Gus John proclaims DON’T BAME ME!

Following upon the momentum created by Gus John’s account of his clash with the BBC, Sanitising Racism, Past and Present it is all the more challenging to post his passionate rejection of the almost taken-for-granted and ‘hideous’ acronym, BAME – Black, Asia and Minority Ethnic. More than a few questions herein for the youth work world I have inhabited across the decades….and society at large.

DON’T BAME ME

Just before the lockdown, my granddaughter came home from school one day very upset and confused. That afternoon, a classmate sitting at her table suddenly announced that from now on we will all call Anna (not her real name) ‘nigger’. They are both 10 and British white and African respectively. Anna remonstrated with him and one of her mates, white, insisted that she should tell the teacher. In a discussion that ensued later, questions were asked about what the school was doing about race and one adult added ‘especially as there are so few Bame students in the school’. Anna had no clue as to what Bame meant and when she was told, she asked why it mattered that there were few students like her in the school, given the fact that it was the white boy who had used the racial slur. When on reaching home she called to tell me about it, I found it considerably less problematic to explain to her the origins and usage of ‘the n-word’ than that of BAME.

So, here is a British born child, confident in her own skin, unapologetic about her blackness and totally comfortable with her white classmates having sleep overs at her home and vice versa, being made to feel that she was a problem; a problem that required the school to deal with the issue of race; being made to feel that if she had not been there, the white boy would not have had cause to call anybody ‘nigger’ and the school would have had no need to concern itself with race.

But, that school had long demonstrated to her that it saw no need to concern itself with race, not least by virtue of the fact that nothing in its library or displayed on its walls sent out to students, teachers or parents that there were people in Britain, let alone the world, other than white people like themselves.

So, why was it was more difficult to explain the origin and use of the word ‘nigger’ than that of the hideous and equally demeaning acronym BAME?

How does a parent tell a 10 year old that by virtue of the colour of her skin, by virtue of the fact that she is melanin rich, she is rendered ‘other’ and racialised as ‘black’ and as ‘nigger’ as the worst and most contemptible embodiment and existential manifestation of black? How does a parent equip that child with the mental energy, the self esteem, the self confidence and the determination to defend her essential humanity and make sure that no one takes liberties with her and denigrate her on account of her blackness?

And, while her parents are building with and within her those essential tools for resistance and survival, what are the parents of her white classmates doing to ensure  that they are not being socialised within the putrid culture of racism in Britain to become racist oppressors, whether by commission or omission?

So, what is the context of this conversation about the terminology we use to denote racial identity and to denote ethnicity?

The context I suggest is the racialisation of difference and of different populations across the globe; racialisation of people, their ethnicity, their history, their culture and cultural products. Such racialisation has been the historical function of imperialism and colonialism and with it has evolved a language that serves the purpose of underpinning racial hierarchies and trapping those at or near the bottom of the hierarchy in mindsets and ways of being and of self-perception that correspond to those hierarchies.

We ignore the relationship between language, power and identity at our peril. Words matter. They convey deep meanings and they help to frame identities. They are the medium through which we give expression to our existential reality and through which others seek to deny, denigrate and negate our existential reality.

Before I arrived in Britain in 1964 aged 19, I had not heard the word ‘coloured’ used to describe African people except in the specific context of apartheid in South Africa. As a teenager, I was deeply affected by reading Alan Paton’s, ‘Cry, the Beloved Country’. So, when I heard white people and even Caribbean people calling other Caribbean people like myself ‘coloured’, I was quite alarmed. And then I read Stokeley Carmichael and Charles Hamilton’s ‘Black Power’ and I learnt about the Negritude Movement and I read James Baldwin, Claude Mackay, Ralph Ellison and saw images of Black Panther and civil rights marches and of Jim Crow barbarism as African Americans struggled against state racism in the USA.

Stokeley Carmichael

I found it interesting that the bestial British who for centuries had treated African people worse than they did animals had suddenly converted to humanity, such that they were insisting that it was not just impolite but downright offensive to call us ‘black’. We were being condemned for using our supplementary schools to teach ‘Black Power’. Black was considered to be associated with violence, armed resistance against the state and its apparatuses and generally with a radical and revolutionary mindset. ‘Coloured’ was more consensual and conformist and in any event, it made white folk feel better, except of course when they were ready to cuss us. I’ve never heard the racial slur ‘you coloured bastard’. No, we got the full monty, including and especially from the police: ‘You black bastard’.

And then, the contorted language of race relations brought us ethnic minorities and black and ethnic minorities. This gave rise to a protracted debate about whether we were ethnic minority or minority ethnic. That debate completely missed the point, i.e., a) that whether ‘ethnic minority’ or ‘minority ethnic’, we were consenting to being minoritized and ‘othered’ for all time and that we were considered and treated as ‘minority’, not just in relation to our ‘per capita’ representation in the population as part of the African and the Asian Diaspora, but minority in intelligence, in capabilities, in moral values, in our contribution to human evolution, etc. The society which automatically valued and validated white folk, began to demand that we prove ourselves and demonstrate that we had the capacity to hold certain positions before we could be accepted as eligible for appointment to a wide spectrum of posts; b) that as far as ethnicity was concerned, we were not just ethnic minorities, we were ethnic outcasts, vying with other ethnic minorities like ourselves and scrambling for crumbs and handouts from those in power, who were always facing a potential backlash from the white majority who saw us as undeserving and as taking what should have been given to them.

No one ever spoke or wrote about the ethnic majority in the society and how they engaged with their racial and ethnic identity. People and things were only ethnic when they were, or were related to, people and cultures that were not white. It is as if we had come into a land of ethnic neutrality and cultural homogeneity and were clumps of trees in vast forests of melanin starved corn; in other words, a population of people without colour (PWC) in more ways than one.

In time, those halcyon days when black denoted struggle of the sort that African people had waged for centuries against enslavement, colonisation and neo-colonialism and therefore was thought to encompass liberation struggles, broadly speaking, of oppressed and dispossessed peoples everywhere, including against the caste system in the Indian subcontinent, against Israeli occupation of Palestine and against the genocide of indigenous peoples in the Americas and Australasia, those halcyon days gave way to a far narrower definition of black as signifying African – as in Africa and its Diaspora -, with most diasporan Africans seeing themselves as having either a hyphenated identity, – African-American, African-Caribbean, French-African – and many emphatically rejecting their African heritage altogether. Among the latter are significant numbers of Caribbean people of all ages, who while being comfortable with being called Black would never call themselves and resent being called African. In other words, they have no time whatsoever for Peter Tosh’s famous declaration:


‘Don’t care where you come from
As long as you’re a black man, you’re an African’

Asians in Britain determined that they were not Black and they were no ‘ethnic minority’ either. In time, BME morphed into Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME).  

BAME is a hideous acronym and it is one that does no justice to any of the sections of the British population encompassed by that ill-defined term. Black is an umbrella classification for whom exactly? Black African? Black British of African and of Caribbean parentage? Black British of African, or Caribbean and white European parentage? How about the large Indo-Caribbean population of Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago, almost as numerous as the African-Caribbean population? In Britain, are they and their offspring Black Caribbean, or are they Asian as in BAME?

And what do we understand by Asian? What does that umbrella classification encompass? People from the Indian subcontinent only, as in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh? People from the Indian Ocean? People from countries that form the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN): Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, 
Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Phillipines, Vietnam, Brunei, Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia, Laos? People from China? People from Taiwan?

And if ‘Asians’ as in BAME signify people from the Asian continent and its Diaspora, why are people from the African continent and its Diaspora represented as ‘Black’ in BAME? I would suggest that ‘Black’ in that context has less connotations of Black as in “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud’ than as black representing historical enslavement, reserve pools of labour, endless struggle for fundamental rights and entitlements and from the bondage of endemic racism.

As for ethnic minority/minority ethnic, we have to lead the way in abandoning this terminology.

The population of Europe’s ethnic majority, ie, white Europeans, is roughly 748 million. The population of the Indian subcontinent alone is approximately 1 billion, 765 million. 25% of the world’s population live in South Asia. Whites make up 60% of the population of the USA. The UK has a population of 68 million, of whom 9 million are non-white.

There is no evidence that I have seen of people from the Asian or African Diaspora regarding themselves as ethnic minorities in Britain. On the contrary, migrant and settler communities from those continents project anything but a minority consciousness. Yet, we readily adopt and persist with a language of hierarchy and of oppression, both here and in the USA. Among the bewildering array of terms that are in increasingly regular usage in Britain are: People of Colour; Black and Non-Black People of Colour and more recently Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (BIPOC).

Who determined that Black or Indigenous people are ethnic minorities? Even numerically, why are we minoritizing ourselves who constitute 85% at least of the world’s population? Nigeria has a population of over 200 million. Britain has a population of 68 million. Why should Nigerians see themselves as an ethnic minority in Britain or anywhere else in Europe? And as for ‘People of Colour’ or ‘Visible Minorities’, why are we defining ourselves against globalised whiteness as some assumed norm and minoritizing ourselves as if we don’t fully belong, especially given Europe’s historical exploits around the globe?

There are little and large enclaves of white folk all over the world and on each continent. They never define themselves, nor do we ever define them, as ‘ethnic minorities’. We call them and they refer to themselves as ‘expats’, expatriates from their homeland who happen to be in some other country (typically seen as inferior to theirs). In other words, people are only ‘ethnic’ and ‘minority’ when they are not white. And yet, we fail to see how we ourselves are privileging whiteness as the ‘norm’ when we call ourselves ‘people of colour’, ‘ethnic minorities’ and the rest.

BAME is bad enough, but BIPOC for heaven’s sake…. So, we tacitly and implicitly accept that ‘white’ is a unified concept, all embracing, all encompassing. No diversity, ethnic minorities or multiculturalism in the white majority. It’s one undifferentiated, melanin starved mass. When it comes to us, however, we are BAME, POC, BIPOC, non-White ……and Backward.

If African people are People of Colour, why deny white Europeans the privilege of being called People without Colour, in other words, not having to carry the burden of blackness with all its historical baggage of unacceptability and undesirability?

The critical question in all this is: When is it going to end? It is estimated that in less than 50 years, the non-white population of Britain will outnumber the melanin starved, the WIPONC (White and Indigenous People of No Colour). Do we have to wait until then before we Africans and Asians develop and project a majority consciousness and stop minoritizing ourselves? Meanwhile, what does BAME tell us about the way the diverse populations we group as Black and Asian and Minority Ethnic experience the society and its endemic racisms? Do Indians, Bangladeshis, Chinese and Malaysians experience the society and its institutions in identical ways? Do they have equal access and equal opportunity? Similarly, those of us Africans who are lumped together as ‘Black’?

Convenient though policymakers no less than academics and journalists find it to use BAME and POC, I believe that we have a duty to disrupt the hegemony of that language and its power to racialise, marginalise and exclude. For one thing, young Black British people such as my children and grandchildren need a home. They need to see themselves as being the continuum of an Ancestral line, as having an African ancestry. Britain is where they live, but it can never be their ‘home’. Their ‘Mother country’ is Africa. While we believe in people’s right to self-identify and that therefore, Caribbean people have a right to declare that they are not African or Asian, or British for that matter, we would all consider it rather bizarre if they all started calling themselves Innuits.

I have no idea, any more than you do, how long it would take before we abandon the language of BAME and POC and BIPOC. But, we can all start by taking responsibility to avoid using it in our speech and in our writing. Although many regard it as being equally problematic, I increasingly use terms such as Global Majority, or African and Global Majority, instead of BAME. I never ever use ‘People of Colour’, for as far as I am concerned there is no difference between being called a person of colour, or a ‘woman of colour’ and a ‘coloured woman’.

Problematic it may be, but psychologically it nurtures my sense of wellbeing in this racist society to define myself and my offspring as African and Global Majority, rather than endorsing the label of BAME and POC.

I rest my case.

Gus John
International Consultant & Executive Coach Visiting Professor  –  Coventry University
Honorary Fellow and Associate Professor The UCL Institute of Education – University of London

STUTTERING STEPS IN POLITICAL EDUCATION: FORTY YEARS ON

I’m not sure if this piece, which appeared in the ninth issue of the Inner London Education Authority’s Schooling and Culture forty years ago, is of much interest today. Certainly, across the decades, it resonates for me, if for no one else, particularly so as its final paragraph mirrors the concluding call I make in the recent post, Resistance in a Climate of Anxiety and Precarity.

Compare the two:

1981 We are putting energy into building our local union branch to act as a focus for our political action. Crucial to this development is the building of links with other Community and Youth Service Association (CYSA) branches in the country and with other oppositional groups. But we do not want to be seen to be trotting out empty slogans about collectivity and solidarity. For instance we are struggling to make any contact at all with our local labour movement. Our own cohesion itself is very fragile, but we have made a start at the coalface. That is with our own feelings to one another. We will feel stronger in this struggle if we hear from other people across the country. Such a network of support is vital if we are to create a movement in opposition to the resurgence of repression and reaction that is upon us.

2021  Gazing outwards I wonder whether this is a moment when IDYW should explore directly with its supporters the reasons for our reluctance to organise collectively. Am I being old-fashioned in believing that, when push comes to shove, if resistance is to strike fear into the powerful it will spring from acting together on the basis of the classic slogan, ‘Educate, Agitate, Organise’? Am I living in a dream to believe that a passionate and organised IDYW democratic alliance of workers, volunteers and young people could be part of the absolutely necessary social and political resistance to the dystopian prospect offered by the global elite and the World Economic Forum?

Of course, one the one hand, the similarity might well reveal the weariness of my thinking, that I am trapped in romantic nostalgia. On the other it might well illustrate that the will and commitment to self-organise, to come together under our own steam, remains fundamental. More than ever in these self-centred neoliberal times, it marks a break from the cul-de-sac of individualistic virtue. It is a choice we can make. It is a difficult choice, made ever easier the more we choose to do it together.

It’s more than interesting that the 1981 piece is a defence of liberal education as expressed in a process-led youth work faced by conservative resistance on the ground. In 2020 we strive to oppose a holistic liberal education to behavioural neo-liberal education and its technocratic imposition of prescribed outcomes.

STUTTERING STEPS IN POLITICAL EDUCATION

TONY TAYLOR AND ROY RATCLIFFEat the time of writing I was the Wigan Youth Service’s Training Officer and Roy, an Area Youth Worker.

[Schooling and Culture, Issue 9, London, ILEA Cockpit Arts Workshop, Spring 1981
The issue, Youth, Community: Crisis, included a number of relevant articles. See in particular, Mica Nava, ‘Girls aren’t really a problem…’, Tony Taylor and Roy Ratcliffe, ‘Stuttering steps in political education’, and Bernard Davies, ‘Social Education and Political Education: In Search of Integration’.]

Within the present political and economic climate the Youth Service is once again in depression. The future is clouded. However, crises are a recurrent feature of youth work’s recent history and the response thus far suggests that the field is sceptical of this latest Armageddon. “Wolf’s been cried once too often!”—it is merely a time to keep one’s head down until the situation passes over. We would hope that this latest trough is not the slough of a very desperate despond. It is not just the Youth Service that faces calamity, but the whole of liberal education. Strategies of resistance are urgently needed. Here we wish to share our experiences about the attempted development of a Social Education Programme for a local authority statutory Youth Service and so participate in producing a positive collective response to the conservative onslaught.

Back in 1974 local government reorganisation offered the possibility of reviewing the state of the Youth Service. In Wigan a working party dominated by conservative elements within the voluntary sector produced a pale pamphlet which proposed (as objectives for youth leaders) tired and trusted tenets such as ‘the moral and spiritual development of young people.’ An increased youth work staff inherited this static apology as a blueprint for its practice. The dominant modes of operating available as examples to field workers were rooted in either ‘garden fete’ paternalism or activity oriented authoritarianism. Ideas of person-centred counselling and group work, the staple diet of training courses, floated on the margins of debates about the future. The underlying tension caused by this marginalisation and differing levels of perception was heightened by the influx of some workers more committed to a liberal perspective. Increasingly the long-standing traditional leadership base of youth work imposed an uneasy truce on the non-directive structures promulgated by training agencies following the post-Albermarle resurrection of Youth Service and the community emphasis of Milson/Fairbairn.

Over the first two years after reorganisation this lack of ‘compatibility’ between rival theories and practices caused frequent problems. As a response to this turmoil a group of full and part-time workers produced a document entitled The Programme of Action, which insisted that the Service’s objectives were the heightening of young people’s awareness (personal, social and political) and greater member participation. Quoting Brecht in “assisting the little fishes”, the introduction argued the Youth Service’s priority role in supporting the disadvantaged young person. Faced by such a clear statement of the liberal position’s concern for the individually deprived, the Youth Service hierarchy endorsed the submission and rushed it through Council to become the official Youth Service line. There was no attempt to familiarise the councillors and other advisory bodies with the content of the Programme. It was normal practice to treat them contemptuously as mere ‘rubber stamps’. Our acceptance of this manipulation and failure to discuss the issue seriously with the local politicians was to have severe repercussions in later years. However on the surface there was now the prospect of encouraging liberal youth work within the framework of the Programme of Action as a secure and agreed basis for the Youth Service staff. On paper we were now officially ‘Social Educators’.

In the following period the gulf between the rhetoric of the Programme of Action and the day to day reality caused further confrontations over such issues as policing the building; supporting the young homeless; swearing and moral decency. Reactionary positions continued to win the day and eventually several staff fled the scene. Crucial to the weakness of the ‘liberal’ position in this period was the poor relationship between full-time and many part-time staff. The latter’s overall support for status quo was often decisive. Linked to this failure the full-time staff itself became further fragmented. It was then a relatively simple task for the hierarchy ‘to divide and rule’.

Early in 1978 when the last remaining radical (and highest qualified) of the staff was ironically promoted  to a training position, divisions within the staff grew worse. Bloodied and isolated the new Training Officer pursued a purist policy that created radical initiatives, which received only token support from the majority of the staff, who often used the argument that training occupied an ‘ivory tower’. Contradictorily the hierarchy tended to support this radical thrust, realising perhaps that it was unlikely to impinge problematically on practice, having themselves only a ‘wishy—washy’ pragmatism to put in its place. Crisis management was the order of the day and intervention only came after ‘things had blown up’. 

The same year also saw the recruitment of further full-time staff new to the borough and it was against this background that training constructed a new strategy early in 1979. This was the setting up of a Training and Development Unit. Our argument was that this venture would provide a fresh angle on the problem of building a bridge between theory and practice. The view we took was that the liberal theories as they appeared in the Programme of Action, whilst containing the possibility of many alternative interpretations, also presented a sufficient brief to support a struggle against many elements of oppression in our society particularly as they affected young people. We considered that these liberal ideas and sentiments supported verbally by the hierarchy were evidence that these notions had general support from the majority of staff. We accepted the criticism that training was often cut-off from the day to day practice of youth work and needed to be brought closer to reality. We were aware that many part-time staff, some in the past and some recently, had tried and were trying against overwhelming odds to implement sections of the Programme of Action. The odds we all struggled against comprised of an ineffective, unimaginative, one year trained group of advisers for whom the status quo offered a peaceful if uneventful life; a general apathy and cynicism; and a lack of materials and resources with which to work. In developing the idea of a Training and Development Unit along with other innovations, we hoped to support current efforts; to develop good practice;  to reinvigorate the demoralised;  to convert the cynical; and call the bluff of the reactionaries. Some of the suggested initiatives were judged impractical for that year and so were shelved but the whole staff team welcomed the setting up of the Training and Development Unit.

Although the authority insisted on line management relationships,  the endeavour was organised collectively. Internally within the unit there was no hierarchy, but the Youth Service structure accepted only one person, the Training Officer, as being responsible. Nevertheless it was hoped that many practical barriers would be removed by the provision of resources and the means to deliver them to the clubs. Principally the creation of a resource centre with a library, group work room, printing facilities, audio and video equipment and filming capability was to be the material factor that would overcome liberal Youth Work’s traditional inadequacies in the areas of planning, preparation and delivery. The centre would not, however, wait passively to be utilised but would be an active component brought to life by the Development Team. Exciting stimuli could be created at the centre on topics of social education and then taken into the world of table tennis and discos. The Development Team of one full-time worker and six part—time workers would be able to respond to requests, and prompt responses. Its main, if not sole brief was to lubricate the path of liberal theory to the seat of practice and then to return it for examination. Training was to move from ‘one-off’ exhortations and short courses to a view that sought to unite training, youth workers and young people in an educational dialogue.

Over the last two years the Training Centre, the Development Team and individual workers have indeed made moves towards these objectives. Yet the effect of theory on practice continues to be muted. The gap and therefore the contradiction between a liberal theory and a conservative practice remains. However, the efforts have served to sharpen our awareness of the depth of the blockages to the implementation of a social education praxis. In particular it has highlighted the rigidity of hierarchical structures; the flaccid response of many youth workers to authority; the insidious grip of ‘common-sense’ empiricism; the low self-image of the Service as a whole; and our own specific failure to build a solid base of support within and without the Service. Instead of now being in a position to examine how liberal theory enlightened practice, we are in the unfortunate position of being confronted by the mass of conservative practice which negated liberal theory. A number of ‘problems’ occurred, some of which we outline below. In each case we suggest that the practice was not checked against the supposed objectives of the Service, but that a summary arbitration was imposed on the basis of the lowest ‘common-sense’ denominator.

Case 1: THE ALL NIGHT PARTY

The Programme of Action underlines involvement as a major objective; it speaks of young people’s active involvement in the organisation of youth centres. Under a heading Strategies it recommends ‘identifying their own needs’; ‘involvement in decision-making’; ‘collecting subscriptions’; ‘keys to the centre’. In line with this authority policy, one club, apparently backed by its management committee, extended democracy and eventually achieved a locally unprecedented level of attendance and participation. Then an incident occurred in which young people trusted with keys were judged to have ‘gone too far’. They had held an all night party at the club on what later evidence proved to be a very orderly and tame basis. The young people concerned sought and obtained parental consent and displayed a host of other ‘responsible’ actions before embarking upon the venture. None of these actions were checked out and instead rumours of sexual license and permissiveness abounded. They were hastily considered to have gone ‘over the top’ and their access to keys was immediately withdrawn from them. There was no consultation with these young adults (the majority were over 18, and the party was for the 21st birthday of one of the members). Our position as a Service in the face of an orchestrated attack on our philosophy was to desert the young people in question, and the full-time staff members who supported them, and capitulate before dark threats about club closures and the forthcoming education cuts.

Case 2: THE MEMBERS’ COUNCIL

Embodied in the Programme of Action is a commitment to political awareness. We read under Objectives: ‘Development of questioning attitudes within young people’, and under Strategies: ‘Members’ Councils with power, e.g. finances.’  In line with this policy a group of youth club members from different clubs overcame considerable organisational difficulties and formed an embryo Members’ Council. After visiting a ‘Youth Charter—Towards 2000’ Conference called ‘Making Ourselves Heard’, they produced a bulletin of their impressions which they hoped would become the basis of a local youth council magazine. The bulletin contained a small number of Anglo-Saxon swear words which expressed the anger and frustrations which many of them felt. Response to the publication was swift and decisive. All support and facilities were removed from the young people and they, once more isolated, soon disbanded. As a Service we washed our hands of the affair and disciplined the full-time members of staff who had supported the Members’ Council. No evaluation was made of the situation. Members’ Councils ceased to be on the agenda of priorities.

Case 3: MEMBERS ONLY MAGAZINE

Bearing the Programme of Action’s statements about political awareness and participation in mind, about 60 copies of an NAYC publication, Members Only, were ordered. The magazine contained articles on writing and producing club newspapers. However on its front cover was a picture of a group of punks dressed in their ‘gear’ with one young male giving a V-sign to the camera. Distribution of the magazine was banned. Our response as a Service was to bow our heads and meekly comply with the censorship. What had happened to developing questioning attitudes?

Case 4: SEXISM

In this case a practical ‘problem’ has not yet arisen. We include it merely as a pointer to the future.A section of the training programme proposed a policy of positive discrimination in favour of young women. It suggested the setting up of a working party to investigate the male orientation of the Service; the organisation of a Workers Against Sexism Group; the publication of a Guidelines Against Sexism booklet; and the planning of ‘Boys Rule Not OK’ weekends. At the committee meetings to approve the programme, objections were made to the Training Section’s ‘obsession’ with sex and its trendy sociological approach. Fears were expressed about the direction of this type of youth work. As a Service our response was ‘to box clever’ and to rewrite the offending passage, but seeds of doubt had already been liberally (!) sown. The ’response’ in this case has occurred at the level of theory and we can perhaps anticipate how a practical implementation will be greeted.

[ December 2020 – Indeed tackling sexism within the Service did create all manner of tensions. However the emergence of a self-organised Women Workers Group, the power and sophistication of its strategy and tactics, was to prove crucial to Work With Girls and Young Women moving to the centre of the Service’s practice.]

The issue carried this article on a Paddington Girls Night

In all of these cases, it is seductive to define the problem as being one of ‘mistakes’ made by theparticipants: “If only they had handled things differently and in a more sensible way.” This simplistic analysis allows critics of the situation to claim that they are still in favour of social education but not of incompetence – witness their fashionable exasperation with the Tyndale teachers, whose actions they allege have made it so difficult to be progressive. It amounts to the view that anything less than a perfect initiative is too risky to try—an obvious recipe for the status quo. The charade though of support for experiment so long as it’s bland, keeps ajar the refuge that radical practice is possible provided we are familiar with and take heed of the constraints of ‘common-sense’.

But it is important to look more closely at part of the opposition to attempts to implement such liberal documents as Wigan’s Programme of Action. As a group of responses they are not the irrational or erratic whims of individuals, but flow in a complex way from the movement of wider forces in society. As a tool to look at this situation we concur with the concept of “moral panic”, first mooted by Stan Cohen in Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1973), and subtly developed by the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in their Policing the Crisis (1978). At a certain moment in each of our examples a response of ‘moral panic or outrage’ can be identified. In Case 1 the focus was alleged sexual promiscuity; in Case 2 the vulgar words signalled the approach of anarchy and the subversion of moral standards; in Case 3 the punks, folk-devils of the late seventies, exuded a provocative contempt for authority; in Case 4 the contentious mixture was defined as being obsessed with sex and women’s lib, wishy-washy, yet manipulative and deviously subversive. Much of the outrage appeared genuine, although the sexual obsession resided with the critics rather than with those on the stage. However, what is significant is the way in which the narrow moral/sexual concern was expanded into an increasingly broader context in which the future of society was held to be at stake. Thus a particular form and style of educational approach was deemed to be responsible for the demise of traditional values and standards. This is demonstrated by the fact that the response does not limit itself to the specific issue alone, but is extended so as to prevent all further development i.e. not a restriction on swear words but a complete restriction of Members’ Council’s activities, etc. Thus what at first sight appears to be an outbreak of situation-specific moral indignation later grows into a more general authoritarian reaction to the whole of progressive youth work and more! The form is moral outrage but the content is political reaction.

We are not arguing that such developments are peculiar to youth work. Clearly all those involved ineducation and wishing to pursue in practice strategies in opposition to oppression and exploitation run the risk of being attacked in this way. Education authorities do not as a rule smile benevolently on school/student unions, pupils representation and the like, especially if there is any suggestion of autonomous decision-making. As far as the Youth Service is concerned we would venture that the problems and responses noted above are a normal feature of its existence. This is to suggest that workers involved in social education initiatives are likely to be caught in a depressing circle of frustration. It is still sometimes fondly thought that youth workers are less hamperedby authoritarian structural constraints than their colleagues in schools. Whilst it will come as no surprise to learn that they are fettered rather than free, it may be a shock to realise how little roomthey have for manoeuvre; how quickly reaction can come; and how little needs to be done to provoke the wrath of authority. Alongside the grandiloquent rhetoric about sexual awareness; political awareness; and member participation, we must note the outrage that will accompany almost immediately, mention of masturbation and the clitoris; talk of Marxism;  and discussion about political demonstration. Stuttering steps towards opening up political issues precipitate ‘moral panic’ and the bureaucratic guillotine. 

And where are the mass of youth workers in the face of this opposition to the very life blood of their supposedly unique educational organism? We fear that many are hiding their heads in the sand and we would accept some responsibility for their ostrich-like state, but as A J Jeffs comments,

Analysis of current practice inevitably invokes self-criticism and is likely to threaten thefragile consensus that service to bind the disparate wings of the Youth Service together,therefore it tends to be avoided.”

So too the ‘liberalism’ that underpins much of the youth work ethos is assessed by Hall et al to be ill-equipped to resist the ‘direct impact or pragmatic immediacy of the traditionalist world view.’

In the light of these reflections we would put a question mark alongside all current liberal initiatives in support of young people. Serious struggles against, for instance, sexism and racism aimed at changing the basis of human relationships are obviously a threat to those who wish to preserve their privilege by controlling the existing conditions of inequality. However the chosen axis of response by authority to such efforts is unlikely to be one of a  frontal assault upon ‘equality’, given this liberal notion’s deep rooted position in our culture. The forces of resistance to change are more likely to utilise the dynamic that is expressed firstly as outrage at a particular characteristic of a situation e.g. ‘vulgar language’, ‘nudity’,’sexual excess’, but which is then able to escalate these phenomena into the tell-tale signs of a general threat to the very fabric of our society. In this way the needs of authority and power are presented as the mutual concern of ‘all good men and true’ and ‘anybody with any common-sense’. So too the promotion of even liberal ideas in education is by slides and elisions identified as extremist and violent.

Thus the question mark, when placed alongside these efforts to motivate liberal youth work practice, reveals a conspicuous lack of success. But the tale is not to end here in circular depression. At one level our Programme of Action and developments such as the National Youth Bureau’s ‘Enfranchisement’ initiative are in dire straits. In 1980-81 liberal efforts to advance the status of young people, of the unemployed, of women, of blacks, are swimming against the tide of cuts, closures and the drift to a law and order society. But while it is idealistic and naive to talk of individual freedom and the whole liberal baggage without recognising the present economic base and political structure, it is pessimistic and undialectical to view the present situation as static and without contradiction; the state as monolithic and people as unchangeable. Thus we are now trying to apply an understanding of our failure to our present practice. We ourselves noted in an article in Youth in Society (October 1980) that a global analysis needs to be sensitised by the understanding on a personal level that comes from counselling and group work. So at the top of our list of priorities now is the exhausting task of coming together with our fellow workers to talk about ‘where we’re at’; to discuss why we alienate one another; to begin to find common ground. It is about examining our real rather than our imaginary differences in order ‘to hold hands with each other’, both actually and metaphorically; it is about creating a climate of relative, but real trust and honesty. In short it entails utilising those group work skills, which are our supposed youth work inheritance.

We weren’t just talk. This call for dialogue and action brought together workers and academics from across the country.

Alongside this we are putting energy into building our local union branch to act as a focus for our political action. Crucial to this development is the building of links with other Community and Youth Service Association (CYSA) branches in the country and with other oppositional groups. But we do not want to be seen to be trotting out empty slogans about collectivity and solidarity. For instance we are struggling to make any contact at all with our local labour movement. Our own cohesion itself is very fragile, but we have made a start at the coalface. That is with our own feelings to one another. We will feel stronger in this struggle if we hear from other people across the country. Such a network of support is vital if we are to create a movement in opposition to the resurgence of repression and reaction that is upon us.

REFERENCES

S Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Paladin, 1973.

S Hall et al, Policing the Crisis, Macmillan, 1978.

A J Jeffs, Young People and the Youth Service, RKP, 1979. 

You Cannot Right Racial Wrongs by Doing Wrong Things More Competently – Gus John responds to the Windrush Lessons Report

 

In a week within which it is revealed that that Alexandra Ankrah, the most senior black Home Office employee in the team responsible for the Windrush compensation scheme resigned earlier this year, describing it as systemically racist and unfit for purpose; in which it is revealed in the words of a senior case worker that “The Home Office are not empathetic towards claimants. It’s just a name on a piece of paper – it’s not people” it is timely and vital to post this link to Gus John’s withering critique of the limitations at the heart of the Windrush Lessons Learned Review.

In enclosing his paper to promote wider discussion Gus comments:

I’m amazed at how little public debate there appears to have been on this report, especially as in spite of what she found Williams failed to come to some bold and pretty obvious conclusions.  It’s an indication that she herself has no concept of the racialisation of immigration and of successive governments over the last six decades wilfully manipulating the British population on the issue of immigration/race, as if those of us who made Britain our home in the last 100 years are still unwanted newcomers who had no previous connection with this nation. 

He opens his critique by taking us back nearly 20 years to the time when post-Macpherson the Home Office commissioned training, which was to transform the insensitive and prejudiced occupational culture within the police force.

In 2003, my organisation was commissioned by the Home Office to evaluate that training and its impact upon forces’ operational practices and relationships with black communities. Part of my methodology was actually observing how that training was delivered and how it was received. That turned out to be one of the most awful experiences of my entire professional career. The organised and vicious resistance to the training; the targeting of trainers personally and making them account for the conduct, criminal and political, of black people in communities; the venomous accusations of ‘black people wanting to be treated differently’… ‘why do you lot always feel you’re being picked upon’, etc.; the heckling; the disengagement (with certain attendees opting to read a book or do paperwork of some sort during the training); anecdotes from senior police officers telling of warnings they received from senior command to the effect that: ‘police/community relations is a career graveyard, so, get out of it and soon as you can if you want to progress in this force’. Women trainers had to endure unadulterated sexism in addition, and all trainers had to provide metrics to indicate that they had met their training targets, even in the face of such organised resistance. Needless to say, few ‘hearts and minds’ were won and my assessment was that the training left many police officers more resentful and openly racist at the end of the training than they were at the beginning. Disturbingly, however, it left many trainers totally traumatised and needing professional help to cope with what they had been subjected to by those police officers. They complained to me that at the end of such training days, there was no one assigned to them to whom they could go and offload/debrief and get help to put themselves together again. Instead, they were often left losing sleep at the prospect of having to face yet another day of the same, with the existing or a new cohort of police officers.

In summary, the most damning part of my evaluation to the Home Office is that the nationwide training was little more than a hugely expensive and damaging exercise in ‘dipping sheep’ and proof, if ever it was needed, that training could never be a panacea for systemic ills and institutional and cultural practices that are pickled in racism. That training programme sacrificed the messenger – the black trainers – in the process of attempting to deliver the message: how to be a police service that acknowledged and understood racism and its impact on citizens’ rights, on delivering justice and keeping the peace and one that took responsibility for eliminating institutional, cultural and personal manifestations of racism.

With this sobering experience as a backcloth Gus continues:

So, let us examine those two recommendations by Wendy Williams on which the Home Office, almost two decades later, is seeking to deracialise its staff, this time in relation to immigration rather than to policing.

Recommendation 6 – a) The Home Office should devise, implement and review a comprehensive learning and development programme which makes sure all its existing and new staff learn about the history of the UK and its relationship with the rest of the world, including Britain’s colonial history, the history of inward and outward migration and the history of black Britons. This programme should be developed in partnership with academic experts in historical migration and should include the findings of this review, and its ethnographic research, to understand the impact of the department’s decisions; b) publish an annual return confirming how many staff, managers and senior civil servants have completed the programme.

Recommendation 11 – The department should re-educate itself fully about the current reach and effect of immigration and nationality law, and take steps to maintain its institutional memory. It should do this by making sure its staff understand the history of immigration legislation and build expertise in the department, and by carrying out historical research when considering new legislation.

I would urge you to investigate both Gus John’s response to these recommendations and his unfolding historical and contemporary analysis of ” a string of human rights and equality act violations, which need to be addressed”. See the full piece below.

He concludes:

Wendy Williams’ report paints a picture of a government department where the political and electoral agenda of the party in government drive the formulation of immigration policy and the implementation of immigration legislation. It is a government department displaying fault lines on a massive scale, including managerial incompetence, an opaqueness if not complete absence of organisational values and a culture which undergirds the ideology of racism upon which immigration law making is constructed.

At the base of all that is systemic racism in the society and successive governments’ failure to put racism and the urgency of engaging with the legacy of empire high up on its political agenda

In the light of her findings, the evidence of the suffering that has resulted from the hostile environment and the continuing implications of the impact of implementing immigration policies upon the black/global majority, the government must be pressured to do three more things in addition to William’s 30 recommendations:

  • pronounce an immediate amnesty be pronounced, thus allowing all those of the Windrush generation who were in the country before 2014 to stay and be given the necessary documentation
  • set up a body to examine the genesis and provisions of the 2014 and 2016 Immigration Acts in the light of the Williams’ findings and make proposals for annulling or amending them
  • take immediate steps to kick start consultations on state reparations for the enslavement, genocide, dehumanisation and exploitation of African people and the continuing underdevelopment of the former colonies in which their descendants were abandoned by Britain, especially after it became a key player in the European Union.

Professor Gus John is a lifelong campaigner for children’s education rights, a visiting professor at Coventry University and associate professor at the UCL Institute of Education. In 1999, he co-founded the Communities Empowerment Network (now INCLUDE, which he currently chairs), a charity that provides advocacy and representation for excluded students and their families. He was the first black director of education in the UK (1989-1996) as director of education and leisure services in the London Borough of Hackney.

Clipping the wings of Black Lives Matter? An interview with Gus John

Following on from my last post, ‘Is anti-capitalist youth work next?‘ Gus John’s complementary, challenging perspective focuses in particular on the authoritarian threat to Black Lives Matter, whilst also questioning sharply what he describes as ‘the alternative provision industry’.

Clipping the wings of Black Lives Matter

In this wide-ranging interview on the Institute of Race Relations web site, veteran educational campaigner Gus John draws connections between initiatives currently pursued by three government departments (education; children and families; culture, media and sport), and lays out what the government has in store for anti-racism, particularly Black Lives Matter. 

He concludes:

Gus John: In summary then, this is the increasingly authoritarian state trying to tell BLM ‘we’re coming for you’. They are letting black campaigners know, we want to put you on the Prevent list and treat you as enemies of the state and of wider law-abiding society.

This, I fear, is the thin end of the wedge as far as the drift into totalitarianism is concerned. I would be delighted to be proven wrong, but it would not surprise me in the least if at least 50 percent of the strictures that have been introduced as a consequence of COVID are not written into law to hem us in for all time, thus curtailing many of our hard-won freedoms, while civil society feels it has to be similarly authoritarian, snooping and snitching on neighbours and seeking to criminalise every single non-conformist behaviour.

So, we must never fail to be vigilant and to see the connection between these seemingly consensual things. Above all, we need to take collective action and demonstrate to Boris Johnson and his government that we will not stand by and let them harass and curtail the freedoms of Black Lives Matter.

Professor Gus John is a lifelong campaigner for children’s education rights, a visiting professor at Coventry University and associate professor at the UCL Institute of Education. In 1999, he co-founded the Communities Empowerment Network (now INCLUDE, which he currently chairs), a charity that provides advocacy and representation for excluded students and their families. He was the first black director of education in the UK (1989-1996) as director of education and leisure services in the London Borough of Hackney.

Building a Radical University: Tanya Frank tells her story

I believe there are parallels here with the climate of creativity to be found in parts of youth work forty years ago, expressed in the best of part-time youth work training and the subsequent entry into Higher Education of some of its participants.

An extract from Building a Radical University

Building a Radical University is an inspirational account of what can be achieved in a climate of educational experiment, freedom and cooperation. This history of radical innovation at the University of East London will be published on 4 September in print and as a free e-book, and the book is available now for pre-order. In this extract from her chapter ‘Bloody Snobs’, Tanya Frank describes UEL’s impact on her life and work. 

I knew I wasn’t clever enough to get a fully-fledged degree. My teachers at McEntee High had known it too, telling me I wasn’t college material. But I started to toy with the idea that I could maybe get a diploma in higher education. It would take two years of study at the polytechnic. The words diploma and polytechnic were less formidable to my ears. Encouraged by my tutors at Waltham Forest, and by the confidence I’d gained from recent forays into feminist and cultural studies writing, I decided to give it a go.

But by the start of the spring term at Waltham Forest College, I was pregnant again. Gordon, Dale’s father, and I bickered more than we didn’t, as he berated me for applying to polytechnic, reminding me that I would never earn as much as him, and that women’s studies would turn me into a lesbian …

Mum agreed wholeheartedly with Gordon that I should stay home and look after the children. A short access course was one thing, but leaving the kids in order to study for a diploma, and heaven forbid getting a full-time career afterwards, would risk causing them irreparable harm. The vice-principal of North East London Polytechnic leaned closer to Mum’s sentiment than my own, suggesting I might consider postponing full-time study for a year to focus on my domestic responsibilities.

But I knew differently, intuitively, despite the loud noise to the contrary. I knew that I needed something under my belt, for not if, but rather when Gordon and I would go our separate ways, and I would have to become everything to the boys. I took driving lessons. Just in case. In case of an emergency, in case I needed to do a big shop at the weekend, and secretly in case I might dare to really take up the course …

In the autumn of 1989, I clunked through the gears and stalled at every stop on my way to the main site of the polytechnic in Barking, Dagenham, hoping I wouldn’t get pulled up. I dropped Dale at the on-site crèche, and took newborn Zach with me into the classroom. The polytechnic was modern and spread out. A double grey portakabin housed the student union and bar, and sat smack bang in the centre of campus. The place was more Chingford Hall than Oxbridge, and I felt immediately at home.

I chose classes in women’s studies, third world studies (later renamed development studies) and anthropology. In that first semester I sat at the back of the lecture theatre and breastfed Zach, learning from women’s studies professor Maggie Humm how that nameless feeling which had been sitting heavy in my stomach for years, that sense of displacement and subjugation, was not just peculiar to me but had been written about and interrogated even before I was born by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique. The units for women in the third world helped me conceptualise what I had witnessed in Andhra Pradesh, and to understand the gender politics at work in the community of Bangladeshis close to where I had lived, where a rising trend of termination of female foetuses had hit the headlines and caused international alarm. Theories of class and race, ideas that had shaped my life without ever consciously crystallising became suddenly as clear as the view from my tower block window – the North Circular Road, and beyond it the illegal caravans squatting near the perfectly round reservoir.

The access course had kept our learning local. We studied at The Vestry in Old Walthamstow, which had once been a workhouse for the poor, the industrial revolution, the suffragists, the miners’ strike, and Britain’s role in the first world war. But now, as part of my lessons at the polytechnic, I was learning things on a macro scale, global concepts of neo-imperialism, second-wave feminist writing from both sides of the pond.

In the buzz and fervour of it all, I started to find my voice, to read critically, to pin myself on the map, to know where I stood politically. Although I was attending the polytechnic part time, two days a week rather than three, in my heart and mind, in my gut that now churned with excitement and novel ideas, I was more than part-time, more than full-time; I was a whole new me …

I had a tribe. There was strength in the students in my cohort: Meena, a young divorced mother of five; Barbara, a florist old enough to be my mother; Michelle, a burned-out Afro-Caribbean nurse who worked on an intensive baby care unit. These women buoyed me up, talking to me late into the night about postmodernism, poststructuralism, post-everything. I finally found the confidence to stay on beyond the two-year mark and the diploma, and study for my degree.

North East London Polytechnic became the University of East London. I loved that something about my East End working-class roots was still there in the title of the university, and I loved that I was attending a real university now. By the time I graduated, I had learnt to craft ceramics, paint … take photographs and make an audio-visual tape-slide project in my Women in Art unit, to examine the slave trade and the impact of colonialism in my Women in Third World Development, but it was the opportunity to tell my story in the women in autobiography unit that would reshape my story forever.