Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Harmonious Diversity

I suppose our village is little different from any other in the ultra conservative South East when it comes to what I call ‘tributary racism.’

          By this I mean the kind of racism that trickles often unnoticeably, yet persistently, as an undercurrent to social exchange. It can take you unaware, though, shifting what you assumed was solid ground under your feet, as it surfaces to join the mainstream.

Most often, tributary racism is manifested through the odd, passing remark.

          ‘And then, I was put through to somewhere in India and of course I couldn’t understand a word they said!’ – this from peg-toothed Jill in the pub the other night, as she built to a crescendo in an account of her recent foray into telephone banking. She splutters as the ice from her G&T hits her gums.

          ‘Then, when I telephoned my mum, she’d got some dodgy Poles there that she’d let in the house to fit insulation in the loft!’ – this I overheard in the shop, yesterday.

          Quite apart from the assumptions held here – that Indians and Poles by turns are incomprehensible in their speech and a race prone to illegal working practices – this tributary racism gathers pace by resting on the belief that I am of the same mind as the speaker. This was all too evident in the pub last Friday night, when Janet and Brian called in for a drink. They had recently been up to London to the theatre, and witnessed a knife fight between two youths, right in front of them, there in Leicester Square.

          ‘They would have been black, I suppose,’ interrupted Old Norm.

          ‘Of course,’ acknowledged Brian, with scarcely a pause in the story.

          It is often difficult to perceive tributary racism before it surfaces. Lawrence caught me as Tramp and I walked past the end of his drive today, as he was wheeling one of his bins around. He has recently started using the internet and receives circular emails of jokes from his friends at the golf club; he was keen to tell me one that he’d read that day. The gist of it was, a teacher is reading the class register that comprises Indian and Asian sounding names – all pronounced with gusto by Lawrence as he adopts what he considers to be the appropriate accent each time, to hilarious effect, in his mind. The punch line comes when the teacher gets to the English name, ‘Alison’ but pronounces it as if it were Indian. I didn’t laugh; but I found myself consoling Lawrence for this, saying how it probably needed to be read to get the impact of the spellings. By saying nothing I felt complicit, but Lawrence is my neighbour and I didn’t want to offend him by taking the moral high ground.

          One of the Doctors at the local GPs’ surgery in the next village is Black, and of course Lawrence had no hesitation in calling her out to Geraldine when she was ill, just before Christmas. But he would not see any trace of hypocrisy in this. Still, to be fair, a lot of older folk find it difficult to know when they are being racist, especially when it comes to tributary racism. Lawrence, for instance, cannot bring himself to describe the Doctor as Black, and might describe everything else about her to identify her to you, to avoid mentioning the most obvious distinguishing feature.

‘It was the lady doctor that came. You know the one: she is tall, dark haired. Very friendly. Smiles a lot; quite outgoing. Wears smart suits…’

Only if pushed does Lawrence mention the fact that the Doctor is Black, and even then he uses the outmoded term, ‘coloured.’ Maybe this is because ‘coloured’ is less definite and so carries less certainty. Or maybe he cannot bring himself to acknowledge that Black people might have the right to decide on their own descriptor, themselves.

After the exchange with Lawrence, Tramp and I continued up the lane and into the woods on our walk. The ground was firm underfoot; no sloshing through mud today! Once in the trees, the intensity of blue from the soaring haze of bluebells made me catch my breath. They are now in full flower, nodding above a leaf mat of uninterrupted dark green glossiness that covers all remnants of brown, winter earth below. I wonder if the impact would be so strong, though, without the frail white anemones scattered though, the whole forming a vision of harmonious diversity.

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