Well I’ve set myself a tricky tightrope to walk this week folks. I’m not going to say anyone in Beeston is “a racist”, but think quite a few hold some “racist views”. This is uncomfortable, I thought I lived in a nice, cuddly, multicultural neighbourhood.
I noticed the problem when I went along to a recent Beeston Community Forum meeting. “There’s a lot of folk in tonight” I thought. Who knew renaming an old people’s home would be so contentious? An hour later we were still on Matters Arising with question after question about a proposed development of the Ice Pak factory on Barkly Road.
The problem seems to be that the site has been bought by a group of Asian people. So, although the group had been to the Forum’s previous meeting to explain what they wanted to do and held their own meeting to explain their plans to local residents, people didn’t trust them.
The tone of the questions was that they clearly wanted the building to be a mosque and/or a wedding venue. And because they weren’t saying this is what the building was to be – they were devious to boot. And probably not abiding by planning law. Well “those Asians” don’t, do they?
A few isolated voices pointed out that there is no requirement on developers to consult the community (although it may help their application), so the group was already being more open than most developers. Also, that they hadn’t submitted an application for planning permission yet.
“But they’ve started work already, without planning permission!” Again someone patiently explained that you don’t need to planning permission to do work inside an existing building that you own. Not even on a Sunday morning – which in my experience is the traditional time for neighbours to do DIY.
I’ve heard other comments too. “There are already four mosques in Beeston- isn’t that enough?” and “They don’t integrate”. You know you’re in trouble when people start saying “they”. I had a friend who once told me:
“That’s the trouble with Americans – they always generalise.”
I think this is where we get to heart of the problem. It’s called stereotyping. Saying that everyone from a certain group behaves in the same, usually negative, way. You know the sort of thing:
- “Africans are always late”
- “People on benefits are scroungers”
- “Travellers are thieves”
- “Gay people are great at interior design”
The truth of course is that some are, but most aren’t. This becomes more obvious when you substitute the group you’re talking about.
So if you say, for example, “the mosques are used predominantly by Muslims, with very little integration of other faiths” this sounds a bit worrying. But let’s try it with a different faith group: “the churches are used predominantly by Christians, with very little integration of other faiths”. As far as I know the second statement is as accurate as the first, but it doesn’t seem troubling.
It’s something to do with majorities and minorities. Which isn’t to say minorities can do anything they want, but let’s just try and keep things in perspective.
I also need to point out that there are a lot of joint activities between different faith groups in South Leeds, not least Hamara and Building Blocks which involves several different Christian groups, plus Muslims and others. The organisation’s name rather gives it away – Faith Together In Leeds 11.
So, what should happen at Ice Pak? Personally I wouldn’t have a problem if it became a mosque. After all there seems to a church on every other street corner, so why not a mosque, or a Synagogue or a Gudwara or a Temple?
Now there are some genuine planning issues, is this the right location? Parking and traffic seem to be most pertinent problems, but no one’s asking these questions about the former St John’s Ambulance hut just across the road. The developers of that building are just as “secretive” in fact more so, they haven’t been to Beeston Forum, or held a public meeting as far as I know. And for the record they haven’t replied to my emails, or taken my phone calls.
The big question is: has Beeston got a problem with racism? The people I’ve quoted would be appalled to think they were being racist. I’m sure they get on very well with their Asian neighbours, but they are making assumptions which inform their questions and comments. In however small a way, they are pre-judging, using prejudice.
Times are getting harder and people are looking for someone to blame. The Tory press are cranking up to scapegoat anyone but the bankers who caused this mess. We need to make sure that we are not being taken in, not led gently up the garden path of stereotyping groups and falling out amongst ourselves. To mix my metaphors, racism is a very slippery slope. It starts with planning applications, but it can end in something much worse.
I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.