Article: I’m not your… conversations about race and racism
Young person Sonny Inglis and youth worker Colin Brent reflect on how a recent art project - and youth work more widely - grapple with issues of race, racism, class inequalities, knife crime and more.
Coronavirus and the murder of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests have further highlighted societal and structural inequalities around race and class. Youth workers and young people are often acutely aware of the very real consequences of these inequalities and are active in looking for ways to challenge and overcome them. Below are two linked pieces, one by a young person and one by a youth worker, both from Bollo Brook Youth Centre in west London, looking at how a recent art project ‘I’m not your…’ – and youth work more widely – grapples with these issues.
I’m not your… thoughts on the project
By Sonny Inglis (18), one of the participants
James Baldwin once wrote that “the purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers.” This has been the premise behind an art project that has been taking place at my local youth centre, Bollo Brook Youth Centre, located in South Acton, west London. The project has investigated exploring young people’s attitudes and experiences of race and racism. The youth centre is attended by a mix of young people from all walks of life, creeds and circumstances, almost entirely from ethic minorities and working-class backgrounds.
In many ways, I am a stereotypical working class, mixed race young man. I mostly wear Nike or Adidas tracksuits. My boxers are often showing. I left school with two GCSEs and am now wondering what to do with my life. My sentences are riddled with slang. I feel my life has been lived a thousand times, by thousands of people who look like me. Although despite the assumptions that many people make about young people like me – disengaged, focused on the short-term and only interested in superficial appearances – through this project, me and around 80 other young people have explored complex, contradictory and challenging concepts around race and identity.
In mainstream society, race and racism can both seem hidden, not talked about openly, or discussed at great length in well-meaning liberal circles. Growing up as a young man of mixed Irish and Kenyan heritage in Acton, race is often discussed openly amongst me and my peers, with far more fluidity and ease than most adults seem capable of. None of my friends worry about what can or can’t be said, and racial terms are thrown around as insults and compliments with little concern about causing offence. To some people this can seem shocking, but maybe it is far healthier than the quiet judgements and polite keeping a distance that prevails in a mainstream society so desperate not to be seen as racist, but also so scared of young people like me.
At the heart of the art project is a collection of recordings of interviews with young people, over 18 hours in total. These are unstructured discussions where young people talked openly with the art tutor Yasmin Dosanjh about race. My recording, with a Persian friend, lasted two hours. The recordings are full of hope, anger and engagement with the complexities of the subject. What remains clear is that race is very much relevant in the lives of young people today, and racism is far from dead. And whilst there are no easy answers, we have to start asking ourselves some more difficult questions.
The main piece includes, in lights, the phrase ‘I am not your nigga’. Obviously heavily influenced by James Baldwin, to most people on first impressions that might seem like a direct anti-racist statement. However, upon listening to the interviews that accompany the piece, the meaning becomes much more ambiguous. To me and other young people who took part, it can mean I am not your friend, I will not back you when you get into trouble. It is a complex phrase, and the interviews show a range of contradictory opinions on who can use the word ‘nigga’, to who and in what circumstances (if at all). It is this willingness to engage with complexity that distinguishes the interviews and the work stemming from them.
The interviews tell of young black men feeling they have the responsibility to prove themselves as ‘safe’ when entering white-dominated space, of young Somali women feeling fetishised by the Western gaze, of mixed race young people like myself feeling excluded by both white and black people alike, and of white young people feeling shut out from conversations about race whilst also suffering racial abuse themselves. These tails of modern day racism will not find easy answers in good intentions or policy changes alone. It is only by asking ourselves difficult questions about our own conditioning and the role of race in ours and others’ experiences, like we have in the project, that we can really start to understand the role of race and racism in our society.
The conversations continue. We invite you to join them.
Youth work isn’t just about knife crime. Which is why it’s so necessary.
By Colin Brent, senior youth worker.
Before lockdown, youth work was having a bit of renaissance. After years of massive cuts, suddenly everyone seems to be talking about it. The main reason for this was the increase in knife crime in the past year or so. With the general public looking on aghast as (apparently) a generation of balaclavaed, skunk-fuelled young men butchered each other to a soundtrack of drill music, it became patently clear – no-one really knew what the hell was going on.
Enter the youth worker, this Pied Piper of ‘hooligans’, who had presumably kept his or her youth work skills honed whilst spending most of the previous decade driving an Uber or making lattes at Pret a Manger. Magically able to build relationships with these ‘hard to reach’ young people, possibly because of some relatable past experience, the youth worker is the societal fire fighter, sent in to douse the flames after we left the stove on by accident.
How they do this is roughly split into two camps – keeping the kids off the streets and giving them opportunities. The first one – providing sports sessions or a youth centre with pool tables and free WiFi where young people can go to get out from under the feet of the rest of us – is seen as something akin to Twitter for Donald Trump – a mostly harmless distraction where they can vent their emotions without actually pushing the nuclear button or stabbing each other. The second one – supporting young people to take up the opportunities that our lovely liberal capitalist society has to offer – is more reminiscent of an invitation into the Magic Circle, unveiling the hidden connections that lead the young person into a bright future in their chosen profession/lifestyle/place on the property ladder.
Both representations of youth work are morally dubious, either assuming the ‘deficit model’, whereby without adult supervision young people (especially those who are poor / black / do not understand algebra) will naturally descend into a Lord of the Flies nightmare, or seeing the deep structural socio-economic inequalities in our society as an unfortunate accident that can be ironed out with the right dosage of social capital. More importantly, they completely ignore the complex realities that good youth work negotiates with young people, the real skills of youth workers (which go far beyond understanding slang), and the radical possibilities that youth work raises about how to create a fairer society.
Back in February, something rather special happened. A group of young people from Bollo Brook Youth Centre, in west London, hosted a part of the Uniqlo at Tate Lates session at the Tate Modern, an event about the relationship between the artist and the city. Rather tucked away on a landing on the fourth floor, the young people were presenting the result of a large and on-going project exploring their attitudes towards and experiences of race and racism. Central to these were a series of recordings (18 hours in their unedited form) with young people as they spoke about, questioned, challenged their realities of growing up in London. The diversity of opinions, the nuanced ideas and the depth of knowledge through their lived experiences left many of the audience shocked and in awe. This was a great achievement by the young people.
For them, however, a pat on the back was not what they were looking for. This was not just something to put on their CV. Rather, they wanted to encourage the audience to continue with these difficult debates, exploring the differing takes on the use of the N-word, questioning the relationship between class and race, picking at the very concept of race itself.
Now the Equality Trust, who have supported the project from the start, have worked with the artists and young people to turn the exhibition into a website. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, this could be described as a timely release. However, the conversations could also be seen to be 400 years late. This only adds to their urgency. The website will hopefully allow the voices of the young people to reach new audiences. More than this, we hope it will encourage people to start their own conversations, however uncomfortable they may be.
The project took two years to reach this point, starting from arguments about racialised language between young people. None of the young people signed up to art workshops. Most of them didn’t know what the Tate was. The project was forged in the fluid, often chaotic environment of open access youth sessions, where young people and youth workers felt they had little choice but to engage with the complexities of the world they were negotiating. By having this space to experiment, young people shied away from dogma – an easy shield that rarely leads to effective solutions – instead seeking to engage in critical thinking, to understand the opinions of others, in the realisation that they could not shut down debate if they wanted to make real change.
Obviously not all youth work projects end up in prestigious art galleries or with their own websites. Much good youth work takes place on the spur of the moment – a conflict settled with good humour, a discussion over a game of cards. What it does in all these cases is engage, and encourage young people to engage, with the world around us, in all its complexities. The paradox is that whilst youth work is currently bandied around as a solution to the problems of the ‘youth’, it in itself questions the validity of quick solutions, asks whether this is even where the problem lies – not as some labyrinthine navel-gazing exercise, but out of an urgency to create a better, fairer, more open society. If only more of our politicians had gone to youth centres.
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Last Updated: 18 August 2020
Readers can view and engage with the project website at imnotyour.co.uk
The race project was supported by The Equality Trust.
Colin Brent is Senior Youth Worker at Bollo Brook Youth Centre.
Sonny Inglis, age 18, is a participant at Bollo Brook Youth Centre.