Why I Was Cluelessly Racist in My Youth

Why I Was Cluelessly Racist in My Youth 1
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

At school, for a period of a few years, I was a racist little bastard. Most of the black kids in my school were taller, wider, and a hell of a lot tougher than I was, putting their physical prowess to use by skipping lunch queues, taking the best seats in class, and shouldering me effortlessly off the ball during games of football, as though I weighed about the same as a cocktail sausage. During break, they’d nestle into their desired spot in the playground, and blast the surrounding concrete with the tinny, harsh sounds of 2Pac and Busta Rhymes, to the distaste of every Verve or Lenny Kravitz fan in the vicinity (this was a boy’s school, so no self-respecting lad in the 90’s would own up to liking the Spice Girls). These injustices, together with the fact that I could do nothing to restore them without receiving an eye-watering pummelling, created a burning rage inside me, discharged among friends with mutters of “fucking wogs” or “those black bastards are at it again.” At the time it seemed the most natural thing in the world; a righteous point-of-view that dragged us from the lowly position of pathetic, weak and useless, to an elevated position of power and superiority, even if it was just in our minds. Puberty was the boggiest of slogs, and when you’re just trying to drag yourself through something in one piece, reality and truth seem to have less importance. Racism just happened to be a readily-available psychological defence mechanism, used to cover up feelings of ineptitude and worthlessness, protecting my meager sense of self-esteem. I just felt like a skinny, useless white boy, surrounded by all manner of kids who were bigger, stronger, and smarter than me. I was like the frightened little dog that barks because of its fear, fooling nobody aside from myself.

In the first year of sixth form, I escaped what would have undoubtedly been a severe beating, after my racists comments were overheard and passed onto the most enormous black kid in the entire school—a six-foot brick shithouse who, if my memory serves correctly, went by the name of Kwame. The charge against me was “wanting to stab a black boy”, which proved to be a complete lie on the part of the informer—a compact Indian kid who wanted to embellish my intolerable racism as much as possible, in order to see me punished. After weeks of successfully dodging the formidable wall of muscle that wanted to squeeze me to death, the snitch pointed me out to him in our common room, and after politely asking my nemesis to step outside (a request that he took as an invitation to fight), I talked myself out of the entire pickle by declaring that someone with mixed-race cousins such as myself wouldn’t dream of saying something so abhorrent, because such a thing would technically apply to my very own flesh and blood, as though I harboured desires to stab my own family to death because of their darker complexions. That part is true, by the way—I do have mixed race cousins. My silver tongue saved me from a trouncing on that day, but in hindsight, I probably deserved a smallish beating.

Today, whenever a racist peeks over the parapet with a unintentionally blatant comment, my first response is usually contempt. I marvel at their ability to pigeonhole an entire race of people, while conveniently forgetting that I used to do exactly the same thing, for probably the same reasons. Thankfully, my confidence and self-esteem increased with age, blessing me with fresher, clearer perspectives, and a hardier ego that didn’t require cowardly racism in order to protect it. For the remaining racists wandering the world—shaking in their steel toe-capped boots whenever a burly black gentleman passes them in the street, and cursing them quietly under their breaths—changing their views might be a lot more difficult, particularly when surrounded with like-minded friends, each one more chicken-hearted than the last. Many racists appear to be nought but frightened pussies who never developed the true confidence of adulthood, but instead remain in pitiful immaturity, shielding their fragile self-esteem with hateful vitriol, but lacking the knowledge or the motivation to understand why they behave in such ways. To know thyself is tough, but judgement is easy, and feels oh-so-good. The easier path is always more tempting, particularly for the psychologically weak, who might trapse along it comfortably for their entire lives, lacking the courage and will to take the harder road, and forgoing a happier existence in the process. Ignorance is most certainly not bliss.

Art has a way of blessing us with truth and understanding, in unintended ways. Aside from an increased sense of confidence, a turning point for my own bigotry was reading Lee Harper’s To Kill A Mockingbird, a book so beautifully written, weaving a story of such crystal-clear clarity, that you’re left with the fiercest sense of injustice for the main characters, and a greater sense of empathy for their terrible plight. I suspect that Harper has softened the views of many a small-minded bigot, with the potential to remedy many more, but in our age of ignorance, where social media and tabloid journalism serve as dominant teachers, conveying little but righteous outrage and fear, the likelihood of such a person reading the book seems about as feasible as Tommy Robinson marrying Malala Yousafzai. These types of noxious media can act as tribalistic echo chambers of disdain, shrinking our world down to scant collections of regurgitated hate, with little existing outside of it, and little chance of us breaking away to something good and admirable. Such comfortable bubbles have a limited amount of oxygen, before we suffocate. An exceptional story, on the other hand, can be a masterful teacher of empathy, and help to shift the views of the most stubborn extremist, if we could somehow force it upon them without impinging on their freedom.

For me, school was a time for survival, rather than self-improvement. I’m fortunate enough to have been raised with the support of kind, caring parents, satisfying the majority of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and once school was over, affording me the luxury of self-actualisation in the guise of endless books. Some people aren’t so fortunate. It’s tempting to become immediately self-righteous when faced with intolerance, but such a response displays a lack of understanding in itself, the exact same source as the racism. Babies don’t emerge from their mothers with their arm held aloft in a hateful seig heil, but instead develop such behaviours as a way to soothe their fear, protect their delicate egos, and forgo the effort needed to actually understand the world. What is a racist, after all, than a frightened dog, yapping to protect itself?

The futility of punishing criminals

kyryll-ushakov-1237177-unsplashPhoto by kyryll ushakov on Unsplash

A skinny, dishevelled boy of 6 sits cross-legged on his dust-covered bedroom floor, hands clamped over his ears so tightly that his fingertips are whitened. The impassioned screams of his booze-fuelled parents permeate the house, filling every room with blackened anger. It’s no use — he cannot shut out the despairing sounds of the people who are supposed to be his role models; the people who are supposed to love him. Instead, they spend their evenings numbing their miserable existence with cold, hard liquor, expelling any remaining pain as vehement hatred. Though he craves nothing more than an evening of quiet solitude, or just a moment of peace in which this misery can be forgotten, he cannot escape the screams.

Add another twelve tumultuous years until his 18th birthday, when he officially becomes a man. At this point his upbringing has caused severe psychological damage, resulting in regular anti-social behaviour, sometimes violence. He struggles to make friends, and the few friends he does have exhibit similar behaviour, having also grown up in desperate, low socio-economic circumstances.

His turbulent life has created a consistent sense of fear and anger, and a strong desire to protect himself. He carries a knife as a result. One winter afternoon, during an escalating argument outside a pub with a former schoolmate, he pulls his knife from his pocket and stabs him through the heart, killing him.

What should happen to him at this point? How should society deal with him?

The typical answer is “prison” — he’s murdered another human being, and deserves to be punished. The public also needs to be protected. But how can we possibly justify punishing someone who has spent his entire life being punished by cruel and unjust circumstances? People who have grown up in better conditions rarely stab people. Dire situations lead to dire outcomes — the man had no control over the circumstances of his life, so as he stood before his opponent, glowering with righteous anger, to say that he should have done the right thing is tragic moral ineptitude.

Hard prison time — in which the prisoners are being punished for their actions, shielded from the public, and rehabilitated — doesn’t work. The United States — a country that boasts the world’s highest incarceration rate — re-arrests almost 67.8% of released prisoners with 3 years, and 76.6% within 5 years. Only a meagre quarter are able to make it past 5 years without committing another offence. In the UK, 65% of prisoners who served a sentence of 12 months or less ended up reoffending. These stats could be even higher, with the strong possibility that some criminals would have reoffended without being caught. While working for the Conservative party in the UK, Douglas Hurd took part in a study which concluded that “prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse“. A report from the University of Cambridge claims that imprisonment “changes people to the core”, with strong evidence to suggest that the personality adjustments will hinder the person’s chances of rehabilitation. The Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam found that even a short stay in prison can affect a person’s impulsivity and attention control. How can an inmate expect to re-integrate with society when their character has been so successfully marred, abetted by morally twisted notions of the punishment should fit the crime?

“If imprisonment were the answer to crime we would be closing prisons not opening more.”—Stuart Greenstreet, Philosophy Now

UK prisons are full of people from disadvantaged backgrounds. As children, they’re 4 times more likely to have run away from home, 13 times more likely to have been taken into care, 25 times more likely to have been a regular truant, and 4 times more likely to have left school with no qualifications. It’s also 2.5 times more likely for them to have a family member convicted of a criminal offence. Their upbringing is a long stretch of tempestuous instability, during which they gradually take on the corrupted characteristics of their hapless parents, fated for the dark, cold walls of a prison cell — a cycle of perpetual criminality, generation after generation.

Poverty increases the likelihood of mental illness—prisoners in both Australia and the US are fraught with mental health problems. In Australia almost half have a diagnosis from a medical professional, with over a quarter taking medication. There’s similar results for the US. These people are disadvantaged in myriad ways, and we lock them up in dangerous, violent prisons. Would we consider punishing a child by locking him in his room because he has ADHD?

The concept of punishment as a deterrent is a complete failure. Many of the people who commit crimes do so because of their tragic lives, making them prime candidates for empathy and support, not punishment. It’s obvious that dangerous criminals should be kept away from the public, but in an establishment whose main purpose is to help and assist them, not punish them. This is occurring in the Netherlands, which places a strong emphasis on mental health, by assessing, filtering and treating the prisoners based on their unique problems, unlike the UK or US where they’re thrown into general population. The Dutch even implemented a sliding scale of responsibilitybased on the convict’s unique circumstances, ranging from full responsibility to a total lack of responsibility. The Dutch prison system is so effective that they’ve started turning their prisons into housing for refugees. Over in Norway, the recidivism rate is the lowest in the world — just 20% — relying on a concept called restorative justice, which aspires to repair the damage caused by the crime, rather than ruthless, merciless punishment. Psychologist and prison governor Arne Wilson states the following:

“In closed prisons we keep them locked up for some years and then let them back out, not having had any real responsibility for working or cooking. In the law, being sent to prison is nothing to do with putting you in a terrible prison to make you suffer. The punishment is that you lose your freedom. If we treat people like animals when they are in prison they are likely to behave like animals. Here we pay attention to you as human beings.”—Arne Wilson

Compare the Norwegian recidivism rate of 20%, with the US rate of 76.6%. This tells you exactly what you need to know about the effectiveness of the brutal and inhumane “hard time” mentality.

Thankfully, some areas of the US are making progress. New York judges have the option of sending criminals to programs instead of prison, which like the Dutch system, are more tailored to the person’s unique needs. This program has a 60% success rate. The state of Kentucky passed a bill that encourages community-based treatment for juveniles, rather than immediate, costly detention. For the younger troublemakers, Chicago is now offering a cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) program, which has reduced arrests by up to 35%, violent crime arrests by up to 50%, and graduation rates by up to 19%. CBT teaches the youngsters to pause and reflect on their impulsive, often damaging thoughts and behaviours, in order to consider whether they should be doing things differently.

“I’d watched too many schoolmates graduate into mental institutions, into group homes and jails, and I knew that locking people up was paranormal – against normal, not beside it. Locks didn’t cure; they strangled.” — Scott Westerfeld, The Last Days

In Canada, prisoner-afflicted families are being offered family-group counselling, helping to build a closely connected support group that decreases the likelihood of reoffence. It’s believed that this solution is one of the reasons for Canada’s prison population decrease. When we treat criminals like humans and offer them the assistance that they so desperately need, they often respond with the same kindness. Back in the UK, the Midlands watched their recidivism fall to an incredible 10%, after tripling the number of officers whose exclusive responsibility is to deter former criminals from reoffending.

Dangerous criminals should obviously be kept in confinement to protect the public, but the conditions of their incarceration, and the professional help that is offered to them, are key to their successful rehabilitation and reintegration into society. We cannot maintain impotent notions of the punishment should fit the crime, or an eye for an eye — they’re grossly inhumane, and utterly useless. Prisoners need repeated long-term therapy to manage their mental health issues, and educational programs to help them with their lives and careers. But most importantly, despite their crimes, they need the sympathetic kindness of an entire host of prison and rehabilitation workers, each fully convinced that the way to repair a person’s ravaged character is through consistent and relentless benevolence — the treatment that they should have received from their parents during their younger years.

With compassion, understanding, and a hell of a lot of patience, the revolving door of prison can be smashed off its hinges.

“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” — Nelson Mandela