Sunday 22 January 2012

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

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.

Underlying these events there are two questions on many people's lips: Is Britan still racist? And if so, how racist? Sometimes the latter is the only question that is asked, as if assuming ipso facto that the UK is still a hostile place to newcomers, especially if their skins are dark.

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.

© 2012

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 25th January at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Race is one of the few 'diversity' areas in which I'm part of the majority. It's a strange feeling - especially since I grew up in a village so non-diverse that I didn't even realise racism was a thing until I grew up and started reading about it in the newspapers. There were no ethnic minorities at my primary school; at high school there were a couple of black kids, and so what? I didn't think about it as any different to some people having blonde or ginger hair, versus my own dark brown. And so far as I know, neither did anyone else. It's only as an adult that I've come to know that it's not always this way. This comes with an increased awareness of cultural as opposed to purely surface differences, which I find fascinating, but being aware of it certainly means I have to tread more carefully than I did as an oblivious youngster. Thanks for the thought-provoking post, as always :)

  2. Good to read you, Cuban, as ever. I'm reading "Not without laughter" by Langston Hughes just now... have you read it? It's so beautifully written even if subject can be ugly (racial prejudice in the US in 1910s).

    And we were listening to Muddy Waters yesterday whilst decorating! Fabulous.

  3. I have lived long enough to have experienced the overt racist days and seen that racism shift into a sometimes unconscious, unintended, subtle, but still unequivocal racism. I would suggest that the latter is more difficult to eradicate. It also saddens me that W. E. B. Du Bois’s words still reign true: ”… a Negro... two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” And so we keep striving for that more perfect world.

  4. Always an enlightened conversation here.
    We are watching our Republican debates in the US and cringe at all the racist remarks, couched in language that protect the speaker.

  5. Race is a true blessing. I remember my two weeks in Seoul, Korea almost two years ago where everybody looked alike, they dressed alike, smart, black and white or dark colors. On the train, at the office, at the restaurant. To go through each day was not easy.

    Race is inevitable. I was always the odd one out in the sailing community. Everyone was white with a Thai wife, and so most assumed I was Thai, they also assumed I was young :)

  6. Almost twenty years ago, not two. I believe Seoul could be more diverse and with more colors today.

  7. Very well-written post, Cuban, and I remember well the more overt racism days in good old London town. Leaps and bounds from even 30 years ago.
    I like your use and examination of polite racism, and so much of what you say can be transposed to polite sexism and polite classism. Always, that consciousness of 'not one of us.' The human condition is a rare one indeed.

  8. Oh Cubano, what an evocative post, what a dilemma. You raise so very good points and I have pondered them all. The issue of the narrow, self-hating box that people of color box themselves into has puzzled me for a long time until last week. I was interviewing an internationally acclaimed blues singer and asked her about what she thought she wanted to be while she was growing up. She grew up in an impoverished neighborhood in Chicago and the the most impressive thing that she'd ever seen was performers at a local theater. So she wanted to play that small theater, never dreaming that she'd play in Stockholm and Paris and Rome. I think that the racism that keeps opportunities out of reach also makes it difficult for people of color to see beyond it. It you've never seen a black engineer or architect, that makes it harder to dream it. The polite racism is what has been woven into all Western societies and it does not disappear without people acknowledging and addressing it. There is such denial and discomfort around the topic and I think this prevents anybody from dealing with it.

  9. Thanks a lot for your lovely comments.

    Greetings from London.

  10. Hi to all! Manny things new for me, I don't care if a men is black, white, yellow, green or purple:). Peace:) and Greetings from Brasov!

  11. Wow, this a really powerful post. I especially appreciated your term of polite racism, which is the case in a polite society like the UK. Having lived in England on and off over 2 decades, I'd say that globalization is making people more tolerant but that racism is still prevalent. I see it in my country too, especially in a really white state like Maine, but even that is changing with a welcome influx of Somalian immigrants.

  12. Many thanks for your kind words.

    Greetings from London.

  13. You have a very distinctive writing 'voice' Cuban. It's great reading your work. This sentence is the clincher for me...

    '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...'

    Amen! I heavily object to terms such as 'black culture' and black music'. Heck I use the terms 'black' and 'white' with reluctance if I do. I'm very glad Rachel pointed out the importance of distinguishing race from culture and that the nuance indeed exists and is an important one.

    And in a shameless plug of my own blog I've dealt with similar issues here...

    and directly or indirectly on other posts.

    As a slight aside, speaking of Hispanophone virtuoso musicians, are you going to catch any of Robert Fonseca's tour this spring? He's being supported by a very promising young talent, jazz cellist Ayanna Witter-Johnson.

    Shalom, Miss T x



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