I remember, six or seven years back, sitting with a group of excluded pupils in Bradford doing alternative education and attempting, unsuccessfully, to persuade them to undertake some internet research on job vacancies. Instead they were googling images of famous Bollywood actresses in skimpy attire. The group were about 6 young lads of Pakistani Muslim heritage and from disadvantaged backgrounds. I would expect much the same from disadvantaged young white lads only with more Holly than Bollywood in the search engine. The comments I heard that day would not be the same though. With white lads I may have heard the same “Aww she’s well fit look how hot she is” – but not followed by “the dirty fucking slag, the stupid nasty bitch” said with venom and anger – almost at themselves for looking – which I found disturbing and specific to that particular demographic. Young white lads were as likely to objectify but I’d rarely heard this form of anger and resentment toward the women in question for eliciting such reactions. The nature of the misogyny was culturally specific and I have to say, in many ways worse. (Note these were South Asian women being denigrated not white)
Stewart Lee, in one of his standup routines where he threatens to joke about Islam, expresses his reluctance to do so not because he doesn’t think it a fair subject, but because of the people whose approval it might inspire. I might feel the same when mentioning the culturally specific misogyny I experienced in my time working with young people in Bradford. Might I be accused of feeding racism? Arguably fear of being accused of racism stems as much from what racists do with information as from those that make the accusations.
But why should I have to qualify the observations above with such facts as that I wrote my recent MA dissertation on the disproportionately high levels of civic activism and volunteerism among young Pakistani Muslims in the City? Or mention that some of the most respectful and considerate young people (toward women) I worked with were young Pakistani Muslim men? I guess these feel too obvious to me and almost insulting to have to mention (as if I might be applying it to everyone). Levels of civic activism are also part of a cultural context but one I feel very comfortable talking about simply because of its overwhelming positivity. The problem is we find negative cultural outcomes so hard to talk about because, seen from the outside, they are rarely put in their own locally diverse context but drawn into a wider conversation on minority groups, race – and in the current climate Muslims – as a problem. These observations are inevitably reductionist in a way which creates an understandable defensiveness among anyone Asian, Muslim, Pakistani, or whatever the context is reduced to. How much easier might it be to liberate ourselves from these broader debates when discussing such issues?
The shocking report from Rotherham today has already brought out the gaze of commentators and politicians across the nation and will provide welcome fuel for far right groups. The counter narrative will suggest that these problems affect all communities and it is racist to stereotype one community when it happens there. Of course it happens in all communities and we should remember this – but it happens in different ways and this is what is so often lost. Consistency is about mentioning the cultural context in all cases not none. In a sense it feels like the whole response will be those exact reactions (and politicisations) that contributed to stuff not being talked about in the first place.
But in cases of shocking abuse we need to understand what it is that allows such levels of dehumanisation to take place, and I may be able to note from my own experience some of the complex and multiple influences that may be factored into Rotherham. Something I know less about but requires attention is the dehumanisation of poor and disadvantaged white girls by white, working class police unwilling to act on their behalf. So many social facts have contributed to this horrendous abuse being allowed to happen.
Yet it is the inability to talk about the negative cultural contexts where racial or religious differences are concerned – because of the national obsession with demonisation and scaremongering of such communities – that holds back the one thing we of all backgrounds should all want; to address and reduce those issues. It often strikes me that most people who are victims, directly or otherwise, find wider politicisations of the issue to be unwelcome and unhelpful – but that is not to say they don’t want underlying causes addressed.
Good dialogue has to be about saying difficult things and this means being open about influences specific to cultural contexts. But that context is also inevitably local and best known within the locality where it should be more easily talked about without need to qualify or justify things to anyone beyond. They are simply problems that need to be addressed by the whole community.
The ability to talk about things from the local perspective, unburdening the reductionist weight applied to discussions of cultural/ racial factors, opening up the complexity and plurality of those contexts and, crucially, levelling the power dynamics in those conversations – may help communities address rather than suppress issues that desperately require attention.