I’m not your. . .

The Conversation about race and racism took place at Bollo Brook Youth Centre in South Acton.

It resulted in a series of significant art works produced by the young people.

Here you can find out about what happened, see two new digital examples of the art works and join the conversation.

Thoughts about this project by a young person from Bollo.

James Baldwin once wrote that “the purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers.” This has been the premise behind an art project that has been taking place at my local youth centre, Bollo Brook Youth Centre, located in South Acton, west London. The project has investigated exploring young people’s attitudes and experiences of race and racism. The youth centre is attended by a mix of young people from all walks of life, creeds and circumstances, almost entirely from ethic minorities and working-class backgrounds.

In many ways, I am a stereotypical working class, mixed race young man. I mostly wear Nike or Adidas tracksuits. My boxers are often showing. I left school with two GCSEs and am now wondering what to do with my life. My sentences are riddled with slang. I feel my life has been lived a thousand times, by thousands of people who look like me. Although despite the assumptions that many people make about young people like me – disengaged, focused on the short-term and only interested in superficial appearances – through this project, me and around 80 other young people have explored complex, contradictory and challenging concepts around race and identity.

In mainstream society, race and racism can both seem hidden, not talked about openly, or discussed at great length in well-meaning liberal circles. Growing up as a young man of mixed Irish and Kenyan heritage in Acton, race is often discussed openly amongst me and my peers, with far more fluidity and ease than most adults seem capable of. None of my friends worry about what can or can’t be said, and racial terms are thrown around as insults and compliments with little concern about causing offence. To some people this can seem shocking, but maybe it is far healthier than the quiet judgements and polite keeping a distance that prevails in a mainstream society so desperate not to be seen as racist, but also so scared of young people like me.

At the heart of the art project is a collection of recordings of interviews with young people, over 18 hours in total. These are unstructured discussions where young people talked openly with the art tutor Yasmin about race. My recording, with a Persian friend, lasted two hours. The recordings are full of hope, anger and engagement with the complexities of the subject. What remains clear is that race is very much relevant in the lives of young people today, and racism is far from dead. And whilst there are no easy answers, we have to start asking ourselves some more difficult questions.

The main piece includes, in lights, the phrase ‘I am not your nigga’. Obviously heavily influenced by James Baldwin, to most people on first impressions that might seem like a direct anti-racist statement. However, upon listening to the interviews that accompany the piece, the meaning becomes much more ambiguous. To me and other young people who took part, it can mean I am not your friend, I will not back you when you get into trouble. It is a complex phrase, and the interviews show a range of contradictory opinions on who can use the word ‘nigga’, to who and in what circumstances (if at all). It is this willingness to engage with complexity that distinguishes the interviews and the work stemming from them.

The interviews tell of young black men feeling they have the responsibility to prove themselves as ‘safe’ when entering white-dominated space, of young Somali women feeling fetishised by the Western gaze, of mixed race young people like myself feeling excluded by both white and black people alike, and of white young people feeling shut out from conversations about race whilst also suffering racial abuse themselves. These tales of modern day racism will not find easy answers in good intentions or policy changes alone. It is only by asking ourselves difficult questions about our own conditioning and the role of race in ours and others’ experiences, like we have in the project, that we can really start to understand the role of race and racism in our society.

The conversations continue. We invite you to join them.

Sonny Inglis, 18