Lewes: Dealing with racism

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It would be difficult to find another example of the incredible journey many people in Lewes embarked upon on Tuesday evening. Councillors, poets, writers, pensioners, bonfire society chiefs and many others packed a meeting room at the Pelham Hotel to talk about a subject many didn’t even think existed in their town - Racism.

David James Smith’s Sunday Times article about the racial prejudice his mixed heritage family had endured in the town they loved shook its residents to the core. 

Most were angry particularly about the hyperbolic headline, ‘England’s green and prejudiced land’ , which many felt unduly stigmatised their  town. An effigy of David James Smith was burned on bonfire night.

And yet on a cold winter’s evening a packed hall wanted to discuss, debate and if they could begin to resolve some of the underlying misunderstandings and tensions that  had caused pain on both sides of the argument.

Smith spoke first outlining why he set out to write the piece. "It wasn’t meant to be divisive. Provocative yes, to shake people from their comfort zone, and see how certain actions make peoples lives uncomfortable, even intolerable". He lamented how some uncomfortable truths would have to be told.

As the messenger who highlighted the 'uncomfortable truths' about the subtle forms of racism Smith himself came under some fierce criticism. ‘If he had these views why not speak to locals first’? One resident asked.

Another demanded that he apologise for insulting their town. Tensions were beginning to run high. In my short address I sought to recognise the efforts many individuals who had wanted  to find a resolution that would begin the healing process. But to do so, I argued, they needed to recognise the subtlety of racism’s many forms that cause pain, discriminate and demonise.

By the end of the meeting two elements shone out. First, everyone loved Lewes.  Actually some of the proudest proclamations came from the town's minority ethnic residents.

For example,  the Asian business man who had lived in the area for 25 years nervously stood up with tears in his eyes to inform the room that this town has meant everything to him.   "My wife is from here, I have my business here. I simply love this town".

The second and perhaps most important element arose without prompting, when residents began to speak about their own culture and racial identities.

An Irish woman spoke about how residents simplistically characterised her. Most were positive, she said but some were stereotypically negative.

A Jewish man spoke about being brought up a Catholic even though he knew he was Jewish. "Being Jewish held to much pain for me", he lamented.  "But’, he said, ‘I’m stronger now. It is easier for me to be honest about who I am and what that means".

For me, the most heartfelt contribution came from a young white woman, whose half-sister was mixed-heritage. She stood up and told the audience that;  "When I read the Sunday Times piece I, like many of you became  enraged. How dare they characterise my beloved town like that, I thought".  But it was her mixed heritage-sister she said who informed  her that, she too, had experienced what the article described, and worse. 

Again, with voice trembling, she said; " I’d never once considered how things might be different for my dear sister".

Anger, pain, understanding and the process of healing -  it was all there in Lewes last night. I’d personally like to wish all those who were there and the people of Lewes good luck. 

And I hope to be invited  back for the Lewes world-famous bonfire night next year.

Simon Woolley

Main picture: David James Smith and family

Archived Comments

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Moving on

The article opened the door to bigger things and the people of Lewes have spoken they feel a need for a mature look at the whole holistic approach to living in Harmony as pain full as it is we all have to live in this planet.
I had a great time organising and officiating Thanks Simon!

Diversity in Lewes

I heard very positive things about your speech at the meeting, and the intelligent, nuanced, measured voice of Yaa Asare, with whom I had the priviledge of once working in Lewes.
Like many in the town, I have never been so naive as to think there is no racism here. We did not need an article in the Sunday Times to tell us what anyone who is thoughtful (and Lewes is full of people who are) has always known. Discrimination of all kinds exists everywhere, is wrong and needs to be discussed and tackled. But it is also immensely complicated. By the oversimplification of issues in his article, and by not really understanding (or being engaged with) the historic culture of Lewesians, I could not see how David James Smith helped matters. As Yaa pointed out, if you call people racist, the danger is that they stop listening.

Lewes: Dealing with racism

I was really inspired by you Simon (as well as David and Yaa). The call to move away from David's article and look at the bigger picture was important. I understand many residents are hurt but anger towards David seems to be a way of ignoring the issues he raised. Using the analogy that the Inuit people have 50 words for 'snow,' Simon argued that we need to find more nuanced words 'racism' or 'racist' as these are not always appropriate. Irrespective of one's opinion on the article, Simon's approach to comments were measured and enlightening. Thank you!

Overreaction?

It does appear as if David Smith essentially made a mountain out of a molehill.

It seems as if he has to create an over-embellished nation-wide coverage of what is most likely a disagreement between him and his neighbour. If you read his article, there really isn't much of a great concern, however, as David wrote, 'micro-aggressions add up to a big problem'. It appears as if he considered himself the accountant of micro-agressions in an entire town based solely on sime of his own experiences.

I really think that he should learn to deal with his neighbours or towns-people before he becomes an equalities spokesman.

I can imagine a conversation with his neighbours. I don't really like you David because you create an air of pretentiousness" his reply being, "Is it because my family is Black?". He has presented himself as a somewhat over-sensitive individual and, as is the common trend these days, appears to find 'race' and racism in everything.

He wrote about "Critical Race theory", the notion that 'race' is at the centre of everything. No, David (and Simon Woolley), selfishness is at the centre of everything. If critical race theory were an accurate observation then the notion of tolerance could simply never work. It would also be suggesting that bigoted people had a clinical medical condition: the inability to tolerate others, and that they could not be responsible for their actions.

People are almost always responsible for their actions.

People aren't mocked because of what they are, it often stems from how they factor into the lives of the people mocking them (if they even factor at all). People are not threatened because of what they are, they may be threatened because of what other people WANT.

One cannot change what one is, nor should one seek to use it as a perk, but one can change what another wants...

Being a white father with a

Being a white father with a black partner and mixed-heritage daughter i could empathise with David James Smith and his stance on matters, although provocational to the people of Lewes it was, but maybe we wouldn't have had such a great event and forum without it. I felt the issues discussed echoed and reflected towns and villages up and down the country and that hopefully the people of Lewes will rise above and not see it as such an indictment on what is a great place to live. A truly enlightening event and hopefully one that will help us all start to address the balance of issues that exist nationally and beyond, moving forward together collectively. Thanks to the organisers!

Moving Forward

The reactions of the people to Lewes to David James Smith's article have been as diverse as the issues at hand. It seems Lewes is unhappy about the way the issue of racism in our town was delivered, and has difficulty in letting this aspect go and moving forward.

I think a lot of the vitriol expressed towards David James Smith is just another way of undermining the real issues at hand. It is good that the people of Lewes are up in arms about racism in the town, but not that they're prepared to shoot the messenger. Emma Chaplin can't see how DJS's article helped matters. However, without the article, the forum would never have happened. Without the article, many people in this town wouldn't have come together to share the pain of their experiences, as well as their joys and love for Lewes. Without the article, my son wouldn't realise that he is not alone in what he experiences nearly every day of his life, and that the low-lying persistent bullying he endures has little to do with him as a person but a whole lot more to do with the society in which we live - it seems people of minority, ethnic backgrounds are meant to accept that racism is just a "normal" part of their lives.

Hopefully, the outcomes of this forum will help to start to set this straight. There is a need to carry on engaging with people to hear their experiences, acknowledge their pain and help them and the greater society move towards addressing issues constructively, so future generations can achieve their potential without having to clear a backlog of racial prejudice before they start.

Joy & Pain

Living in Kenya for 35 years and coming to UK and experiencing the Western life first hand is a cultural shock and quite interesting the Tuesday event brought home a painful feeling that it is not our generation that is going to learn from the History of slavery, WWW II ,THe Rwanda Genocide and all the atrocities dealt to humankind by human kind,
It is the joy of knowing that we have planted a seed or dug the foundation for the future generation to trod on shakily to a universal acceptance of this world is all ours no one has more rights than others HIM Hailie Sellaisse Said along time ago not until the color of a man's skin has no significance than the color of his eyes there will be war!

Like others I found the

Like others I found the debate on Tuesday interesting. Like many of the audience I'm not naive enough to think that racism does not exist in Lewes, of course it does, but no more than anywhere else. I appreciate that David James Smith was trying to portray his families experiences in living in a predominately white town but did he go about it in the right way?
My first point is the subject of debate was Lewes & Diversity: Have your say. Unfortunately, but I suppose inevitably the main focus of the discussion was about Mr Smith's article, some criticism, some support. However, when some members of the audience shared their positive experiences of being of ethnic minority and living in Lewes, I could see Mr Smith immediately change his body language, almost saying "Well I don't care about your experiences - I only care about mine". There was no feedback about positive experiences.
My second point is there were 2 quite poinient questions asked which were never answered.
1) Why Mr Smith had to take his concerns to a national newspaper before debating this locally?
2) How much of an effort had Mr & Mrs Smith made in intergrating into the community?
As an observer, it appeared to me Mr Smith was willing to defend his beliefs and views but not willing to discuss others! Debate?
Without going into boring details (I'm certainly not going to write an article in a "right wing" national paper about my experiences!) I too was bought up in London, yes I am white, but that doesn't mean I cannot have an opinion on racism. I grew up with and have many friends of different ethnic backgrounds. I too was bullyed at school, because I went to a mainly middle class catholic school but was from a poor background, can you Mr Smith imagine how embarrassing it is to be ridiculed because you have holes in your socks, or your uniform is out of date? Members of my family in the 1980's who spoke with an Irish accent in London, afraid to speak in fear of being accused of being members of the IRA? Need I go on?
What I'm trying to say, as a commited anti-racist, is please don't become so embittered (which is what your body language portrayed) dont't take every nasty comment as a personal insult to a whole race. As a child I did not have a father like you, anaylising everything anyone ever said to me. I am grateful that I didn't, because it made me stronger, I learnt on my own how to deal with situations, and through that process, I believe I have a greater understanding of human nature. I meet people, I don't make assumptions about them, I get to know them, then I decide whether I like them or not. I don't see race, creed or colour as an issue.
In conclusion I would just like to say, sometimes we all meet people we don't get on with, I myself reflect on the reasons for this. Sometimes it may be down to predjudices, but sometimes it can be down to people just not getting along. When I moved to Lewes 30 years ago, I was an outsider, but I made an effort to join in. Maybe Mr & Mrs Smith it is not about your race, but about your personalities??

A door closed or opened?

My overall impression of the event was that it is hard to think clearly with feelings running high. It is clear that an important issue (and one which is pertinent to many parts of rural England) has been raised here. Mr Smith's piece clearly validated the experiences of some people in the town and brought the whole issue of difference to the fore. However, the comments above that paint this as a simplistic positive (Andi Mindell and to an extent your own piece Simon) seem a little naive. Some contributors to the meeting took the perspective outlined under the heading "Overreaction" (below) and considered the original Times piece an example of a skewed perspective (and given Mr Smith's insistence that what one feels to be racism IS racism thats an impression that's difficult to avoid). Others felt angry and attacked. Though people came together progress was not necessarily always what was on thier minds!

Clearly it is not always possible to raise such issues in a way that is comfortable (and of course one wouldn't always wish to). However, the danger of the original piece is that it was more to do with personal feeling (with which I sympathise) but less to do with achiving progress. Its legacy is far more likely to be complex.

The stand-out contribution of the evening (for me at any rate) came from Dr. Yaa Asare who in a thoughtful and measures way offered a much clearer insight into the complexities diversity in education.

However as a town we can make something come from this. Its unfortunate that the issue was raised is the way that it was for all sorts of reasons but that's what we've got.

'like others i found the...'

To suggest that David wasn't interested in the narratives of others is a little bit unfair. We spoke at length after the event and he was particularly pleased that others spoke about their cultural identities because as he said, 'it helped others see Lewes through many different lenses'.
Of course though, the event was a big deal for David and his family who for him obviously come first. But he has always been acutely aware that the article was more about an aspect of his beloved town rather than his family.

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