Friday, November 10, 2006
My wife and I were drinking coffee in our hotel in Barcelona this week, when a journalist, translator and interviewee settled down on a sofa nearby. My wife recognised the interviewee as British author, Andrea Levy. My wife had read Ms Levy's 2004 book, A Small Island, which the interview was clearly to promote (perhaps it has just been published in Catalan?). She thought is was quite good as social history, if not very well-written.
We were minding our own business, but couldn't help overhearing the interview, by a Catalan journalist. As it progressed, we became more and more irritated.
Ms Levy's book is based on her parents' generation's experiences as new immigrants to Britain in the 1950's, including - inevitably - their experiences of racism. I am sure they had some. Equally inevitably, Ms Levy was asked about her own experiences of racism. She can't be blamed for the question, but her answers were disappointing.
She talked of being the only black girl in an otherwise all-white school, but couldn't come up with a single concrete example of anything bad happening to her. To her credit (thank you, Andrea) she didn't make anything up. However, we had a real sense that she was disappointed that she couldn't trash her former schoolfriends more powerfully than by hinting at their sense of her being different. Pathetically, she mentioned that she "wasn't that dark," as if her schoolfriends would have shown their true racism if she had only been blacker.
Moving on to contemporary racism, she commented - even more pathetically - that racists are so subtle now that sometimes she thinks "is it just me?" How desperate is she to cling to the idea of racism, that she is unprepared to give the benefit of the doubt? Frankly, Andrea, if you can't tell if they are racist, it probably is just you. Imagine how tense they must feel, knowing that you are straining every nerve to detect racism on their part! Any slight sense of unease you may detect might reasonably be attributed to that, don't you think?
She waxed lyrical about establishing a separate identity of "Black British." Frankly, that took the weevil-infested biscuit. What is on offer in Britain is the chance for anyone who wants it to become British, pure and simple. Our national identity is not of the "blood and soil" variety. It's a club. Sign up, join in and you will be welcome.
I have friends descended from Poles, Germans, Hungarians and Russians. All of them are utterly English; thoroughly steeped (as is Ms Levy) in our language and culture. None of them feel the need to establish a separate identity. If we Britons had ever sought to impose a separate identity on them, we would no doubt have been accused of racism. I am sure their ancestors endured a bit of mockery when they first arrived, with curious accents and a weak grasp of how things worked in England. But that did not stop them becoming full members of the club.
I accept Ms Levy, without reservation, as my fellow-citizen. I am happy she is a prize-winning author and - presumably - a financial success. All I would ask is that she would do the same for me, despite my skin being lighter than hers and despite my family having had the poor taste to live in Britain since before the Norman Conquest.
100% HumanBeing: For someone who judges so rapidly and so broadly on so little data, you are pretty free with your criticism of being "judgemental". I hope you read Andrea Levy's book with more attention to the text than you read my post. Every sentence in your comment but the first is a non sequitur. And the first is an impossibility. That's quite an achievement!
Posted by: Tom Paine | Sunday, December 03, 2006 at 08:00 AM
Perhaps Levy was alluding to the attitudes of the writer who referred to "none of them." There is some sort of subtle "something" there that is quite ugly. And, although you claim to have assimilated into your current culture, you're quite vocal about your Norman British ancestry. I do realize that you seem to be the sort who never questions himself and makes a hobby of putting down others, but self-reflection is healthy. You wrote as if you had an ax to grind with Ms. Levy, even before she spoke. Ms. Levy has been quite honest about the fact that she is a mixed-race Jamaican (hence her Jewish surname). The interviewer asked HER about racism, remember? And, if you happen to read her novel (despite your wife's trashing of it), you will find that it features a multiracial cast of highly nuanced characters. I feel sorry for you, living in such a small, judgmental world.
Posted by: 100%HumanBeing | Tuesday, November 28, 2006 at 09:48 PM
People who cry prejudice etc because of skin colour or religion do make me sick sometimes. Things like that happen to many people, black and white, in all walks of life, and you simply have to try and move on, not hold onto grudges for the rest of time. It just stunts your growth otherwise. Having been a male-single parent in Northern England for fifteen years (she's grown up now) I can't begin to tell you what I've had to put up with...wait! Yes I can, lol. Well ok, I'll just list a few examples.
How about being rejected by employers (women in this case), people I had formerly classed as friends, purely because I was a male single-parent? "You are better off going on benefits" was the claim. No I wasn't. My daughter and I had £60 a week to live on, and not a penny more, no maintenance payments. And that had to pay every bill that came in.
How about other employers knocking me back as soon as they knew I was a single-parent?
How about being rejected from college courses (fitness instruction) because I was a male-single parent (said to my face) and then discovering that female single-parents were welcomed with open arms onto the same course?
How about being told by the interviewer in the science department at a top University that, as a mature student I was a waste of time and he didn't want to offer me a place on the degree course for that reason and that reason alone?
How about another interviewer at a separate University (another well-known one) refusing me a place on the degree course because I was a single-parent and was wasting his and my time?
How about being rejected from a position at a well-known Museum in the UK, despite the fact I was the only qualified person who had applied, because of my age?
How about the attitude that was quite prevalent up in the North towards me for some time: "Bringing up a kid's f****** womens work you f****** poof."
How about being the only male parent in the playground most of the time, and being avoided because of that? The only male parent doing voluntary work at my daughter's school? You stick out like a sore thumb.
Dumped by women because "I'm not bringing up some other womans child!" And that happens far more frequently than women actually admit. Far more frequently. Just the other day I read a blog written by a woman who was bemoaning the fact that she and her mother had decided she should dump her boyfriend because he was a father. Very self-pitying, and all her friends comments were dishing out sympathy for her with not one word about this poor guy who is about to be dumped just because he is a father.
Well, there are just a few examples. But it happens to a lot of people and isn't dependant upon skin colour, and where are the support groups and newspaper articles? Where are the books being written about white English males done down just because of their gender and parental responsibility? But, and here's the clincher, I could equally give examples of people who have helped me, who have stuck their necks out for me, even literally saved my life. The thing is, good and bad things happen to all of us, regardless of colour. And that's just life.
Posted by: Sperestillan | Sunday, November 12, 2006 at 04:09 PM
...None of them feel the need to establish a separate identity...
And that is the whole point. It's their own 'cringe', their own desire to see beasties where there are not and their own desire not to assimilate.
Both you and I, Tom, are over here and assimilate, while not forgetting where we come from. I don't see what the problem is with this.
Posted by: james higham | Saturday, November 11, 2006 at 02:02 PM