A youth work project based in Sandwell takes an unfashionable approach to anti-racism: telling young people that ‘race’ isn’t real.
The towns around Sandwell, stretching westwards from Birmingham, each have their own legacy of racism. Smethwick was where the Labour Foreign Secretary, Patrick Gordon Walker, was defeated by Conservative candidate Peter Griffiths in 1964 after he campaigned on the slogan ‘If you want a n*gger for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour’. The following year, Malcolm X chose to visit the region, just nine days before his assassination.
More recently, Tipton has been the focus for far-Right activity. Both the British National Party (BNP) and a splinter group, the Freedom Party, have strong bases in the area. In the May 2003 council elections, the total vote for far-Right parties in those Sandwell seats where their candidates stood was 4,702 out of 14,080 votes cast (33%). Today, there is a BNP councillor elected to the Princes End ward, on the edge of Tipton. A second councillor was defeated in Tipton Green ward in June 2004.
In March this year, the BNP was thought to be behind an attempt to stage a mock trial in which an effigy of a Guantanamo Bay prisoner was hung from a lamp post in Tipton High Street. Three British Pakistani men – nicknamed the ‘Tipton Taliban’ by the media – had just been released from the American-run detention centre in Cuba and returned to their homes in Tipton. The BNP had attempted to exploit the fact that a local Labour councillor, Syeda Amina Khatun, was related to one of the men.
For young people in the area, racism appears to be a routine part of their lives, not only among their peers but also from professionals. IRR News was told of racist attitudes by staff in more than one school. One teacher reportedly told a child that calling her a ‘dirty Arab’ was just local slang. Muslim girls have been told by teachers that they are only staying on in education to postpone marriage. And, since September 11, Muslim girls who wear a headscarf have had to face regular taunts of ‘Osama Bin Laden is your uncle’ or similar ‘banter’ from students. The danger of a serious outbreak of violence between White and Asian young men in the area is ever present.
And the traditions of collective organising against racism and exclusion seem to be breaking down. The stigmatisation of the entire Muslim community of Tipton as an ‘enemy within’ has not been met by a strong oppositional voice from the community but rather by a silence born of fear. Instead, pressure for change falls on a handful of councillors and, inevitably, they cannot meet expectations.
Against this background, anti-racist work has tended to focus on changing attitudes among young people, rather than direct campaigning. Rewind is a project that has emerged from the experience of using youth work techniques to challenge racism among young people. Dave Allport, a former foundry worker turned youth worker, has been helping young people in the area for years to tackle entrenched racist views. In the mid-1990s, doing detached youth work with White and Asian youths, he managed to bring together groups from both communities for anti-racist ‘residentials’. As his anti-racist work became known locally, he faced shouts of ‘p*ki lover’ in the street and was targeted by the BNP. The work he was doing also became less of a priority within the youth and community service.
Working now under the auspices of Sandwell Primary Care Trust, Dave Allport set up Rewind four years ago to build on his experience in youth work settings. It now has a team of workers who visit schools and youth clubs in the Sandwell area and beyond. More recently, they have also offered training to professionals in other fields.
Rewind’s approach is based on providing training to young people that they can then pass on to their peers. The content of the training focuses on explaining in an accessible way how our common sense ideas about ‘race’ are in fact based on a fiction. To this end, a typical training session will run through a series of exercises designed to ‘deconstruct’ the meaning behind racial words or the prejudices associated with them.
In one exercise, for example, a map of the world is shown and participants are asked to think about why Europe and Asia are considered separate continents when a continent is defined as a continuous land-mass. In another exercise, a photograph of a monkey is used to show that its skin is white and its hair more similar to European hair than African. A snippet of basic genetics is also used to show how the idea of dividing the human species up into different ‘races’ is undermined by the new DNA evidence emerging on our genetic ancestry. The point of the exercises is to show that the labyrinth of prejudices and patterns of thinking which make up our everyday understanding of ‘race’ has been socially and historically constructed over the last few hundred years.
But this rather theoretical point is made in an accessible way. The way we think about ‘race’ is even compared to the all-pervasive illusion depicted in the sci-fi film, The Matrix. Once ‘race’ has been shown to be a dangerous myth, the training session embarks on a discussion of the different racisms that have existed over time, where they have come from, what positions of power they were used to protect and how they have persisted to this day, with the current demonisation of Muslims and asylum seekers.
In taking this approach, Rewind is distinctive. It does not touch standard approaches of cultural awareness training, or the celebrating of diversity. It does not give one a better understanding of different religions or expose one to the usual pantheon of multicultural role models and artefacts. It aims simply to undo racism by going back to its origins (hence ‘Rewind’) and raising awareness of that history, rather than the history of any specific culture.
Nevertheless, for people who may experience racial abuse themselves, Rewind appears to offer a kind of strategy for dealing with racist situations. A graduate of the Rewind course was able to turn the tables on the teacher at a Catholic school who used the phrase ‘dirty Arab’ by asking her what part of the world Jesus was born in. Another group of girls explained how the training had given them the confidence to speak back when told to ‘go back to their own country’. Now they reply that being born in Britain makes them more British than half of the Royal family. In the absence of a strong, collective campaign against racism in the area, personal survival strategies are significant ways of coping on a day-to-day level.
For people who themselves express racist views or behaviour, the Rewind course may provide a way of challenging their views in a way that is hard-hitting without being patronising. As well as going into White communities where racist views are common, Rewind also does work with young people who have been convicted of racially-aggravated offences. For some, the training does little to unseat prejudices, but Rewind can claim success in other cases. One former racist proudly showed Dave Allport how, as a result of the training, he had decided to have his BNP tattoo removed.