Sunday 1 June 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

I once was called an f***ing Cuban n****r. That was about twelve or thirteen years ago when I still worked as a tour-operator in West Hampstead, London. I didn’t bother to file in a complaint. There was only another witness in the room and she was a friend of the person who had insulted me. About a decade before that a friend of mine (or someone I considered to be my friend) called me a “negro de mierda” whilst we were doing our work experience in the Cuban countryside (the phrase translates roughly as f***ing n****r into English because there’s no direct equivalent to the “n” word in Spanish). On both occasions the reason for the racist outbursts was the same: I was the person in command asking someone nicely to get on with their work. In the latter case I had to rouse my “friend” from a deep, post-lunch snooze. I did it ever so gently and yet I still got racially abused.

However, these two examples – amongst a few others – have never been the worst type of racism I have faced in my life. As bad as they sound I knew what to expect from these two racist bigots. My ex-colleague had already shown her (voluntary) ignorance in various subjects to do with race and culture. In the case of my friend who turned out not to be a real friend, there were signs that seemed to indicate that a situation like that would occur one day. I chose to brush off those signs. But no, that was certainly not the worst type of racism I have come across. The worst type has often arrived unannounced and unbidden. It is the kind that comes wrapped in gift paper with little, cute, light-blue laced-up notes that read: “Oh, you can speak four languages! I would have never thought it. I don’t mean to be... uh, err, rac... awkward, but you just don’t look like a polyglot”. Or: “oh, you like classical music? I don’t know why but I had you down more as a hip hop/rap type of guy”. Hmmm... Yep, I love the Tribe (that’s A Tribe Called Quest, by the way) but... I also listen to... oh, well, why do I bother? The other person has cleared.

That is why I wasn’t surprised about the recent findings by a survey conducted by the British Social Attitudes which showed that the percentage of people who describe themselves as prejudiced had risen. What I was surprised about was that people still equate racism to racial prejudice.

But should it not read: why racism?
What my ex-colleague did to me was racist. What my former friend did to me was racist. Pure and simple. They based their outbursts on nothing more than an illogical and ignorant belief that the person standing in front of them, asking them to carry on with their work, had no right to do so. This belief was probably rooted in some kind of colour hierarchy that in their bigoted heads had me either close to or at the bottom of it. However, the well-meaning folk who churn out phrases such as the ones I mentioned before operate under a different type of mindset. It’s a pre-arranged, pre-labelled mindset that believes that we all fit into a category. This category is normally determined by traits such as culture, creed, sexual orientation, gender, age and, of course, skin colour. That’s how racial prejudice usually starts. The assumption, for instance, that a white person can’t dance salsa because she/he has two left feet and no sense of rhythm, whereas for a black or mixed race person, especially one from a “hot” country, salsa (please, replace salsa with any other “exotic” dance: samba, calypso, reggae, cumbia) is as natural as breathing. It follows then that the white person is better equipped for other activities, perhaps of a more intellectual nature whilst her/his dark-skinned counterpart is more suitable for the physical ones.

I wasn’t surprised about the figures thrown up by this survey but then, again, the UK is not alone in this phenomenon. Wherever there’s been racial mix and migration, you will come across a similar situation. And let’s be fair, at least Brits are honest enough to acknowledge that racial prejudices are still rife in our country less than two years after the London Olympics, with the ubiquitously beaming faces of Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis, had somehow managed to talk people into believing (How? Why?) that we had entered a post-racial era in Great Britain.

When analysing the BSA survey there was one element that caught my attention: once again the finger is being pointed at white van man. To quote from the article linked to above: “Older men in economically deprived areas are most likely to admit to racial prejudice”. Well, as much as I hate their bigotry, these men are being honest. Again, that word, honest. Honesty.  Precisely what is usually missing from any debate about race and racism.

If we want to lessen the impact of racial prejudice on society (notice the word “lessen”, not “get rid of”. Sadly, I don’t think we can get rid of racial prejudice) we need to start acknowledging some uncomfortable truths about ourselves and that is not easy. Ore Oduba is one of BBC Breakfast News sports presenters. I still remember the first time I saw him on telly: I almost had a heart attack. So used I was to the likes of Sally Nugent, Chris Hollins and Mike Bushell (all white) reporting on sports events that I’d forgot that black people can also do sports in front of a camera as well as they can do it on the football pitch or running track. This is the assumption to which I referred to before. Remove that barrier and many of the walls erected as a consequence of racial prejudice will come down like domino tiles.

Two questions arise from my theory. Who is responsible for this change? And are those affected by racial prejudice passive victims? The answer to the first question is that as much as we want to change the system and make black and Asian people more visible, we still depend on the willingness of a channel controller or magazine editor to take the chance. Media outlets, politics and the publishing industry, to mention three prominent sectors, work on what I call “fixed cultural mindset”. A “fixed cultural mindset”, broadly speaking, is the type of thinking we develop very early in life and which, under the influence of family, friends and society in general, leads us to think in stereotypes. If we set our minds to believe the notion that black boys struggle with reading more than any other ethnic group, for instance, it follows that if we hear of someone discussing the legacy of the late Irish writer James Joyce in contemporary literature on a late-night book show we will immediately imagine the speaker as a white person as opposed to someone who is darker than blue, to quote Curtis Mayfield. This, to me, is the real story in the BSA survey. Not white van man being racist (that’s still relevant and real enough to merit attention), but white, middle-class, middle-aged man being racially prejudiced. We need to engage the former as much as the latter. But it is harder to get the latter to commit to our cause by dint of his pole position in society. Some people might suggest affirmative action or positive discrimination. I can see their point but there are so many minuses and so few pluses in that approach. For starters, how long should positive discrimination last? And are we not risking alienating those who are on our side by asking them to provide us with crumbs from the big table ad infinitum?

As for the second question, a “fixed cultural mindset” is not just the province of those with racial prejudices but also of those who are at the receiving end of these racial prejudices. The person discussing Joyce on that late-night book show might turn out to be a black academic; however the likelihood is that she/he will not be thought of as black enough by their own community. Only because on talking about the legacy of an Irish writer they are doing something that is not considered to be black or pertaining to the black culture. Whatever the elements of this so-called black culture are, a self-selected group has already chosen them. What they seem to forget is that human culture is above black culture, gay culture, Latin culture or Irish culture. This “that ain’t black” attitude plays in the hands of the (mainly white) CEOs, managing directors, party leaders and editors-in-chief who, then, do not have to worry about demographics, who watches what and what effect this policy will have on this or that group, because, guess what, we have done the job for them. I’m sure that the figure of 26% in the survey (professional employers and managers who say they have some level of prejudice) is much higher. But, because overt racism as a sort of career move leads most of the time towards professional suicide nowadays (unless you are Jeremy Clarkson, of course, who only gets a slap on the wrist from Auntie), they opt for a softer (and my less cynical self would like to believe unconscious and unintentional) form of prejudice. Instead of calling someone an f***ing Cuban n****r, they choose to play him salsa because, after all, does he really understand classical music?

This post could go on forever. I haven’t even mentioned historical, political and socioeconomic factors that have an impact on racial prejudice. To me the real question from that survey is not whether the UK is more racially prejudiced or not, but why. That, sadly, is not a question whose answer we are desperate to provide any time soon.

© 2014

Photo taken from

Next Post: “Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts”, to be published on Wednesday 4th June at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. sadly it does not shock me...i hear more racist and prejudice comments now that i have in most of my life...i think our fear of stepping on others toes/freedoms is high as well so we dont confront it...

    in reality, in our quest for equality/or fight for our own beliefs it seems the only response is anger, is putting down the other, is attacking...

    i think it will only get worse...

  2. It's a difficult and intractable problem. Of course, we see it all over here, not least in the treatment of Obama. I am not as pessimistic as Brian. It is quite amazing when you think how relatively recent outright slavery was in Western nations--I think it kind of still goes on various places--and, of course, there's all kinds of entrenchment here--

    Thanks for your commentary and shared experience. k.

  3. I hate racism and I don't understand and never will u derstand.
    Why? I do t know. Is curious here sometimes is not about the color.
    Some people looki g you how you dress how you looking your shoes haha
    I was in dentist with the kids and I know my shoes aren' the best (I live at the countryside) all these women looked my shoes but I was reading. So was nothing to me.
    Ah Mario se que no debe haber sido facil para ti pero este mundo esta lleno de gente ignorante.
    Tu sigue tu camino.
    Sabes que te quiero muchisimo.
    Me encanta Peter Gabriel .

  4. Sadly, I think it is a problem that isn't going to go away.
    I have found it to be less obvious in recent years, but it is still there...boiling just beneath the surface.
    It shocks me when I witness it...I can't even begin to understand how any person can consider they are superior to another on account of their colour or creed.
    We all need to learn to live and let live - more, to celebrate the differences between us, and stop using them as weapons.
    I honestly believe that failure to do this will result in humankind's ultimate self-destruction...

  5. Racism comes y a different ways and types. I recall, among others, when University students protested because "names" racism. If your last name was "Smith" you had more chances on applications than "Pérez", "Kimura" or "Oyami". To me, my dear friend, it's no matter how it started, but how to stop it.. great reading, BTW!
    Best regards! ;)

  6. It's pathetic how so many can't get over their own self and wise up. It's like they have to be racist to make themselves feel better or something. Prejudice comments seem to be everywhere too.

    But then you can turn around and say something and it gets totally taken out of context with the whole PC bs too. And the people who get offended the most by such PC crap, seem to be white people. Go figure.

  7. I live in my quiet corner of the world amongst different races and religions... and love it. I would hate to be surrounded by intolerance and prejudice. We are all on this earth to share what is on offer and it's high time some realised it. I wish I could apologise to you for the actions of my own folk.

  8. I think many of us, if not most, experience what you have to one degree or another, CiL. For instance, while in the Marine Corps I experienced encounters when some people treat you like a hero and others treat you like a pariah of the worst magnitude simply because of the uniform you wear (which, at least, can be put on and taken off at will). Both labels were absolutely ridiculous, insulting and, to me, offensive.

    But, I fully am aware that I can never "walk a mile in another person's shoes," so I would never pretend to see the world through your eyes, CiL, or to interpret how others in your world view you.

    From my standpoint, the foremost "devils" in this matter are political leaders who utilize concepts such as racism, inequality among the sexes, homophobia and more as tools to gain power and influence; are media, who utilize them to gain ratings; are business owners, who utilize them to decrease expenses and to increase profits. This is the way of the world, and always will be, I think.

    You have produced another thought-provoking post, and another neat piece of music.

  9. My uncle returned from war in Greece with a new bride. Fifty years later, she was still known in town as "That Greek girl!
    Everything she cooked, made, bought, etc... in people's mind, was "foreign".
    The dominant culture wanted her to convert quickly, by not emphasizing her 'otherness', by speaking without an accent, by using tried and true local customs.

    Yes, indeed, people are blinded by their own traditions, and only exposure, exposure and exposure might open up their eyes to new light sources.

  10. It will not surprise you, but some of the most despicable examples of prejudice I have encountered have come from within the Latino community. One would think that a group which is almost defined by its racial diversity would know better. Alas, no. The "Other" is an easy scapegoat which crosses ethnic, religious, national, gender, sexual preference, economic class, and age lines. I'm sure I can come up with more categories. It is a wonder that one can achieve any harmony whatsoever. But, I keep hoping. And, posts such as this one can only help.

  11. How I wish I didn't understand this post. I wish even more I didn't agree. From time to time I think we are making small steps in the right direction - and then I hit a wall. Of ignorance, of fear - disguised (sometimes well) as hate.
    There is a Callaghan cartoon which brought it home to me. Picture a beggar, holding a sign. The sign reads 'Please help. I am black, I am blind and I am NOT musical'...

  12. I raised my sons in a city neighbourhood with many, many cultures. I think.. I hope it helped them to be more accepting and respectful of others differences and not to make assumptions based on them.

    Both boys (now men) individually made the observation when they were in their teens, that if someone begins a sentence with "I'm not prejudice but..." or "I'm not a bigot but.." then what comes out of their mouths next pretty much proves that they are.

  13. Many thanks for your thoughtful response.

    Just to add to the thread. What I have seen so far is that when it comes to a "big issue" (say, the murders of Stephen Lawrence and Anthony Walker years ago) there is cohesion and unity. There;s a sense that this is the kind of racism we must fight. The same with apartheid or any other system that purports to discriminate against another race. The difficulty arises when the (race) issue at hand is not as clear-cut. After many years as the Cerberus par excellence, Jeremy Paxman is leaving his post as presenter on Newsnight. I'm 100% and would dare to bet all my money (I'm not a gambling person) that the programme editor, the DG and the channel controller are all thinking of finding a replacment WHO LOOKS AND SOUNDS EXACTLY like Jeremy because that is the demographics they want to target. I'm not saying that the gig should go to a black or Aisan person or woman or disabled person just to tick a box. I am however stating the obvious. We (me included, at a subconscious) want to have the reassurance of a Jeremy Paxman-like person hectoring and bossing politicans and holding bankers to account. We have learned not to look at black or Asian people as human beings who have those traits, too. Running the local takeaway or newsagents? Yes. Holding forth with the liks of Michael Howard or Ian Duncan Smith? No.

    That was the point of my column today. Thank you all for your contributions. Have a great week.

    Greetings from London.

  14. you know i wish we could remove all those barriers.. we're all humans and should accept each other but i'm not sure if we manage. i live close to the french and swiss border and even between people that live really so close and have historically the same background there are misunderstandings and "racial" barriers sometimes

  15. I probably had very stereotypical viewpoint while growing up in regards to race w/o even realizing it.

    Nowadays, I've done a complete 180. Between working in the city (capitol of my home state), working for an agency that is about as diverse as you can get (genuinely diverse as opposed to PC diverse), having close friends who are minorities and having nephews/in-laws who are minorities, I can pretty much say that I look at things with a better open mind.

    I'm willing to deal with someone as a person as opposed to dealing with them as a minority.

    Father Nature's Corner

  16. I am not shocked by your experience but sadden. Having grown up in the American South during a time of change, I am often shocked by the racism I see in the "liberal north" that is every bit as present as in the south. It takes a lot to overcome but being honest about the struggle with racism seems to me to be the first step.

  17. Horrid racism supported by public policy, no less, used to be rampant in some parts of the U.S. Things are undeniably better now than they used to be, but we still have a very long way to go. Insidious racism still simmers inside of far too many people, but I believe our children and grandchildren will help society find the way.

  18. There was a programme on Radio 4 yesterday that challenged that statistic - boiling down to how you interpret the numbers.

    Having said that, I struggle with the racism I see around me. I was brought up in the 1950s, when much of the world was still 'pink' - I remember the terrible patronising arrangements for 'giving countries independence' when they had 'shown they were grown-up enough' to govern themselves.

    I had to unlearn such attitudes - not difficult when I was well-educated and came across people of all colours and abilities in my work. But there are still far too many people of my generation and older who still cling to those old ideas. I challenge it when I can - and I hope my white middle-classness doesn't end up sounding patronising.

    I believe (because I'm an optimist and believe that most people are basically ok) that this will change over time. As different ethnicities have children we will learn to include people of every colour and heritage. (One of my grandsons is part Venezuelan - the only member of the family who struggles with than is an aunt aged 94).

  19. I am sorry you experienced this racism.
    It is very sad to know that racism continues in the world but I don't think it will ever end, sadly.
    Thanks for sharing your story.
    I wish you well, always.

    Good day from beautiful Colorado ....

  20. The rise of the racist parties in Europe is frightening! We can't be passive but have to fight it - not only on the political front (when people hear politicians spouting racism then they somehow think it's okay too), but also in everyday life - it's the hidden daily racism that reinforces these stereotypes too.

  21. Yikes. As a white South African brought up during the apartheid years, what can I add here? The last twenty years has taught me that bigoted minds exist in all shapes and colours - that as an overweight white person in an image conscious city I've experienced more prejudice from white people than I have from black people ... as a white person I have experienced real racial prejudice from black people who look at my white skin and call me a racist pig when I,for example, lodge a mild complaint about poor service, my husband's (black) driver was arrested by (black) cops because he is a Zimbabwean, my 80 year old mother (who was once arrested for being foolish enough to singlehandedly take on a gun toting AWB guy who was harassing an old black man during apartheid years while white and black men stood by and did nothing) was recently verbally abused by a young black man for being a white woman (he knew nothing of her personal hisory or past actions.) My oldest friend,we met 39 years ago in school,is a gay man, he left the priesthood because of the prejudice he encountered ... the list of prejudice goes on and on.

    Reading THE NATURE OF PREJUDICE by Gordon Allport radically opened my mind to an interesting concept.

    Very simply,he suggests prejudice is a human condition based on our need to filter overwhelming sensory input and anything that doesn't fit into categories we are familiar with becomes the focus of our prejudice.

    So how do we stop it? How do we change the world? All I do is try to connect with people on a soul level - the soul has no gender, it has no race, it has no species definition (that's why I'm vegetarian.)

    I've given up worrying about whether I'll be seen as racist by my actions or lack of actions. All I can do is answer the call of another soul to mine, with as much of my inner truth as possible. Everything else is immaterial.

  22. PS I forgot to say that in my novel DANCING IN THE SHADOWS OF LOVE prejudice is the main theme - you can read more here

    The nature of prejudice, the illusion of difference

    If you want to read a copy let me know on twitter or at the bottom of the post I'll send you a voucher :) :)

  23. PPS Before you decide if you want to read it you can explore more themes here

  24. Excellent and rationale post on a difficult topic. I like that you encourage honesty as a starting point for meaningful discussion. Sadly here in the States, we have difficulty with the honest part and that leaves the discussions lacking.

  25. It seems like every step we take in a positive direction we end up taking two steps back.

  26. Good point about distinguishing the difference between racism and racial prejudice. It depresses me that our society hasn't made much progress. I'm sorry you had to hear something like that directed at you twice. I admire you for channeling your reaction into a thoughtful post instead of anger.

  27. I recently reread an Evelyn Waugh novel which included a black American character on a visit to England - Decline and Fall. A rich English lady had scandalised her social set by taking up with him. When her uncomfortable but "polite" friends tried to engage him in conversation (their opening remarks being loaded with stereotypes) they were disconcerted to find that his main interest in England was church architecture!

  28. Many thanks for your comments. It's been a lovely experience to read them.

    Greetings from London.

  29. Sigh. Such a complex issue. You're right, Britain isn't the only place that racism is returning to it's more overt roots. Every Western nation that's experienced an economic downturn is also dealing with more racist and hate crimes. Power and privilege are intrinsically connected to racism and when the first two decline, the former usually rises. Racism and stereotypes is buried in historical constructs and the hard work to first acknowledge them and then undo them must be done before we make any meaningful progress.

  30. People are often just scared of what is 'other' or different. Inequality in income and opportunity only makes things much worse - in such times many people look at those they consider to be outsiders and make them into scapegoats. I was told in one job interview that as an English person i wouldn't be able to cope with a job working in a working class Scottish community, despite the fact that i lived in the area at the time.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...