Political Blackness in Multiracial Britain (Video)



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  • - [Melissa Chomintra] Next up from the Department of Communication,
  • we have Mohan Ambikaipaker.
  • - [Mohan Ambikaipaker] Sure.
  • -Come on.
  • -It is a hard act to follow
  • beautiful pieces of music and Amy's is beautiful voice.
  • I was already lost in the second one.
  • I'm getting that second CD.
  • Congratulations Amy.
  • -[Amy Pfrimmer] Thank you. -It's gorgeous.
  • My topic isn't so gorgeous and isn't so beautiful.
  • It's the darker side of human nature, if you will.
  • But I teach in the Department of Communication,
  • but I'm trained as an anthropologist.
  • And so the work that I did and wrote up, you know, is an ethnography
  • which combines elements of storytelling as well as, you know,
  • rigorous, theoretical analysis and things of that nature.
  • I tried very hard in the massive rewrite of,
  • you know, of the work to pitch it
  • more towards a accessible tone, you know, so that the stories and narratives
  • undergirded by the theory and analysis came, came forth.
  • I was really helped a lot that the, the
  • publishers were also very invested in this direction.
  • And so the manuscript was actually sent to a New York Times bestseller,
  • writer Pamela Hag, who is also an editor.
  • And she, you know, went through--her job, was not to offer any,
  • you know, academic input, but just to look at the book as, as a book.
  • And, you know, this is where academics could really learn a lot from writers.
  • And I'll give you this funny story
  • like I'm going to read a piece from the prelude.
  • In--about when it was in its original form,
  • the prelude was about 50 pages, you know, and
  • Pamela wrote back and said, Mohan, the book is a series of convention,
  • conventions and 50 pages is not a prelude, you know.
  • [audience laughter]
  • And I thought, I have to hit all of, you know, cover myself so that,
  • you know, my, my colleagues in the field, you know, won't be able to tear it down.
  • And it is like, no, it has to be a prelude, you know?
  • So I should ask Amy about the definition of preludes before undertaking it.
  • The prelude is very succinct now and compact.
  • But to give you a little bit of the background of the work,
  • so I study race and race relations,
  • and I went to the U.K. to look at the ways in which racial and ethnic minorities
  • in the east London borough of London-- sorry, the east London borough of Newham,
  • you know, worked to confront the kinds
  • of racial violence and state violence that they were experiencing.
  • And Newham, you know, is a very diverse borough.
  • It's probably now I think it's like the third most diverse borough,
  • but at the time that I was doing my work was probably like the most diverse
  • municipality in all of the U.K., with people
  • coming from different parts of Britain's former empire, you know, who
  • had rights to come and settle, you know, in the U.K.
  • So the, the discourse around immigration today often imagines
  • that people who come from Jamaica, Trinidad, India, Pakistan are immigrants.
  • But if you if you just think a little bit about history, you know,
  • the British Empire covered a quarter of the Earth's landmass,
  • and most of the people in these countries were British subjects.
  • And what that meant, even as recently as the 1948
  • British Nationality Act, is that they were citizens,
  • they were imperial citizens of Britain with rights
  • to come and work and settle in Britain.
  • Britain just didn't expect people to exercise that right.
  • [audience laughter]
  • And hence there was a series of multiple, you know, waves of racial panics
  • and the closing of the doors to what was called Commonwealth immigration,
  • but not before substantial communities had already solidified
  • and taken shape in many parts of the UK.
  • If we go to London now, I think that's almost self-evident.
  • But the process of settling and finding a place in the UK
  • as a result of the kinds of transformations, you know,
  • that Britain had from being an empire, and empires
  • usually tried to incorporate difference 'cause they're trying to manage
  • vast swaths of lands and cultural formations and different groups of people
  • to then being kind of a defensive nation state in its post-colonial
  • tran--transformation as it was losing its empire.
  • You know, is the process that turns people who are once
  • British subjects into interlopers in society, right.
  • And this is met through a broad spectrum
  • of discourses, including, you know, policy discourses on one hand,
  • but also discourses of violence on the other hand.
  • And there is a connectivity between these two ends of the spectrum, right.
  • The very materials out of which this transformation occurs,
  • you know, feeds the imagination that empowers and licenses
  • and mobilizes people to also enact
  • racial violence, racial harassment on the street, and also transforms
  • people who are citizens into suspicious subjects
  • that need surveillance, you know, with the state
  • that then puts them in proximity to, to receiving state violence
  • in the form of police abuse and things of that nature.
  • So what I wanted to do was a work of anthropology
  • that didn't simply try to extract the stories of suffering.
  • You know, that I knew what was happening, but I wanted to insert myself
  • in the politics of ethnography
  • in a--in an empathetic and as well, partisan position.
  • You know, I wanted to see not only what was going to happen
  • when people were confronting racial and state
  • violence, which is also something that we are familiar with in the--
  • in the U.S., but also what happens after they experience this.
  • Because, you know, if these were individuals' actions of lone
  • racists or rogue policemen, you know, then one would expect
  • that a liberal democratic system would have the mechanisms of justice
  • to restore or find remedy for people who have suffered these injustices.
  • But--and I thought initially in my kind of like,
  • you know, youthful hubris, that all it required was, you know, somebody
  • really dedicated and smart to go like, you know, work in these areas.
  • And we would be able to wrest justice you know, just that people were apolitical
  • and not dedicated enough.
  • And that's why things didn't quite get where they need to be.
  • So I became a caseworker for a grassroots organization
  • after doing a stint at the Runnymede Trust of race relations, which was like
  • a top down think tank body on race relations in the UK.
  • We largely were listened to whenever the Labor Party was in government
  • and never heard from if the Conservative Party was in government.
  • But we used to have the, the years of the, the Labor Party.
  • We used to come up with reports and do briefings in,
  • in Parliament around these topics,
  • but I decided to go from there and work at an a grassroots organization
  • where I became a caseworker for people
  • who were suffering from police abuse and racial attacks.
  • I became their advocate and in part through agreement and consensus, you know,
  • I was both going to be the caseworker and also document
  • what happened in the process as people who suffered these events,
  • you know, tried to get justice in the UK.
  • And the story that I have is not a very happy story.
  • It's not a very successful story.
  • Most of the times, you know, justice was hard to find.
  • And the sites that are set up
  • for providing justice around these cases ended up
  • being secondary sites for revictimizing, you know, the, the victims.
  • And this was a surprise because in one--in--on, on paper, Britain actually
  • is so much better than the US around this these questions, you know.
  • For example, you know, the term institutional racism
  • which we often hear in the US,
  • which was coined by, you know, like a radical group like the Black Panthers,
  • you know, is actually a--an item of law in the UK.
  • Institutional racism enters the criminological code,
  • you know, after the Royal MacPherson inquiry delivers
  • its report on the failure of state agencies to provide equal and adequate
  • service to the family of Stephen Lawrence, the Afro-Caribbean boy
  • who was knifed to death at a bus stop, and the verdict
  • of this parliamentary inquiry was to deem
  • the Metropolitan Police of London to be institutionally racist.
  • You know, and that is such a powerful concept
  • that that we lacked in American jurisprudence.
  • If you try to prove discrimination in America, in American jurisprudence,
  • and certainly under the Roberts court, believe me, your task is really high.
  • If you want to convict a police officer for, for racism,
  • you know, and or for a racial use of fatal violence, in the United States,
  • you have to do two things concurrently.
  • You have to show, one, that they had an intent to discriminate
  • on the day that they committed the offense.
  • And you have to have evidence providing that they had the intent to discriminate.
  • So a recording saying that they wanted to go kill black people in the morning
  • would be an evidence of the intent to discriminate.
  • And secondly, you have to prove that their perception of the threat
  • that they saw was unreasonable.
  • Right. And this is important.
  • It's the perception of the threat, not the threat itself.
  • So like in the Michael Brown case in St. Louis,
  • you know, like if there if there's if a police officer says
  • there's a big black guy waving arms in front of me and I perceived the threat,
  • it did not require that threat to be real.
  • It just required it to be reasonable.
  • And you have to prove these two things at the same time.
  • But anyway, I thought Britain would be a better
  • scenario and it didn't turn out to be a better scenario.
  • It turned out to be as challenging
  • as the scenario in the UK--in the US, and I guess
  • the book is the opportunity to sort of dig in to how that, you know, narrates.
  • I'm going to do a very quick reading. Can I or am I out of time?
  • - [Courtney Kearney] You know--yeah. -Very quick reading. Okay.
  • Let me see. Okay.
  • "'Black people were called 'gollywogs'; It was awful,' Amina continued.
  • "'But-people used to come around, though! To have my mom's cooking.
  • "She was such a fantastic cook,' Amina said breaking into a smile again.
  • "'And Dad used to do odd jobs for people around here.
  • "He was such a good gardener,' she added.
  • "Amina grew up in East London in the 1970s and 80s
  • "when hers was one of only three South Asian families in her school.
  • "There was also one African Caribbean family.
  • "'I remember song that comes to mind.
  • "It was 'Ding dong the bells are ringing, we are going a-Paki-bashing!'
  • "The people upstairs, they were singing it
  • "And you know we were probably the cleanest family there.
  • "I mean, they talk about Asians being smelly and all,
  • "but we were the cleanest family there. Simply ridiculous.
  • "My dad did not see himself as a black man other people-they just see a wog...
  • "I mean, when push comes to shove,
  • "they make everyone a Paki or a black bastard.
  • "To them you're not white, so you're all these other things
  • "because you're not white and because they are superior.'
  • "Despite the racism he experienced,
  • "Amina's father did not want to isolate himself or his family.
  • "He took a 'liberal' approach, Amina explained.
  • "He allowed his daughters to dress as they please and to mix widely.
  • "Amina describe her social circle growing up
  • "as comprising people from many different racial backgrounds,
  • "which included many white British friends from school.
  • "Amina married her son's father, a white man, who had also converted
  • "to her family's Islamic faith.
  • "The marriage had not worked out and she had recently divorced the husband.
  • "In contrast to the stereotypes of British Asians and Muslims as self-segregate,
  • "segregating communities, Amina pointed to her own cosmopolitan family:
  • "one of the sisters was married to a black Grenadian man;
  • "another was married to a Pakistani man;
  • "and another had married a man from South Africa and emigrated there.
  • "She describe the openness of her upbringing
  • "and how her parents had taught her not to look down on anybody.
  • "She remember her father telling her, 'You've got to take people as they come.'
  • "According to Amina her father initially didn't care about the racism he faced.
  • "'He would go down to a local pub and have drinks with people,
  • "play darts, and even bowled'
  • "Victoria Park, near where Amina lived as a child, had a lawn bowling club.
  • "But it did not allow Afro-Caribbean or South Asian people to play.
  • "And yet she remembered
  • "how her father would simply enter uninvited and join in the games.
  • "One day, however, Mr. Azlan's nonchalance reached its breaking point.
  • "'Well, the people who lived above us, in the flat above,
  • "they used to call my dad names.
  • "Racial comments and stuff like that,' Amina said.
  • "'My dad would always stick up for himself and his family,
  • "you know, protect his family and whatnot,' she added.
  • "'We came home from school one day, well, I came home from nursery
  • "and my elder sisters came home from school.
  • "Our mum was walking with us, and we could see smoke coming out.
  • "They had put all our things, well, all my dad's things
  • "in the middle of the room, poured something on there and set them on fire
  • and wrote 'Paki' on the wall and things like that."
  • I'll just stop there, thank you.
  • [audience applause]