We have all, now, been recommended to examine our consciences and ask ourselves: “Am I a racist? Do I have subconscious racist attitudes?” It’s quite probable that if we are honest, we will sometimes come up with the answer “yes”. Since Black Lives Matter hit the headlines, I’ve heard conversations starting like this: “When I think back on some of the things my mother said… even some of the things I thought, or came out with…” We consider, appalled, some of the casual attitudes of yesteryear, which are still in the substratum of our consciousness.
Black people can recount a litany of insults they have suffered through the years and the decades, from football crowds making monkey noises to people insistently asking, “But where are you really from?” when they are born and bred in these islands.
Bullying, verbal cruelty or taunting to anyone is unacceptable behaviour. It’s not an excuse, but maybe an explanation, to point out that mockery about “difference” has always gone on, for one reason or another. My late pal Stan Gébler Davies grew up in a richly mixed-faith family — Catholic, Protestant and Jewish — and he claimed he was mocked, sometimes beaten up, by Catholic kids for being a “Prod”, by Protestant kids for being a “Teague”, and by both for being a “Yid”.
We live in more sensitive times, and we are more alert to abuse, but it is still probably true to say that most societies are at some level racist. It is even claimed by anthropologists that racism is inborn: babies as young as six months already have “racist” attitudes, in that they show dislike for people or faces who seem strange or different to them. The neo-Darwinists claim that a defensive guile was a necessary element of survival, and that xenophobia — fear of foreigners — helped the human species to be wary of the unknown.
The current guru of anti-racism, Ibram X Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist, agrees with the idea that racism is so deep, it’s inborn. He claims that “we are all racist, sexist homophobes”. But that’s all the more reason why we must strive to overcome these inner evils within us. It is not enough not to be racist: we must be actively anti-racist.
It’s undeniable that racism is found in many societies, although sometimes in different ways. My sister had a wonderful romantic relationship with a Japanese lawyer and he wanted to marry her. She went to Japan on an extended stay, and although she greatly appreciated Japanese culture, she concluded that she would never really be accepted as a Japanese wife: she would never fit in. The Japanese have a word for foreigners — “gai-jin” — and it is not particularly complimentary. It’s not just about skin colour, either: Korean people have long been treated as inferior. Japan is changing like everywhere else, but many Japanese would still say that the stability of their society is based on its homogeneity.
Or consider Finland. Refugees from Vietnam — known as the Vietnamese boat people — were seeking asylum in Europe up to the 1990s. I was in Helsinki when a Finnish politician was asked if Finland would accept her quotient of such refugees. “Yes,” he said, “if they look like Finns.” Finland is a progressive country, and its present prime minister, the young Sanna Marin, is unlikely to express such views, but Finnish society was until recently quite proud of the uniqueness of ethnic Finnishness, and proud that the Finnish language is so inaccessible to foreigners. Black societies, too, can have their own discrimination. In French-speaking Senegal, more status has been bestowed on Senegalese who are “clair” — light-skinned. Within black culture, this is known as “shadeism”: differentiation between shades of skin colour. Kendi calls this “colorism” and deplores the fact that, in America, “Light” people of colour have more advantages than “Dark”. Pitifully, “Light” children are more quickly adopted than “Dark”.
Black people have been the most egregious victims of racism, and it’s right that we should examine our attitudes, and correct them, wherever we identify prejudice. Sometimes that’s confusing because the goalposts seem to have moved. For example, stories like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which we once thought compassionate tales illuminating the suffering of American slaves, are now considered patronising and an enabler of “white privilege”. Some of us were brought up to venerate Blessed (now Saint) Martin de Porres, whose statuette nodded “thank you” each time we dropped a coin in a box for the education of “the black babies”. Martin was a good man who cared for the poor, started a hospital for children and was kind to animals. But I wonder, now, if that might be considered a condescending aspect of white privilege?
We live in a more sensitive age, but we are also more aware of walking on eggshells.
Maybe better than toppling statues or going on marches is an honest question to ourselves — if we have ever, even unthinkingly, entertained personal racism. And how we can change that.
‘We live in more sensitive times, and we are more alert to abuse, but it is still probably true to say that most societies are at some level racist’