome of the violent in-group in the paradigm. That would get me a ‘(2)’ (for ‘passively omitting’) if I were to attempt such a thing now.

The second dimension explores the way in which whiteness, White racism and White supremacy are addressed. If it is ever addressed by White authors, or speakers at conferences (like the one I have just been attending) it’s often by way of deploring the fact that there are some very nasty White supremacists over there (in the Deep South, or storming the Capitol, or chanting from the stands at football matches, or taking Farage seriously on Twitter), and ‘we’ should be wary of ‘them’, or their nastiness might somehow ‘catch on’. That would get a (3) (probably rather generously!) for ‘evasively identifying’ White supremacy ‘as a thing in the other’. Hint: if there’s only White faces on the conference Zoom screen, we have ourselves a situation already, dear colleagues….

The third dimension explores the place and presentation of authorial positioning in the writing. In the present piece I have begun with (almost) ‘full disclosure’ of my position writing as a White middle-class male of a certain age; I thereby might (or might not!) merit a ‘(5)’ for ‘foregrounding’ – but had I merely said, at some point along the way, something like ‘I too must check my privilege’, that would get me at best a ‘(3)’ for ‘obliquely alluding to’ positioning as an issue.

The fourth dimension concerns the respect and recognition given in the writing to the authority of Black voices. Going back to my example of previous writing on reciprocal violence, it doesn’t cut it to be relying on Marx and Hegel, Weil, Foucault and Butler, if Du Bois and Fanon, Davis, Lorde and Patterson are nowhere in sight (that’s a (2) for ‘passively ignoring or anthropophagically incorporating’). Neither will it do to reference Fanon without grappling with or getting inside of his line of argument, as who would say “clever me, for I too have read the whole of The Wretched of the Earth, and I did not merely content myself with Sartre’s Preface” (that would be a (3) for ‘casually ventriloquising or ‘culturally appropriating’’). In this piece, for example, does my opening reference to the American rap artists Run The Jewels earn me a (5) for ‘foregrounding and deferring to’ or a (3) for ‘culturally appropriating’? I am unsure, but I am sure that it is not for me to say, and so I can only submit myself to your judgement in this matter.

The last of the five dimensions attends to how the operation of power and relations of domination is attended to in the writing. The author is not above the fray, as my account so far hopefully makes clear. I very much respect the words of Williams and her colleagues cited above, but for myself I would not be comfortable claiming an intent to ‘empower’, since in my own observation and analysis, empowering, from a position such as mine, is a way of hanging onto power, rather than sharing it on equal terms or abjuring it. Ultimately I consider that followership is going to be a more important attribute than leadership, if White authors are to be able to make a contribution to the deconstruction and dismantling of their (our!) own power and dominance. This last dimension is both the summation and the ‘acid test’ of the tool-in-development as a whole.

Three final points: first of all, I hope it is self-evident, but it’s clearly worth spelling out all the same, that this project assumes sincerity and authenticity on the part of the author, rather than representing a blueprint for some calculated and cynical pretence. The truth, in any case, will certainly out.

Secondly, as I have already suggested at the outset, there is a preliminary dimension not in the list, and that might be summed up in the simple injunction ‘don’t go there at all’. The ‘evaluation’ tool-in-development may also lead back to that starting point, if the reader concludes that even a ‘score’ of 25 out of 25 wouldn’t justify the presumption and the replaying of the power dynamics inherent in ‘putting pen to paper’. Alternatively, the ‘evaluation’ might leave you the reader feeling ‘okay, anything more than (say) twenty out of twenty-five, and no single score under four, and I’ll give it a read’. You the reader must decide!

Lastly, it would have been profoundly inconsistent and wrongheaded of me, given what this piece is about, if I hadn’t first run the text past a small group of comrades and colleagues, to get some feedback and critical appraisal, and to check whether anyone would want to rate the piece under that ‘don’t go there at all’ heading. None of them did give me so complete a thumbs down, but it’s still on me that I pressed the ‘publish post’ button. Therefore, this time, I want to largely preserve the anonymity of those esteemed correspondents of mine and simply to say to them – K, L, and M – you know who you are! Thank you so much for your generosity in permitting me to bend your ears on this one…

Here it is, then:

A.       ‘Race’ and intersectionality

Is the author:

1. actively denying the centrality of ‘race’ and intersectionality?

2. passively omitting the concepts of ‘race’ and intersectionality?

3. obliquely invoking the relevance of ‘race’ and intersectionality?

4. directly naming the impact of ‘race’ and intersectionality?

5. actively foregrounding the centrality of ‘race’ and intersectionality?

B. Whiteness, White racism and White supremacy

Is the author:

1. actively denying Whiteness and White supremacy as a thing in theirself?

2. passively occluding Whiteness and White supremacy?

3. evasively identifying Whiteness and White supremacy as a thing in the other?

4. apologetically acknowledging themself as a ‘beneficiary’ of Whiteness and White supremacy?

5. actively owning Whiteness and White supremacy as a thing in theirself to be grappled with?

C.       Authorial positioning

Is the author:

1. actively dismissing authorial positioning as irrelevant (‘scientific neutrality’)?

2. passively avoiding authorial positioning?

3. obliquely alluding to authorial positioning?

4. directly mentioning authorial positioning (in passing)?

5. actively making explicit and foregrounding authorial positioning?

D. Authority of Black voices

Is the author:

1. actively dismissing or denigrating the authority of Black voices?

2. passively ignoring or indifferently incorporating Black voices?

3. casually ventriloquising or ‘culturally appropriating’ Black voices?

4. incidentally referencing Black voices in passing?

5. actively foregrounding and deferring to the authority of Black voices?

E. Operation of power and relations of domination

Is the author:

1. actively reinforcing in-group power and privilege?

2. obliviously replaying existing power relations?

3. naively ‘empowering’ out-group members from ‘on high’?

4. consciously sharing power with the out-group?

5. actively renouncing power in favour of the out-group?

Scores:

1-5 points:           The author actively pursues a White supremacist agenda in pursuit of retaining position, power and privilege

6-10 points:          The author evidences no reflection upon their position and privilege and unwittingly or unconsciously perpetuates White supremacy

11-15 points:        The author is aware of their White precarity but is giving ground to hold onto power (‘empowering’) and still locates White supremacism in the Other

16-20 points:        The author is reflecting on their position and privilege and recognizes the case for power-sharing to reduce the toxicity of White supremacy

21-25 points:       The author is actively working to relinquish position, power and privilege and to dismantle White supremacy in themself and in the world around them

References

Harney, S. and Motem, F. (2013) The undercommons: Fugitive planning and Black study. Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions.

Run The Jewels (2016) RTJ3. RBC Records.

Williams, M.T., Sharif, N., Strauss, D., Gran-Ruaz, S., Bartlett, A., & Skinta, M.D. (2021) ‘Unicorns, leprechauns, and White allies: Exploring the space between intent and action’, The Behavior Therapist 44(6), pp. 272-281.

Practising ignorance – exercising restraint

“…ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have”. James Baldwin (1972)

The online Cambridge Dictionary records that the word ‘ignorant’ signifies not having enough knowledge, understanding, or information about something – and the online Collins English Dictionary adds the nuance that when we describe someone as ignorant, we mean that they do not know things which they should know.

I think I may therefore confidently echo James Baldwin in suggesting that ‘ignorance, allied with power’ may be understood to be embodied in the priapic figure of our present Premier when, politicking around the Home Counties with Priti Patel recently (as is his chilling wont), he prescribed membership of “fluorescent-jacketed chain gangs visibly paying your debt to society” (Guardian 2021) for those convicted of ‘anti-social behaviour’ (no trace of irony there!).

In case this spot of racist dog-whistling was too shrill for human ears to detect, he also lit the gas on half a century of fraught community policing when, with his very next breath, he proclaimed that ‘stop and search’, that key instrument of racially-targeted State oppression in modern Britain, was “a kind and a loving thing to do”.

It’s always problematic engaging on any level with the proliferating populist poseurs that (over-)populate the public sphere in post-modernity. Best in some ways to let it all wash over us, pour ne pas encourager les autres. But I want to try to think and write in a clear-eyed way about ‘race’ and racism and I think that these prime ministerial pronouncements illuminate the mindset of a whole class. As it happens to be the ruling caste in this country, it’s worth paying attention. And because it is about ‘race’, silence from the likes of me very quickly tips over into collusion or endorsement.

In that press conference, chattel slavery in the American South of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – as particularly extended through to the present day by the American penal system (in which more African Americans are incarcerated, than there were slaves in the United States in 1850 (Resler, 2019)) – is an historical phenomenon that is being referenced, but its true nature, its continuation by other means, and the identity and mindset of its perpetrators is being actively ignored.

Our protagonist, therefore, is being ignorant in the most violent possible way. He is indeed a candidate, as Baldwin warned, to be “the most ferocious enemy justice can have”. Furthermore, as Baldwin had previously observed, “whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves” (Baldwin [1963] 2017, pp. 43-44).

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Because this particular paragon of our ruling ‘elite’ is such an admirer of Winston Churchill – that Colossus of Empire (in its (British) late period) and committed ideological adherent and proponent of racist imperialism, who in 1902 insisted that the “Aryan stock is bound to triumph” and in 1955 proposed “Keep England White” as the Conservative Party’s electoral slogan (and so who undoubtedly would have nodded his head at that ‘chain gang’ dog whistle) – it is with the figure of Churchill that we may as well begin.

In Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy (1998), reference is made (pp. 641-642) to an episode when Churchill was Home Secretary, in which he and his Parliamentary Private Secretary Edward Marsh “spent an entire afternoon beating each other’s buttocks with a plaited birch”. There had been debate whether official adoption of this newly designed implement amounted to cruelty and so Churchill and Marsh had ‘done their duty’ by testing its efficacy. They are supposed, in Barker’s retelling of the tale, to have drawn the conclusion that “they’d had worse beatings at school” (Churchill’s experiences of being caned at Harrow are well-documented; the incident with Marsh is mentioned in Hassall (1959); Churchill’s Parliamentary Private Secretary during World War Two, Brendan Bracken, set up his own secret summer school in the 1950s so that he could contrive to have himself regularly caned, in role as a 16 year old schoolboy who suffered from premature ageing).

Now, it is not my purpose here to practice ‘wild psycho-analysis’ at a distance, or to pry into private lives, even if some such details have come into the public domain; nor to be prurient or judgmental about sexual or sexualised practices in what were sexually repressive times. We might at most very gently and cautiously infer, at the human and individual level, that these are the survival strategies of tormented souls. Moreover, I too am a survivor of single-sex boarding schools: to declare an interest, and not to put myself above the fray. I too must atone for my own guilt by association with the racist ravages of Empire.

No: the context and rationale for having anything at all to say about the personal lives of such historical figures lies in their power and privilege in the public sphere and the relations of domination which they considered themselves entitled to pursue. What I want very simply to notice for now are two particular phenomena: the first of which is the pervasive quality and characteristic of cruelty – elevated almost to the status of a virtue, as in ‘it’s cruel to be kind’; ‘it will make a man of you’; and other more or less insidious bromides and banalities of that ilk.

(‘I went through it, and it didn’t do me any harm’ is another one of these sayings, and it reminds me that at the boarding school in which I was deposited, I was a member of the first intake after the practice of being required to act as personal servant to the older pupils had been abolished. This was certainly a matter of personal relief to me; and it also meant that I bore witness to the disappointment of those who arrived in the four years before me, who had the practice passed on down to them, but couldn’t ‘make it alright’ by passing it further on down the line (and therefore had to find other less structured ways and means to assert dominance).)

The second phenomenon I want to foreground is the practice and exercise of restraint.

I have in mind to make full use of the double meaning of this word. It was essential in these disciplinary institutions that one took one’s beating (from housemasters or from older ‘fellow’-pupils) with a ‘stiff upper lip’: one did not ‘blub’; cruelty was something to be bitten back and doubled down on. This is not self-restraint in the sense of that conventional social virtue associated with the Aristotelian ‘Golden Mean’. This is systematic ‘control and restraint’, deployed ruthlessly against the creative spontaneity of the self, in order to suppress any upsurge of human emotion and cut it off at the source.

The Duke of Wellington famously claimed, on behalf of his officer classes, that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. His rank and file (those who survived) might have begged to differ. But we could perhaps argue that the great prizes of Victorian Empire – the power and reach of British dominion between the moment of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s coup d’état in Paris in December 1851 and Gavrilo Princip’s two well-aimed pistol shots in Sarajevo in June 1914 – were won behind closed doors, in places and spaces dedicated to ritual humiliation. Generation upon cold, repressed, brutalized generation were sent away by their parents to be restrained in disciplinary institutions where they learned to exercise (self-)restraint when cruelties were administered to self or other; thus were they ‘trained for Empire’ and then sent out from these schools, and these shores, to rule over their fellow human beings, for whom they had no fellow feeling (were perhaps not capable of entertaining such fellow feeling).

The ideology of Free Trade presented them with an overriding mission to profiteer and to plunder; the ideology of racism allowed them to consider that their subjects were not human beings at all; and the ideology of Christianity (as opposed to the teachings of Jesus) provided the figleaf of the ‘civilising’ project, to still any lingering qualms.

This was the Rule of Britannia.

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Toni Morrison wrote about chain gangs and restraint in Beloved (1997): her furious, anguished, transcendental account of the trauma and the ghosts of slavery. A ‘chain gang’ (so ignorantly referenced in that prime ministerial photo opportunity), in the world of Beloved (pp. 125-130), means forty-six Black men caged in boxes like kennels or coffins (except that both dogs and the dead are housed in greater decency and comfort); the boxes lined up in a ditch dug five feet deep, five feet wide. Woken each morning to gunshots; uncaged and forced to pass a thousand foot of chain onward to each other through their ankle irons; forced to submit to sexual abuse from the guards before being marched to their long day’s sledgehammer toil in the quarry; sleeping, if sleep be found, in mud and floodwater, waiting for the bite of the cottonmouth.

This compass of cruelty beyond measure or comprehension is not literally what is being proposed today as Conservative policy; but it is what is being referenced. In case you doubt me, one notorious and flatly despicable scribe writing in The Sun (I won’t give him the recognition of an actual reference) in the immediate aftermath of that dog whistle suggested that these new ‘chain gangs’ in their new yellow jackets should be made to sing ‘Negro spirituals’: so that passers-by would be sure they were ‘wrong ‘uns’, as they scrubbed graffiti off of walls or picked up litter off of grass verges.

To be very explicit: this extreme of cruelty and intensity of white supremacist ideology is being referenced because our ruling ‘elite’ have a notion that there are enough nodding Churchills among us who find the references congruent with their innermost feelings. They calculate that it is worth being referenced. They’re not just chatting around the dinner table as the port is passed (in such conversations, subliminal referencing and sly dog whistling aren’t felt to be needed and more open language is used). They’re speaking to us this way because experience tells them that there’s votes and funding in it for them.

Have these pontificators and provocateurs read Beloved? The question is irrelevant. They are ignorant, because they elect not to integrate the knowledge, the awareness, and the shame that is present and inherent in the history.

If any of them have read that book, they will also have encountered what Morrison writes about the ‘bit’ or ‘iron-bit’ or ‘face iron’. In her story, the character Paul D., who has escaped that Georgia chain gang described above, is reluctantly disclosing to Sethe, his host (whom he knew from ‘Sweet Home’, an earlier and relatively less troubled period of captivity) some of what he has endured. Sethe asks him why he didn’t say anything at a particular juncture in the story and Paul D. tells her that he had the ‘bit’ on him – and therefore he was physically unable to speak:

“he wants me to ask him about what it was like for him, about how offended the tongue is, held down by iron, how the need to spit is so deep you cry for it.  She already knew about it, had seen it time after time in the place before Sweet Home. Men, boys, little girls, women. The wildness that shot up into the eye the moment the lips were yanked back.” (1997, p. 84)

This practice is also briefly depicted in episode three of the recent television adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad (2017). However, Irina Popescu (2017) explains that contemporary research into slavery, restraint and torture has uncovered very little information on the iron bit. She hypothesizes that “this suggests that its physical representation and implementation remains locked away in the realm of the unimaginable”. She continues:

“Some human bits covered the entire mouth, neck, and nose, leaving the eyes unfettered so the slave could continue to see and thus proceed with his or her work. In this sense, the bit initially prevented speech by covering the mouth. After the bit was removed, the mouth was so dehydrated that the victims found themselves too hoarse to form words. (ibid.)”

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James Baldwin once wrote: “For the horrors of the American Negro’s life there has been almost no language” ([1963] 2017, p. 62); and I must at once concede that at this point I don’t know what to write. I don’t know whether I can, or should, write anything at all. It may well be that my complicity disqualifies me, white middle-class male of a certain age that I am. I do know for certain that I can add nothing to what Toni Morrison has written. Here is unspeakability; unthinkability; unimaginability.

And yet: I perceive that it demands to be known. No – let me not hide behind the passive voice. Let me say rather that ‘it’ (the unspeakability, the unthinkability, the unimaginability of restraining human beings in chattel slavery) demands of me that I know it: that I not practice ignorance in the face of it; that I not stifle or suppress it, nor leave it lying in the shadows of consciousness, a ‘subjugated knowledge’ (Foucault 1976). I also think this is what Paul Gilroy is getting at when he writes of ‘imaginative proximity to terror’ (although that would be Baldwin’s or Morrison’s, not mine to claim) and says that “though they were unspeakable, these terrors were not inexpressible” (Gilroy 1993, p. 73).

Restraint. Control. Mild, measured, moderate-sounding words. A clinical tone, when coupled together – ‘control and restraint’ – the ‘and’ forging a collocation, a connection, like a link of chain. Makes eminent, self-evident sense, on the face of it, no?

But now let’s review some more recent history. Here is David Harewood, speaking of his own lived experience of ‘control and restraint’:

“I remember being confused and terrified … my body was under assault. They performed a ‘rapid tranquillisation’, which was as terrible as it sounds. Whilst I lay there, just trying to stay alive on the floor with seven people holding me down, the drugs slowly started pulsing through my body. I was held down for about two hours until finally I stopped resisting. … In my own records I’m often described as a ‘large Black man’ and it’s also interesting to note the very high doses of drugs I received (Diazepam and haloperidol), both at levels four times the current recommendations. What was the thinking behind these high doses? Were they afraid of me? Was it to control and subdue, as opposed to treat and help? Was it a decision rooted in fear of the ‘large Black man’? It’s no wonder Black people are so reluctant to seek help with their mental health.”

Harewood (2021), pp. 194-195

David Harewood has said that he feels lucky to have survived his ordeal. Here now are the deaths of six Black men; five of these deaths taking place in the UK, the sixth in the USA. There isn’t space here to do justice either to their lives or to the manner of their deaths; however, what links them, apart from the social constructs of ‘race’ and gender, is the fact that all six of them died of asphyxiation and/or cardiac arrest as a result of being restrained by agents of State. Three of these men at least – the first and the last two – found breath, during the restraint, sufficient to be able to say, to those agents of State, “I can’t breathe”.

David Bennett died during a nursing restraint on 30 October 1998 at the Norvic Clinic, a Medium Secure Unit in Norwich in which he had been for many years, off and on, a patient. Bennett wrote a letter to the Head of Nursing Services in 1993, on a previous admission, observing that “there are over half a dozen black boys in this clinic. I don’t know if you have realized that there are no Africans on your staff at the moment. We feel there should be at least two black persons in the medical or social work staff. For the obvious reasons of security and contentment for all concerned please do your best to remedy this appalling situation” (Independent Inquiry 2003, p. 9). On the evening of his fatal restraint following a violent disturbance on the ward, Bennett was heard saying to the nursing team “Get off me, get off me, I can’t breathe. Get off my throat” (Independent Inquiry 2003, p. 21).

In January 1999, Roger Sylvester died under police restraint in Haringay, London. The report of the inquest (Guardian 2003) relates that Sylvester:

“stopped breathing at the emergency psychiatric unit at St Anne’s hospital, Haringey, when six police officers held him down on the floor for about 20 minutes, St Pancras coroner’s court heard. He fell into a coma and died later at the Whittington hospital, north London. The court had heard that dangerous and unreasonable force was used and Mr Sylvester was handcuffed and sometimes restrained on his stomach.”

On 21 August 2008, Sean Rigg died of cardiac arrest and partial positional asphyxia under police restraint in Brixton, London. The Wikipedia summary of the circumstances of his death record that Rigg was chased by four police officers and

“was handcuffed and restrained in a prone, face down position as officers leant on him for eight minutes. Arrested for assaulting a police officer, public disorder and theft of a passport—which was actually his own—he was then placed face-down with his legs bent behind him in the caged rear section of a police van and transported to Brixton police station. During the journey “his mental and physical health deteriorated” and he was “extremely unwell and not fully conscious” when eventually taken out of the van. This followed a delay of ten minutes during which he was left handcuffed in a ‘rear stack’ position, unattended and unmonitored while the van sat outside the station in the car parking area.”

On 4 November 2013, Leon Briggs died under police restraint in Luton. According to a news report of the inquest (BBC 2021b):

The way police officers moved a restrained man who later died was “potentially dangerous” and against “strict guidance”, an inquest heard. Leon Briggs, 39, was restrained under the Mental Health Act on a street in Luton, handcuffed and placed in leg restraints on 4 November 2013. He was lifted face-down to a van and taken to Luton police station. He later became unconscious and died. An officer told the inquest carrying Mr Briggs face-down was “not ideal”.

The jury found that “there was a gross failure to provide Leon with basic medical attention and that there was a direct causal connection between this conduct and his death. They recorded a conclusion that his death was ‘contributed to by neglect’.”

We should pause here in the sequence to note that, in January 2017, the Angiolini Review report (commissioned by Theresa May) found that:

“57.  There is evidence of disproportionate deaths of BAME people in restraint related deaths. Any death involving a BAME victim who died following the use of force has the capacity to provoke community disquiet leading to a lack of public confidence and trust in the justice system. This can be exacerbated if people are not seen to be held to account, or if the misconduct process is opaque (Angiolini 2017, p. 15).”

Now we come to the fifth of these deaths: consider this BBC News report on the death of Kevin Clarke under police restraint in Lewisham, London in March 2018 (BBC 2021a):

“Mr Clarke had been lying on the ground and attempted to get to his knees before being restrained …. He was handcuffed and legs restraints were applied. Police body-worn video footage reveals Mr Clarke repeatedly told officers “I can’t breathe”, before being made to walk to an ambulance, still bound at the knees while barely conscious … .”

The final death in this sequence is perhaps the most well-known. On 25 May 2020, in Minneapolis, George Floyd was killed under police restraint. Here is the Wikipedia summary of witness accounts and video recordings taken at the scene:

“Floyd can be heard repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe”, “Please”, and “Mama”; Lane then asked for an ambulance for Floyd, “for one bleeding from the mouth”. Floyd repeated at least 16 times that he could not breathe. At one point a witness said: “You got him down. Let him breathe.” After Floyd said, “I’m about to die”, Chauvin told him to “relax”. An officer asked Floyd, “What do you want?”; Floyd answered, “Please, the knee in my neck, I can’t breathe.”

———————————-

James Baldwin (to which very great writer, we can never return too often) once wrote that “when a white man faces a black man, especially if the black man is helpless, terrible things are revealed” ([1963] 2017, p. 51). Derek Chauvin is now serving a 22.5 year sentence for second-degree murder. However, in the UK, it is a fact that:

“despite more than 1,700 deaths in police custody and following police contact since 1990 there has never been a successful prosecution of any police officer for murder or manslaughter (Coles 2021).”

192 of these deaths were of people racialized as BAME and this number (14%) reflects the overall population ratios in the UK as of 2011. However, BAME deaths in police custody involving restraint, use of force and mental health issues are in each category more than twice as likely compared to other deaths in custody. Coles, who is the Director of INQUEST, has also argued that “the disproportionality in the use of force against Black people adds to the irrefutable evidence of structural racism embedded in policing practices”.

A very recent United Nations Human Rights Commission report (United Nations 2021), commissioned in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, concludes:

“61. Behind today’s systemic racism, racial violence, dehumanization and exclusion, however, lies the lack of a formal acknowledgement of the responsibilities of States, institutions, religious groups, universities, business enterprises and individuals that engaged in or profited from, and that continue to profit from, the legacy of enslavement, the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans and colonialism”

and calls on States Parties to the UNCHR to take action thus:

“68. Listening to the voices of people of African descent, the need for a global transformative agenda for racial justice and equality is clear. The four-point agenda in the annex sets out the key changes that are needed, which have also been elaborated in the present report under the subheadings on the way forward. Comprehensively implemented, the agenda would:

 (a) Reverse the cultures of denial, dismantle systemic racism and accelerate the pace of action;

 (b) End impunity for human rights violations by law enforcement officials and close trust deficits;

 (c) Ensure that the voices of people of African descent and those who stand up against racism are heard and that their concerns are acted upon;

 (d) Confront legacies, including through accountability and redress.”

Furthermore, the UN Special Rapporteur (United Nations 2017) has commanded States Parties to the UNCRPD (United Nations 2006) to desist from all coercive practices in psychiatry and this would include ‘control and restraint’. The importance and urgency of the challenge to the status quo upheld by the racist State, and to the range of practices by which that status quo is maintained, cannot be overstated.

I am conscious of not having said anything new here as such and I hope this piece reaches a readership who may instantly recognize just how far behind the curve I have been – and, likely enough, still am. But I want to say that I’m taking notice and that taking notice is, I believe and trust, a creative antidote to practicing ignorance. Those great lambasters of restraint of trade and mealy-mouthed objectors to restraint of press freedoms that have been governing this country since the days of Empire are pursuing the active continuation of the practices of restraining entailed in slavery and the toxic ooze of it seeps out through every membrane of the body politic. And I wonder what happens to a ruling class, to use that term, when in order to keep power it has to (officially) renounce the practice that brought it such unimaginable riches and yet corrupted it so completely? What happens when institutional approval and statutory sanction for the handing down and passing on of misery and cruelty is withheld? Perhaps practices of cruelty on such a scale must somehow persevere and find outlets for expression, because such drives can never be sublimated.

Racist dog whistles are not ‘merely’ racist dog whistles. They tell us that nothing – nothing whatsoever – has changed in the mindset. And this brings us back to the beginning of this blog, and the need to take our leave of the present monarch’s present First Minister (and let’s take every opportunity to remind ourselves that it was the Royal Family in this country (albeit in those days not the Windsors themselves, but the Stuarts) that formalized the transatlantic slave trade in the second half of the seventeenth century (hence the mind-boggling wealth now at the Windsors’ disposal)).

What, then, are we to make of the figure of the man whose remark apparently in passing set us off on such a journey? Perhaps the figure of Churchill may provide further illumination, if not the kind of light that anyone would much want shone…

For if associations to Churchill’s cane inexorably took us back to the ‘iron bit’, then associations to Churchill’s cigar lead inevitably to another pale, scruffy-blond-haired, ‘Aryan’, self-promoting, ‘Establishment’ (of the ‘in it yet not of it’ type), self-consciously ‘eccentric’, bonhomous, clowning, hob-nobbing, celebrity serial abuser; hiding in plain view, in the very apple of the public eye, on first-name terms with the world at large; impervious to questioning, immune to criticism; the full horror of his depradations and the full extent of the cover-up around him only emerging even partially into view after he had passed beyond reach of the law of this country, or indeed of any other earthly judgement….

———————————-

Racial abuse. Let’s renounce it in ourselves. Let’s call it out in others, whenever and wherever it rears its ugly, privileged, supremacist head. Let’s be going along with it not one second longer.

References

Angiolini, E. (2017) Report of the Independent Review of Deaths and Serious Incidents in Police Custody. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/655401/Report_of_Angiolini_Review_ISBN_Accessible.pdf

Baldwin, J. ([1963] 2017) The Fire Next Time. London: Penguin.

Baldwin, J. (1972) No Name in the Street. London: Vintage.

Barker, P. (1998) The Regeneration Trilogy. London: Penguin.

BBC (2021a) ‘Kevin Clarke: Met Police apologises over restraint death’. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-55694916

BBC (2021b) ‘Leon Briggs: Police and ambulance ‘failures’ in restraint death’. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-beds-bucks-herts-56339607

Coles, D. (2021) ‘Deaths in detention: Why aren’t we learning lessons from UK deaths in police custody?’ https://lacuna.org.uk/black-lives-matter/deaths-in-detention-why-arent-we-learning-lessons-from-uk-deaths-in-police-custody/

Foucault, M. (1976) ‘Two lectures’. Translated by A. Fontana and P. Pasquino. In Gordon, C. (ed.) (1980) Power/knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings 1972-1977. New York: Pantheon, pp. 78-108.

Gilroy, P. (1993) The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. London: Verso.

Guardian (2003) ‘Detained man unlawfully killed by police’. https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2003/oct/03/ukcrime.prisonsandprobation

Guardian (2021) ‘Johnson proposes hi-vis chain gangs as part of crime plan’. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/jul/27/johnson-proposes-hi-vis-chain-gangs-as-part-of-crime-plan

Harewood, D. (2021) Maybe I Don’t Belong Here. London: Bluebird. https://www.panmacmillan.com/authors/david-harewood/maybe-i-dont-belong-here/9781529064131

Hassall, C. (1959) Edward Marsh, Patron of the Arts: A Biography. London: Longmans.

Independent Inquiry into the Death of David Bennett (2003). http://image.guardian.co.uk/sys-files/Society/documents/2004/02/12/Bennett.pdf

Morrison, T. (1997) Beloved. London: Vintage.

Popescu, I. (2017) ‘Biting iron, forever smiling: the iron-bit, the wounded mouth, and un-silencing in Toni Morrison’s Beloved’. In A. Lobodziec and B.N. Fondo (eds) The Timeless Toni Morrison: The Past and The Present in Toni Morrison’s Fiction. A Tribute to Toni Morrison on Occasion of Her 85th Birthday. Oxford: Peter Lang. https://www.academia.edu/34936113/Biting_Iron_Forever_Smiling_the_Iron_Bit_the_Wounded_Mouth_and_Un_Silencing_in_Toni_Morrison_s_Beloved

Resler, M. (2019) ‘Systems of trauma: Racial trauma’. Issue brief. http://www.fact.virginia.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Racial-Trauma-Issue-Brief.pdf

United Nations (2006) Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities https://www.un.org/development/desa/disabilities/convention-on-the-rights-of-persons-with-disabilities.html

United Nations (2017) Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right of Everyone to the Enjoyment of the Highest Attainable Standard of Physical and Mental Health. UN General Assembly – A/HRC/35/21. https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G17/076/04/PDF/G1707604.pdf?OpenElement

United Nations (2021) Promotion and protection of the human rights and
fundamental freedoms of Africans and of people of African
descent against excessive use of force and other human rights
violations by law enforcement officers
. A/HRC/47/53.
Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. https://undocs.org/A/HRC/47/53

Whitehead, C. (2017) Underground Railroad. London: Fleet.

Covid’s Metamorphoses

Covid’s Metamorphoses

I

Put not your trust in Princes, sociopaths,

and populists! Yup: R is on the up.

We mutter in our coffee cups

or scream “just do the math”

but there’s the rub: they modelled, did their sums;

convened their focus groups

(which feast on spin, and tonics for the troops,

and marching bands, and martial pipes and drums).

“Mere numbers are for crunching! Common sense

– the good old British type –

will see us through”, they blustered (but events

proved otherwise). Such hubris, humbug, hype,

hypocrisy, and cant! Their “fingers crossed”!

Their calculated cynicism glossed!

II

Down Brixton Hill the rain is falling fierce

and fearsome past the prison gates:

a sudden spate

to wash away the layers of grime, the smears

of soot and diesel fumes. No music spills

from the Electric. Empty stand the chairs

in Windrush Square;

forlorn, the shuttered shopfronts. Covid kills

communities discreetly, by degrees,

with segregation, racism and stealth;

a zoonotic freeze

on breath and health.

We tread a bleak and dread-filled path

Between the shadow and its aftermath.

III

Obscured beneath the moral permafrost

of mankind’s ceaseless, cruel,

destructive search for lebensraum, which fuels

environmental holocaust,

a vision forms, in some cool limpid pool

of keener consciousness:

how more might be achieved with less.

We mined, drilled (fracked!) for carbon molecules;

as Ahab scourged the oceans of the world,

as Icarus caressed the Aegean skies,

we hurtled, wings outstretched, and sails unfurled;

chased down electric avenues. All lies!

Together we’ll rewild the biosphere

and weather these coronavirus years.

 

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