I’m off up to LICAF (Lakes International Comic Art Festival) tomorrow. I’ve been going since 2014, it’s the only comics festival that I attend regularly, and I’ve been really looking forward to it. The organisers are lovely people, and have always made me feel very welcome with my often frankly bizarre improv activities.
I was up in Kendal a couple of weeks ago, installing my exhibition at the Foyer Cafe, part of an accommodation centre for young homeless people, home to the magnificent Peoples’ Cafe, and a real hub of positive energy and action. Directly and indirectly through connections there, I met and got to know some really inspiring people. I’ve grown very fond of the place.
Rather late to the game, I’ve become aware of a real shadow hanging over the festival this year, thanks to some ill-considered responses to criticism of the festival’s lack of diversity, and the subsequent decision of several creators to boycott the festival. Write up here. And here. And all over Twitter, with varying degrees of insight. Hannah Berry has given a very level-headed response, in my opinion. I don’t know nearly enough about the situation to want to pontificate about it. I’m saddened, it’s very regrettable, it could have been handled better.
This review of the festival, and of the town, deserves to be read. Zainab Akhtar has written persuasively about comics for many years, and the contrast she paints between white, middle-class Kendal and her multi-cultural hometown of Leeds is striking. That was in 2014, before Brexit, Trump and the recent resurgence of racism disguised as nationalism. It was Zainab Akhtar who raised the issue of diversity at LICAF again this year. Some parts of the discussion have characterised her as unreasonable, although those allegations have since been withdrawn. I don’t know the truth here, I’m not interested in judging anyone – she, like everyone else concerned, gets the benefit of the doubt from me, which is nice.
And this gets to the nub of what I want to write about here. I want you to see me as nice. And, from my privileged position as a relatively well-off white male, it’s easy to be nice. I’m struck by the difference in the welcoming Kendal that I experience, and the one that Zainab Akhtar writes about. Both are true, and the differing truths are based on superficial things such as gender, race and style of dress – things that I don’t think ought to matter.
It’s over 24 hours since I found out about this series of events, and read the 2014 article, and I’ve been sitting with it, letting it get under my skin. Trying to imagine what it’s like to experience Kendal the way Zainab did. And probably failing, because it’s not my lived experience, day in day out, to be stared at or treated with such suspicion. I can possibly get a bit closer than some of you, because I have a visible disability, but if anyone stares at me, it’s usually accompanied by some sympathy rather than hostility, so quite different really.
I live in Stroud, a town similar to Kendal in some ways (similar size, vibrant arts/alternative scene, reasonably affluent, predominantly white). Recently, an activist friend from Bristol (similar to Leeds) came to visit for the day, and said that it confirmed her prejudices about my beloved home town. So I’ve been revisiting that experience too, the way two people can walk along the same street and see such different things.
Being nice is a privilege. Being seen to be nice is a privilege. I’m aware that I have that privilege, and intend to use it. Being unaware of that privilege, and expecting the same level of niceness from those who are experiencing prejudice every day, is background-level racism, in my book. (See below for who I’m levelling that at.)
I’ve thought long and hard about joining the boycott, as several creators who I really respect have done, and I’ve decided not to, and to go to Kendal anyway, and see what happens. For me (and I make no assumptions about the motives of anyone else when I say this), the inner voice telling me to join the boycott was primarily concerned with being seen to be one of the good guys and gals, and to project my own prejudice and background-level racism out onto someone else. I’m drawing a line between good and bad, and stepping on to the nice side of it, while marking some other group as bad people. As Solzhenitsyn wrote, and as I’ve quoted elsewhere, the line between good and evil runs through the centre of every human heart. (I love that quote, especially coming from someone who saw so much suffering first hand as he did, and you haven’t heard the last of it from me. Sorry, not sorry.)
I’d rather own my own shit, quite honestly. I’ve walked through Kendal every year for four years and felt it to be a lovely place, without any awareness of how unwelcoming someone else felt it to be. This vein of racism runs through our society in the UK, and has been brought into relief by the events around Brexit. I’ve been doing bits here and there to tackle that, and often aware that I could do more.
So, I’m off to Kendal. And by doing so, I am incurring a debt. I need to carry that awareness with me this time, and to talk about it, to think about what can be done to improve the festival, the town, the country, in the future, and to talk about that. And to improve myself – it has to start there, and, liberal and educated and kind-hearted though I am, that vein of racism impinges upon my heart too, particularly when I draw a little line and imagine myself to be on the right side of it.
I’ll discuss all that with the festival organisers too, but not this weekend, as I imagine they’re a bit busy, and I hope the festival goes well for them, and for us.
I think a few of us are meeting tomorrow evening (Friday 13th, how auspicious!) in Kendal to talk this over, look on my twitter feed for announcements.