Housing, Race and Grenfell


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8729EB76-8BAC-406C-AB1A-922F03F0F4F6  Nabhan W Uddin

At the time of writing it is 6.02am. It is dawn. ‘Hung Parliament’ has officially been confirmed. By the way, I was definitely part of the mass of people that had to search exactly what this malarkey will mean in practical governance.

I have been awake through the night, glued to three different live update sites, my appetite for politics, principles, and Party firmly growling.

I find myself reflective now. It is difficult to express. I am unsure whether I feel relief, joy, or even any sense of catharsis. Yet the overriding emotion is hope.

Returning to further education earlier this year reawakened my own political identity. I have been surrounded this past year by fellow students brimming with the effervescent zest for social justice-oriented politics.

I feel hope.

I return to my word document, and read the ‘Dear Diary’-type words I wrote in the immediate aftermath of the election results last week. I feel a bit bemused, and embarrassed, if I am honest. The initial sense of hope was premised more on the possibilities to come, rather than what a Corbyn-fronted Labour government may offer. Grenfell happened soon after. Ah, our old friends ‘hope’ and ‘possibility’.

I suppose my sense of hope initially was threaded together by the possibility of togetherness demonstrated by left-leaning demographics across the UK during the latter stages of the election campaign. There is also something more specific I want from left-leaning coverage: I hope an active movement emerges which reconciles different communities. For instance, one that brings together segregated labels which have defined ‘white working class’, or ‘black working class’ or ‘Asian working class’ as separate entities; instead, to demonstrate the shared struggle whilst also acknowledging the cultural markers which can make each community unique. You know, a subtle policy-media approach that can potentially unite and appreciate cultural heterogeneity, without the standard ‘we’re all people, why are you bringing race/religion/colour into this’ response.

But I left these thoughts in the aftermath of the election incomplete, in order that I let my emotions and thoughts sink in. The Manchester attacks shook me to my core. I am someone who has always allowed myself to feel, to absorb and…to understand. When tragedy strikes across the world, I have always found that I am ‘affected’, dazed with overwhelming melancholy: whether it’s reading about the plight of the Rohingya people; the historical injustices of colonial terrorism; the genocide in Bangladesh in 70-71. Yet I have learned to compartmentalise my emotions, for fear of feeling too much and misappropriating secondary form of PTSD. But the tangible horror of Grenfell Tower in West London seems unreal, as if it happened in some esoteric and horrific dimension in the Upside Down.

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(Photo Credit: TOLGA AKMEN/AFP/Getty Images)

In the aftermath of the election I wanted to write about the racialisation of the working class. About two years ago, I came across an interview by Immortal Technique, who spoke about the semantic division of working class people into racial categories, of which ‘white working class’ has become the most ubiquitous, and recognisable, label. The constant juxtaposition of ‘working class’ with ‘white’ seems to reinforce the notion that only white people belong to the working class. Other communities, therefore, are left instead to exist in vacuums as both liberal and conservative media create constructions of ‘immigrant’, ‘black’, ‘other’, ‘refugee’ to create misnomers for pseudo-political and cultural allegiances.

This is, and has always been, a grave and disgraceful fallacy. One of the great devices employed by the British empire was the use of ‘divide and conquer’ principle, taken from militaristic diction and employed directly in the imperial project. The 1905 Partition of Bengal divided the region into Hindu and Muslim areas, and demonstrated the power of semantic separation as a tool for cultural division through land, and consequently social power. Bengal as a unitary, physical land mass meant that there would have been political cohesion between all social groups, thereby forming a decisive opposition to British rule. But by dividing the troublesome Bengali Hindus, who continually raised objections to British rule using their middle class status, from the Bengali Muslims, who were historically part of the agrarian class, Lord Curzon’s governship of the Raj seemed secure. Despite reunification in 1911, due large part to the Swadeshi movement, the separation of the electorate demonstrated the power of ‘sowing the seeds’ of doubt. Each electorate consequently had sectarian demands in coming decades. The cultural separation between Bengali Hindu and Bengali Muslim would be severely ruptured again through Partition in 1947.

Why is this relevant? Why is referring to a historical occurrence over one hundred years ago in the distant British Raj even worth referencing? Because ‘divide and conquer’ discourse has been mechanised effectively in Britain for a long, long time. Social commentary in this country has allowed a semantic separation between ‘white working class’ and ‘other’ to habitually reinforce itself. But the class struggle between groups is shared. In this essay, I am not addressing the nascent violence perpetuated against black and brown people in this country. Propaganda has perhaps been a crucial catalyst in perpetuating nativist violence that occurs in desolate landscapes of urban Britain. This is not to assuage, or even ‘understand’ the racist violence that led to the murder of Altab Ali in 1978, the death of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, or the children of New Cross fire in 1981. It is about looking at the community struggles that are shared between each group, whether historic immigrant communities, or white British.

When you watch films such as This is England, there is a sense of joyful desolation at the landscape of each setting. East is East provides that as well, demonstrating the hard, perpendicular roads, with staggered houses. Social commentary is embedded within each act on-screen, as the racial tension of an Anglo-Asian mixed marriage is threaded alongside community culture. The most visceral touchstone into South London life has been watching Only Fools and Horses. The tower block flat of Del, Rodney, Granddad, and then Uncle Albert, was a mirror into 1980s London. Each episode highlights the communitarian spirit of wide boy entrepreneurialism, whilst hailing against the economic hardship of Thatcherism. The paradox between Del Boy’s wishful capitalism and Rodney’s student-esque socialism underpins the narrative. In the episode ‘Homesick’, Granddad collapses, and it is attributed to the exhaustion after the ‘twelve flights of stairs’. Del tries to use Rodney’s new position as the Chairman of the Tenant’s Association to secure a nice bungalow for the family. Whilst the Trotters’ machinations fail tragicomically, the desire for social mobility is ever-present.

I think that is why Grenfell felt acute, seeing the literal result of social otherisation. The intersection between race, class, and society, all immolated over the course of a few measly hours. The melancholic ‘othering’ of people, the toxic overlooking of deprivation as an oversight for social care: Grenfell still hurts. I read back on the words I wrote after the election results, and I now realise that my sense of hope isn’t premised on Corbynism as a byword for social justice fetishisation. It is instead based on grassroots work that have integrated different faiths, communities and people together. The collective work continually worked on by mosques, community centres, churches, local fund raising initiatives. The Silent Walk* is therefore a propitious tribute for the victims, and ensures that they are kept in our memories, and not forgotten. In this instance, truth and memory come together, as mourners take part in a walk, starting at Notting Hill Methodist Church, in complete silence on the 14th of every month. The fight for Grenfell is not over and will take time, patience and commitment on different fronts. The positioning of social housing in this country has been contentious: first as a means of cleansing post-war slums, and then to lump people together based postcode ‘roulette’. The ease with which cleansing can occur is absolute. Housing and identity came together in a horrific way in Grenfell. The ripples are still felt as families continue to seek justice.

*For those who wish to pay their respects to the community, the Silent Walk takes place on the every 14th of the month 6:30pm, starting the walk from Notting Hill Methodist Church.

Nabhan Wamiq Uddin: writer

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