Gary Younge: ‘Racism is like a dialect’

Olivia Opara speaks with Gary Younge ahead of his appearance at Tottenham Literature Festival, which begins today

Speaker Gary Younge, credit: Jonas Mortensen

Gary Younge, an award-winning author, broadcaster and a professor of sociology at the University of Manchester, needs little introduction. Born to Barbadian parents, Gary grew up in Stevenage, Hertfordshire and briefly joined a youth socialist group as a teenager before landing a bursary to study journalism. 

Since then, Gary has been a columnist and editor-at-large at The Guardian, part of an editorial board member of the Nation magazine, an Alfred Knobler fellow for Type Media and winner of the 2023 Orwell Prize. 

In 1999, Gary wrote his first book and has since published six others including his latest Dispatches From the Diaspora. This year, he is part of the line-up for the fifth edition of the Tottenham Literature Festival.

Ahead of the festival, HCP sat down with Gary to discuss his latest book, .

The life that you have lived is one of profound experiences and revelations. From starting off as a part of a youth socialist group to landing a bursary to study Journalism and becoming a highly respected veteran in the industry – I want to firstly ask what this has all been like and how has this shaped who you are today?

The thing with journeys, especially life journeys, is that you do them one day at a time. So really each day I just thought: “What do I want to do next and what I do not want to do?” I studied languages at school and I was good at French at school and I always wanted to travel. That has always been a key part of my life. I lived in America for twelve years and [got] my [books] deal with writing from South Africa and Zimbabwe and across Europe and America. 

A week after 9/11 you were placed in the US during one of the most significant moments in its history and at a critical time of shock, grief and pain that spewed out the political, social and racial fractures that had been brewing in its society. As a Black Briton and journalist what was it like to report during such turbulent times?

In some ways it was familiar because I have been in Britain during turbulent times. I grew up at a time when there was a major war going on with Northern Ireland – so I was aware of how there are fractures within society. In a lot of ways America is not so different from Britain and in a lot of ways it is. But not in the way of the British elites who do not always know what Britain’s done and are not always aware of how people feel about Britain and then when something happens there’s a shock. In many ways – even though the issue was new – it still felt very familiar. 

You published your first book in 1999 and have since then written a range of really thought-provoking and eye-opening books and collections and I would like to ask, what made you as a well established journalist consider writing a book?

Journalism allows you to say a lot of things in a short space and a book allows you to sit with something for a bit longer and really examine it. Journalism is like having a lot of snacks and writing a book is like having a meal. 

Journalism is like having a lot of snacks and writing a book is like having a meal

The title of your second book, A Stranger in a Strange Land, is very profound as it speaks to many of us whose family relocated to a foreign country in hopes of better lives. Firstly, why did you choose to use such a title?

Well that book was a collection of my writings in America. So, I was very much a stranger in a strange land. It was a very strange time to be in America so it seemed like a very appropriate title as it said what the book was about.

In the second half of the book’s title, you describe the US as “disunited” and, after meeting with various notably Black American activists and icons such as Jesse Jackson and Maya Angelou, you noticed ironies and contradictions between their politics and their lifestyles. What was that like for you to witness and how did it make you feel as a Black Briton?

I feel like those ironies and those contradictions are not unique to America. In lots of places people live lives that are not keeping to what they say. I do think that people, in a way, expect too much of others and expect them to be consistent when life is too complicated for that. 

In No Place Like Home you explore the American South notorious for its gut-wrenching racism and racial ideologies. The racism that we experience here in the UK as Black Britons has a different dynamic, ebb and flow, that is more covert than opposed to the more blatant and cut-throat racism towards Black Americans in the US. What was it like to explore such an unforgiving form of racism and retrace the route of the original Freedom Riders of the 1960s?

It was exciting because I had read a lot about that area and that place but I had not actually seen it. So to see it in real life, to feel it and taste it, was really interesting. Racism is like a dialect, a language that everywhere speaks. There isn’t a country that does not have racism but in each place it kind of manifests itself differently. 

The blurb of the book describes how you felt culturally alienated to your native land, Barbados. This alienation from our ancestry is commonly felt amongst us who are children of migrants born in the UK especially within the Afro-Caribbean communities. Have you reconciled with this alienation and if so how? 

It’s a process and in a way that is what the book is about – looking for versions of a home, somewhere I can call home. I didn’t feel like I could call England home and so then you look for somewhere to call home, so you look to Barbados but it doesn’t really work because you really don’t know the place, have the accent or know the culture in any way. So after a while, I had a realisation that, maybe the place that I call home would be a bit more complicated. Maybe it won’t just be one place or maybe not even a place at all. It could be a culture or a feeling. So, it was something that I had to get through – I couldn’t just ignore it or will it into existence, I had to figure it out. 

How has this impacted your perception of racial and social dynamics in Europe and the Americas where a large proportion of the diaspora live?

Well everybody has to figure it out for themselves. You cannot ignore any one part of your story and I was born here [in England] and that makes a big difference to my outlook. My parents are from Barbados and that too makes a big difference to my outlook. I lived in America for twelve years, so once again it’s a big difference. 

It forces you to reckon with all the different parts of you and you can’t say that you are going to ignore that part of you because it all has an impact. If I was born anywhere else, I would think differently about race and racism. You have to engage with all them – you cannot ignore the bits that you don’t like. 

How do you feel that identity politics has changed within your own experiences now?

Well I think it has become much more vexed. Social media caffeinates and makes things  and people much more polarised, makes people more angry and all of the angry people are the loudest in a way. In another way that it has really changed is the hard right who have abused it.

When I wrote this book, the primary way in which people spoke about identity was about Islam and terrorism but now most of the terrorism comes from white supremacists.  

Your latest book, Dispatches from the Diaspora, recounts your reportage and experiences of Black people across the Diaspora – drawing upon significant historical moments. Despite, in essence, reliving turbulent, distraught and, at times, heart-wrenching times, there is this thread of hope that is encapsulated throughout the book. Do you still hold onto this hope and why?

I am a very hopeful person and that is what I do. Hope doesn’t cost you anything and you don’t have to be deluded to hope, you just have to want the best that can happen in any one moment. I choose to be hopeful and in some ways I believe that I am the product of a hopeful nature. When I was growing up, no one would have imagined that I would have the life that I did and if anyone had said that I hope that you become a professor and a journalist who interviews Maya Angelou, I would have said that they were crazy. I believe that I am the product of a certain kind of hopeful energy. 

Has this hope evolved in any way over recent years and do you believe that we should all hold onto that thread of hope?

It has become harder as things happen to make the world worse – it is harder to hope when you see the scenes from Gaza. It is harder to hope when they are trying to send refugees to Rwanda. But it is all the more important to [hold onto hope]. And I think that people have to do what works for them. [Hoping] works for me so I am not going to tell everyone else to be hopeful. I think that it is worth thinking whether or not there is anything to gain from being hopeless. 

How could people who are not Black British and do not understand the Black British experience come to understand it and be more empathetic?

There is a wealth of literature out there – there is fiction, non-fiction, children’s books and [TV] series and then there’s all the Black British people who they can talk to. They have to educate themselves and they have to do it with an open mind and an open heart. 

You mentioned literature in your response and as someone whose whole career is surrounded by writing and different forms of literature and written work, what do you think is the power behind literature – especially Black British literature?

Well I think any literature gives you the opportunity to relate to other people, to their experiences, and to another way of life. Literature can take you to places you have never been before or never go to. Literature is a vehicle for imagination and understanding the world differently. That works for any race or culture. 

The festival is being hosted here in Tottenham – do you have any connections or relation to the area?

Not really. The closest connection that I would have is that my eldest brother used to work for Bernie Grant and Bernie and his wife attended my brother’s wedding. That would be my only connection. 

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