I noticed the group of men as I pulled my car into the parking area. There were about five of them, young black men in their 20s, in two cars.
One car was a silver BMW with tinted windows and the other was a red Audi with alloy wheels. One man was sitting in the driver seat while the others stood around.
Loud rap music was blaring from the speakers of the open car. One in dreadlocks, two wearing gold chains and three with short-cut hair.
To the average person, they might appear like drug dealers. Or members of a street gang. Or like they were up to no good.
It was a late Sunday evening and I was in an industrial park. There were no other cars or people around.
I was by myself.
As I got out of my car, the men and I exchanged glances. So I walked up to them.
“Hey, did you guys make that music?!” I asked.
They seemed surprised by my question.
“Man! That music is good, it’s professional!” I continued.
The driver immediately got out of the car with a big smile on his face.
“I didn’t make it but my friend made it!” he replied.
I told him, “I just parked my car and then I heard these tunes so I thought I better come and find out what they were.”
All the men were beaming by this point.
“Would you mind saying that on Snapchat so we can share it,” the driver asked me.
Although I don’t use Snapchat, I remembered that it only lasts 24 hours. In a split second I also did an analysis of where this video might go or end up.
“Sure, I’ll do that, no problem,” I replied to him.
“Hey yo!” the driver said to his friend with the dreadlocks. “Get your phone out and get guy this on Snapchat!”
So he filmed me while I said a few words saying how that music sounds as if it was made by a professional, etc.
After that I began to talk with the men.
11 years of living in prison with young black men from all over Britain (and the US) had taught me every word, accent and slang in their language.
It transpired that they were not drug dealers or criminals. They were musicians. They had rented out a storage unit in a warehouse and transformed it into a makeshift studio.
Every evening they would gather to practise and record music that they could then sell or perform with.
“Respect,” I said to them. “Respect because while other young men in your community are out selling drugs or robbing people (my modus operandi has always been to call a spade a spade), you guys are here practising music. Respect.”
“Well done,” I continued. “Show leadership to your young people that they can do something positive with their lives. And if music is your thing, spread a positive message through your music.”
They all nodded their heads in agreement. I thought it wise not to mention to them that I had done 11 years in prison. The last time I did that, it frightened the socks off someone.
With that I bumped fists with each of the men and continued on my way. As I walked off, I spotted them out of the corner of my eye crowded around the phone watching the Snapchat video I had just recorded for them.
The above incident took place only a couple of weeks ago.
No-one likes to be stereotyped. If we don’t like to be stereotyped by others, then we should not stereotype others.
“Do unto others as you would like done unto yourself,” is known as the golden rule in The Bible.
Before I even walked up to them, I recognised from their body language straight away that these men were not criminals. I had learned in prison that there is a fine line between culture and criminality.
It’s certainly true that some young black men deal drugs, go round on mopeds stealing people’s phones and stab people.
But they are only a minority whose mothers are more fed up of their behaviour than anyone else. I know because I used to see their mothers come to visit them in prison.
And so it does not mean every young black man in a fast car blaring music is a criminal.
It’s certainly true that young, predominantly white, men and women operate remote controls to kill innocent children with drones in poor countries.
But that does not mean that every white person is a drone killer.
And it’s certainly true that some young Muslim men drive cars or lorries at high speed over ordinary people.
But most Muslims do not do that.
Communication breaks down barriers and communication breaks down stereotypes. If you see someone do something that you find alien, or strange, ask them.
Ask people why they dress a certain way. Ask about their tattoos. Ask why they listen to a certain type of music. Or why they walk a certain way.
You may not agree with their answer but at least you will come away with a little more understanding that humans are strange creatures, all of whom are different.
Can you share any anecdotes about stereotypes?
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