Chip on the Shoulder

10300228_331908453624052_217828660417064844_nMinutes after this photograph was taken in the small park at the centre of leafy  De Beauvoir  (East London) a man  lolloped by on that pathway shouting “Black monkey” repeatedly.  I was the only black man in the small park which was packed with sun bathers. Everyone heard the man shouting. Nobody said a word.

A few days later I’m in the fine city of Londonderry filming in The Diamond. It’s  a roundabout with a statue slightly smaller than De Beauvior. Minutes after this photograph, the one below, was taken  a car passed by with three men inside.  One  them  shouted  “You black baIMG_5661stard.” Everyone heard it.

The interviewer (not pictured) turned and memorized the registration number. Another car pulled over. The driver wound his window down. “I’m sorry” he said.And  I replied “I know they’re not representative of the people”. His passenger leaned over  and said “I’m afraid they are. But it’s a small percentage and it’s not us.”.

Back in London I’m in a private club for creatives. Make of that what you will. I was recounting a story about  racism because these things, these events,  have an effect on my life in spite of me.    My friend, a white English person, said   “You’ve got a chip on your shoulder”. Then it must be so. It figures that the raped woman who recounts stories of sexism with a new understanding of the male has the same chip.  And the abused child who tracks  stories of abusers wiht a new understanding of adults has the same chip.  We must all have chips on our shoulders.  The nature of racism, in any culture, is startlingly visible by denial. We who see it  build sophisticated lenses to filter it. We switch on these lenses as much as we can. Toni Morrison counters the denial and enlightens “”All paradises, all utopias are designed by who is not there, by the people who are not allowed in.”

Back in London I’m in a private club for creatives. Make of that what you will. I was recounting a story about  racism because these things, these events,  have an effect on my life in spite of me.    My friend, a white English person, said   “You’ve got a chip on your shoulder”. Then it must be so. It figures that the raped woman who recounts stories of sexism with a new understanding of the male has the same chip.  And the abused child who tracks  stories of abusers with an understanding of adults has the same chip. And the  child brought up in care with a new understanding of beaurocracy has the same chip.  We must all have chips on our shoulders.  The nature of racism, in any culture, is startlingly visible by denial. We   build sophisticated lenses to filter it and we switch them on as much as we can. I should end on Toni Morrison    “”All paradises, all utopias are designed by who is not there, by the people who are not allowed in.” Toni Morrison. – See more at:


23 thoughts on “Chip on the Shoulder

  1. Dear Lemn
    I am heartbroken and furious on your behalf again and again ,over and over for these ignorant,cowardly abuses hurled at you. Graceful you are in yor reactions to them, though weary you must be and defeated,yes.
    I hope our paths cross again soon,it’s been far too long since they Jane x

    • Dearest Jane,

      You are an incredible person. Always. Thanks for writing me. Let’s meet up. I’ll email you. Mind you, I have a beard. The woman who said I “have a chip on my shoulder” nonetheless I respect. Nonetheless. Race seems to make people seek an immediate opinion and/or solution. I don’t have an immediate opinion nor a solution but I look at it (racism) and see how mercurial, shape-shifting and occasionally transparent it can be. It wears clever camouflage, it merges into all classes and ALL races. Though we are not born racist. It is subconsciously learned and must be consciously unlearned. That is what makes it difficult for the carriers to identify and kill it. Up until then the receivers must name it. XL

  2. I’m always really shocked when I read things like this… it just seems like it’s a throwback to the 50s or 60s…and yet, as I have just read, it clearly isn’t. I live in a village in Nottinghamshire and my husband and I travel to Loughborough, Leicestershire regularly as it’s the nearest place for good shopping having a market twice a week, etc. It’s wonderful there… Chinese, Pakistanis, Indians, not many Africans or West Indians I have to admit, but there are also a fair few folk from Eastern Europe too…and it’s great because I NEVER hear any racist remarks or see any overt racism. (I say ‘overt’ because there is possibly covert racism that I never see or hear). Mostly the various groups work and relax together with their own culture… but there are plenty of groups that are racially mixed and they’re relaxed and at ease with each other.

  3. It makes me furious and sad that there are still people who feel it is their right to spread hatred and poison in such a cowardly way, or in any way. There is clearly still a lot of work to do but thank you for sharing your story. In the meantime, continue to be your brilliant self and keep speaking up so that we can stand together to ensure that this insidious hatred does not go unchallenged. Lizzie

  4. Hello Lemn, just to say I first heard of you through the first World Book Night a number of years ago and have since, really enjoyed your poems, blogs, the project in Greenwich etc. Very saddening to read this. I am a black Londoner via Bournemouth and whilst your experience saddens me, I understand the lack of sensationalism with which you write. Sadly racial prejudice, meanness live on. I was in another part of the UK last weekend and whilst watching England – Italy, because I dared to say “come on England”, I was (mildly, to be fair) racially abused. I asked the person who made the comment what exactly their issue was, my sister rightly advised that sometimes, it’s not worth taking these things up. However, I find it hard to rest while people think it’s okay to comment like so. On recounting the incident to a friend, I didn’t get told I had a chip on my shoulder, but they were not so comfortable with this reality. It wasn’t personal to my friend because they are the same colour as the person who made the comment, no I was merely recounting the facts of the case. It might be more comfortable to bury our heads in the sand, or to imagine that people are “too sensitive” or don’t understand what banter is. The truth is less convenient than that. Out of interest – are you a ketchup or a mayo man? I like my chips triple fried – just sayin’

    • To answer the last question first but not straight away. With fishfingers for example I’m all about the ketchup. But with chips I’m afraid I’m totally mayo. I came across the chips mayo combo in my first tours of Germany and Holland at 21 years old. I was so shocked that I submitted. I’m a northerner. It was always ketchup or HP sauce up until then. now I like the way the chip scoops the mayo, the contrasts of colour. Maybe I’m taking it too far. On the less tasty or attractive subject of racism. Yes we choose our moments when to say and when not to. In truth more often than not I don’t say anything. I get my kicks on route sixty six. Because I don’t say anything doesn’t mean I don’t do anything about it. I have my own ways of fighting racism and it has little to do with the racist. I fight the ninja way. We needn’t be linear about our responses or binary. We needn’t feed the beast or paint the car crash so passing cars can slow down in wonder transfixed by the event and wondering how it happened. There are other ways. The BLOG is one of them. Here’s the thing: racism, like bitterness, rots the vessel that carries it. Most of all I have pity for the racist in all races.

  5. Dear Lemn,
    Thank you for sharing your experiences of the many ways we are complicit in racism. Your account is inspiring, challenging and shameful. We all need to challenge unquestioned racism. Cultural assumptions of superiority are deeply embedded, as you witness almost daily. This is not to be tolerated. It takes brave individuals to stand out from the crowd and hold up a steady mirror to let others see the abuse. Racism reduces and diminishes us all but maybe this corrosive effect is less so for those folk who speak out? Of course you don’t have a chip on your shoulder Lemn – in fact you carry a great deal on those shoulders.
    Thank you,

    • Thankyou Isobel. It’s worth knowing that racism is a cross cultural phenomenon. I don’t at all think it’s a black white thing and you haven’t assumed that I do think it’s a black white thing. I just want to see is all.

  6. Hello Lemn,
    I am sorry that you must deal daily with such a overt version of it. That must suck to constantly have to think about other peoples ignorant prejudices. The world is full of the un-traveled.

    You have helped me – the total non poet – with your poetry. I began writing music (again) after some 10 years of ? Your lines inspire melody. Can you see how your artistic output benefits others?

  7. When I look at you I do not see your colour I just a brilliant poet and human being.
    When I look at the racist all I see is the racist.

  8. I love your beard.

    I’m staggered that someone responded to your experience with the “chip” remark.

    Are shouts of a racist nature more prevalent now than say ten years ago?? I would say YES. I don’t know on what I’m basing this opinion on but if I’m right, then why??

    • Hi Dave. That’s a really interesting question. The man swearing in London was Eastern European and the man in Derry was from Northern Ireland. Both of them are coping with the reality of immigration from different perspectives. The Eastern Europeans are not used to seeing so many black people and they can find it difficult to square the circle of recieved opinion with actual reality and Northern Ireland is in a kind of shock that so many visible immigrants are there. It’s an irony that both of these places are each an island. They depend on immigration to stop in breeding. That is an anthropological fact for every person in this world. But this is no different to my childhood in the seventies and eighties. Is it better or is it worse? It’s better than it was Dave. For all these incidents Britain is the most progressive place in Europe regarding race relations and possibly one of the best places in the world for how it deals with racism.

  9. You may not agree on some of these but Shoghi Effendi (whose burial ground is at the outskirt of London) has said the following: “The recrudescence of religious intolerance, of racial animosity, and of patriotic arrogance; the increasing evidences of selfishness, of suspicion, of fear and of fraud; the spread of terrorism, of lawlessness, of drunkenness and of crime; the unquenchable thirst for, and the feverish pursuit after, earthly vanities, riches and pleasures; the weakening of family solidarity; the laxity in parental control; the lapse into luxurious indulgence; the irresponsible attitude towards marriage and the consequent rising tide of divorce; the degeneracy of art and music, the infection of literature, and the corruption of the press; the extension of the influence and activities of those “prophets of decadence” who advocate companionate marriage, who preach the philosophy of nudism, who call modesty an intellectual fiction, who refuse to regard the procreation of children as the sacred and primary purpose of marriage, who denounce religion as an opiate of the people, who would, if given free rein, lead back the human race to barbarism, chaos, and ultimate extinction—these appear as the outstanding characteristics of a decadent society, a society that must either be reborn or perish.” WOB, Page 206

  10. To be honest Lemn, when I saw the first photo on your facebook page, I saw two white children fascinated by your Blackness and your afro hair. I didn’t judge that as negative, more of a childlike curiosity. Unfortunately, growing up in the Caribbean I often saw that same type of fascination morph into something less innocent. British tourists, whose curiosity, to me, felt more like they were visiting a zoo of “exotic creatures”, rather than simply embracing and enjoying (in a non-sexual manner) the beauty of difference, seemed like these children, but armed with societal prejudices. It is hard for me to remove my “chip” from my shoulder when I am named after one of the last slaves in my family, and when I have grown up being treated as some exotica, or equally distasteful – some mixed breed mutt. Racism is ugly, and goes beyond derogatory words, and even institutional oppression. It is a cancer of the heart and mind that robs the non-white, and especially Black person, of the ability to simply wake without consideration of one’s ethnicity – a luxury mostly affordable to whites. Sorry. Until I can afford the same luxury, I guess whites will have to bear the burden of my chip

  11. Dear Lemn

    As a black African-Caribbean woman of mature years. I’m fed up (but not shocked) at the resurgence of ‘chip on the shoulder’ phrase/remark. I used to hear it a lot in my childhood and youth. I came to the UK with my parents as a toddler. I hold a British passport and have no ‘wish to go back home’. I know where ‘home’ was and have visited but it’s not my home. I’ve lived in London for most of my life, only recently moving to the coast.
    I believe the resurgence of the phrase ‘chip on the shoulder’ is due to the denigration of political correctness, a certain political party who want to leave the EU, that has given some people the permission to voice their more negative views and a general deterioration in tolerance post 9/11 and 7/7. I have never been a fully signed up member of the very strict political correctness brigade in that I did feel it stifled some conversation which may have begun on shaky if not somewhat racist ideological grounds, however, these conversations often led to a better understanding of racism and how it is perpetuated etc., by all involved. Yet, political correctness did seem to protect some individuals from day to day casual racism and the more abusive and deliberately aimed barbs similar to those which you recently experienced. So it is unfortunate that ‘chip on the shoulder’ is once again in use as a phrase which in my opinion is designed to deny racism and the effects of racism on both BME’s and white people.

    Bernadette Hawkes copyright 25 06 2014

  12. Lemn, i saw you last night in Redbridge- I sat at the back (bald bruce willis look-a-like…ha!) we briefly had eye contact at the buffet! I am a new foster parent (since Jan14) to a 16 year old who has lost both her parents. Last night you made me laugh and cry in equal measure, you captivated young and old with your story and your poetry….we all talked about you on the way home (I have 18 yr old twins) the way you congratulated all the kids, goofed for photos….gave of yourself. I wanted to congratulate you but had to go. One thing struck me, like an epiphany last night. The badge of being fosterd that they may sometimes want to hide should be worn bold and proud. We are all a special family – ONE BIG FAMILY…it really struck me. You are helping promote this love, this connection. And about the racism, my best friend is Black, im middle-class white, i only really experienced racism as i lost my hair from age 25 “you bald ***” i have had shouted at me many times, for various reasons over the years….ive realised mans weakness is the need to find the slightest “difference” and maginify that into a reason to hate….black/bald/skinny/fat/ugly/beautiful…..all valid reasons for the racist…and all reasons for a person who is on the revieving end to rise above and know that they are the better person. Ok time to read your book! 🙂 regards Tony

  13. Racism and bullying are the same off-spring of the same parents, it’s tends from two complexes – inferiority complex and superiority complex, both stems from fear and the need to dominate and not to be dominated. The inferior racist is insecure and needs someone to measure himself against to make him feel superior. The superior racist suffers from an overwhelming need to retain dominance – he feels threatened by educated or rich people of other race. Wholesomeness and racism are mutually exclusive, hence, to some extent, you need to pity the racist. I also noticed that racism is pure ignorance and a choice to remain ignorant. People who have traveled the world tends to be very inclusive. They understand diversity and celebrate the differences we have. The racist is ignorant and can’t see beyond his nose. He’s a coward that is afraid of change and can’t explore something new and different from what he’s used to.

    However, I need to state here that there is also racial bias – that may not be racism. For instance, I will not trust a Nigerian like myself with money and some other things. I’m I racist against my own country men? I am biased based on experience. I have been duped my people from a certain Eastern European country about 3 times in a row. If I am biased again them in future, does that make me a racist. I don’t think so. Hence, some of our black people have given us bad names in the past, so if some whites are weary and biased, does that make them racist. We probably should know the difference – it’s a fine line, but it’s there.

  14. “The nature of racism, in any culture, is startlingly visible by denial.” One of the most brilliantly accurate things I have ever read and will never forget.

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