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Tag Archives: equality

You know how I almost started this post? With a standard disclaimer – “Although I found some of Paris Brown’s comments offensive…”, “Although I do not condone racism or homophobia…” – something like that. Because, yes, some of what she said was blatantly prejudiced and offensive. Words have power. When she casually uses the word “pikey”[1] to mean cheap, dirty, or criminal, it is another piece of hurtful rubbish being hurled at travellers, an already marginalised community[2]. When she uses the word gay as an insult and calls people “fags”[3], around peers who might or might not be gay, bi, or trans, she might be contributing to the shockingly high figures for mental health problems, self-harm and suicide in LGBT young people[4]. Not that one teenage girl could ever be held responsible for issues that large; not that any one person, regardless of age or gender, could ever be held responsible for issues that large.

And here’s where I start having problems. Paris’s comments upset me far less than, say, some of David Starkey’s speeches. A respected historian and political commentator, Starkey has written multiple books on the Tudors, appears regularly on BBC programs Question Time and The Moral Maze, and has written articles for the Telegraph. Shortly after the London Riots he claimed on Newsnight that white young people were becoming black, causing them to behave violently and anti-socially[5]. But no one has forced him to give up his job. And it hasn’t occurred to anyone to suggest that no middle aged white men should hold positions of power because of his actions. Similarly, Boris Johnson’s racist comments in the past (his description of the Queen being welcomed in commonwealth countries by “flag waving piccaninnies” or his suggestion when Tony Blair considered a trip to the Congo that “the tribal warriors will all break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief”[6]) have not stopped him from holding political office.

I wonder, if Paris was older, wealthier, a respected politician, whether we would be having these conversations. Because right now, it feels like she lost her job for being a teenage girl, rather than because we do not allow people who make unacceptable comments to have jobs in politics, media, or policing for the rest of their lives. Young people can have a voice, but only at the discretion of the adult authorities, and only as long as they make no mistakes, is the message that I’m hearing at the moment, and I don’t like it.

But didn’t I want her to take responsibility for her actions? Do I really want the writer of those tweets officially representing young people? Yes, I did. I wanted an apology of some kind. I wanted a sign that she really had learnt better since then – that she understands why her language was a problem, and is working on whatever prejudices she still has. We’re all imperfect, we’re all prejudiced, we all make mistakes, learn new things. If she’d written them while holding her position, I might feel differently, but those tweets were written up to three years ago, when she was fourteen[7]. I’m not saying fourteen year olds don’t know better. I’m saying people’s opinions and attitudes change with time, and maybe we should allow for that.

You might have noticed, if this is a story you’ve followed in detail, that I haven’t mentioned her posts about drugs and alcohol. These things are completely different. Racism and homophobia; going out drinking, trying weed or ecstasy a few times. I don’t want racism and homophobia being fed into the police as “what young people believe”. But, a normal teenage experience does include some amount of experimentation with alcohol, and, yes, illegal drugs. Not everyone does it (strangely enough, teenagers are individuals who behave in different ways!). But a large number do. I don’t, genuinely don’t, think that makes her worse at advising the police on young people’s issues. In fact, it might make her better informed on, say, how illegal drug use among young people could be reduced without alienating teenagers from the police. It makes me hugely angry that a large amount of the reporting on this conflates the two, both inflating the importance of her having been drunk, stoned or high, and trivialising the racism and homophobia.

Paris has resigned. I wonder how hard it will be for her, now, to get a job in politics, media, policing, the third sector or public sector. I wonder if she gave up educational opportunities to take on that job, which will make it harder for her to find work for the rest of her life. But as much as one more young person joining the unemployment queue fills me with sympathy, it’s not the only thing that worries me. It is not yet clear whether another teenager will be recruited for the youth police commissioner role, or whether that entire scheme will now be scrapped. I doubt we’ll ever know what impact it has on wider issues; lowering the voting age to sixteen, anyone taking the UK Youth Parliament seriously ever again, opportunities for young people to voice their opinions in charities, schools, and local government over the next few months and years. That’s what this is about, really, as far as I’m concerned. Our voices being threatened, again.

This Friday a group of British Youth Council volunteers joined other young people at an Equality 4U event in Stafford. The event’s purpose was to explore four key human rights campaigns. For more information about the event itself please see its website, or see the article going up on the British Youth Council’s website about the event. Of course, a single day isn’t nearly enough time to discuss any of these topics. It was an eye-opener. A starting point for conversations, and ideas.

We split up into four distinct work-shops, one for disability rights, one for BME[1] rights, one for women’s rights, and one for LGBT[2] rights. It’s a reasonably good way of dividing the conversations for a one day course. But in real life, people aren’t that simple. Many, maybe even most, people could identify as more than one of those things. How about a Black, gay man, who faces racism from some elements of the LGBT community, homophobia from some members of the Black community, and both from some other people? Or a women with disabilities, at greater risk of domestic violence than a woman without disabilities[3], but not able to access many rape crisis centres and women’s spaces?

There are already groups who are working on issues of equality that affect people with different identities. One of these is PISSAR, or People in Search of Safe and Accessible Restrooms, which was started by students at the Universityof California, to improve bathroom accessibility. The group is largely made up of people who don’t conform to gender norms, people with disabilities, and people who care for small children. They also recognise how important access to toilets is for street homeless people, but don’t have any plans to help solve that yet. A copy of the PISSAR checklist is up online here. Briefly, it includes whether the toilet is in an isolated space, whether it is fully accessible (grab rails, height of soap and pad/tampon dispensers, width of doors, etc), whether there are gender-neutral toilets, and whether there is a changing table. By refusing to ignore issues that are awkward or embarrassing, or to see these issues as trivial, they are tackling problems that are too often sidelined or overlooked.

For a lot of people, it’s easy to assume that any bathroom we use will fit our needs. But for some of the members of this group, that’s not the case.

From my experience, issues of inequality and oppression can often work like this, affecting things most of us are never even aware of. Why would you notice the width of stalls, or height of soap dispensers, if you don’t use a wheelchair, and haven’t helped a friend or family member who uses a wheelchair to cope with public toilets? If no one you know is gender non-conforming, and is hassled in single gender spaces because their gender is confusing or hard to read, gender specific toilets would never seem problematic to you. And if you’ve never been a single dad, would it occur to you to worry if there are only changing tables in women’s toilets? Maybe this all seems a bit over-the-top too you, or petty, or just not as serious as real politics. But all of these issues are stupidly important to people’s ability to get on with their normal lives.

If we can find all of these issues in something as mundane as toilets, how many other invisible issues must there be? I want to shine a light on those problems. I want to talk about them. And, maybe more importantly, I want to listen, and learn to notice the world around me more. Because if we don’t even see the inequality in the world we live in, and the things we do every day, how can we begin to tackle these issues?


[1] BME stands for Black and Minority Ethnic. It was the term used by the event. I’ve been told that some people find the wording problematic, preferring to use Black as an umbrella term, or marginalised peoples, or People of Colour. But I’m not confident enough of that to re-phrase it, especially as I wouldn’t be sure what to change it to.

[2] LGBT stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender. It has been adapted and extended into a variety of acronyms, including LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual) and the more memorable and pronounceable QUILTBAG (Queer, Undecided, Intersex, Lesbian, Transgender, Bisexual, Asexual, Gay)

[3] According to Scapegoat by Katharine Quarmby