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Assumptions about a skateboarder community leads to harmful sanctioning of freedom

I. JOURNAL


Thursday 6th February, 3pm

Four skaters on a sunny day outside McEwan Hall. Casually chatting to each other, hanging out. Basic skateboarding back and fourth as they chat. A few tricks start happening, but mainly talking. They stop skating for a moment to sit down on the benches and roll cigarettes. I decide to go talk to them with one of my group members and ask if we can chat to them about the area. I ask if they feel there is a lot of authority here and if their skateboarding is often shut down. One of the skateboarders said, "Um not really… loads of undercover police in the summer but not much now”. Another joined and said, “this place was built by skateboarders”. He went on to say how they believe this place was established by a skateboarder and should still be for skateboarders today, like a symbolic area for skaters. They always know people are going to be here, which is why they come a lot. I ask a bit more about the skate experience here and the first skateboarder said, “depends when we’re working, today I had a half day but usually I skate at night like 7pm onwards”. The other said later, “there’s a little undercover spot before Appleton tower so when it rains, we skate there.” He says there’s a lot more authority in the undercover area than here. They also tell us about the indoor skate park at ocean terminal, but its £10 to enter, which is less enticing. As I walk away, I think about how they are all male - no female skateboarders here today.


20 minutes later, two policemen arrive and ask the skateboarders some questions. Tone looks sten. They stop skating, but still look quite casual. As soon as the police leave, they continue skating. One of the guys we spoke to earlier was skating near where we were sitting so we asked him what happened. He said the police were asking if they knew about a fight in the area. 5 minutes later, two different policemen arrive and also question the skateboarders. They soon walk away and the skateboarders continue skating as the police hang around for a bit. They stop skating to start chatting about what happened with the police. The policemen return and talk to the second pair in the middle of Burns. After some minutes, they go. The skaters smoke as they skate. 10 minutes later, more skaters arrive, leaving their bags on the steps.


Wednesday 12th February, 5:15pm

Was super snowy this morning and no one was skating, but the weather has majorly cleared up and now six skaters have arrived. Some of them are sitting on the steps smoking and others are skating by the benches in front of Potterow. It is starting to get dark. Due to the slope, their boards sometimes roll down when they lose balance and they run after them. This happens a few times but no one looks embarrassed. Again, none of them are really wearing coats (must be used to it, I am very cold sitting here!). They start using the benches for tricks whilst also going between sitting down and skating. They continuously break to chat.


There are no girls here again. We go over and speak to them wanting to ask why. Me and one other group member start the conversation about public versus private space divide. They explain how they feel the renovation of the area was done as an attempt to make it less skater-friendly, less public more private. One of the guys says how the “old design was good for skateboarding and these things (referring to the metal clamps on the steps, he taps them as he says this) is pretty clear you know” - as in, implying the renovations were done to purposely make the space worse for skating. That was the general feeling amongst the three we were talking to. Slight tone of resentment but doesn’t stop them from coming here (relationship with authority maybe confusing). I ask how inclusive they feel Burns is, and they all kind of nod and say its pretty inclusive. They will stop you if there is an exam, and one of the guys says, “but that’s fair enough though”. Another says, “lately there’s been a lot more groups coming in… and there’s that group”, I ask if they mean Skateboobs, and the other guy says “yeah, that’s the one!”. The girls have seemingly integrated into the space. The first skater says that, “as long as you’re trying if you come to skate, no ones gonna cause any fuss”. Essentially how it doesn’t really matter if you’re a girl, but as long as you come to use the space for skating like everyone else, people aren’t going to bother you. They say that there are loads of girl skaters here, however there still aren’t any girls this evening.


I go back and sit down on the bench outside Teviot, and send a message to the Skateboobs Instagram (this is how I have been keeping in touch) asking if they were planning on skating tonight. They replied saying that they weren’t. Could be for several different reasons, I didn’t want to pry.


Sunday 16th February, 4:30pm

Very windy, quite sunny but the rain keeps stopping and starting. Four boys in the undercover area of Burns with all their bags on the side. No one is in the main Burns circle, probably due to the weather. One is playing with the cones while he skates. They sit on the ledge sometimes to take a break or drink water. Again, no girls. The boys are different to the ones we have spoken to before. I remember how the girls told me that those boys go to the indoor skate park on Sundays so maybe they are there today and this is a different group of people.


II. REFLECTION


In the following days, I spoke to a few girls skateboobs, who told me that the University will "be really negative from the get go. Its like a hate crime, I know thats a bit extreme but the best way to describe it is that its specifically because we’re skaters”. I asked if the skaters were ever involved in crimes that took place in the square to which they said,


"no its never the skaters... I guess you’re just there... and it looks like it because you’re making noise. People just assume we’re doing it to cause havoc to damage buildings… I think it’ll change once its in the olympics… people don’t understand it, people still think we’re chavy and stuff… they’ll have more like respect for it. Its just ignorance. Like Boris Johnson, hide all the homeless people.”

Doing ethnographic fieldwork in Burns Square was an interesting experience. Initial observation was intriguing, but I was apprehensive to involve myself with the people who occupy this space, notably the skateboarders. However through speaking to them, my attitudes towards this space started to change with their openness and also their understanding towards public disruption and female inclusiveness. Public disruption was understood by all the people I spoke to. The skaters know their sport is loud and they understand that sometimes this gives off the impression that they are purposely trying to cause chaos. They are understanding towards this public attitude and accept that they have to remove themselves in specific situations (exams, larger group size, drinking, weed, etc.). However, there is clear resentment for rudeness and lack of respect towards them, leaving them feeling misunderstood. Female inclusiveness was also massively recognised by both the male and female skateboarders in the community. The male skaters recognised the girls group, enjoyed their presence in the space and were supportive of them. The skateboarders believe the real divide between male and female groups is quite heavily based on friendship more than it is on gender divide.


During this participant observation, there were also specific circumstances that would inevitably impact the research. Burns Square is both an outdoor and a public space. The Square being outside means that the study was massively weather contingent. Whenever it was raining or lightly snowing, the skaters would not be in the area, posing challenges to our research. Sometimes it was hard to collect evidence because it was difficult to determine when they would be in the area. This also links to the aspect of public space. Skateboarding times run on unofficial hours, which also made research times inconsistent and disjointed. When field study was conducted, public space as a circumstance also created room for awkwardness that is inevitably part of ethnographic work. Public space contrasted with the skateboarders’ personal ownership of the area built an interesting power dynamic that we as researchers had to involve ourselves in. These circumstances created an aura of apprehension in approaching the skateboarders.


The circumstances of my interview were different. I chose to interview members of a female skateboarding group, ’Skateboobs’ that my group and I found on social media. We discovered that they skate in Burns and became interested in the way this group may occupy the space differently. I set up an interview after messaging the group on Instagram, however if it weren’t for this social media platform, I would not have known about them. Through my participant observation, I did not see any female skateboarders and only knew about their experience through Instagram and the interview conducted. Furthermore, the circumstances of conducting an interview with people I had never met would also change the nature of conversation. A sense of formality was present during the interview, which had both positive and negative effects. The girls wanted to express information they felt was important for research and may have disclosed other information as a result of this circumstantial interview formality.


In doing research, positionality was another major point of consideration throughout. Neila Miled’s work considers both the importance of positionality when researching and also how the specific situation of interlocutors must always be considered in fieldwork. Miled is a Muslim woman who explored how school experiences impact Muslim youth identity negotiations and sense of belonging. Her Muslim positionality changes the entire narrative of her study, as there is a sense of closeness between her and her interlocutors. There is also an element of removal from the 'white saviour complex’. In reading this, I started to consider my own positionality in studying the skateboarders. One major aspect of my social and political context is that I am a woman. I understand that as a woman, I may have some bias towards supporting and understanding better the female side of the story. Also from a female outsider going in, I did sometimes feel slightly threatened by the male dominance of the area. There are feelings of getting in the way that surround their symbolic claim over a public area, which was intimidating at times. I felt more comfortable with the female skateboarders and this consequentially changed the focus of the research I collected.


However, our ethnography group did share a similar age range with our interlocutors, and I feel this slightly took away the ‘outsider’ power dynamics of us as researchers. The skateboarders were open to expressing how they felt misunderstood by peripheral perspective. This misunderstanding is due to both university security as well as the lack of free and available skate areas in Edinburgh. Their expression was perhaps more open because of our similar ages, that would change our research.


Something Miled also discusses in her text is how despite the fact that some parts of identity are shared with research subjects, there is never going to be one experience. As ethnographers, we are still outsiders with our own influencing narratives that we must be considerate of during the entire research process. My upbringing was one aspect of positionality during research that I did not want to share. Growing up in Singapore has many class and wealth implications that I was afraid would remove me from the skateboarders and them feeling able to share information with me. I understood that some of the skateboarders had not gone to university and an aspect of personal ‘privilege’ may have been brought up, creating a bigger divide between us. I am also removed from skateboarding, as this was not something I grew up with or a community I had ever been part of. These aspects of upbringing do slightly change the research because of interview formality, lack of closeness and class stereotypes that I was not ready to bring to my research just yet.

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