I read this arresting, articulate and important essay while walking a strange, familiar route this morning for the final time. I was listening to this haunting piece of music and preparing to formally draw a line under what had been, so far, the best six months of my life.
Listen to it, think about endings that have a three week gap before the subsequent beginnings, and join me.
The Fear of Being Seen as White Losers: White working-class masculinities and the killing of Steven Lawrence is a 2018 essay chapbook by David Jackson, published by Nottingham-based indie press (and bookshop) Five Leaves, as part of their Five Leaves Bookshop Occasional Papers series. I bought it, as with most of my hipsterish books, from Burley Fisher in Dalston. By focusing on the racist working class white men who murdered Steven Lawrence in 1993, in this essay David Jackson explores the deeply problematic identities that led to the disenfranchisement, self-importance and all round dickheadedness of the people who committed this vile, violent, attack. Far from being an “accident” or a one-off, Jackson writes, the killing of Steven Lawrence was instead a major symptom of serious – and still un-resolved – societal problems.
Jackson pulls out and considers the personal, national and local factors that led to these men turning out how they did. He writes about the rise of multiculturalism alongside British devolution and British financial decline, he writes about the UK’s failure to come to terms with its own international lessening of importance and the impact this has upon people whose identities are formed through a perception of said importance. What is it to be British, Jackson writes, now Britannia no longer rules the waves? It is and will continue to be, as Jackson posits and argues very compellingly, to be racist, bitter, scared and willing to lash out, unless some very serious changes are made to education and the ideas of society that people grow up learning to believe.
What racist violence in the last few years, following the Brexit referendum, has shown is that the attitudes of white British people – particularly white British heterosexual men – are as poisonous now as they were in the 1990s. The fault, Jackson (I would go so far as to say) proves, lies with the way that the UK celebrated and propagated its own specific idea of “normal”, i.e. what a “default” person is. For many years the negative impact of this was felt most conspicuously by women and queer people and those who are not “white British”, because by setting “normal” as white, hetero, male, you are grounding your nation’s notion of self solely by its “distance” from others. Jackson writes about white people feeling like “cultural ghosts” – they/we are an “absence” of culture: they/we see their/our own identity and culture as so “normal” that they/we cannot see what it is. This is a dangerous ignorance that continues to be propagated by the right-wing press and the continued mythologising of English exceptionalism, which is obviously bullshit as we’re a shithole country full of backwater nobodies. Not understanding ourselves is the tragic flaw in the British psyche.
Violence towards others, people who are firmly part of the real fabric of British society, is in many ways self-harm. Attacking a stranger from your own community because your idea of what constitutes your community is too narrow and blind to understand what it has become is shameful. By demonising others, by Othering others, one does not make the self happier, more content or less likely to feel, falsely, like a victim. It is the false narrative of white male victimhood that allowed Brexit, that allows for the “political correctness gone mad” type crap and, of course, violent murderous attacks such as the killing of Steven Lawrence.
If working class white boys are offered no positive role models or modes of masculinity and continue to only see themselves as an absence of an Othering “something else”, then they will continue to be unhappy and they will continue to kick off. It’s not just a problem with the working class, though: no one is “closing down Christmas”, no one is making it “illegal to be a man”. This is middle class Middle England bullshit hatred. Whoever a person is, if you deny what you are and that “YOU” even have a presence, you of course see someone who recognises their own culture as something to envy.
Envy, too, is key to contemporary racism. Jackson writes at length about the sort of racist envy that was so succinctly used as the underpinning of Get Out, about unrealistic positive stereotyping (i.e. black men as sexually and physically more powerful), ideas that are no less insidious and disgusting as the more openly negative (i.e. “inherent criminality”) type of prejudicial comments. Steven Lawrence’s murder did not happen in a vacuum, and nor did the creation of the hatred and cruelty that caused it.
What Jackson does – without excusing or justifying their behaviour – is explain why and how these men ended up as the entitled, violent, angry dickheads that they were. The murderers of Steven Lawrence are not passive victims, they are actively violent, morally bankrupt people with a superiority complex. The men that killed Steven Lawrence are awful, and Jackson looks at how and why they are, without a single note of forgiveness because, frankly, they do not deserve it. It is interesting and important to recognise how this happened, and one can do that without – as Jackson proves – being offensively sympathetic towards those who have eschewed their right to empathy.
The Fear of Being Seen as White Losers is powerful, essential, reading and I highly highly highly recommend it.
On November 14th 2018, I launched my first book, Bad Boy Poet, in the basement of Burley Fisher Books, Dalston. Here are some of the songs and poems I performed:
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