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  1. The Weekend Essay
31 March 2023

Gary Younge: how racism shaped my critical eye

Growing up working-class and black taught me to doubt the official narrative. If I was always lied about, where was the truth?

By Gary Younge

I remember the first time I heard the words “ethnic minority”. A family just a few doors up had made racial harassment of the one black family on the street – us – a priority. The kids, at times with their parents looking on and smiling, would greet us as we walked to our house screaming “woggy” and “blackie”, following us almost to the door.

One day, after they smeared our front door with dog shit, my mother called the police. It was the mid-Seventies and I must have been about five. The policeman said he wouldn’t ask them to stop, explaining to her, “I’m afraid that you are an ethnic minority in this area and you are going to have to put up with that kind of thing from time to time.”

[See also: How Nella Larsen’s Passing deconstructed the question of race]

I asked my mum what “ethnic minority” meant. She said it meant we were black and, as far he was concerned, that we deserved it. She called the station back and asked for “a policeman not an idiot”. A younger man came and talked to the neighbours, which quietened things down for a little while.

“I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development,” argued George Orwell in his essay “Why I Write”. Growing up working-class and black in Stevenage during the Seventies has not only shaped what I write; it has also significantly informed what I think political journalism is for, how I ended up in it – and why I think much of it is today so bad.

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The incident with the police that day was just one of many when I was forced, from an early age, to realise that not only was everything not as it should be, but that not everyone was as they appeared to be. I knew my well-being depended on my ability to distinguish between appearances and reality. There was our Daily Mailreading neighbour who doted on us like a grandmother; the teacher who encouraged me to bring in my Anansi the Spider book so she could share the Akan folk tale with the class; the boy with a swastika on his bag who always backed my brothers in fights.

But then there was the man up the road who refused to get off the telephone (a line we shared with our neighbours) when my mum wanted to call the ambulance, because my brother had lost half his finger in the door, preferring instead to shout racial obscenities; the teachers’ union officials who refused to support her when she demanded that her school replace the desk that had racist insults carved into it; the racist father of my French exchange partner who kicked me out of his house in the Dordogne.

[See also: America’s oldest shame is violence, not racism]

None of these moments were particularly defining. The stream of indignities and iniquities racism threw my way was something to be navigated if I didn’t want to drown in it. But in the process of charting my course through them, I learned what to look out for. I learned not so much to lower my expectations as to suspend them, to see how affect aligned with action.

So I developed a gimlet-eyed view of the world. And while that view was nurtured in my own self-interest, it lent itself to a certain kind of journalism that would be both critical and defiant. There was nothing inevitable about this. Very few people who grew up in similar circumstances went into the media, and many who did didn’t hold the same views. It is also true that people from very different backgrounds developed similar faculties.

It wasn’t even remotely obvious to me, growing up, that this was where it would all end up. Orwell writes that he “knew that when [he] grew up [he] should be a writer” when he was five or six – around the age the policeman came to our house. I was in my early twenties before it occurred to me. This was less an issue of representation than sustenance – I just never thought this was the kind of pursuit from which you might make a living. My approach to education was far more instrumental. My mother had not been to university, and so had a vocational idea of what would make a good course. My eldest brother, Patrick, who went on to run the Travel Channel in the United States and now has his own television production company, studied mining geology. I studied to be a translator and interpreter of French and Russian, pretty much the most practical languages degree you could find. If there had been a degree in plumbing she would have favoured that over, say, History of Art.

It was my efforts at translation that led me to writing. I enjoyed the discipline of thinking seriously about the meaning of words and the manipulation of language. I wasn’t, it turns out, very interested in, or good at, converting what one person said from one language into another. But I had lots to say myself. By the time I left university I had been in and out of the Trotskyist movement (by the age of 16), taught in a refugee school in Sudan (aged 17), studied in Paris and what was then Leningrad, become a student union officer, run a rent strike, set up an anti-apartheid society and more. I felt I could put this linguistic discipline, honed in the dictionaries’ room, to another purpose.

But wherever you go, you take yourself with you, and I entered journalism with a healthy, thorough contempt, embedded in my childhood, for the dominant narrative. I grew up assuming that the official account of everything was at best suspect, but most likely a downright lie. I knew this in part because I was being lied about constantly – who I was, where I was from, why I was here, my intelligence, sexual prowess, propensity to violence, music, sport and elaborate handshakes were all known to people who did not know me. And there was the news: at home, we identified with Bobby Sands, Robert Mugabe and people on strike. We supported the West Indies in cricket, Wales in rugby and Brazil at football (never England). When it came to the pitched battles between black youth and the police, we knew enough about the police to know they weren’t blameless.

These allegiances found little confirmation outside my childhood home and so a kind of double consciousness emerged, in which one assumed an alternative set of values were at large which did not have our interests at heart. This assumption itself was never actually stated. Indeed, I was barely conscious of it at the time. These lies – I’m not sure I would call them that now, but that was what they felt like then – had no definite subject. I never thought this was a conspiracy; it was all too messy, reflexive and visceral for any person or entity to coordinate. In many ways, it felt far more sinister. The lies were so deftly woven into the culture you could barely see the stitching. I grew up assuming I was being lied to in the same way that others grow up assuming they are being told the truth.

[See also: Andrea Elliott’s story of American poverty is non-fiction writing at its best]

The late cultural critic Stuart Hall argued that ideologies “work most effectively when we are not aware that how we formulate and construct a statement about the world is underpinned by ideological premises”. But the people who did bad things to me were not consistently bad, and could no more be defined by those awful things than I could be defined by their actions. Try as they might, they could not, at times, mask their humanity and fragility. The man who refused to get off the phone was later treated by my mother, now working as a psychiatric nurse, after a breakdown. When I was 15, he helped me make a metronome for my GCSE technology project. The kids who shouted abuse came round to play on our swing; it was to our door they ran when their mother went into labour at home.

So that critical eye could not be a cynical eye, for it would miss and misread too much. The emotional labour of empathy, as always, fell primarily to those of us with the least power. We had to see things from other people’s point of view, even if we didn’t like them, because otherwise it was impossible to fathom what was going on.

In Armistead Maupin’s 1992 novel, Maybe the Moon, the protagonist Cadence Roth describes exactly this condition as she explains the challenges of being a little person. “When you’re my size and not being tormented by elevator buttons, water fountains and ATMs you spend your life accommodating the sensibilities of ‘normal people’,” she says. “You learn to bury your own feelings and honour theirs in the hope that they’ll meet you halfway. It becomes your job, and yours alone, to explain, to ignore, to forgive – over and over again… You do it if you want to have a life and not spend it being corroded by your own anger. You do it if you want to belong to the human race.” Things looked different from where Cadence was standing.

That’s why I don’t believe in objectivity: the outlooks of other journalists are no less informed by their experiences. The principal difference is that I am more aware of where I am coming from than most because I have had to be. The concentration of private school-educated Oxbridge graduates in the profession makes self-awareness a rare commodity (according to the 2019 Sutton Trust and Social Mobility report, more columnists come from elite backgrounds than senior judges and Lords). When the media class is drawn from the same social strata as the political class, the spectrum of views is narrow and the atmosphere in which they are aired fetid.

This is not a new problem but, in a period of intensifying political polarisation and economic inequality, it is a pressing one. We need reporters and commentators who can engage with the sources of discontent and alienation which fuel the assaults on our democratic space; instead we have a commentariat so entitled in their proximity to the establishment that they regard any attack against it as an attack on themselves. Declarative in tone and dismissive in manner, they are more interested in denouncing what is happening than understanding why it is happening.

To accept that even the people you violently disagree with have a point of view is not an indulgence. It’s the first step in a process that might either develop ideas that can win them over, or produce a robust response. But all too often journalists summarily write off those who voted for Brexit, Trump or Corbyn (the three most salient recent examples), preferring to caricature them. (Political leaders, conversely, must be challenged and held to account.) This leads to political obfuscation when we urgently need clarity, and to a lack of confidence in the media when we need more trust.

I recall sitting with Republicans in Muncie, Indiana, in 2016, and realising that many of them had not wanted Trump as their nominee and found much of his behaviour appalling. But the depth of their hatred for Hillary Clinton, whom they considered a criminal and a snob, was such that they would vote for him anyway. Socially, I was out of my comfort zone; journalistically, I was precisely where I needed to be. I came away with a fuller understanding of the presidential race, one I hoped would help readers make sense of what was happening.

There is always a reason why people do things, however unpalatable. I never felt I had the luxury of refusing to understand people I didn’t like. From an early age, it felt like my life depended on it.

“Dispatches from the Diaspora” by Gary Younge is published by Faber & Faber. Gary Younge will be in conversation with Colin Grant at Cambridge Literary Festival on 21 April and will take part in the festival’s New Statesman debate on 22 April. Tickets are available here.

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[See also: Linton Kwesi Johnson: “The police declared war on black youth”]

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This article appears in the 12 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue