"You Thought You'd Have Had Slaves," I Roared. "Classic. but You're Black!". (Now What?)
Booth, Lauren, New Statesman (1996)
About once a month, I get the following text: "Haven't heard from you for ages. Is it cos I is black?" To which I gleefully respond: "Yes it most certainly IS!!" The question and the response make both sender and receiver smile. We are cool with each other. In fact, sending that message has made me feel smug about my personal race relations. Except that, after a press trip to Reading Prison, a previously submerged memory has resurfaced. I wish it hadn't.
The prison was used to launch a pilot scheme giving young inmates special access to the Anne Frank Exhibition. The idea of introducing young offenders to Anne Frank's moving story was the brainchild of the political events co-ordinator Nic Careem, who, working closely with the Anne Frank Trust and the governor of the prison, Nick Leader, made the unusual event possible. If it proves successful, prisons across the country may also be granted special access to the exhibition.
The aim is to confront young men, some of them with links to right-wing organisations, with the direct consequences of racist propaganda and racially motivated attacks on the individual and on society. I spoke with one offender, no more than 19 years old, who had been trained by Holocaust survivors to act as a guide for the exhibition, and there's no doubt it has changed his views. He was as honest as he dared to be about his past, and kept assuring me that he had never been racist, in the same way an alcoholic with beer-breath will say: "I haven't had a drink today, I swear." He twisted his hands. "There's so many ethnic minorities in Britain today," he said. "There's gonna be a lot of fury, and I know that some of my friends are racist 'cos of the comments they come out with. I remember seeing an Asian shop get smashed up, stuff put through the letter box. The kids were doing that because of the Asians' colour and 'cos they spoke a different language, really." He'd been there during a racist attack and had either taken part or done nothing. …