There is an old English children’s rhyme that goes like this:
“…Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me…”
That rhyme spontaneously came to mind recently while watching coverage on German TV of the violence that marred the recent Notting Hill Carnival in the UK. The carnival, initiated in 1964 in protest of discriminatory actions and racism expressed against immigrants and people of color, has meanwhile become a joyous celebration. With its distinct Afro-Caribbean flavor, it attracts visitors of all colors to join in the merriment. This year, however, a group of violent young people attacked the police, leaving many officers and some revelers wounded. In a country where violent crime amongst young males has soared in recent months, this is just one more alarm signal heralding a situation gone seriously awry.
What caught my attention about the coverage, though, was how the German newscaster described the young men involved. They were members of ‘Randgruppen’, i.e. disadvantaged or marginal groups. People on the outer edges of – in this case: British – society.
In other words, the disaffected children of immigrants and/or people of color.
We all feel we know what he meant, and that is what worries me. What makes them so ‘marginal’? Their economic status or the color of their skin? Their educational backgrounds or their ethnicities? Above all, to what extent does keeping them pushed to the fringes of society – even linguistically – mold public expectation of them, as well as their expectations of themselves?
There are enough example of black and brown people in the UK and elsewhere who have achieved a certain status within their adopted countries. They have businesses of their own or successful careers. They are well-liked in their communities and seem to have made their peace with the duality of their identity.
I would consider myself part of that latter group, but openly admit that it is very troubling to me to realize that – in many people’s eyes – people like me will always remain ‘marginal’ in their world. No matter what accomplishment I count as my own, and no matter how well I integrate myself, at ‘face value’ I’m still not a part of the collective ‘us’, but eternally one of ‘them’.