- Interview by
- Owen Hatherley
This summer has shone light again on racial inequalities in British society, with mass Black Lives Matter protests taking place in cities and towns across the country.
In her new book Terraformed researcher Joy White excavates some of the longer term trends shaping these conditions. She explores how recent decades of gentrification, austerity and structural racism have impacted her native east London, and particularly how they interrelate to shape the lives of black youth today.
In this interview, she speaks to Tribune culture editor Owen Hatherley about Newham, its politics and “how communities can emerge in an almost parallel world.”
What pushed you to write this book?
I wrote Terraformed to put the present of young Black lives into conversation with the past. To try to place contemporary struggles and issues into some kind of historical, social and political context. Terraformed doesn’t fit neatly into a genre, it’s a messy ethnography, I suppose where I try to piece together the personal, the political to try to make sense of how young Black lives are impacted by racism, austerity and a neoliberal agenda.
Central to the book for me was the section on the Forest Gate Development Plan, and how it closes off the high street from the ‘backland areas’ (ie, its council estates), marketing it to a new, mostly white clientele of incomers. There is an explicit local policy of keeping young black people out of public space – you mention Forest Lane school’s policy of not allowing pupils out at lunchtime. Do you think there’s much public awareness of these kinds of restrictions?
I think that often these policies are packaged in a way that speaks to public safety, so there is little resistance. In some way it is better for children to be enclosed, where it’s safe and out of harms way. It also stops them from going to the chicken shop at lunchtime. Taking a broader look though, it means that the High Street, in the absence of Black youth, takes on a different vibe. It also makes it easier to render some communities invisible.
You describe Forest Gate as having historically had ‘a solid, socialist history running in parallel with far-right nationalist politics.’ What do you make of the way that this East End history is often used for nostalgic political ends?
In some ways it offers a solid and untroubled sense of history and belonging and that can be quite appealing to some. Communities formed in struggle, sharing hardships and adversity. At the same time though what Malcolm James calls a ‘fictive whiteness’ is also at play and that fiction excludes the contribution and significance of those who are not racialised as white.
Some of the most striking passages in the book are on G4S work at the Olympics and their replacement by the army, and on outsourcing of public services more generally. You quote the CEO of Serco saying ‘our industry was created by an act of political will’. What your book shows so well is the state and the outsourcing companies actually working together to create a more exclusionary, unequal environment, rather than a conflict between state and business. Do you see much prospect of a more democratic local state in somewhere like Newham?
I hope so. What is evident is that outsourcing and privatisation of public services does not work for most us. We (as taxpayers) pay handsomely for poor services – a quick glance at the health and social care sector reveals some of the worst aspects of these practices – see youth custody and children’s residential care for some terrible examples. Often we are left with little choice about whether we use these services or not – so who benefits (apart from the shareholders)? Newham seems to be on the point of doing something different, for example they are re-establishing their youth services. It will be interesting to see how that unfolds.
You call the contemporary music scene ‘a site of emancipatory disruption, where it is possible to take on a new identity as an artist, a performer and an entrepreneur’. It’s rare now to see such a defence of music as a place for working class young people – and as you note, Newham Council actually took down 76 grime videos filmed in the area during the Olympics. What is it about these videos that Newham Council found so disturbing?
From the Freedom of Information request that I read, Newham Council requested the removal of any music videos deemed to be ‘gang related’, so mentioning a different postcode, wearing clothes of the same colour, and being in a group of three or more. It was a response to the London riots of 2011, supported by the introduction of the gangs matrix. I write about this in some detail in a journal article. Framing the creation and sharing of certain genres of Black British contemporary music as inherently problematic has a racialised element that cannot be ignored.
There’s a bleak humour to a lot of the book, especially when you and some friends go to several of the new cafes and pubs in Forest Gate as a ‘participant observers’. In almost every case you find a baffled or hostile response, or scotch eggs for £2.50 and oompah nights. How do you think it has happened that the people running these places are surprised when locals walk into them?
It’s one of the issues that I was trying to work through in the book – how is it that communities can emerge in an almost parallel world, existing side by side but not together? Multicultural life offers a backdrop but it does not appear to be centre stage. Trying to work out why that is, will take much longer I think. Maybe what is lacking are those opportunities for coming together and conversation. Access to leisure is dependent on access to resources – to enter these spaces you need money. We need more whole community spaces that don’t rely on purchase for entry.
As you write, much of the marketing of places like Forest Gate focuses on ‘village’ metaphors, with Wanstead Flats as the ‘village green’. And yet, as you describe it, it’s actually a place ‘where people live side by side’ in distinct groups that have no contact – the total opposite of a ‘village’. I know it’s a huge question, but are there any ways you could imagine mutual solidarity in a place like this?
Mutual solidarity comes from visibility and recognition. It could start I imagine by celebrating in equal measure the contribution of young black lives in this setting in the same way that, for example, the opening of a phone box library is lauded. Where is the plaque for Forest Gate resident and Grime MC D Double E? Newham as a whole was a starting point for Grime, and I write about this in some depth in my chapter in Regeneration Songs. Telling that story boldly, loudly, and imaginatively allows us to share an intergenerational story of Black British history in Newham and beyond. Erasing or ignoring it sends a clear message about what (and who) is valued. Grime shook up the world. It changed the sonic landscape of the UK and beyond. It has a social, cultural and economic significance that far exceeds artisan bread and the farmers market.