It's been a strange few weeks for race, and all matters to do with it, in the UK. We've gone from the very ugly to the very absurd. An example of the former was the horrible murder of the Indian student Anuj Bidve in Salford on Boxing Day. We've also seen justice partially done at last in the Stephen Lawrence case, the black teenager killed in 1993 by a bunch of white thugs. At the other end of the racial spectrum, we've had the odd spectacle of Liverpool Football Club players wearing T-shirts with the image of the Uruguayan striker Luis Suárez on the front in support of their teammate, who was accused of racially abusing Manchester Uniterd defender Patrice Evra. It was a scene so absurd that I thought I was watching a movie by Luis Buñuel instead.
From my experience as a black immigrant in GB, I tend to answer with a yes and no to the first question. Is Britain still racist? Well, no. But also, yes.
The negative response is based on what doesn't happen on a regular basis. Racist attacks like the one that ultimately took Stephen Lawrence's life are a rarity. Racist language against black or Asian people is not the norm. Likewise, we tend to celebrate our diversity nowadays, rather than slag it off. When I speak to people who were either born here or who have lived for a considerable amount of time in this country, they tell me scary stories of times gone by that would have probably planted doubts in my mind about relocating to London from Havana. These are tales about deeply prejudiced police officers bent on making black people's lives as difficult as possible for no reason. They recount stories about discrimination in the job market in the past. Yet, I think that we've moved a long way away from those kinds of attitudes.
So, then, if this panacea is commonplace in the UK why the "yes" to the question of whether Britain is racist or not?
Because the racial intolerance I have seen and felt is not of the jackbooted type but of the kind I call "polite racism" (©, ™). It's not the racism that leads a group of xenophobes to firebomb a house just because black immigrants live in it. It's the type that is delicately expressed in civilised circles. And it respects no political allegiances or geography. From the right we get condemnation, from the left patronising. This happens in London and Miami. In Hong Kong and Havana. The result is the same. We have been allocated a place in society and we'd better not forget it. You can raise your head high and proud as much as you like, but be careful, dear, you might bang it against the glass ceiling right above you. And if you dare to protest against this type of subtle, racial bigotry, you'll be labelled an "angry black woman". Or man. There are various ways in which "polite racism" manifests itself.
One is to overlook black people because of a - false - assumption that we're not capable of performing certain tasks, especially if the job at hand demands the use of one's brain. You see, we're sporty and physical by nature, but brainy? Nah, we'll leave that to those who know, usually of a lighter shade of pale.
Even in the sports arena where we're supposed to shine, stereotypes are plentiful. If I go back to football for a moment, we see how Chelsea's black Ivorian striker Didier Drogba is often referred to in terms of his muscular prowess and his bull-like strength, whereas an equally talented centre-forward like Arsenal's Dutchman Robin van Persie (a white player), is spoken of in terms of his clever technique. However, anyone who follows the English Premier League knows that Drogba's knack for outplaying defenders is rooted in his technical abilites as well as his physical ones. As for van Persie and the way he outmuscles centre-backs, any Chelsea fan, like me, experienced, sadly, a fine display of top-rate brawny power recently when the Gunners beat the Blues 5-3 at Stamford Bridge. The Dutchman scored a hat-trick and used every single fibre in his body to achieve his feat.
The other way in which "polite racism" shows its ugly, but ever so subtle, face is by denying us opportunities. I remember applying for a job in Havana as a tour guide. I not only spoke English, one of the main prerequisites, but also French and German. My interview took place whilst doing a mock tour with one of the guides. The one who normally dealt with French-speaking tourists and by the end of my dress rehearsal she said to me: "I cannot see you not getting this job!" Well, I didn't. Instead the vacancy was filled up by a blue-eyed, blond lady who, according to the same tour guide who had praised me during my trial, could hardly put two words in English together.
Whilst racist violence is more lethal, in the long term polite racism hurts deeper and its effects are longer-lasting. It erodes our confidence, it creates an unreal image of black and Asian people and it triggers off conflicts between generations.
However, I cannot and do not want to play the victim card. Because for polite racism to exist, there has to be very often a collusion between the executer and the executed. This sometimes takes the form of "impostor syndrome" with the tacit approval of the person on whom the label is foisted. There seems to be almost a universal understanding amongst black people of what a black person is, or should be. Or the type of music to which he/she should listen. Or the kind of literature he/she should read (that is, supposing that they're allowed to read). Sorry, peeps, I never got the memo.
For instance, I remember going to see the Azerbi pianist Aziza Mustafa Zadeh a couple of years ago at the Cadogan Hall. I've championed her music on this blog several times. That night the theatre, though not packed, was certainly almost full. At the end of the concert as my wife and I were getting ready to go out, I caught sight of a black woman in the audience. Until then it hadn't occurred to me that there were any other black people in the theatre. That was because I wasn't thinking of myself of anything other than a human being enjoying one of the most beautiful sounds to ever come out of a piano. For a fleeting second the woman and I stared at each other and in that brief instant a multitude of questions ping-ponged between us. Did you see anyone else like us? You mean who looked like us? Yes. As in black? Yes. No, and you? No, me neither. What did you think of the concert? It was marvellous. Why do you think we were the only... You mean the only black people? Well, she's Azerbi, isn't she? So, she caters to that group. And maybe to Georgians and Armenians, too. So, what about you? What's your story? Why, if you're not Azerbi, are you here? And what about them?
Them. "Them" was the ubiquitous chattering classes, the "alternative" middle-class for whom there are no colour, gender, nationality or any other kind of barriers. They were also in attendance that night, and why shouldn't they have been? You might think that my conclusion at the time was to blame this forward-thinking group for the absence of other minorities in the auditorium. You're wrong. I didn't blame them at all. I blamed us. You see, in more than fourteen years in the UK, I've never seen a sign reading: "No blacks", or "No Asians". Were I to see one, I would contest it straight away. And I would use the law if I had to. In the same way that the - usually - well-off, metropolitan, middle-class doesn't deny themselves any pleasures because they don't think in terms of colour, gender, or nationality, neither should we. Culture is universal.
This attitude, which I call "racial self-mutilation" is prevalent in black, Asian and other minority communities in contemporary western societies. It ignores the radical changes that have occurred in the last couple of decades. The danger is that whilst the top echelons of our political, economic and social hierarchy continue to be occupied by the well-heeled, middle-/upper-class, middle-aged and often male members of our nation, we're locked, meanwhile, into a self-hatred cycle from which it's very difficult to break. I think that the first course of action should be to look at ourselves in the mirror and say: "You're going in the wrong direction! Stop saying, gimme, gimme, gimme, and start taking instead and believing that you're entitled to what you're taking, without telling a soul". By the way, that was a metaphore, not a call to looting. Just in case.
When I first heard of Stephen Lawrence's murder, one element caught my attention. He wanted to be an architect. Neither a rapper, nor a footballer, but a person who designed buildings, who injected life into inanimate objects. He wanted to be part of London, or by default, the UK's burgeoning, creative industries. Not that there's anything wrong with being a rapper or footballer, but when every other black child tells you that that's what they want to do when they grow up, you start wondering about horizons, mind, expansion, aspirations, stereotypes and predictability. And you can't blame racism for that. Or at least not directly. Of course, there's a history behind it and colonialism and slavery are still fresh in the mind. But where's our individual power? Where are our future Stephen Lawrences?
Cases like Stephen and Anuj Bidve are clear-cut as to how the public react to them. I would dare to say, or would like to believe, rather, that 99.9% of the population in the UK condemned the actions that took the lives of these two young men and they will condemn similar actions were they to happen again. That's one reason to feel optimistic. It's also the main reason why, come the summer, we'll be welcoming visitors from all over the globe during the Olympic Games. However, when it comes to polite racism, there's much more to be done and at times it feels like a Sisyphean task for those of us who have the responsibility of educating younger minds. And it's not just down to one side. Because at the end of the day, the problem is not just external, but also intermal. And that, my peeps, it's a harder truth to swallow.
Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 25th January at 11:59pm (GMT)