The year 2015-2016 was a big year for me, coming to Edinburgh after working in the Middle East for several years. One of the first things I did was visit the Festival Theatre, where I fell in love with modern dance (I hate dancing, so don’t switch off if you are also not a dancer). Although I intend to continue visiting the Festival, I will also be trying out other venues, for modern dance, drama, ballet and opera.
Resisting Whiteness one-day event, Edinburgh
Returning for the second consecutive year, Resisting Whiteness came yesterday to the Pleasance Theatre in Edinburgh, providing an intense and inspiring series of panels, as well as a wonderful spoken word section, and a final segment based around the documentary short Invisible by internationally-acclaimed director Campbell X. Contrasting with the previous year, the panels were streamlined from four to two, allowing for a more varied format of events, with the inclusion of additional workshops. The changes worked, making this another engaging success for the Resisting Whiteness collective, with Edinburgh once again the beneficiary of an extraordinary and unmissable forum.
I attended the two main panels, the spoken word slam, and the film session, and will limit my review to these events. The morning panel concentrated on Austerity and Anti-Racism, each of the speakers describing how the policy of austerity had affected their work in the arts and/or community activism, and the victims who had suffered from the slashing of funds. The award-winning artist Raman Mundair highlighted the phenomenon of the 'Good Citizen' and how austerity had fomented an increasingly suspicious climate, both institutionally and among the general public, in terms of deserving and undeserving members of the population in relation to welfare and support. From this thread, consultant, activist and trainer Ruth Elliot spoke about the sector supporting victims of sexual and domestic violence and the way funding was currently insecure, depending on advocacy rather than secure places from which to operate. Two important forms of support and protection – secure homes and affordable healthcare – were, for example, increasingly unavailable, with potentially devastating consequences for some the most vulnerable women in society. The third panellist, entrepreneur Briana Pegado, described the lack of pathways for people of colour into creative industries, with grassroots projects in particular seeing their funding removed. People of colour, and more generally people of socio-economically disadvantaged means, have become unable to participate in what is not only racist but a classist form of exclusion, underlining the disastrous social and material consequences of austerity on UK society. The audience also produced some excellent questions, one returning to the 'codification of the Good Citizen' in the austerity-era UK and of socio-economically disadvantaged people 'sucked into the wormhole of bureaucracy.' Ruth Elliot, meanwhile, responded thoughtfully about activism and the importance of compassion and the potential corrosiveness of call-out culture.
The afternoon panel produced an intense discussion on Prison and Detention Abolition. The speaker Kelsey of Community Action on Prison Expansion (CAPE) articulately critiqued the UK government's plans to build several mega prisons across the UK, highlighting the shift in funding from support for victims of crime to prison construction. The representative of Sisters Uncut similarly addressed the massive funding cuts to support services such as domestic abuse shelters, with the government focusing its strategy on longer sentences and more police powers of arrest, simply feeding the monster that is the growing prison-industrial complex in a trend worryingly reminiscent of the U.S. More broadly, and addressing the impact on mental health of imprisonment, Kelsey asked rhetorically for the audience to imagine the experience of the convicted prisoner, being effectively kidnapped then locked in a cage and kept there for 23-24 hours a day, possibly for years; to imagine taking the worst thing you had ever done, and be defined by that forever. The panel spoke generally about the impact of incarceration on the mental health of prisoners, and their inevitable deterioration by the time they are released – the third speaker, artist, activist and scholar Nat Raha describing her work with Bent Bars and its letter-writing programme supporting LGBT-identifying prisoners in their isolation. Collectively the panel discussed the many women locked up either pregnant or as mothers, and the impact and value of such an approach to perpetrators of non-violent crimes. Yet the panel also spoke about community support programmes and facilities for both perpetrators and victims of crime that are being neglected in the UK government's drive to increase prison numbers. Citing Angela Davis and her work Are Prisons Obsolete?, the panel called for a shift from a less performative, punitive interpretation of justice, to a transformative justice system more likely to allow the perpetrator to change for the better, while also ensuring forms of appropriate support for them and the victim.
Complementing these panel discussions and closing the conference was an engaging talk with artist Natasha Ruowna and the director Campbell X about QTPOC culture, following the showing of the film Visible about QTPOC life in the UK.
I want to close this blog post by addressing the media coverage of the event, with the online versions of The Scotsman, Telegraph and Daily Mail all criticizing with near-identical articles the issue of Q&A segments open only for people of colour to make contributions. Clearly a key function of Resisting Whiteness is to create a safe place where people of colour can centre their experiences of living in a country dominated at an institutional level by white voices. For media outlets such as The Scotsman and Mail, is this request for white people to listen, rather than re-centre experience of systemic racism, really too much to ask?
Image taken from the twitter feed of Resisting Whiteness