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As we made plans for the post-Christmas sales, a friend asked me if I remembered the young man who was “killed for a pair of trainers” on boxing day two years ago. I did indeed remember the killing of Seydou Diarrassouba in footlocker on Oxford Street. I remembered how the image of two young black men fighting over a pair of trainers was etched into the popular imagination. And I remembered, having followed the subsequent murder trial, that this killing had nothing to do trainers, or indeed any other consumer commodity.
Perhaps the most revolting response to the death of Seydou Diarrassouba came from the Independent. Regular columnist Mary Dejevsky explained that the killings highlighted a deeper problem: namely that it was now all too easy for youths from London’s poorer, rougher districts to get into the West End. Oxford Street, she wrote, “has its rougher end”:
And the improved transport of recent years has a less acknowledged downside: the Tube will whisk you to Oxford Street in minutes from a variety of less salubrious locales, as will a veritable fleet of buses. When a new tram was introduced in Strasbourg, connecting neglected estates east and west, one consequence was a rise in city-centre crime.
Yet the major talking point, in the aftermath of the killing, was the trainers. Virtually every newspaper claimed, erroneously, that the pair were fighting over a pair of trainers. The Sun, of course, went one step further and claimed that the fight was said to have erupted over “which pair of trainers to steal”. And thus society proceeded to wring it’s hands over the pointless acquisitiveness of young (black) men for designer gear, and it’s tragic consequences.
Only when the case came to court did it become apparent that this death had nothing to do with trainers. Jermaine Joseph, a young black man from Tottenham, was found not guilty on grounds of self-defence. He had been embroiled in a long-running feud with Seydou Diarrassouba, and was in footlocker because he had been chased into the shop.
This was not simply a case of bad jouralism combined confusing events. Nor can the prominence of the “trainer” angle be attributed simply to the fact that the stabbing took place in footlocker. After all, when white people bottle each other in pubs, we don’t tend to presume that they were having a fight over the last drop of whiskey.
No, the way in which this death was represented, reflects the way in which our society pathologises black people who desire good clothes and nice things. Mainstream British culture is dominated by a middle class that is selectively puritannical. We readily congratulate some people for achieving a high standard of living, whilst others are condemned as vulgar, tasteless and materialistic. That is why you hear pampered, waspy private school girls complain about the “Asian Princesses” or “Jewish princesses” with whom they share their schools.
Yet by far the greatest contempt is reserved for the young black man who has the temerity to dress above his station. The term “bling” emerged from within hip-hop culture – and came to describe, a knowing, self-conscious, sometimes deliberately OTT fashion for (literally) flashy jewellery. It emerged in a culture in which black self-love, and pride in one’s appearance, constituted something racially radical, in a society dominated by white beauty standards.
Yet in the mouths of too many white people, the term “bling” connotes a contempt for the other: for what is perceived as the dumb acquisitiveness of young black men, and for poor sartorial taste of those who cover themselves in shiny objects – because, of course, only white hipsters have the capacity to do something in a knowing, self-concious or deliberately OTT fashion.
The killing of Seydou Diarrassouba was, of course, not the only moment in 2011 when newspapers were filled with the discussion of young black men and trainers. In August that year, many commentators had explained the London Riots as though they were a collective attempt to loot trainers. Even Liberal-left commentators told us that the riots were a manifestation of our consumerist society, or of greed trickling down to the urban poor. In short, our tendency to imagine black consumer culture as peculiarly pathological stood in place of all of the big questions raised by this massive social upsurge.
The senseless death of Seydou Diarrassouba ought to make us distraught and angry. But so too should the trivialization of his death. And so too should a society that continues to humiliate black men for wanting to look good and have nice things.
To contact Reuben email firstname.lastname@example.org