Punch And The Devil
5 March 1985
Punch and the devil
I was driving recently to an inner-city primary school in order to give a Punch and Judy show to the infants classes, This is not, I ought to mention, something which a local government inspector for multiracial education (which is what I am, by current trade) frequently has occasion to do. On the contrary, it was several years since I had last given a performance.
I made the puppets about half a lifetime ago. I used to give performances at our family’s birthday parties, and at school fetes, church garden parties, the annual street fair in our village and so on. Nowadays, though, I am rather rusty. On my way to the primary school that afternoon I ran through the story line in my head and practised and rehearsed the various voices.
The climax is Punch’s encounter with the devil, My right hand flapped and twisted from the steering wheel as I addressed the windscreen in a high squeaky falsetto, ‘If you see the devil, children, will you let me know? He’s very horrible, he’s very evil, he’s the wickedest thing in all the world, and he’s got horns, and he’s black, and if you see him, children, will you let me know?’ (Left hand, devil-clad, floats up sinister behind Mr Punch. Pause for pandemonium, then left hand down again.) ‘No children, do please be quiet, you’re confusing me, I said I’m very frightened of the devil, everyone’s frightened of the devil, he’s very horrid, and he’s got these horns, and he’s bl...’
The car almost crashed. Not because I by now had both hands well away from the steering wheel but because I was realising with paralysing horror what I had just said, and was just on my way to saying; and worst of all, was realising the appalling inconsistency in which it was all rooted.
The term black comes to us from the past drenched in negative implications. It is wholly unacceptable nowadays, in both schools and wider society, in its metaphorical meanings from the past. More especially and more importantly the popular, religious and national culture in which it is embedded must be strenuously criticised, dismembered and reconstructed. The cultural revolution required of us has to be determined by, and has in its turn to contribute to, structural transformation.
It’s not too difficult nowadays to say and write this. But what shook me, that afternoon on my way to the primary school, was the inconsistency: on the one hand there was this local government officer publicly committed to fighting racism; and on the other there was this person saturated in, nurtured by, breathing continuous life to, racist culture.
Inconsistency along such lines is very frequent. Over and over again the left hand and the right hand are out of synch with each other; there is this schizoid double-think. We claim to be against racism, issuing and signing public policy statements and so forth, but daily collude with it, turn blind eyes to it, derive lasting benefit from it.
Inconsistencies within the single individual are serious. But far more serious are those within organisations - schools, for instance. It is these inconsistencies which we have to dismantle.
-The table on the facing page maps the overall field - the disputes and inconsistencies in which we are involved. The left hand column recalls the outlook of most of the press and the feelings and views into which most white people have been socialised. The centre column recalls - to adapt a phrase of E. M. Forster’s - ‘poor little talkative multiculturalism’. The right hand column sketches the anti- racist commitment from which, I wish to think, I am writing these brief notes.
There are two main ways in which the table is inadequate. First, it does not strongly enough emphasise that inconsistencies and disputes are inside people, for example myself, as well as between them. Second, it is rather coy, as it stands, about disputes and contradictions within the anti-racist commitment itself - the arguments which we have inside our own four walls. I suspect that progress in anti-racist teaching during the next few years is going to depend very largely on the quality and rigour of these arguments. The following six points will need to be on the agenda.
. Party politics
Many anti-racist teachers have their heart in, so to speak, the left place. However: (a) socialism is not sufficient for racism to be ended; (b) there are many worthwhile things which can be and should be done under capitalism: (c) white anti-racists are betraying black people in so far as they permit themselves to be labelled and dismissed as loonies, lefties, trendies, rent-a-crowd, etc; (d) both locally and nationally, all-party or cross-party coalitions and alliances on race are to be welcomed, not avoided.
. The white working class
There is a distinct possibility that anti-racist education will disadvantage the white working class. This is because positive action to assist black people in a competitive class society may diminish the life- white people, particularly those in the same economic class. Further, most education against fascist organisations and against racial abuse in the playground is in practice directed towards white working-class pupils. Anti-racist education must align itself with, not compete against, measures genuinely intended to benefit working-class pupils in general.
. Management and dismantling
The overall task in schools is to dismantle racism. It involves being aware of how racism operates in each separate institution. That means understanding how power-structures work and can be changed - and to do that we might have to sit at the feet of the management specialists we sometimes naively despise.
. Structural seedbeds
It is well-known that support for fascist organisations flourishes in certain particular contexts - unemployment, rootlessness, failure, loss of pride and previous identity, and so on. We need a broadly similar theory with regard to racism. Racism very often flourishes wherever there are rigid hierarchies and impersonal procedures - especially when there is sexism. These too have to be dismantled.
. Black caucuses and campaigns
At this particular stage of history it is often vital and urgent - in education as in other spheres - that certain pressure groups, campaigns, networks and caucuses should be for black people only. This realisation can in practice be painful and threatening to white people, including white anti-racists. Never-
theless we must protect and defend black people’s right to organise themselves as they wish. And of course we must not stop speaking out against racism in the forums in which there are as yet few or no black people present.
. Velvet gloves
Anti-racist education in practice may be nothing more sometimes than the rendering of injustice as palatable, gentle, acceptable. There is a frequent tendency to make the acceptable face of injustice a black face: that is, to build a black middle class to control and contain black youth, and to hold out images of success within the present unjust system. Another force behind the building of a black middle class is the tendency to buy off or mute certain activist individuals and sectional interests through the distribution of jobs, promotions, grants and patronage. One consequence of these tendencies is that white people have no right to expect or desire, let alone seek, trust and gratitude from the majority of black people.
These six points are a start, but of course there are other items for the agenda - a seventh, for example, is how to build forums where ideas like these can be seriously considered. Without such forums, and action emerging from them, brief articles like this one will remain merely private, insubstantial and unreal - like parts of a puppet show.
In the puppet show Punch is a morally repugnant figure who beats the devil and wins applause. In real life there are similarly many sins of omission and commission, and there are moral dilemmas - choices not between right and wrong, but between wrong and wrong. Also in real life, but unlike in the puppet show, applause is never lasting and conclusions never assured.