Tuesday, 7 April 2015

The British Library (or is that racist?)

A tweet has recently been doing the rounds which depicts two contrasting images from America. One shows a black man with his hands in the air in front of a group of policemen wearing bullet-proof vests and pointing guns aggressively. The other is of a white man happily posing for a selfie with a jovial-looking policeman in riot gear. As separate images they're strong. Placed alongside one another, they're incendiary, particularly when a caption is added: "This is what white privilege looks like."

We gasp at the photos, horrified. How can we allow this to happen in a civilised society? But how many of us stop and think about what we're actually being shown? Although they've been put together, these pictures aren't linked in any way. They show policemen in different uniforms, in different places, in different unrelated, unknown circumstances.

The separate stories behind these two photographs are also unclear. Zoom out of one, and you might find the automatic weapon hastily dropped as the black man raised his hands in surrender. Zoom out of the other and there might be a row of men in riot gear posing for photos with people of every colour and creed. We just don't know. But it's dangerous to search for a link..

In order to truly view the scene in the first picture as racist, the police would need to have been shouting racist abuse, or we'd need to be convinced that the circumstances surrounding the picture were disproportionately heavy-handed... Likewise, for the image of the white man having his picture taken with a policeman to be a racist statement, I would need to know that a black man had had a request for a selfie turned down by the same policeman in similar circumstances. It's so easy to claim that all policemen are institutionally racist because, the fact is that they regularly have to arrest people.

I instantly went onto the internet and found a picture of a black man having a selfie taken with white policemen and the picture of a black policeman beating up a white man. Simply to prove to myself that it works both ways...

Now don't get me wrong. It doesn't always work both ways and more often than not, it works less well for people of differing social backgrounds (the poor, the isolated, certain religious communities...) We live in a deeply imbalanced society. Until recently, and probably still, if a gay man in this country was mugged, attacked or robbed whilst in, or near, a cruising area, the assumption was that he only really only had himself to blame. Ditto with any gay man who ended up being HIV positive.

The fact also remains that there are far fewer creative opportunities available for people from poorer or more rural backgrounds. In my view, socioeconomics and location divides people far more than race ever has, but this is a deeply unpopular view which apparently makes me a UKIP supporter.

If we are to genuinely show racism, which we all know exists, we need to do so in a considered manner. And that means not blithely retweeting images of "racism" which show nothing of the sort, just because we feel a little bit guilty for being white. Otherwise we send out a dangerous message: that it is inherently racist to criticise someone from a minority community who behaves badly. And if one more person counters this argument with the same dull statement about us having to take some responsibility for someone else's bad behaviour, I'll throw all my toys out of my tiny pram!

Anyway. Back in my deeply middle class and privileged white man's world, I re-kindled my British Library membership today to do some research for the rewrite of Brass. I wanted to look specifically at 1915 newspaper reports from the Yorkshire Post, and since the newspaper library at Colindale has been disbanded I've had nowhere to do this sort of research. The women who dealt with me on the phone were universally charming. It was no surprise to learn they were all in Yorkshire.

I had to re-register at the British Library in St Pancras, and pose for a new photo for my card. The woman behind the counter laughed and then swung the screen around to show me the last image they had of me: taken in 1998! It was like looking at a smiling ghost. Ah, the days when I was handsome and slim!

Anyway, I always felt a bit special to have a British Library pass and that rush of excitement filled me once again as the lady handed my pass to me.

The place still feels the same - filled with spiral stairwells and huge reading rooms. The microfiche is all computer generated these days, however, and a little less easy to operate than the old manual system. I found what I wanted mercifully quickly and was away within an hour, and off to Euston Station where I worked in a cafe whilst waiting for young Josh to arrive on a train from Manchester.

Josh and I walked down to Soho together, had a late lunch on Old Compton Street with Nathan and then sat in the gloriously sunny Soho Square where Josh listened to the first mix of the song Letters from Brass. He was wearing dark sunglasses at the time, which made the appearance of the tear trickling down his cheek all the more poetic and beautiful!

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