Unusually for me, and a blessing for you, this post is almost entirely free of poor puns and flippancy. I struggled a little with the title, eventually (and unexpectedly) choosing one from a Charlatans’ album for reasons I think – hope – you’ll understand. The alternative had been an allusion to ‘Love After Love’ by the recently-deceased Derek Walcott – a poem that always calls to my mind Frantz Fanon’s delineation of colonial psy-ops, and the self-hatred they instil in the subjugated. Walcott emerges from the other side to offer a more uplifting coda: an invitation to his reader to “love again the stranger who was yourself…whom you ignored/For another”.
The tension between self-perception and how others see us is a unifying experience, crossing time, space and culture. To be frank, it’s one on which I thought I’d given up, having decided, in the way of elderly curmudgeons, that life’s too short for it to remain an ongoing object of concern. However, the terror attack on Westminster Bridge, that has spattered blood over Wordsworth’s gilded vista, has brought it back to mind with some force…
…as has the release of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a horror-comedy that channels a Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner scenario through The Stepford Wives, Rosemary’s Baby, Black Skin/White Masks and Macauley’s Minute. I also witnessed – again – what I call a Cameron Thayer moment, after a character in Paul Haggis’ Crash: an instance when a person of colour was reminded that, while identifications may be multiple, perception can still be determined by a single aspect of the totality. However s/he behaves, Fanon’s colonised wo/man remains visibly – and, therefore, primarily – black to others.
In less than a minute, three bystanders and their killer perished, followed a few days later by one of the hospitalised. It’s hard not feel somewhat connected: the victim killed on her way to collect her children was an administrator in the Westminster college where a friend’s husband teaches. Another of the dead lived in the same area as me. I know people who work in the hospital to which many of the injured were taken, and the bridge is walking distance from several of the places in which I work. So far, so proximate. More unnerving is my place – our places – in the bigger picture.
One of the most frequent questions posed since 22nd March has been “Who or what turned Adrian Elms into Khalid Masood?” It’s a question relevant to our profession, as teachers are statutorily obliged to protect students from extremist ideologies, and to do so with an urgency not deemed necessary in the 70s and 80s, when far-right groups sought to recruit schoolchildren. The dissemination of British values is now a matter on which educators can be held accountable, and rare is the school website that does not advertise its commitment to the above. But it’s a big ask, and one that we can ill-afford to leave to teachers alone.
Thanks to the convictions he’d amassed before embarking on his murderous drive, plenty of column inches have been spent on constructing Khalid Masood’s etiological narrative. Much of this, by focusing on his time in prison and in Saudi Arabia, is comfortably discomfiting: the villains are brown men with unruly beards who, between them, create another villain from an already unstable man. And therein lies the problem. For, by concentrating on these episodes alone, we risk mistaking the moment of Masood’s recruitment for that of his radicalisation. The latter will, almost certainly, have started much earlier, and be a collection of many moments that, together, rendered him vulnerable to malign influences disguising themselves as empowerment.
We now know that, at various times, Elms had been one of a tiny number of black (or, in his case, mixed) individuals in an otherwise white environment: at school in Kent where, three to four decades ago, he was the only black pupil; in the Sussex village where he shared a home with the mother of his two oldest children. According to several reports, an altercation that ended with Elms slashing the face of a pub landlord bore “racial overtones”. Some also state that Elms himself had, previously, been knifed in the face following a racially-charged dispute in another pub – the point at which he began carrying blades as a matter of habit.
The story of Elms’ metamorphosis into Masood speaks of a man quick to perceive racial slights and rejections. The racism he may have experienced does not excuse him: few are the people who turn from victims into homicidal perpetrators. It is, however, a significant part of the explanation, a view expressed by Judge Charles Kemp, who sentenced Elms following the Northiam knife attack. Claims that “we’ll never know” how he evolved into the man behind the wheel must, therefore, be critiqued according to whether they are offered in recognition of the complexities at work, or with disingenuous intent to protect white societies from scrutiny.
According to Ofsted, the “fundamental British values” it is our job to instil are “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect for, and tolerance of, those with different faiths and beliefs, and for those without faith”. On all of these counts, Elms/Masood ended up un-Britishly wanting – by reactive choice, it would seem. Many of these values are common to several nationalities if, indeed, they need to be nationalised at all. Their characterisation as a means of in/exclusion carries the risk of a potentially corrosive them-and-us dynamic.
Because the truth is that assimilating said values does not guarantee that many British children won’t feel excluded from that category by other forces. Some may well be inside the home; others, without. The latter might include a history curriculum that, prioritising “our island story”, also attempted to whitewash the black from the Union Jack. Our pupils are connected far and wide, in acknowledgement of which we can choose to hashtag our tweets ‘Pray for Kano’ or ‘Pray for Peshawar’ as readily as we do ‘Pray for Paris/Brussels/Berlin’, when suicide bombers target black market-goers or gunmen slaughter brown schoolchildren. We can choose to tint our Instagram uploads with combinations other than red-white-blue or red-black-yellow..
Inclusion and its obverse require uncomfortable degrees of self-examination, and acknowledgement of the power asymmetries from which we, possibly, benefit. Liberals who believe them/ourselves to be without prejudice are not necessarily anti-racists; indeed, as Peele reminds us, educated folks wearing tolerance like sandwich-boards can, sometimes, be among the worst offenders. Addressing this is never more vital than when doing so remains as inconsequential for some as it can be life-determining for others.
It’s not enough to enjoy a curry, to listen to the blues, or to watch SNL skits sending up Trump. Or, indeed, to laugh at the Smug Family Armitage clod-hopping sinisterly through Get Out. Not if the only ‘others’ with whom we interact are on the far side of a counter or in service uniforms. Not if we squint in pre-emptive incomprehension when some people open their mouths, and then find that, by focusing so intently on how well they speak English, we’ve failed to register anything they’ve uttered. Not if, even with benign intent, we assume or attribute expertise – sport, dance or cooking – of our unimaginative, blinkered choosing.
And certainly not when we dismiss or pathologise awareness of the aforementioned as over-sensitivity. If people of colour carry as many chips on their shoulders as some would have us believe, we can only conclude that they must like potatoes as much as the Irish do.
Us and us only.