Oswaldo Guyasamin, El Grito No 2

This essay, on an assault on a Syrian refugee schoolboy, was my Observer column this week.   (The column included also a short piece on the CRISPR baby). It was published in the Observer, 2 December 2018, under the headline ‘I know all about being bullied by racists. That’s the Britain I grew up in’.

I cannot recall ever being ‘waterboarded’. But nor can I recall many days when, as a schoolboy, I did not return home without a bruised lip or a bloodied nose. Sometimes, I got a hiding at home too. ‘You should know better than to get into a fight.’

Not getting into a fight was not, however, a choice in 70s Britain. Not if you were Asian in an age in which ‘Paki-bashing’ was almost a national sport. You either stood up for yourself, and got into fights, or you got picked on even more.

So when I saw the viral video of a 15-year old Syrian refugee, Jamal, being assaulted by a fellow schoolboy in a Huddersfield school, I felt more than shock and outrage. I’ve been where Jamal is and understand what he must be going through.

The incident raises questions about attitudes to refugees. It raises questions, too, about the role of social media. It is just the latest in a series of racist confrontations caught on camera and exposed online. From a bigoted rant on a Croydon tram to racial abuse on a Ryanair flight, social media has helped bring attention to unacceptable behaviour. It can also distort perceptions. It is easy to regard such incidents as expressive of everyday life in Britain. One of the reasons they are so shocking, though, is that Britain has changed so much from the nation of my childhood.

There was no such thing then as social media through which to expose racist bullying. But even if there had been, such incidents were so embedded in the social fabric that it’s doubtful they would have caused outrage or even been seen as newsworthy.

Racism remains a problem and hostility to refugees is an issue that needs tackling. Jamal’s sister was apparently also abused at the same school, her hijab forcibly removed. It’s not just in Huddersfield that asylum seekers have faced brutal attacks. Nevertheless, such incidents are not characteristic of British society today in the way they would have been a generation ago.

Social media exposure can also lead to people piling on to individuals, including children. The alleged racist has received death threats and his family forced to leave their house. It’s easy to say: ‘He’s a racist, he deserves what he gets.’ But however nasty the assault, do we really want to encourage the corrosive effects upon public space and civic life of social-media-driven mobs? Whether online or offline, it’s not just racists who are targets of such fury.

We are witnessing, too, the emergence of a culture in which it is acceptable passively to record deplorable acts to share online rather than actively to intervene to aid the victims. One reason for this is the ubiquity of phone cameras. But social changes are important, too. A more atomised society and a safety-first culture have both helped blunt our sense of moral obligation to others. When a senior policeman thinks it acceptable to lock himself in a car rather than intervene in a terrorist attack on parliament, is it surprising to see the rise of what the defence minister, Tobias Ellwood, called the ‘walk-on-by society’ in a Newsnight interview following the Huddersfield attack?

In the Westminster terror attack, Ellwood showed great courage in trying to save the life of PC Keith Palmer, fatally stabbed by Khalid Masood. He has the moral authority to castigate the tendency of people to stand on the sidelines. But not to pronounce on attacks on refugees.

‘Where does this bully get his ideas from?’ Ellwood asked on Newsnight of the alleged schoolboy attacker. One can only gasp at his lack of self-awareness.

Ellwood serves in a government led by a prime minister who, as home secretary, celebrated the creation of a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants considered illegal. Her policy nurtured a climate of suspicion in which people were deemed guilty unless they could prove themselves innocent. It dragooned teachers and doctors and landlords to act as auxiliary immigration officers. It created an environment that incubated the Windrush scandal. And one that nurtures the hostility to refugees that sometimes spills over into violence.

What is surprising is not that such attacks take place but that, given the political rhetoric about migration and the character of government policy, they are relatively infrequent. ‘It’s not the welcoming, friendly Britain we are supposed to be,’ Ellwood wrote in a now-deleted tweet after the Huddersfield attack. If he wants to understand why, he should look closer to home.



The image is Oswaldo Guayasami’s El Grito No 2.


  1. damon

    This story is wrong on so many levels.
    Firstly why is it even a story?
    One child bullies another at school, and it goes viral all over the newspapers and overseas too.
    Was a racial motive even proved – and why is the term “waterboarding” being used?
    That’s what’s helped it become so sensational.
    The biggest victim here now has to be the sixteen year old child who has had to leave his home and go into hiding. One ridiculous U.K. website (Zelo Street) was even quoting an American Muslim on twitter about the case.
    What the heck are American Muslims doing commentating on this story?
    And why were adults outside the school (Muslim adults) and giving interviews about what had happened? Imagine it the other way round and it had been a case of a Muslim pupil bullying a white child and unrelated white parents had turned up at the school like that.

    School bullying is really unpleasant, and is particularly so if it has a racist motive to it.
    In many areas that have diverse populations in England, I would think that racial intimidation amongst school pupils is not always a white on ethnic minority problem. In London, if anything, it would probably be the other way around.

    On the question of where this boy got his supposed racist tendencies from, I would say it comes from his sub-class. He comes from that kind of tradition apparently, and that is a constituent part of the working class (I think).
    Some people are now referring to these people as “Gammon”. A dreadful word which shows only contempt for this sub-class, but insulting them, doesn’t make them disappear. It probably makes things worse.
    Why some people are not accepting ever greater diversity completely passively, is a subject that quite interests me, but doesn’t seem to get much of a wider hearing.

    • Frederick Peterson

      Resistance to ‘ever greater diversity’ is more deeply ingrained than any of its promoters are ever likely to admit. That’s why the opinion-forming class has gone into hyperdrive in their efforts to persuade we resisters of its normativity.

      • damon

        “The opinion forming class”? Do you mean like these two in the Guardian/Observer yesterday?

        Matthew d’Ancona
        “Let’s be honest about what’s really driving Brexit: bigotry”

        Afua Hirsch
        “This is a vital study of racial bias. Now will Britain take heed?”

        Liberal commentators have been genuinely shocked about what they saw as a change in attitudes coinciding with the Brexit vote. They couldn’t understand why things should change from the passivity they’d gotten used to. Some said how they no longer feel the same about the people they live and work amongst.
        To me, it’s just a social and cultural difference. They were on top for a long time and have had a lot of success in managing the whole debate around diversity, immigration and multiculturalism.
        But the things in their arguments which either didn’t add up, or came across as dishonest and overbearing, couldn’t go unchallenged forever. And with the internet and twitter etc these days, a concerted push back against them has gotten underway. The “culture wars” etc.

        While I don’t necessarily agree with many of their opponents either, I think the left must blame itself for some of the backlash. They’ve behaved so badly, and now are just doubling down, with the naming of many on the right as “Nazis” and racists.

        Bringing Tommy Robinson’s name into this story right from the start (before he made his I’ll judged comments) was an example of this. There has to be someone to blame. Some kind of conspiracy.

  2. Cable Strada

    I don’t deny that racism is a serious problem in the UK, but I was hoping you were going to write more about Asia Bibi and your meeting with her lawyer. As I said, you’ve written long and often about the rich male westerner Salman Rushdie, but Ms Bibi’s nine years on death row don’t seem to have interested you much. Perhaps you feel poor Pakistani women with little education wouldn’t be interesting to Observer readers?

    Btw, if I can respond to this earlier comment of yours:

    I suppose for someone who imagines ‘Jeremy and Diane’ standing on top of a barricade leading a Leninist insurrection, conjuring up the great power and influence of the Guardian is not that great a fantasy.

    The Windrush Scandal. How did it become a thing and topple a government minister? Oh, yes, it was reporting at the powerless and uninfluential Guardian / Observer. Edward Snowden. How did he become a progressive icon and shake the surveillance state on both sides of the Atlantic? Oh, yes, it was reporting at the powerless and uninfluential Guardian / Observer. The Rotherham Scandal. How did it become a thing and break a shameful wall-of-silence? Well, it could clearly have been reporting by feminists at the Guardian / Observer, but it wasn’t. Instead a male reporter at a Murdoch paper took the laurels.

    It could even have been Kenan Malik at the Observer who exposed the Rotherham Scandal, but you had the rich male westerner Salman Rushdie to write about instead. But if you did ever feel like helping poor women with little education, there many women (and girls) of Muslim heritage in Rotherham (and elsewhere) with interesting stories to tell about brutality and violence much worse than those you describe above.

  3. damon

    The question is “where does this bully get his ideas from?”
    Kenan believes some of the answer must be in “the political rhetoric about migration and the character of government policy”. And I have no doubt that will play a part. As will the newspaper coverage over the last decade. But these are also the most talked about and analysed aspects of what causes these problems in Britain.
    Just listen to that Afua Hirsch podcast in that article I linked to above. That kind of political viewpoint has been mainstream for several years now. It’s everywhere. It proclaims Britain is racist today, just like it’s always been, but just more subtly so. People like her have been making advances and “outflanking” their opponents and the large section of wider society who wouldn’t agree with her, or who fall foul of her exacting standards.

    Hundreds of thousands of new people arrive in Britain every year, with half as many people leaving the country, leaving a net figure that masks the amount of churn and replacement of population taking place.
    Many of the people who leave will be one-time immigrants to this country themselves, but a proportion will be white British. Hirsch and the radical race commentators behave like this should make no difference whatsoever and is just normal and needs to be accommodated by the kind of radical politics they promote.
    To even try to question what people like her are saying makes a person highly suspect in today’s heavily stymied. political environment.

    People like the boy involved in the bullying incident probably don’t read and listen to the Guardian writers and left radicals who promote the new multiculturalism, because it’s not part of those people’s tradition. Much of the discussion would be too much for them anyway as they aren’t culturally conditioned or educated enough to be able to understand it. But there are things about the changed and changing nature of Britain they can understand and some of it can be through lived experience. Not just from “outside agitators” putting ideas into their heads.

    For example, years ago Kenan was involved in helping defend East London Asian people against racist whites in places like Barking Road Newham. Where are those racist white people now? Many of them don’t live around there anymore and South Asians have become a local majority. The area has been transformed.
    So there aren’t white racist gangs there today, but if there is gang behaviour, it will be from the Asian and BAME communities. This has happened in most places where there was large scale immigration into local areas.
    It’s bound to have caused resentment in the original white communities – and that resentment goes with those families when they move out and is passed down through their children often.

    As a Croydon resident, I am very aware of two of the examples given in the article here. That of the racist woman ranting on the tram and the other of the asylum seeker badly beaten by what looks like a racist group of whites on a Croydon housing estate. It’s odd how these instances of white people behaving badly seem to go down in history and are remembered much more than all the other kinds of violence and aggression that goes on every week. A quick search through the local paper tells me that “Croydon had the second highest number of reported violent crimes out of all the London boroughs in the past year.” That’s from this year.
    I don’t recall it being like that in the 1970s. But the demographics have changed and people have moved in and moved out in large numbers. I personally know of people who have moved out because they didn’t want to live in such a diverse and challenging environment.

    I’m in Zimbabwe at the moment and it’s really kind of surreal to be juxtaposing the arguments raised in this case and the response to it in England, with what I’m going to experience shortly when I go into town here as a white person and walk around for the afternoon. There are white people living in this town (city) but they are quite allusive. They live behind big walls in the quiet suburbs and only drive around town. Preferring the secure malls to the more chaotic city centre. I walked into this out of town shopping mall cafe in on Sunday morning, and there were more than a dozen white people in there having breakfast. When they do walk downtown, I get the idea they don’t linger or “hang out” like the other Zimbabweans do. And they always seem to be carrying almost nothing. No shoulder bags and little backpacks.
    It’s like they adhere to a survival strategy, which pretty much works for them all of the time.
    But they also seem like an endangered species. It reminds me that there are other realities in the world, different to the ones that Afua Hirsch and the left push so much in Britain.

  4. damon

    It’s probable that the bully boy comes from a family and a culture that deplores people like the radio presenter James O’Brien when they hear them. Someone so outspokenly opposed to racism and for immigration and multiculturalism, that he uses that word “Gammon” to describe the boy’s sub-class. He regularly castigates callers into his show who have misgivings about the growing diversity. But he also “admits” that he lives in such an expensive house in white middle class Chiswick, that he and his wife (who is also a top rate tax payer) couldn’t afford to buy it today.
    Here he is explaining why he turns down offers to go on Question Time.
    He says that he doesn’t want to argue politics with people he thinks are not worthy of his presence.

    I’m pretty sure that people from the white reactionary underclass just hate people who talk like O’Brien.
    What he says alienates them, and much of it is beyond their understanding also.
    But they will pick up on his elitism and condescension. He’s even got a book out called “How to be right, in a world gone wrong”. I think people talking like O’Brien does, hardens and embitters people who don’t agree with them in the first place.

    As does this continual talk of white racism and all the injustices that people of colour are said to go through all the time. There’s one (high cast) Indian born lecturer at Cambridge University who’s been having a feud with the university porters because they keep asking to see her ID when she goes into colleges there. She’s convinced there’s a culture of racism among them and she writes about it publicly.

    And there’s these stories from the Guardian yesterday.

    It’s not that those stories are not true, but they’re a great example of what diversity does to a society.
    As it becomes more diverse, this campaign of complaint against white people and the wider society just grows stronger and more mainstream. You can’t get away from it.
    It causes a negative reaction in people who don’t fully go along with it.
    They get shut down and called racists, so the feelings of alienation get stronger.
    You end up with Tommy Robinson and racist bullying.

  5. Carmen Gindi

    Dear Keenan, Where did the Pakistani bullies (who caused a 9-year old white boy to commit suicide) get their ideas from? Or did you even hear about the incident? He was bullied for being a white minority in his own school, in his own country, and he was the second youngest suicide case in Britain this year. It happened just before the incident with the Syrian refugee teen. The white boy, however, was only 9 years old.

    If white bullying of refugees is fueled by social media rhetoric, then what causes Asian bullying of white boys? Keep in mind that social media exposes a lot of bullying, too.

    You were shocked that the Syrian refugee was bullied. I was not shocked that a white kid was being bullied in school.

    Nowhere else in the world could population displacement, at such a fast rate, take place without violence. Britain today is not the same Britain that you grew up in, and it’s still changing.

    In general, do you really think that “brown” people are more sinned against than sinning in Britain? Really? And I’m writing as a brown person myself.

    • The only such case that I know of is a tragic case from five years ago . It is a product of a tribalized society, the problems of which I have written about many times (for instance, here and here and here and here and here and here and here…). To acknowledge those problems does not mean that one has to ignore racism. Inflammatory rhetoric about ‘population displacement’ is as old as immigration itself, and it is trotted out whatever the numbers.

      As for whether I think ‘“brown” people are more sinned against than sinning sinning’, the very question exposes the problem. The issue isn’t whether brown people or white people are worse. Racism and bigotry are problems that we need to confront every time they express themselves, and from whomever. But we also need to challenge the politics that sees the issue as one of white people vs brown people. The problems of austerity, social deprivation, inequality, bigotry, are rooted not in skin colour but in social structures and in social and economic policies. That’s what needs challenging, not white people or brown people.

  6. yandoodan

    Virtually all comments on this, from both sides, miss the single most important part of this incident: the nature of male child bullying.

    Among male schoolchildren, the bully will start with chest-thumping and proceed to a physical attack. The purpose is to make a coward feel like he’s brave. Of course, being a coward, he must select someone he feels is considerably weaker than himself, and the solution is for the targeted boy to immediately go up his nose. Cowards can’t stand bravery; they don’t understand it and can’t imagine why people do it. But I digress.

    The point here is the chest-thumping stage. The bully will pick whatever he thinks will humiliate his target the most. If the target has acne, it’s “crater-face”. If the target is red-headed it’s “carrot top”. And if the target is a Muslim, that’ll be what the bully uses. The bully might well be a racist — probably is — but that’s not the point of the verbal attack. Rather, the verbal attack softens the victim up for the physical attack. The bully doesn’t pick his victim because the victim is Muslim. He picks him because he thinks he’s weak, and the greater the bully’s cowardice the weaker the victim he chooses.

    Schools need to focus on bullying, not the incidentals that go with it. The bully doesn’t really care about them; they’ll just find something else that lazy and uncaring teachers will tolerate.

    Apologies for the late response.

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