South of the River – “I’m not a racist, but …”

Compass-SouthSo Paolo Di Canio, Sunderland FC’s new manager is a fascist, but not a racist. And I keep meeting people in Beeston who aren’t racist, but don’t want “another mosque”.

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.

Jeremy MortonTimes 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.

6 Replies to “South of the River – “I’m not a racist, but …””

  1. Bravo Jeremy. A very good column, with important points sensitively made. I have no doubt that some readers will misunderstand you, but stick to your guns.

  2. Nice one Jeremy the great thing about south leeds is that it is home to so many different religions cultures and communities. I always like to think we are all migrants if you go back far enough. Personally my family moved from Scotland and Manchester to Dagenham Rutland then off to Australia, USA, Canada, Yorkshire, China they have all recieved warm welcomes from the people living in those places. The least we could do is likewise to everyone who wants to live with us.

  3. ‘Has Beeston got a problem with racism?’

    When I bought my house here the adult son of the absentee owners explained that it was okay because there were no Asians living nearby. I can remember which room in the house I was standing in when he said this and was too stunned to say anything. After I moved in I remember talking to another neighbour whose family had had come to Britain in the 1950s complaining about Asian immigrants. I have been known to groan to myself about Polish immigrants when I pick up another empty can of extra strength lager in Cross Flatts Park.

    It is human nature for people to prefer people whom we perceive as like ourselves and to dislike outsiders but that doesn’t make it right and it needs appropriately challenging as Jeremy’s article does. So is there a problem? Yes there is. But where I used to live in rural north Yorkshire there was a bigger problem but it was unseen. When a black friend of ours visited us people’s heads in the street turned round because they were so unused to seeing black people. When the primary school organised a visit to a gurdwara in Leeds some parents refused to let their children attend. My sister was telling me the other day of some family members who think that if someone is homosexual then they are also likely to be a paedophile. Prejudice and ignorance are rife particularly when people feel their views or way of life are threatened.

    I do think there’s a problem that we don’t have enough activities which engage all members of the communities young/old, single people/families, differing ethnic groups, different religious groups and people with no religious views etc etc.

    Finally, Jeremy inadvertently I think points out how easy it is to stereotype! Even if we accept that bankers caused ‘this [economic] mess’ – what all of it? – it wasn’t ALL bankers… The fact that some people who were heavily reliant on benefits – the Philpotts were found guilty of the manslaughter of their six children this week doesn’t mean all those reliant on benefits can be in any way bracketed with them… On occasion, I have even met people who vote conservative who are decent, good human beings.

  4. I’ve lived in Beeston all my life and I am always disappointed to hear racist comments from others – not uncommon unfortunately. My Irish fathers experience of No blacks, no dogs, no Irish in London has always stayed with him and as a result my parents brought me up to be welcoming to all nationalities. How rewarding it is to find out about the lives/culture of other people and you don’t have to travel the world to do it! I hope people get over their initial fears and see the barkly road development as a positive thing for the area and make use of it.

  5. Jeremy

    You warn against stereotyping but ask ‘has Beeston got a problem with racism’ and come to the conclusion that ‘quite a few [people in Beeston] hold some “racist views”’ based on the comments of some from the meeting. I have no doubt there are people in Beeston, as there are anywhere, who hold some racist views. But so what? That in itself would be a pretty unremarkable fact that barely warrants a mention never mind an article. However, you seem to want to draw some ominous conclusions from this fact when you say: ‘It starts with planning applications but can end in something much worse’.

    The problem is, you warn us, that we may be ‘taken in’ by the ‘Tory press’ and ‘led gently up the garden path of stereotyping’ to this worse scenario – whatever that might be – to divert blame from ‘the bankers who caused this mess’. Well, thanks for that. But aren’t you in danger of not just drawing simplistic and patronising conclusions from this one meeting, but of also putting all the blame for the current crisis onto the bankers and letting the entire political and economic class off the hook, who over the last 2-3 decades has failed to direct the vast wealth created by the financial sector into anything other than more financial gambling? It may even be the case that some in the ‘Tory press’, and amongst the elite in general, also welcome the popularist scapegoating of the bankers, as many did in the 1930’s.


    1. Thanks for your comment Paul.

      Yes, I took a massive shortcut in blaming “the Bankers” and not mentioning the rest of their class. To be honest I was running out of space, but I realise that is a pretty lame excuse.

      I chose to discus the topic of racism for a number of reasons and not just from attending one meeting. I have heard these comments elsewhere and even in comments on this blog. The meeting that kicked off my train of thought – and can I stress that the article was not just about Beeston Forum – is an influential group. It is one of the best supported community forums in the area, it attracted prominent speakers including the Leader of the Council, the Police & Crime Commissioner, transport chiefs, etc and as one councillor has said “If someone wants to consult people in Beeston, I tell them to speak to Beeston Forum.”

      It may be unremarkable that there are racist views floating around, but it’s not good and I thought it was worth challenging.

      You don’t say so, but there’s an implication in your comment that I’m stereotyping Beeston as a racist area. Nothing could be further from the truth, we mostly have very good race relations here and I want to keep it that way. I think the way to do that is to challenge it whenever and wherever it appears.

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