Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Tinted Glasses

I know it’s been a while. Not because I haven’t had anything to say, but I just haven’t had a chance to say it. Having just suffered a “milestone” birthday I have been far too busy partying, eating and drinking. And London certainly facilitated the festivities well.
This is probably why I haven’t felt strongly enough to find time to write. It is true, when you’re too busy having fun and enjoying yourself you forget to notice the dog shit outside your front door and the rude waiter in Soho. It doesn’t bother you so much if the tube is a bit crowded - in fact you appreciate its warmth.
On Sunday a friend from “Up North” said he was thinking about moving down. With gusto I sang the capital’s praises, offering handy hints and the loan of my “London for Londoners” guide. Boris would have been proud of me I made it sound so rosy.
Having said that, two weeks ago London looked very different after two particularly eye opening incidents. I call them incidents, but they were actually events that I chose to go to. One of them was a play performed and written by ex-offenders followed by a question and answer session to a panel consisting of bigwigs from London probation, the council and the police.
The performance was excellent. The cast did an amazing job and the story told the reality of what life can be like for young men living in London.
Sadly, things went a bit Pete Tong afterwards. Tension between young offenders and The Authorities were not quashed by the positivity of the performance. Speakers were shouted down by people who did not want to hear. What could have been an open forum for discussion about the problems young offenders have and how they can be dealt with by the powers that be sadly became a circus. Sides were taken and those of us who sat on the fence felt decidedly precarious in our position.
Two days later I went to a talk about being white in the helping professions. Having never really thought about my own race I found myself questioning my culture and how people who aren’t white perceive my whiteness. I began to ponder how my relationship with colleagues, friends and clients who aren’t white were affected by their perception of white people. Which in turn made me even more aware of their skin colour. By the weekend my head was pounding as I became overwhelmed by over-analysis of any interaction I thought my whiteness might have affected.
The truth is, there is a lot of tension out there. Tension between people from different cultures, even if we don’t like to admit it. Spend ten minutes talking to the mother whose black son gets stopped by the police on a weekly basis or listen to a member of the BNP talk on the telly and its there. There’s tension between the authorities and those who have been through the system, spat out at the other end and left angry and disillusioned. Next time you pass someone selling the Big Issue or a young lad completing his community service ask them how they ended where they are now and I can almost guarantee some authority or another with have the finger of blame pointed at them.
So what can we do about it? Do we walk around pretending it isn’t there, that there isn’t an undercurrent of suspicion and even hate lurking in the streets? Or do we take the bull by its horns and challenge it?
I have decided that awareness is the way forwards for me. By being aware of my own colour and culture and how other people may perceive it I can start to understand why people might react to me in a certain way. By being aware of my perceived position of authority and power I can be mindful of how I deal with situations where this might be seen as a threat by the people I am trying to support. It’s a bit of a minefield and it can be difficult to strike the balance of doing my job and being sensitive to all of these things, but it can be helpful when dealing with what I might perceive as hostility from someone I am trying to help.
What I can also do is challenge other people. I can challenge people who see all authority figures as the enemy and try to point out to them how that power can be used to their advantage. I can challenge people who have preconceived ideas about people from different cultures and encourage them to look at the world from the perspective of others. And I can point out to those in authority where they are failing those people who can be so difficult to reach.
Will it make a difference? To a few people, I hope it will. But at the end of the day it’s those at the top of the chain who need to stop shrugging their shoulders and wake up to the fact that there is a lot of discontent out there. And I suspect it won’t go away on its own.

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