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  • Writer's pictureBen Westwood

The slave trade seemed to end, but did we ever really get to its roots? -Discrimination and stigma

It's 2023, a time where supporting people to have their common rights has been a constant battle for some but perhaps still fair to say has led to some successes and progression for some. Most young people these days are conscious of the effects of racism, sexism, homophobia and the like, and are encouraged to help prevent it. But I can tell you for a fact that within the population of children in care and care leavers, there are those like I was went on to experience either life on the streets or some other form of hidden homelessness. For me personally my life on the streets was as a kid and then I progressed to living in squats as I turned sixteen and was in London, but in one way or another there were many others such as myself that eventually became drifters, just searching for a sense of belonging and making the most out of whatever situations they'd found themselves in I suppose. Ya know, then I was much happier, I didn't really know much different and had been enjoying some of the worlds that some of societies misfits had created for themselves. But it wasn't until I'd tried to live the life by the way that everybody else had seemed to be living and expected of me that I realised the true levels of stigma towards people like myself that grew up in a reality that not everybody else around is familiar with.

Not that I've seen any statistics (I'm going to try and research it though and write a follow up article on this I think) but I can only presume at the moment from personal experience that there is a phenomenal amount of people from backgrounds like myself that are constantly in and out of different employment because of the 'symptoms' and 'side effects' of such unspoken about discriminations which despite not being unique to only care leavers and the homeless have severe impacts on an individuals interactions and outcomes in the world.

Unlike racism, sexism and homophobia - currently those with backgrounds like myself in many ways were historically labelled as the vagrants and criminal classes of society and it could be felt by some that a lot of people are respected enough to have a chance to fight for that voice, but not us.

There are some great decisions and recognitions being made at the moment by campaigners for children in care and care leavers, but the purpose of this article is to emphasise that the headline quotes and mere mention of those stigmas is a great baseline but more people really need to want to understand it on a deep level for it to create any real change with our interactions with the world. The stigma and discrimination really needs to be looked under a microscope by society to understand how it can frequently happen and have severe effects on many peoples lives.

Unfortunately I've only come to learn from experience that not only do I believe that the disregarding, underestimating and devaluing is very real, but my naïve hope of thinking that proving people otherwise would get them onside was too often met with the opposite sort of resistance. Of course not by everybody, but by enough to be complicit in the needless outcomes that lead us to put up and shut up or walk for the doors.

Eventually after many years of being happy and oblivious to it you come to learn what its really like to become the scapegoat, the one few really ever believe or feel is worth listening to and can have anything to offer. Some can become shining examples of great outcomes for care leavers and the former homeless but I believe that there is also a huge number of people that spend their lives struggling to understand what exactly has been happening to them and why their realities are what they have been. It can be so widespread that it's enough to send a person completely baffled and in complete shock of their sense of reality. Not so much that it happens to them but more so the feelings after all of the results. There's no smoke without fire some might said, too much drama not for him to be the problem, but what if a person genuinely doesn't deserve it time after time? And let's talk about where few want to go, what exactly has been happening to some of them? Well I'm about to get deep here, but what I'm proposing is that although governments and people that are able to influence society need to play their part in helping to change this, I believe this is in fact something much deeper embedded in the human consciousness that needs to be shone under a spotlight. Perhaps it's important to remember that it was only a few hundred years ago that both black and white slaves, as well as those from other races were deemed as a legitimate means of degrading, exploiting and gaining profit.

Many of the slaves from Europe consisted of what were deemed the outcasts of society, orphans, the mentally ill as well as prostitutes, the criminal classes and those deemed as vagrants. For centuries it had been widespread ethos that it was acceptable for such people to be exploited and abused by those with power and societal influence. Back in the 1600's many of London's street children were being sent to America several months before the first shipment of African captives arrived in 1619. They'd been rounded up from around the streets of St Pauls and held in Bridewell just off Fleet Street. The scheme was supported by James I, who believed the homeless and itinerant of London were spreading plague. A PR offensive was launched to promote the round-up as giving the underprivileged a chance of a new life. Convicts were also transported and sold, supposedly to give them a second chance. Source - Daily Mail - In my honest opinion I really don't feel that we've totally got rid of that thing within us that can still make people believe to this very day that people from backgrounds like myself are just there to be exploited and be the scapegoat. There can often be no way out of those situations without having problems with the law or just walking away because those that still hold that spirit of exploitation know all to well that often we're the last to be acknowledged and believed and that it's simply just not embedded into the framework of our culture currently, not until more people that recognise these things are a part of some of the more important processes and decisions. No matter what some of us say to stand our ground, we get told that we're simply paranoid and that the battles we face must be in our head whilst everything around actually does start going to sh*t. And we'll be the first ones deemed worthy to be first out of the door. How could they possibly benefit from keeping on the former street kid, right?

Once people do find out that you were right all along with your warnings or expressions don't expect them to come back with apologies or a thank you because this really isn't how it all works, people are often well too attached to their egos for any of that and often no matter what people like myself do to try and prove our worth and capabilities, the credit rarely comes.

So once legislation regarding the slave trade came into fruition in the 1800's, considering it had been partaken in that form for at least three centuries and other forms for much longer, for all of our claims of advancement could it be worth acknowledging that there is still a lot of work to do beneath the obvious surface and our self-stroking of feeling completely righteous and charitable?.

It can manifest itself in many different ways from being spoken to like your a five-year old to being the one doing all of the work for other peoples credit. I know a lot of people really won't want to believe it and despite the great spirit of people out there that show genuine love and connection towards those from lives like myself I truly believe that there are a large number of others that in many ways see people like myself as a subspecies of human. Those in denial will call it a mental health problem or an anxiety whilst others will silently understand.

I suppose it would of been a typical clique back in the eighties and nineties for black man to feel that people could either be wary around them or deem them worthy of being the sadist entertainment. For some black comedians it even became a common stand-up joke about some lady being frightened of a big black man she was crossing paths with, but this also happens to people such as myself too. Not everyone feels that they know or understand you when you've got dreadlocks which can manifest itself in a variety of first-impressions but it's mostly the label of being a 'druggie' I think people have. Unless you're more of the middle-class and well groomed type, it can be hard for people to see you as anything more a lot of the time, and so obviously that can make some people feel quite wary of you.

A question to men from other racial backgrounds different to my own, I'd love to know, did some of you also find you took extra efforts back in the day to try and make it obvious that you were well-intentioned. Obviously it's nice to be genuinely friendly for no reason at all at the base of things, but it's just one of the millions of side effects from general stigmas and discriminations people can face. Gay folk would have and still do sometimes to this day experience the same stigma in a way that manifests itself as being deemed a sexual threat to straight men, a situation that although seems to have gained more understanding and acceptance has always been obvious to a lot of people.

For those like myself, the wariness and automatic devaluation and discrediting alone can add up to the feeling of being a complete alien to society. But as for the slave trade ending, what did all those company owners do afterwards? I'm not proposing that I know the answer to that, but in the business world there are all sorts of situations that may be deemed reminiscent of being related to the slave trade but might not be always be immediately obvious.

Despite some of the great support and charity work out there that is completely essential for a wide variety of reasons, sometimes this essence I speak of can come in the form of complete business structures such as the recent highlighting of corporate financial abuse of children from the care system in regards to housing benefit and supporting funding scandals.

I've also noticed a pattern which I believe needs to be much thoroughly explored of huge wades of people with lived experience often being the first ones muscled out and stitched up in not only professional roles but even volunteer situations. In one of my previous jobs as an emotional support practitioner for a children's home company, there'd not only been completely fabricated reports that I'd failed to assist or even be there during certain events and I'd noticed that by the time I'd left the company not long after being there myself either one of the four care leavers including myself had remained.

There are plenty of other examples too of how something about people like myself that can trigger that elitist mentality from some people at times. It can feel like everyone wants a pop. But it can of course have its advantages because it means the mask slips off a lot sooner from a lot of people around those like myself in numerous different ways. I question to friends, people I know and even those who support me professionally if I come across as a weirdo because now it has seeped deep into me that I must do, but they tell they don't see it which is a positive at least I suppose. I was going to save this message for the book, but with it being a 90,000 word project so far I'm really not too sure how long it will take to complete, and there's a deep ache in me to send this message out despite knowing that not many will even read it. Is the problem me instead though? Please don't doubt for a second that I question it and have my faults, but I wouldn't even know how to answer it if I tried. But if it was, then the only thing holding me back from personal progression is peoples refusals to tell me, and I feel that's the same for a lot of people. A lot of these so called respectable adults will simply close their ears, they don't want to hear it and they don't want to stop it. Ask why you receive such treatment with no deep and real explanation and you'll be the troublemaker, you're peace counts for nothing when people invalidate the stigma. And that's what people like me are up constantly against, a series of losing battles of realising 'Shit, I really am the scapegoat here'. The only way to not feel a victim is by finding a way somehow to fight for this change that's needed, so what if they'll have to find other forms of entertainment from now on, f**k the status quo I'm a human being! Some of it regarding people from lives like myself can be the feeling of not having 'home' in the sense of not just a familiar house or immediate family but a sense of always being the person that walks into a pub and everyone turns their heads and questions who this foreign alien actually is. Again, perhaps the dreadlocks don't help one bit with that and I guess there would be many people say that I don't do too well at blending in. But I also wonder, who else is this happening to? Having noticed both familiar elements of people being wary around black people back in the day as well as the patronising mentality that can be pushed on people with disadvantages it gets me thinking - is this just what happens when you've decided to be yourself, not keep your head down and try to shine bright?

Whatever the reason, it is ESSENTIAL that the stigmas and discriminations that children in care, care leavers as well as those experiencing homelessness face are fully recognised to more than just short descriptions.

Another part of me wonders how much of a psychological relationship there is between people from backgrounds like myself and the policing and prison industrial complex. With around a quarter of the UK's total prison population being people that were once in care it might not actually be too conspiratorial to wonder like other industries how much funding could be completely wasted on projects, investigations and even the monitoring of some of us as with what has been well-documented in the mainstream media with police investigations regarding environmental activists as well as a story I remember where undercover police had infiltrated a group of old people doing an environmental campaign. Even a pensioner in Brighton I knew was put on a domestic extremist list by the Met Police's Public Order Intelligence Unit for turning up at anti-war demonstrations and sketching the scenes with a pencil.

Perhaps few want to believe that it has become too popular to want to make a business somehow out of people from backgrounds like myself, and it can be across the board in a wide number of ways. Even when I was framed by two Met police officers over a decade and a half ago and had tape recorded it as well as dialling 999, once the police officers themselves were the ones in the dock under a perverting the course of justice charge I remember clearly how the quotes had been written in the media about me being a person that nobody would believe or cared about. So people are already aware of this phenomenon, but it needs to be more widely explored and acknowledged. The stigma is real.

Thanks for reading.


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