I have said a lot of offensive things as a young man. I have said many regrettable things whether it is the heat of youthful rage or the stupidity of childish banter. It is with the deepest disgust that I admit to homophobic and often sexist remarks in my schooldays. This, however, is not uncommon. No matter how much your favourite Tweeter would like to do ‘woke’ for the timeline, s/he has probably stumbled into a micro-aggression at some point in their life. Of course, this is still damaging to the marginalised and oppressed, but there is no shame in this; before one can embrace maturity, tolerance, and respect for people of all genders, races and backgrounds, one must first embrace that you don’t know everything and that there is always a learning curve. A curve which differs in steepness for some and not others, highly dependent on your environment and character.
Stormzy is an example of a talented successful young black man who upon scrutiny by the media has been discovered to have uttered reprehensible, homophobic language in the past. His use of the word ‘fa**ot’ on twitter and calling a little boy a ‘f***ing f*g’ falls sadly into the same category of a lot of iconic stars who have fallen from public favour. And yet, the discovery of Stormzy’s past transgressions does not feel the same as the grotesque actions of Kevin Spacey, a similar star but of television and film, not so much Grime. It appears so much more genuine when Stormzy stated in his apology that he had held “very hurtful and discriminative views that I’ve unlearned as I have grown up and become a man,” than Spacey’s half-apologies for alleged sexual assault, excusing himself with his homosexuality from blame.
Just as with all spheres of life, privilege is a central and important part in the process of how we should judge the actions of our stars. Obviously, there are actions that are unquestionably wrong but upon the Stormzy issue what irked me most was the unwillingness of a fiercely critical media to consider context.
Homophobia has not always been so sharply and immediately criticised. It is only 10 years ago, less even, that statements like ‘that’s gay’ were commonplace. Back in the days of my early teens (fairly recent being honest) it was ‘gay’ to do everything from dance, sing, care about anything other than football and Call of Duty…. it was even considered ‘gay’ to write a girl a poem. Trust me. The stupidity of this rhetoric is probably not lost on anyone now and I personally cringe at the thought processes of myself and others at the time but, as is universally acknowledged, children say the cruellest things. This should not mean that one’s mindset or behaviour as a young person should therefore stain them for the entirety of their lives.
Once more, this is not an excuse, this is context. It is important to evaluate intention alongside impact, and to recognise that ladder that some of us, myself included, had to university and lectures/protests on post-colonial theory and the spiciest anti-capitalist memes isn’t available for everyone. And that the hate prevalent in many of our communities, is something which it is hard to “unlearn” and eventually, transcend.
Wokeness and tolerance is not automatic but rather influenced by the experience and education. This is inherently linked to the role of class, race or gender in this process. Let us be honest, young black, brown and even white kids growing up in ends aren’t as likely as Alistair whose father lived in India for 9 years and whose mother is a feminist academic, to be able to navigate the systems of oppression which define everyday life. Those individuals who have lived their life doing road and particularly men from the black community, exist in such hyper-masculine circles that they are conditioned towards gross homophobia, misogyny and colourism.
Actions, often speak louder than words. But words matter a lot too. Ignorance spoken into existence from the very sections, or people, where one would have expected to receive solidarity is often as hurtful, if not more so, than that of the racist frothing Ukippers who still despite all odds, manage to wander about. In our time of such analysis and deconstruction of white supremacy, I was surprised by the usually progressive, Russell Howard’s unwanted commentary on the issue of racism in the workplace. In particular, I was very surprised by this white man’s opinion that the idea of white people needing a ‘booklet’ to navigate discussion with ethnic minorities was ‘insane.’ His outrage reading the statement that “If you missed the opportunity in primary school to touch a black girl’s hair, it’s a bit too late now”, I have a feeling probably means he’s been feeling up every dread, twist, curl and ‘fro that comes his way.
What distinguishes Stormzy’s ignorance of youth and toxic masculinity influenced by black working class culture, is that Howard’s ignorance arises from privilege and a rather hateful, intentional mockery of efforts of people of colour to literally educate on using language positively.
Harmful and offensive behaviour is often conditioned into our ways of thinking, often taught by religion, culture, society and our friends and family. It is hard to unlearn and harder to transcend but this is something we are obligated to do in the process of becoming decent adults. I’ve said really stupid stuff in the past and sometimes even now, it is likely you have too. So let’s continue calling it out remembering the whole time that nobody is born “woke”.