Colour Blind

(This post was originally published by the Independent, 24 October 2012)

More than a decade ago the poet Lemn Sissay visited my sixth form and performed his bittersweet poem Colour Blind. I was 16, contrarian, and determined not to be moved by his plaintive climax: “Why do you say you are colour blind / When you see me?”

My friends and I dismissed the idea that skin colour was important, and pretended to each other that to be colour blind was a good thing. We were cocooned in an insular, bustling world where most of us were a shade of brown, and had yet to feel too keenly our otherness.

Yet deep down I knew it had struck a chord because many of us had experienced racism; sometimes overt taunts and sometimes the other, subtler kinds of intolerance. But we pushed these experiences to the edges of our existence, buried deep with lessons on a distant, tragic history, drowned out by the cacophony of proudly taught lessons on the British Empire.

Then I went to university, embarked on a career in journalism, and my world grew whiter. But simultaneously I learned that, as a journalist, to be colour blind is not an option. You have to see colour, religion, class, and every facet that distinguishes people. If one insists on seeing the world in a certain way then how can one understand and objectively report the experiences of others? But our media is so homogenous that it often forgets that white is not universal or neutral.

It struck home after 9/11, when the media began writing about British Muslims, littering their articles with a casual ignorance that probably had less to do with Islamaphobia and more to do with the lack of Muslims in newsrooms.

The inaccurate generalisations of British Muslim life swept away the myriad of experiences of those I knew who practised the faith; until a terrifying caricature of the British Muslim had etched itself firmly onto the public imagination. So much so that when a group of men who happened to be Muslim abused and raped vulnerable young girls in Rochdale, it fitted perfectly into a dangerous narrative which continually demonizes anyone part of that faith. “While our media continue to exclude minority voices in general, such lazy racial generalisations are likely to continue,” wrote Guardian journalist Joseph Harker in an article on the subject back in July.

Caitlin Moran’s dismissive comments on the experience of black women provides another example of our media’s inability to recognise that white is not universal. Moran said that she “ literally couldn’t give shit about” about the lack of black women in the Brooklyn-based TV show Girls. When criticized for her comments, Moran’s defenders, including high profile journalists and writers, leapt to her defence. One tweeted nauseatingly that Moran’s book was not called How to be ALL Women and Lena Dunham’s TV show was not ALL Girls. How depressing, how patronising, how belittling; I want your understanding not your tokenism.

One positive is we have had a spate of eloquent articles from young black womenvoices rarely given a platform, which has enriched the debate. Sadly they have been derided as trolls and dismissed by other feminists.

But what saddened me most is that while I know the media in general does not represent the myriad of experiences that make up modern Britain, I had thought many female journalists were different; in their writing I found what James Baldwin described as “the specialness of my existence [which] could be made to connect me with other people instead of dividing me from them.”

I cling to the idea that humanity and good writing  trumps skin tone, as I clung to it in my sixth form common room when Sissay poeticized the reality. In some journalists, especially feminist writers, I could do what Baldwin wanted and “connect”. Growing up I enjoyed the wit, intellectual curiosity and platform of writers like Zoe Williams (one of Moran’s defenders on Twitter). And I swooned over Caitlin Moran’s teenage revelry in How to be a Woman, exalting in the familiar, if banal, battles of figuring out the physicality of being a woman.

The casual flippancy of one journalist has lifted the lid on a deep seated complacency within the liberal, white media. Each day brings a new article explaining why it is impossible for writers to represent everyone, all the time, tacitly defending the need to remain insular. The lack of understanding is frustrating, but the unwillingness to even try to understand is infuriating. It is the same ignorance that informs the reporting on British Muslim, and it saddens me that we have these battles in 2012.

As a black women, over-schooled on a diet of English literature, I am used to making excuses for my favourite long dead writers, exalting in their prose and excusing prejudice and casual intolerance as a product of their time.

But it is wrong to make excuses; brilliant writers can transcend the bigotry of their time with a little empathy and understanding. As African-American Richard Wright did in Black Boy published in 1945:

“There were many more folk ditties, some mean, others filthy, all of them cruel. No one ever thought of questioning our right to do this; our mothers and parents generally approved, either actively or passively. To hold an attitude of antagonism or distrust towards Jews was bred in us from childhood; it was not merely racial prejudice, it was part of our cultural heritage.”

“Since I put my leg in Europe I suffer”

A better life? The European Union’s other problem

France –  part I

Everyone thinks Europe is like heaven,” says Sharaf. “Since I put my leg in Europe I suffer. Since I left my country two years and three months ago. I didn’t sleep on the bed. I don’t think that I am in Europe.”

After leaving Darfur Sharaf bought a fake passport in Khartoum, from there he flew to Istanbul, and from there he made his way into Europe through Greece. “I didn’t know if I was in Europe or a dream. It was very hor­rible,” he says of Greece. He has since made his way to Calais in France, and from there he hopes to try his luck in England. The tall gen­tle-voiced Sudanese man tries to sound casu­al, but it is clear he is hopeful that Britain will turn out to be the Europe of his dreams.

By this stage of their long journey to Britain, many migrants are tired, bitter and desperate. Having struggled in at least one other European country, some began to cre­ate hallucinatory fantasies about the UK based on pure hope and speculation.

“England it is good,” insists an Eritrean man wolfing down his bread and soup at a Calais soup kitchen. “Until they reject you they give you basic necessities. Like food, water, house. Here they treat you as animal. If you [are] going to get the paper or not, you don’t know. Or if you going to die or you going to go mad, you don’t know. It is better for me to go to England, even when they reject me, they treat me well.”

A 14-year-old Afghani boy cut his finger so badly jumping over a fence that doctors were forced to cut it off. The boy and his 12-year-old brother had been trying to get over a fence to get on a truck bound for the UK. They plan to join their elder brother, a refugee living in Britain.

This makes Jacky Verhaegen, who runs Caritas in Calais, incredibly frustrated because their brother has no money or work to sup­port them. Yet they insist they must join him de­spite the avenues open to them in France.

“It is a heartache for me to see them on the streets all day doing nothing. They live in the jungle. It is terrible for a 12-year-old. When I was 12, I was at home, I was at school,” he says.

“I told them, you are 12, if you stay five years in a child centre in France, when you turn 18 you get a French passport. Not a residence per­mit. Then you can go wherever you want.”

It is not just a childish fantasy, at any one time around 200 grown men, and many hundreds more along the coast of northern France, Belgium and Holland, wait in Calais for an opportune mo­ment to smuggle themselves into Britain.

Yet in reality those seeking asylum have a better chance of getting a positive response in France, where the recognition rate is 40% compared to 27% in the UK. France also rare­ly deports people to Afghanistan and Iraq, but the UK regularly sends charter flights full of re­jected asylum seekers to those countries.

But though France has a sys­tem well-equipped to manage asylum fairly, the reality often falls short of expectations.

Matt Quinette, a field worker for Mé­dicins du Monde in Dunkirk, says: “When a Su­danese and Afghani come to Paris and see un­der the bridge his compatriot and say, ‘What do you do here … homeless?’ And when he calls his friend in UK and his friend says yes I arrived one month ago, I get appointment directly, I get money directly, and two months after I get my answer. It doesn’t seem so much to say, ‘I will spend sometime in the jungle and I will get a good place. England is better than here.’”

It is incredibly difficult for immigrants to distinguish fact from reality. Many lie about how well they are doing in Europe. Everyone knows someone who started a business in Lon­don, has a good job, drives a car and has a house. Jacky remembers one man taking pictures in front of the Caritas charity van pretending that it be­longed to him, to send his family at home. Smug­glers wanting to capitalise on the migrant’s optimism, will often embellish the opportunities in the UK.

“They are always controlled by smugglers and they don’t really know what the situation is like in the UK,” says Jean-François Roger from France terre d’asile, an NGO working with the UNHCR in Calais. “It is really difficult for them to get real information.

“The people who stay in the UK don’t tell the truth to their family in their original country … they say yes, OK, come we have found you a good job, we have found you accom­modation, we have the possibility to stay.

“They imagine Eldorado for the UK, they will arrive there and ask asylum, the UK will give them accommodation and a job to work. We know the reality and we say that, but nobody thinks we say the truth. When they travel all of their family says you will be alright in the UK and everything will be OK. Nobody believes us.”

The situation for migrants in Calais is dire, so it is unsurprising people do not want to stay. Calais is a small town with high unemployment of its own to deal with, so there are few jobs for migrants and those waiting on asylum decisions. And it is not just Calais, there are many refugees living in poverty in Paris as well.

The irregular migrants in Calais rely on one or two small charities for food, they have access to a nurse’s surgery where they can shower a few times a week and the rest they figure out for themselves.