I think I first read about ‘agency’ when I was thirteen, but it was only when, aged fifteen, I was stopped and searched for the first time, that I really understood what it meant to lose it.
To be stopped is to suffer a relegation from the law-abiding citizenry to the criminal fraternity. You feel acutely and powerfully aware of the eyes of passers-by, people who you will never meet again but who will always remember you as a ‘suspicious character’.
To be stopped is to become briefly and utterly classless; middle-class vowels and a university education, often my passport to better service in a restaurant, speedy reimbursement on a train, or mutual recognition at a party, don’t mean anything when you are being frisked in a public street by someone who in that moment has absolute authority.
To be stopped is to be incarcerated in the open air. The search ends when it ends. I have been searched in quiet streets at the dead of night and in the middle of the day. I can’t tell you which of the two is worse; the quiet dread that you could be there indefinitely, or the feeling that people who would otherwise respect you will permanently hold your face in their minds as an image of ‘the criminal’ to be recalled whenever there is a murder or a robbery on the news.
I don’t know how many times I have been stopped and searched. But I do know that it is an experience that not one of my university friends has ever undergone and is ever likely to undergo, because they are white, and I am not.
But fortunately, it turns out that this means I can say whatever the hell I like about white people apparently, without any fear of reprisal, because I ‘can’t’ be racist, at least according to the vast edifice of Diane Abbott apologia that has been erected on the Internet today.
Those defending Abbott’s ‘divide and rule’ tweet seem to think racism is only wrong because it is the expression of thinking prejudice from the powerful to the powerless. Actually, racism is wrong because it is the expression of prejudice. The language of generalisation is harmful because it is the language of generalisation. It doesn’t matter if you commit a racist act because you are a racist or because it’s just one more thoughtless remark in a political career defined by thoughtless remarks. You’ve still committed a racist act.