Abusing The Truth

October 4, 2010

As a non-fiction writer I have a strong attachment to the truth. The truth is that if you are thinking of becoming a writer you will need skin like armoured rhino hide. For as soon as you start putting words on a screen people will be queuing up to take issue with whatever you write. You will be criticised, your professional abilities called into question. Editors will throw your copy or your mansucripts back at you and tell you, at best, that they need work or at worst that they are hopeless and unpublishable.

That is no time to be wounded or precious, it is the moment to listen, take heed, take stock. They may well be right.

If you get past that stage and finally enter the public domain – blogs are a convenient way of short-circuiting that process, you can publish any old crap on a blog, and people often do, unmediated words, unfiltered by an editorial process – once you are out there, you are really out there and may face all manner of criticism, from professional critics, letter writers, emailers, people you’ve never met, estranged (and strange) members of your own family, people who aren’t brave enough to put their names to what they write and don’t want you to know their identity…all sorts, the whole gamut, they all come crawling out of the woodwork, or scurrying from the damp soil beneath the rock. Some people of course do genuinely want a debate or a discussion, but many are just plain unpleasant or insulting.

My recent book about the formative years of Young Mandela attracted considerable publicity on its release, some of it adverse, especially in South Africa where it was described as scandalous, its author as a muckraker. I was not surprised or hurt, I had anticipated that response and a little controversy is no bad thing after all. You write a book hoping it will be bought and read and thought about and talked about. It is sometimes said, oh he or she is just doing this or that to promote his or her book. Oh dear. How terrible, the very idea that any writer should want to do something that encourages people to buy their book.

People close to Mandela who read my manuscript ahead of publication said, you do realise don’t you that some people in South Africa will hate you for what you are doing. I did realise. I was rendering Mandela human, displacing him from his pedestal. I knew he had not himself asked to be canonised and did not consider himself a saint and even felt uncomfortable at being thought saintly by others. Mandela knew all along he was only human and my book simply explored the evidence of his humanity, flaws, foibles and all. It was honest and true. No-one could accurately say otherwise.

There was a mix of opinions about the book and I embraced them all readily. I liked the debate that the book provoked, posted all the reviews, the many good and the few bad, to this website, quite deliberately, so as not to stifle that debate.

Not long after the book was published I wrote an article for the Sunday Times Magazine about the all too numerous minor incidents of racism my mixed race family had experienced since we left London and moved to Lewes five years ago. Someone asked me the other night if there was a connection between the two, meaning I think had Mandela’s struggle fired my own anti-racist zeal. No. There was a link – the book and the article were both about race and racism, a subject close to my heart, but that was all.

I have been writing for the Magazine for many years but this was by far the most personal article I had ever written. The article described the day to day reality of racism and spoke for many people who had shared similar experiences. I knew I was being provocative in writing the article, I deliberately intended it as a grenade lobbed into the heart of middle England – my family’s little slice of middle England was Lewes but it was the bigger picture I was after, the general truth beyond the specific incidents that were mentioned. In a sense the story was not mine; it was my partner’s story, our four children’s story and I was very careful in ensuring they agreed with the article and felt it accurately reflected their experiences.

It seemed to me that racism is rarely openly addressed and often misunderstood. It is depressing when white people think they know best and want to dictate the terms by which racism can be defined. I wanted the article to ignite, not a row, but a discussion, I hoped it might contribute to some awareness and understanding of what it is like to be black in British society, especially in an area which is overwhelmingly white.

We all knew that not everyone would like the article and we were all prepared for the negative feedback. Someone called it a ‘backlash’ but I must say that was not how I felt about the hostile response. Not a backlash so much as a hysterically defensive reaction full of personal abuse directed towards me. I figured that my critics did not feel they could be openly abusive towards my partner or our children as that would be too obviously racist. I was the author of the article – many people seemed to assume that I had not even consulted my family, or anyone else before writing it – and I had allegedly accused the whole of Lewes of being racist. I was the lead story in the local paper: Outrage At Race Slur On The Town. Even my MP was ‘dismayed’. Apparently he doesn’t know much about racism either.

One of my abusers had written to the dismayed MP calling me a ‘copper bottomed ocean going tosspot’. To that particular blogger-poster-letter-writer I was a pest, to others I was, variously, an insignificant pipsqueak, a money hungry cunt (no asterisks), an ignorant cunt (no asterisks), a complete dick, a twat, old pock face (charming!), an absolute disgrace, a ‘racist hunter’ (I liked that one), shitting on my own doorstep, doing the BNP’s work for them, whining, whingeing, self-promoting, over sensitive, naive and unrealistic, ought to be ashamed of myself, carrying a ‘great big chip’ on my shoulder, deviously pretending to be married when I wasn’t (The Sunday Times has a blind spot about the word ‘partner’ so I called mine my ‘wife’ to avoid having a 49 year old woman become my ‘girlfriend’ in print), ought to fuck off back to Brixton (where I never came from in the first place), ought to fuck off to Pakistan (for some unexplained reason), Murdoch’s lackey, abusing my power as a journalist, disturbed, devious and dangerously manipulative, a sinister enemy of ‘bonfire’ (the practices of the Lewes bonfire societies for those of you who don’t know what ‘bonfire’ means), mistaken in believing the traditions of bonfire night in Lewes have their origins in anti-catholic bigotry, desperate to cry racism, the sensationalist hack author of utter, self-pitying racist drivel, possessed of a victim mentality, a narrow minded little man who sees evil in everything, a prize pillock for putting my wife and children on ‘the front page’, an obnoxious, misguided oaf, an absolute twerp, a silly man writing paranoid nonsense, masquerading on the Lewes forum as anyone who dared to say anything in support of my article (I wasn’t), the author of an appalling article lacking in evidence to support its case (an odd criticism as the article was a personal account of my family’s experiences of racism – the evidence was in the recounting of the experiences themselves), bound to be the subject of an effigy-burning on bonfire night (putting me in good company with the ‘pikey’ women and children at the window of the caravan effigy burned by Firle Bonfire Society and with Patricia Knight the local woman who protested about Firle’s effigy burning, who was herself burnt as an effigy the following year. Alongside them, I will wear that badge of honour with pride…)

Like I said, you better be thick skinned in this job, especially if you are going to challenge racist ideas and behaviour…and also have the courage to stand up for your own opinions, or those of your family. Otherwise you’re in danger of looking like a coward, like those who hide behind abusive commentary, anonymous emails and silly names on web forums.

Thank god, there was, here and there some constructive criticism you could at least think about or challenge. Not much, perhaps, but even so. I had written honestly, spoken a truth that my detractors seemed unable to hear. It was easier for them to attack the article, or its author, or claim I was denigrating an entire town. I wasn’t. I was only talking about specific events and experiences. It was the local paper I think who used the phrase ‘hotbed of racism’ – it was not an idea articulated or even hinted at in my original article. Frankly, as many others have noticed, much of the negative response to the article was racist itself.

How poignant then that my inbox should have swelled with many emails and messages of support from strangers, and some old friends and acquaintances, who had read the article and were moved to write because it had spoken for them or to them. Some had cried, some had been reminded of painful racist experiences in their own past, some were still struggling as adults, because that is what racism can do. It is pernicious, cruel, and even the little things add up over time. Don’t tell me it is just ignorance, how much ignorance are black people supposed to put up with? Don’t tell me it happens the world over, how is that any solace to my daughter when she is called nigger in the playground? ‘Don’t worry, love, lots of other towns and countries harbour racists, too’. ‘Thanks, dad, that is a great comfort’. Don’t tell me some black people brush it off or don’t notice it or ignore it when it happens to them and why can’t all others do the same. Who are you – white or black – to tell my family or anyone else how to handle racism? Laugh, mock, snipe, insult, deny, denigrate, dismiss…do all that…do it as much as you can…it won’t make racism go away, it won’t break the cycle of ignorance, it won’t change the disproportionate under achievement of black boys in schools, or their over representation in the criminal justice system or in mental health care. None of that matters, though. Nothing matters. Just so long as a liberal ideal is defended. No problem here.

Next week…the everyday stories of small town racism that never made it into my original article…

4 Comments (add a comment)

  1. tony.kalume October 5, 2010

    What a blog; this is exactly where technology keeps the masses informed and ‘ignorance’ attacked, and not used as an excuse.
    The whole exercise has to bear fruit and we can see positive things happening all over Lewes Town.
    The Local BME community as well as well wishers are invited to an event on the 9th of October at the Library to mark October Black History Month to reflect on what contributions by people of other cultures have influenced the British culture.
    Looking forward to see you all there.

  2. Andrew Manson October 5, 2010

    I have been very torn over your article. My issues rest on the tension between writing about things that matter, like racism, and editors’ need to sell papers. I find the current trend for personalised articles from journalists very uncomfortable. I want journalists to investigate, corroborate and publish on subjects other than themselves or their families. However, and after much thought about it, I have to applaud you on this piece – it was probably necessary.

    The micro-aggressions referenced in your article are real, on the rise, and we do need to draw attention to them. Knowing about your family’s experience helps protect us from the creep back towards things unspeakable that many families have experienced in the not too distant past. We are in a very deep recession and at war overseas. It is the kind of climate in which hate crimes increase, and minority groups with foul agendas gain credibility. It’s not a good climate for being perceived as different. However the good news is that our experience of macro-aggressions such as racially motivated attacks against individuals and/or communities are not commonplace in the UK. They obviously do occur, but remain seen by the vast majority as shocking and abhorrent crimes.

    However what we don’t always see, or talk about, are the pre-conditions in which these crimes occur; the essential baby steps towards hate such as those that existed in pre-war Germany, or as some might feel are happening here and now in the UK. These are tonal shifts in behaviour and language that if left unchecked pave the way for bad things to happen. Things like the election of BNP members to seats in councils or disenfranchised British Muslim youth committing the London bombings.

    As such we all, black or white, need a kick to make us explore our feelings about people with different backgrounds to our own. If we don’t ‘go there’ we risk stumbling backwards to a point where it is acceptable to demonise and abuse black people, to burn Jews (or Christians as was done in Lewes) or to victimise anyone else we don’t really know or understand. As such I applaud you for providing this kick and raising the debate however uncomfortable it was to read in the first place. However, now that it is done and out there, and now that you have this blog, a few reflective words, perhaps even some small softening of tone might serve you well. Don’t alienate those you want to reach; it might sell papers but it won’t tackle the problem you very correctly identify. Not everything is so black and white.

  3. Sarah McDonagh October 12, 2010

    I completely endorse Andrew Manson’s views. And I applaud him for questioning his own instincts that a journalist’s private life is not generally fodder to the objectivity required in worthwhile journalism. But in this particular case it is justified.

    He raises an oblique point which I have observed since the 1990s which I sum up as the puritanical conformity which enveloped the whole country which did not seem exist before.

    Clearly black people do not conform to the white mythical ideal; but neither do fat white people, girls who are not blond white people with uniform white breasts; white people who have imperfectly white teeth. White men who boast no ‘six pack.’ White people who are unashamed smokers, within the parameters of the law. The list seems endless of the personal differences we now won’t tolerate in each other; and never fail to remark on with evangelical zeal.

    Often the media are blamed, but in the 1930s Hollywood smothered the western world in airbrushed glamour images and life-style dreams; but people still used the phrase “It would be a very boring world if we were all the same!” And that’s just what it is, all this conformity is just plain boring and not the media’s fault. Because in the 16th century there was no media, yet for 11 years under Cromwell Puritan uniform conformity was the self-enforced order of the day.

    The media buying public are, and always have been, the complete masters of all media products, because the products are designed with the sole purpose of selling to the buying public; but are extremely well regulated as to how they set about satisfying the insatiable appetite of the market. Blame people having the leisure to read media products; blame education which brought reading to the mass market; blame people living above subsistence level and having the spare cash to buy the media products they enjoy. Blame the end of colonialism which brought nearly everyone in this country into some sort of contact with the diversity which exists in the world. But don’t blame the slave-girl named Media who we all house and feed solely to do our day to day bidding!

  4. fenderbirds October 18, 2010

    nice article, keep the posts coming

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