Month: January 2015

“Hatred breeds hatred”: Charlie Hebdo, marginalisation and terrorism.

Many remember the place of their upbringing with fondness and nostalgia. This may be particularly so for those who through life’s circumstances, have had to leave their childhood home behind. As a Parisian born and cité bred immigrant to the UK, for me the banlieue of Paris evokes memories of multicultural community and a sense of togetherness I have never experienced anywhere else. It makes me think of adolescent rebellion and the hiphop anthems which were the soundtrack to our youth. Since my departure I have constantly longed for the warmth and safety of those close knit communities, mainly made up of migrants, amongst whom my parents made their home amidst the dire deprivation around. However, returning to the cité after being away for many years was surreal. It feels like a different place.

A place where burkas are now worn with defiance by all creeds. A place where men I had been friends with and, who as teenage boys had unsuccessfully tried to teach me to breakdance and who dreamt of making it big on the French rap scene now wore jilbabs, had long beards and were avoiding eye contact with me if we crossed paths on the streets. A place where kids, some still in nappies, ask my children whether they eat pork on the neighbourhood playground to assess whether they can be friends.

The dark side of a youth in the banlieue started to re-emerge in my mind’s eye; troubling images and flashbacks that my selective migrant memory had put away. Our regular clashes with the French riot police over police brutality and harassment, the stigma and prejudice attached to ‘les quartiers’ freely propagated in the media and the limitations this placed on our lives.

I remembered that when I was growing up the area had been an emergency-services-free-zone because it was deemed ‘too dangerous’. I recalled the daily racial indignities placed on older generations because their French was not good enough, or their attires were too colourful or some other purely republican reason of course; managed robotically and with resignation by members of our communities most of whom believed fairness, dignity and equal treatment was not theirs to claim in their ‘host’ country. I became flooded with embodied memories of collective experiences of alienation, of exclusion, of invisibility and the resulting anger and our constant quest for respect, validation and belonging in all its by-any-mean-necessary dysfunctional manifestations. Clearly the issues are complex and multi-factorial but, let’s be real; it is not simply coincidental that the inner cities offer breeding grounds for the radicalisation of young Muslims. Refusing to look at the social context and its drivers which give terrorism its local face is short-sighted. Worse, in the longer term it may perpetuate the very same alienation and invisibility that leads many to seek refuge in extremism.

Racism and Islamophobia in France are still ubiquitous and vitriolic in the most offhand of ways. France is still a country which uses the everyday expression “du travail d’arabe” (literarily ‘Arab’s work’) to refer to botched or poor quality work. A country that is so removed from the violence it inflicts onto its racial minorities that it has no qualms using this expression as the title of one of its movies whilst simultaneously denying all responsibility for the hurt, tensions and offence this causes. A country where just a few years ago, the appointment of the first ever Black newsreader, Harry Roselmack, on the national channel TF1 (the equivalent of BBC1), caused demonstrations and uproar because, wait for it… he was Black. A country that still bans all-Black cast movies.

Is it not possible to hold both the position that the Charlie Hebdo killings were absolutely abhorrent and unjustifiable acts, whilst also calling for increased attention to be paid to the marginalisation of entire generations of citizens and its complex link to Islamic radicalisation and fundamentalism in France and elsewhere? Can a balanced debate be had on the essential value of freedom of speech, its deriving responsibilities whilst also integrating discussion about ethical and legal bounds? And while we’re at it, can we also reflect on the liberties that we so value, but which only seem to be selectively afforded to others? Alas there seems to be very little evidence of measured and rational debates.

Cabut’s cartoons have been like the wallpaper of my teenage years, in the background but present. They provided an important reminder that no one should be above scrutiny or ridicule and indeed that nothing or no one should be taken at face value. I have the utmost respect for France’s philosophical tradition of irreverence and satirism. It has provided the foundation of my critical thinking and, no one in their right mind should hold Charlie Hebdo responsible for the atrocity it has faced. Nonetheless, though they may have sensationalist appeal or score political points for those eager to resurrect their political career, the current apocalyptic narratives of war, of barbarism and the acts of retribution both in speech and in deed are very dangerous, they add fuel to an already highly tense, fragmented and polarised racial context.

It seems that most want to ignore a fact which is plain for us all to see. For me this quote from a classic French rap song featured in the the movie La Haine says it all:

‘La honte infligée à nos rents-pa se paiera, ils veulent faire des exemples pour qu’on les craigne mais ils ont oublié que la haine engendre la haine’

This translates as:

“You will pay for the shame you’re inflicting onto our parents…they [the police] want to make examples out of us so that we fear them but, they have forgotten that hatred breeds hatred.”

Expression Direkt: Dealer pour survivre

These lyrics were written about 20 years ago. It is extremely disturbing that in 2015 they still speak of the experience of many of those who have to contend with the triple jeopardy of being of (eternally) foreign origins, of living in the inner cities and being Muslim in a country that continues to despise all three of these traits. To me, the most terrifying thing about the Charlie Hebdo massacre is the fact that the perpetrators look like men I could have gone to school with. Even though some may choose to bury their head in the sand and pretend that the perpetrators and indeed the journalists were ‘islands’, some of us aspire to be little more questioning. It is after all what I was taught in France.

This article was written for Media Diversified and was originally published on January 10th 2015. Media Diversified is a young and growing non-profit organisation which seeks to cultivate and promote skilled writers of colour, by providing advice, contacts as well as promotion of content online through its own platform. Click here to find out more about Media Diversified.

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‘Well you’re certainly very well spoken!’ : Social identity, psychiatric admission and safe spaces.

Ana* is a young woman in her twenties who is white, Scottish and a survivor of the psychiatric system.  In this brief interview, she speaks about an interesting exchange with a psychiatrist within a mental health hospital admission as an experience that brought to her awareness issues of identity, difference and, the importance of finding safe spaces and of feeling connected for those within whom difference is located…

Have you ever become conscious of you, as a socially located being, within psychiatric services?

I think being in psychiatric services was the point that I really realised that I had a social identity!  I was aware of being a woman but beyond that as a white person I have been able to go through life without the experience of having my identity picked over, thrown back at me and so on.  In our society white and straight is seen as the ‘default’ and it’s easy not to realise that those are identities in themselves and that we aren’t identity and history free (as much as we might wish to pretend we are).  I inhabit quite a confusing place class-wise as outside my working life I am often perceived to be someone who has a degree (I am not sure why) when in fact I have no GCSEs.

Inside of my working life, I am presumably perceived as working class because of the jobs I have held.  Only in psychiatric services have the two worlds collided when histories are taken. After an admissions assessment in which I’d tried to explain to a nurse and a psychiatrist that really, I had had quite enough and just wanted to die now and that a hospital admission was pointless, the psychiatrist smiled and said ‘Well you’re certainly very well spoken!’ I was flummoxed, did he mean for a mentally unwell person? For a Scottish person?  For a cleaner? For someone with my diagnosis specifically?

Mental health services as microcosms of society.

Perhaps for the first time in my life I wasn’t quite sure which part of my identity I was being judged on and realised there were lots of parts to the whole.  I started to wonder about other people’s experiences – clearly Mental Health (MH) professionals aren’t immune from issues in wider society, being people just like everyone else. I wondered how these perceptions affected other people in services. I was alarmed to find statistics that showed quite starkly how different people’s experiences of the MH system can be, particularly with regards to race.  Understanding this was a good introduction to the idea of systemic oppression and the idea that we can make decisions that unwittingly build oppression into systems.

I think MH services are a microcosm of society – all the same issues are played out within hospital walls. Whether it is a lack of understanding of the needs of women who have experienced male violence by placing them with men, or an inability to recognise racism built into the system – it’s all there. I am not sure we can affect change in the MH system without doing so in other systems and in society as a whole. The Mental Health system isn’t its own entity, it’s not simply buildings but the people within it – who are all part of society and prone to the same ‘not seeing’ or ‘not wishing to see’ as we all are.

To what extent do you feel solidarity or empathy with those who experience the more adverse/coercive end of the mental health system and; do you have any view on whether such empathy or solidarity could be useful in terms addressing such inequalities?

I certainly feel empathy, but I am not sure ‘solidarity’ is quite the right word, for me. Solidarity is often based on shared interests and I don’t think that everyone in the MH system do in fact share interests – I think we are often asking for very different things. I think for me it’s recognising that there are people who go through the same system as I do, but have completely different experiences – in some cases they go into parts of the system that I haven’t been, or experience the same parts of the system very differently. I wonder if my experience of using services is even relevant, when experiences can be so different.

When I write about or discuss mental health services I try to be open about the limits of my experience, and highlight the differences. I try to use an intersectional approach to understanding how different oppressions affect us, and to consider how that might affect how people experience the system.  I try to put this across without attempting to write or inhabit other people’s experiences. I try as best I can to share information or the experiences of others that is relevant as best I can. I try not to talk over people with different experiences and so on.

I’ve used the word ‘try’ a lot here, because I am sure that I am not always successful with any of this! I feel quite limited in my ability to affect change as one person who is quite isolated – I think change is usually achieved by groups and collectives and on a practical level, at a very basic level, I think we cannot change things if we do not know and so knowing and listening to others are good first steps. I am still at the very beginning and have a lot to learn and need to listen more than speak I think. Sometimes just shutting up is a good first step!

What have you learn from your experience which may be useful to others especially those who may be ‘different’ in some ways?

I’d say find others who share your experiences, or your understanding of your experiences. That has been immensely valuable to me. Those people haven’t always been the people who I’d expected they would be – I’m glad I kept an open mind.  Whether people choose to or are able to build safe spaces into current groups (support groups, or service user groups for example) or build supportive spaces within communities they are part of or build new groups entirely based on shared experiences I think people deserve a space where they don’t need to constantly explain themselves in order to make themselves understood.

I think sometimes having spaces we are understood can be safe places of retreat from the world – where our experiences or understanding of ourselves may be misunderstood. These may be physical spaces, online spaces and so on – there are lots of opportunities to seek out people like us, and also people not like us – both of which are valuable.  On a really practical level, I’d suggest that everyone asks to have some personal information about who they are, what their beliefs are and what is important to them included in their notes.  My trust has an ‘advanced statement’ template with space to include this information.

This makes particular sense if you have cultural, religious or dietary requirements that need to be known about but that you might be unable to explain if unwell. It can make it clear that your beliefs are part of who you are, and aren’t going to be misinterpreted as signs of ‘illness’. There is no guarantee your needs will be met, but the chances are increased. A lot of baggage travels with us through services, including our diagnosis and perceptions that people have of us due to our gender identity, class, race, faith or culture. Having something travel through services with you that is written by you and that offers a more complete picture of who you are is at least symbolic and will hopefully allow professionals and services to consider these, where they don’t already or more fully where they do.

Thank you for reading.  If you have found this article useful, please share it with others.

* Ana is pseudonym.

Want to learn more?

Ana is a regular Blogger, read or follow her blog on: or, get in touch with her via Twitter: @DramaLlama85

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All work published on Race Reflections is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Race Reflections.  If you wish to repost this article, please see the contact section for further details.