Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Miley Cyrus and Accidental Racism

Right then. I couldn't resist any longer. A post about Miley Cyrus' performance at the VMAs this week...

I feel I should preface this post with a couple of points:

  • Before yesterday I didn't know what "twerking" is
  • Before yesterday I only had a vague grasp of what a Miley Cyrus is
Ninety per-cent of the discussion I've read about this performance has focused on its overtly sexual nature, speculation on Cyrus' drug usage, eyebrow-raising at that really weird tongue thing she does and the inappropriateness of broadcasting this routine to an audience of impressionable children and young teenagers. Until that is, Caitlin Moran retweeted a link to a blog exploring its racial implications.

I read the blog a couple of times, trying to take in the message. In all honesty, at first I felt it was overanalysing somewhat, looking for issues that weren't there. But then I'm not a black woman; I have never had to consider that traditional feminism doesn't account for specific issues faced by women of different ethnicities. That's when I started to deconstruct my own feelings about this blog post, the VMA performance and other forms of normalised "accidental" everyday racism. 

I still don't think Miley Cyrus' dance routine (I'm being generous in calling in that!) was overtly racist in the same way it was overtly sexual. But it DOES perpetuate accepted stereotypes about black women and representations of their sexuality.

To me, being racist means a deliberate and conscious act which harms or denigrates one or more people based on the colour of their skin and/or aspects of their culture. 

I don't think that applies to Miley Cyrus in this instance. What I do see in her performance is what I've called "accidental racism"; that is, an unconscious attitude towards (in this case) black culture which stereotypes and misrepresents a key intimate aspect of black women's lives. 

The fact that the racial implications of the performance need to be highlighted is entirely the point. We don't see this as 'racist' because such representations of black women and black culture have become normalised to us. A few decades ago, it wasn't seen as sexist to market a kitchen product to women in this manner because demeaning women was normal and accepted. It has taken many years to challenge that and begin to eradicate sexism, and yet we still see adverts for cleaning products, supermarket chains, etc. that focus their preference by mothers as their unique selling point. And yes, when people complain that such adverts are sexist, we're told that we're overanalysing and looking for issues that aren't there - because attitudes that cleaning and grocery shopping is the preserve of the little wifey at home are still normalised.

It is possible to perpetuate damaging racial stereotypes without realising you're doing it. This insidious form of oppression is much more difficult to challenge because it first requires an awful lot of work to demonstrate that it even exists and that you're not grasping at straws to find it. 

A few days ago, a friend published a link to a series of "automatic preference" tests, one of which looks at whether you lean towards or away from black or white people's faces. I have NO idea how it works, but when my results were given, it also gave a breakdown of the total number of respondents and the average result. Staggeringly, the majority - over a quarter - of respondents were found to have an automatic preference for white people over black people. This means that without any conscious decision making, they found a white face more tolerable than a black face. THIS is entirely what is meant by accidental racism. 

Here are the tests if you'd like to explore for yourself:

One final thing I would like to say on this matter is that I don't hold Miley Cyrus 100% culpable for the content of her performance. There is a team of stylists, choreographers, managers and broadcasters who need to ask themselves what the hell they were thinking when they decided this was a really great routine for a young, female artist.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Winter is coming...

Something a little more lighthearted for me today!

It smells slightly Autumnal today, and I'm very excited. It's about 18 degrees outside, so a bit cooler than recent weeks and there's a hint of something russet, red, golden and crunchy in the air. 

I love Autumn; it's definitely my favourite season. The colours are so exciting, their warmth contrasting against the bite in the wind. Putting away floaty dresses and tops, bringing out the snuggly jumpers, scarves and boots - it's like that most excellent part of the day where you start to wind down and relax, shaking off the frenetic activities of the day and embracing a quieter, more pensive time. 

I eagerly anticipate evenings spent in twilight, drinking hot chocolate and warming chilled fingers and toes by the fire. 

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

The day human rights went out the window.

Yesterday was a really scary news day. The detention of David Miranda at Heathrow airport under schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 has sparked outrage and nationwide, if not global, questioning of the incident and its wider implications. 

In short, if you've missed any of this, David Miranda is the partner of Guardian journalist, Glenn Greenwald, who has recently reported on Edward Snowden and assorted surveillance programmes in the United States. To clarify - Greenwald is the journalist, not Miranda. Whilst travelling through the UK en route to his home in Brazil following a trip to Berlin, Miranda was stopped by border officials and detained for NINE HOURS. That is nine hours without the presence of a lawyer, legally compelled to answer any and all questions asked of him, and having all his personal effects - mobile phone, laptop, even a video game - confiscated. After nine hours he was released without charge or arrest, basically because he had done nothing wrong.

That is horrifying. What is even more horrifying is that this incident was "legally and procedurally sound" according to the UK Home Office. The law accommodates this sort of action against an entirely innocent person, denying them the right to silence, exposing us all to arbitrary detention, intimidation and interrogation.

I decided to have a look at the Terrorism Act 2000 and learn a bit more about it - know thine enemy, etc. Good grief, it is terrifying. Ironic for a piece of legislation intended - if taken at face value - to combat terrorism. 

Schedule 7 refers to Port and Border Controls, and amongst other things says this:

"whether or not he has grounds".... whether OR NOT

As it happens, section 40 (1)(b) refers to the definition of a terrorist, but I think that's pretty much irrelevant just now seeing as this little sentence gives officers the right to detain absolutely anyone, regardless of whether they have reason to believe you're up to no good. 

That is, they have the right to arbitrarily stop you on you journey, take you to a small room, deny you access to legal representation, confiscate your belongings and interrogate you non-stop with questions you are forced to answer. And there is nothing, nada, zip, zilch we can do to stop it. 

I'm not alone in suspecting that David Miranda's human rights have been infringed here, and a cursory glance at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights confirms that.

Well I don't know about you, but I'm really quite frightened. A year ago, I wrote a three part post about Human Rights and Human Wrongs (links to parts one, two and three), explaining why I champion the human rights of even the most abhorrent of criminals. I said then that it is because we observe human rights as universal and absolute that I could sit in safety and write about such issues, free from the fear that I could be arrested, tortured or worse. Once we started rescinding human rights of individuals and citing reasons they 'deserve' it, we are on a slippery slope to a very scary place. It takes very little for a government to move the goal post to define a "suspected terrorist" and then justify treating them in manner which wholly violates their human rights. 

Today the UK Home Office has defended the treatment of David Miranda. And that really frightens me too.

Monday, 12 August 2013

The question parents dread to hear...

It used to be that the most awkward question your child could ask was "where do babies come from?". A pivotal moment in your child growing up; making the leap from innocent belief in fairies and storks, to the bare and frankly slightly gross reality of S-E-X. 

We crossed that bridge with my eldest boys a while ago. Their school started sex education classes from Year 1, beginning with simple things like the correct anatomical names for genitals and discussing family relationships. I have a fond and honestly not at all cringe-worthy moment of Lucas bounding out of school one afternoon, very excited to know the proper name for his private parts and loudly declaring that he also knew the name for what women have - "it's FLANGINA, isn't it Mum!". Don't worry, he knows the proper name now and the novelty of singing songs about private parts has almost worn off. 

So far it's been a pretty painless experience, although we're yet to get to the mechanics of what goes where. I'm resolved to stick with honest, age-appropriate answers to their questions as and when they ask me. For now, the boys have decided that sex sounds gross and they'd rather hear about the details when they're older. I'm cool with that but remain slightly concerned that they'll pick up some weird interpretation of it from playground gossip. 

That's something you just can't account for when you have children. You can plan out what you'll teach them and when, but there's just nothing you can do about the stuff they hear at school from other kids. It's actually more alarming than I'd ever realised. Lucas has often come home from school puzzled or upset by something he's overheard, and it's lead to many discussions about racism, sexism, violence, bullying and so on. I feel he's more world-aware than I was at his age and all of it prompted by things he's picked up outside of my control. 

So, back to the question he asked this week which filled me with dread. 

"Mum, when can I have a Facebook account of my own?"

Oh, good lord. Never. Never ever ever. I've seen the Facebook pages of some teens and pre-teens (forgetting for a moment the T&Cs about a minimum age of 13). Some of them are HORRIBLE; admittedly no more horrible than those of some adults but it shocked me to see kids behaving like this. Thinking back to my school days, I'm pretty sure kids are no more or less horrible than they used to be, but social networking is a whole new platform for them to explore that whole mess of hormones, relationships, friendships, conflict and general awfulness that comes with adolescence. Not only that, but once something is out there on the internet, it's there forever. Even deleting stuff doesn't make it go away. 

In the same week as news broke of the terribly tragic death of Hannah Smith, people are again talking about cyber-bullying and how to tackle it. I've only come vaguely close to the receiving end of this, following a fall out on Twitter with a certain celebrity "doctor" who proceeded to invite his followers to send me unpleasant messages. For the rest of that evening I was inundated with insults, threats and assorted nastiness. It was upsetting but thankfully over after a few hours. I cannot begin to imagine what that must feel like over a prolonged period of time. The internet breeds anonymity and with that a sort of perverse courage to type things you would never say to a person's face. 

How do I introduce my children to the universe of social networking and adequately protect them from this aspect of it? I'll be buggered if I know! This stuff didn't exist when I was a young'un. Mobile phones were barely in circulation and certainly couldn't take photos or upload things instantaneously to the internet. 

My eldest son is only 8 so I have a few more years where I can get away with telling him he's too young for the likes of Facebook, but given that he's already remarkably tech-savvy I think I have some research to do about protecting children online. 

Friday, 2 August 2013

Romani Ite Domum

Let me preface this post by saying that I have no issue with the government taking steps to lessen illegal immigration. What I do have a huge problem with is how this is being handled and the impact it's having on an already tense and volatile situation regarding race relations in the UK.

Two things in this week's news have grabbed my attention and got me feeling all soap-boxy. Firstly, the delightful "Go Home" vans pootling around North London courtesy of the Home Office's latest brain fart:

Bleurgh. Where do I start with this. "Go Home"... such a nasty, insidious slogan. There's no way the government chose this without careful deliberation and awareness of the far right connotations to those two little words. It's a phrase often touted by bigoted hate groups and levelled at anyone who looks a bit foreign. You don't drive a van like this around an area with a high number of ethnic minorities without expecting to cause some upset. 

Secondly and even more alarmingly are the spot checks at two London Underground stations by UK Border Agency officers. The news has reported that people from ethnic minorities have been specifically targeted by the officers and asked to prove that they have a right to be in the UK. Just picked off the street and treated like a criminal... Riiiight. Yep. I can see the logic in that one. Because there's no such thing as a white immigrant? And definitely no such thing as a British person with brown skin. Mark Harper, Immigration Minister, insists that the checks are based on intelligence and in no way utilise racial profiling but I think that's about as likely as me winning tonight's Euromillions draw.

It occurred to me this morning that three nations who were founded off the back of immigration and invasion also happen to have a beyond ironic problem with racism and prejudice against other immigrants. 

  • Britain: we're a mongrel nation. There is no such thing as a "true Englishman" and there never has been. Vikings, Saxons, Romans, Normans - we've been invaded by just about everyone! We have been a tiny little melting pot for thousands of years and now we choose to get a bit tetchy about sharing our soil with foreigners. Lunacy.

  • America - we stole America from the Native American tribes! Got lost on the way to India, found some new luscious land, booted out the locals and claimed it as the Free World (irony, much!). THEN we stole a bunch of people from Africa, enslaved them for generations and only in the last 50 years acknowledged their basic human rights, and yet still black people in America face daily prejudice and hostility.

  • Australia - we drove out the indigenous population and turned the country into one massive penal colony! More than 165,000 convicts were shipped out Down Under over an 80 year period. The indigenous Aboriginal communities were marginalised as the white population took hold and made it their home. Australia is now notorious for problems of racism against Chinese and other South East Asian migrants and in the last decade has faced accusations of institutional racism against the remaining Aboriginal community. 

Of course there are issues of racism in other countries, and yes this is a very simplistic view of the history of immigration. My point is that immigration is not new and neither are we passive participants. 

What does any of this have to do with the UK Border Agency and the Home Office's ham fisted attempts at dealing with illegal immigration in Britain? 


The government have made what could generously be described as a real cock-up this week. If I'm feeling sceptical, I may call this a stunt to gain votes from the ultra conservative areas of the UK. At worst it's a divisive ploy, drawing on ignorance and toying with the already fragile relationships between those who make and keep the polices, and those who have to adhere to them. It would not take much to reignite the riot scenes of August 2011 and it seems the government are being ever more explicit in taking steps to repress the vulnerable minorities, whether they be immigrants, the disabled or the poor. 

There's so much more to say on this, but for now I shall leave you with an alternative to the Home Office's "Go Home" van. I think this is certainly easier to digest: