The Community Community

I said it first, I said it first. Okay no I didn’t, because people don’t write Observer columns in ten minutes – but I said it before I saw this.

…and so, it was reported, there was great excitement in ‘the HIV community’, just as a subsequent debunking of the claim led to equal disappointment, also in ‘the HIV community’. Now, given that there are 40 million people in the world with HIV infection, you might think it improbable that, for instance, an orphaned baby in Malawi is doing a lot of communing with a drag queen in Chelsea or a junkie on the streets of Chicago. But never mind; the merry shorthand that parcels them together went unchallenged, as it always does.

This is what I’m saying.

Not an eyebrow was raised when a recent BBC broadcast, reflecting upon violence in Birmingham, included three phrases used within the same minute: ‘the black community’, ‘the Asian community’ and – or should we say but? – ‘white people who live in the area’.

Yes it was, yes it was – my eyebrow shoots up and down like an elevator at lunch hour. I did do some eyebrow-lifting about ‘community’ talk and the Birmingham riots.

The word trips lightly off the tongues of politicians, police and media. We have ‘the Muslim community’, ‘the gay community’, ‘the international community’ (fabulous oxymoron that it is, but it was used twice on yesterday’s Today programme)…If there is any rational intent behind the abuse of the term, it’s probably that it’s meant to sound warm, cuddly and inclusive…In fact, it is the antithesis of inclusive; it is the wholly artificial creation of a single entity by those who, almost by definition, live outside it.

Yes, but it’s then picked up by the people who live inside it. It works as a kind of crowbar or grappling hook to extract ‘respect’ and unctuous attention from those who live outside it.

By the same token, I suggest that there might be a man or a woman, somewhere in, say, Bradford, with four drops of two-generations-old Pakistani blood in their veins and whose self-perception is that they are, first and foremost, superb doctors or great golfers or even – imagine the thought! – British. But if they live within a stone’s throw of the murder of a police officer, and any among this weekend’s vox-popping cameras catches them in the street, you can bet your last rupee that their broadcast views will be introduced with: ‘Members of the Asian community are concerned…’ Thus are brown citizens categorised, with the gabbiest among them – often with no other discernible qualification, let alone election to office – equally carelessly branded ‘community leaders’.

Well exactly, exactly, exactly. People can be (and are) first and foremost anything and everything, and they don’t always feel like being grabbed and bundled into the ‘Asian community’ box. And as for the unelected unqualified ‘community leaders’ – well, we know. We’ve discussed this quite a lot.

Officials, reporters and commentators would, no doubt, feel uncomfortable with stark words like ‘black’ or ‘brown’ which, in truth, are often all they really know of their subjects (although, as noted, there seems to be no difficulty with ‘white people who live in the area’). Nevertheless, they need to find a better way to ease their discomfort than by enrolling complete strangers into ‘communities’ to which they may have no wish to belong and which might not, even, exist.

Well said.

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