How Can I Possibly Know Your Journey?

Article by Steve Harvey, Director Impromptu

‘The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself.’ Ijeoma Oluo

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Black Lives Matter, and more particularly, what the existence of this movement says about humanity, about how we humans so often mistreat each other and how so many nations systematically condemn individuals, minority groups and, sometimes, whole segments of population to marginality, to disadvantage, to exclusion, to oppression and, all too often, to endemic abuse.

As many of you know, Impromptu has endeavoured to play our (small) part in addressing the many injustices that play out, across our society, every day. Over the past year, we have actively engaged with associates of colour and taken specific, practical steps to equalise imbalances that exist within our industry.

For me, personally, I have often felt a degree of awkwardness and self-consciousness in these conversations, sitting there as a tall, middle aged, ostensibly middle class, white, company director, with all the apparent power and privilege that my circumstances and position imbue. I have wondered, to what extent, whilst I pontificate about justice, fairness, equity, opportunity, I am unwittingly conspiring to perpetuate the status quo, that in the very act of reaching out to you, I am inadvertently endorsing mechanisms of structural and systemic racism. I wonder to what extent am I, or at least perceived to be, serving as gate keeper, giving my permission for you to enter, rather than standing alongside you, helping to tear down the castle wall.

And I wonder, too, in these moments, how can I possibly know your journey? How can I know you?

Those questions swirl around, nagging to be answered. Tentatively I offer two, interconnected, possibilities. The first? I can listen, really listen, to what you have to say, to try with everything I have, to hear and feel you when you tell me your story.

The second? Well, this thought is more controversial. Perhaps, just perhaps, I can access my own story in the hope that it might give me some insight into yours. You see, I too, in my own way, have encountered and strived to overcome the challenges of structural disadvantage. My formative years were spent in an environment where deprivation, violence and crime were the order of the day. Expectations, and particularly expectations of working-class boys, were low. For many of us, low paid manual jobs, prison, poor health, low educational attainment, mental illness and relatively short life expectancy were our ineluctable trajectory. Out of my school year group of 200, I was the only one who progressed [oh, the term ‘progression’, what an establishment construct!] to university. That is 0.5%.

Half of one percent!!

And I wore the badge of my class, in many ways, some obvious others not. I lived through and I was inexorably branded by it. My appearance marked me out. I wore my classness and my feral maleness like a neon sign and, because of my appearance as well as my actions, I was no stranger to stop and search, nor the inside of a police cell.

Some might say I have risen above [such a harmful term, ‘risen above’, reinforcing corrosive notions of stratification, of hierarchy and of superiority] these unpromising beginnings and, looking at my life now, it would be reasonable to assume, in witnessing the trappings of my middle-class existence, I have left all that behind. But the sensibility has not left me, and the life-implications, the self-doubt, the self-limiting beliefs, a pervasive sense of being other, of not quite fitting, of being an outsider. And I carry with me, always, an overwhelming conviction that structural inequality is a social cancer and that systemic privilege, in all its forms, is wrong.

A specific incident stands out. At the age of 17 I was attacked by a group of around a dozen black men, in a night club. I knew some of them, in passing, even considering one or two of them to be mates. To this day I don’t know the full reason why they attacked me, but I do know that it was, at least in part, due to the colour of my skin.

But the attack was not the worst of it. Sometime later, whilst in a record shop, I bumped into a friend who was linked to the group. He warned me that T, the leader, was looking for me and when he found me, he was going to kill me. I knew this was no idle threat. These were ‘bad people’, from Tottenham and Edmonton, whose reputation for unmitigated violence preceded them. For the next year, indeed until I left North London for good, I lived in the shadows, watching my back, afraid to go out, knowing what it is like to live in fear, and knowing that in some measure my race had a part to play in my suffering.

Do I believe that my background, my experiences mean that I understand you? Of course not. That would be crass and, I suspect, for some, offensive. I do hope, however, that my capacity to listen, combined with the opportunity I have to draw on my own biography will give me some chance at least of knowing, if only for a moment, what it might be like to walk in your shoes.

And if I can achieve this then, perhaps, you will know that I care.