22 August 2009


Through the surprising volume of email responses to "Lucy in the sky with violence" ran two particularly strong strands.

One is typified by regular correspondent Zainab Talu, who asks:

In all the years over which you have nursed this memory, have you ever considered how it may have been for Lucy?

To which my answer, I'm ashamed to say, has to be: yes, but not nearly enough and especially not at the time when it mattered.

Lucy, of course, lived with racism while I simply encountered it. I was selfishly concerned with how it affected me, and my relation to a girl. How it affected her, and her relation to a boy, and her relation to the world at large, never occurred to me. That describes my view of many other things at that age. Not to make excuses for myself but simply recognising reality: I think that is probably a fairly typical fourteen year old failing. Bearing in mind recent discussion in TTMF's comments, in later life when it is too late I feel both regret and guilt over this. I can only hope that time has improved me.

The second issue, well expressed by Matt Revell, concerns the validity and relevance of my assertion that "When we know what racism is, we become ipso facto racist ourselves". He wrote, amongst other things:

You say that once we know that racism exists, we become racist ourselves. My reading of that, particularly given your examples, is that those of us who hate racism might go out of our way to support those not of our own race and, so, we're still being racist but with a positive intention.

I'm not sure I agree that knowledge of racism automatically leads to racism. Here in Wolverhampton, we're a pretty mixed bunch: lots of Punjabi descended people, quite a few Caribbean descended people, lots of Polish people -- both from WWII and EU membership– and so on.

Looking round schools for [... my son], the teachers all said they made sure that the children knew that racism was unacceptable and so it seems fair to assume that the kids are aware of racism. However, having seen those children, and others in the city, all just getting on with life together, it seems as though racism is about as relevant to them as war-time rationing.

My responses to that one have changed over the time I've spent thinking about it. They've also gotten mixed up with the thinking through of other issues.

The first, simplest, easiest reply is to say that Matt is right in questioning my blanket assertion that once we know what racism is we become racist. Knowing what racism is will only make us racist if we experience racism too. Because I learned it in, and from, an environment where it was rampant, I had to pick a side: oppose or implicitly collaborate, with no room for manoeuvre between the two. Learning it as an academic abstraction, unconnected with life around me, would have been a very different thing.

Britain, like the US, has made great strides and seen great changes since the 1960s. (It also, like the US, has a long way to go – of which more below.) Racism is no longer as ingrained, as unconsciously reflexive, as unquestioned, as it was forty years ago. There is widespread (but geographically patchy) colour blindness now, and I am delighted by that. It's quite possible (I have no way to know, one way or t'other) that this new climate has penetrated the world of fee paying boys schools and if so, I would be delighted by that as well.

It's not just racism, either. Other forms of prejudice, bigotry and intolerance are also in retreat. As I noted recently, in response to a query passed on by Ray Girvan from the The language log, at least one urban group of British teenagers sees homosexuality as being of so little relevance to them that they don't bother to have a word for it in their vocabulary. Once again, though, this is geographically and socially patchy – eight and nine year olds only a few miles away still snigger at the word "gay"..

I am deeply glad that Matt's son is (as I was at his age) blissfully unaware of superficial differences (I personally doubt that teachers' admonishments against racism mean that the children are really aware of it), can go to school in an environment where racism is irrelevant. The way things are going, I have hopes that his younger sister will, in this respect, find the world better still. But ... I find myself unable to go as far as Matt does when he says that racism is as irrelevant to the life of a child now as wartime rationing, or that that will be true for a long time.

Though I say that both UK and US have come a tremendously long way, there are still plenty of places in both countries where racism can be the death of you. In Matt's home town, within the last eighteen months, I've seen a fight begin with racist taunts (in both directions) and end with drawn knives (though not, thankfully, any fatalities). That town is on the edge of a conurbation where its children will in future years venture – and encounter some of Britain's most entrenched areas of racism. Across Britain, the racist BNP is gaining increasing support – and recently managed to get two representatives elected to the European Parliament.

Racism is in retreat is some respects, some places, some social groups. In others it is on the increase. How that will play out in the long run is anybody's guess. For now, racism remains painfully relevant in any but small local contexts.

1 comment:

Matthew Revell said...

Wonder what you make of the Jackson Five black-face skit on Aussie TV.

Several commentators have assumed the performers were white. Does it make a difference that some of them were of Indian descent?

Also, is it immediately racist -- regardless of intent -- to paint your face the colour of another race?

What about Peter Sellers in The Party? Is that racist? If so, is the Closeau character also racist?