Rights , wrongs, responsibilities

At some point in the mid 1960s a friend of mine’s father was arrested for “ loitering with intent to burgle a factory “ or something similar, my friend wasn’t entirely sure of the exact charge. His father’s plea that although it was a Sunday he was just going in to get some paperwork for the next day was rejected by the arresting officers as entirely absurd. 

A few hours later  the Inspector at the change of the next shift came round to look at the cells. After a very brief chat he quickly released my friend’s father with an apology and explained to the arresting officer that it was entirely possible to be the MD of one of the  town’s largest employers and a black man, simultaneously. 

He knew this  possibly because he was probably on the membership committee of the local golf club that rejected my friend’s father’s application . I don’t actually know that, but I do know my friend said, like the inspector, his dad was a keen golfer  but unlike him, couldn’t  get a membership  in a private club,  anywhere.

My friend’s father  was American. Having been posted by the parent company to take over the subsidiary in the UK, no-one recorded who was the more  astonished at his appointment, the people he came to manage , or him at what he found. 

He was exceptional, in so many ways, but at a personal level to achieve what he did,  when he did,  spoke not just of his capability, but his perseverance  and strength of character. 

To suggest we discriminate in Britain is wrong.  We can do racism both overtly and subtly,  we experience both equally.

The 60s eh? The bad old times, things have changed so much haven’t they ? Sorry I should have  another go at that …haven’t they? I think I got the emphasis wrong . 

Yesterday I had a chat with Alan, not his real name because despite what I am about to say , Alan is; a good man, a man who works for his community and who would help anyone in need. 

We were speaking about the Black Lives Matter protests scheduled.  He said that he really thought it was out of order for these people to riot and deface our public monuments , “it is disgraceful what they are doing to our history .” 

“Our history Alan? “ I said ‘ Perhaps that is the point, do you not feel that Black and minority people might have a good reason to be upset given our history and how little we know of theirs?” He looked a bit surprised. he had expected my agreement. It is possible  that when we look the same,  to believe we think the same. We are of a similar age too. 

“ Yes,  but the rioting is unacceptable we have to stand up for our history ” 

“ How many rioted Alan? Did any riot in Glasgow? No they didn’t,  they worked really well with the Police to make sure it was peaceful and socially distanced , but  in any  protest there will be the 1/2 percent who don’t come for the right reasons and just want to start something bad regardless of what the protest is about .” He thought about it for a while. 

“ But they should be grateful Steve .”

“ Grateful? For slavery, for Windrush, for disproportionate arrests, for deaths in custody …Scotland  as well as the USA,  for the  opportunities that they never get regardless of their ability?  “

“ No…well no ,  but that is just minor given what they have to be grateful for,   they would still be in Africa and undeveloped if it wasn’t for what we did for them .” 

The word “ grateful “ I hadn’t really expected. “ Undeveloped “ would have been surprising but actually I have sanitised this because I am not prepared to say what he actually said .I can’t even begin to do justice to “ minor.” 

It was my turn to think for while.

These comments shocked me, and then on reflection I was shocked that I was shocked because aren’t these comments the gist of what the Black Lives Matter’s protests are all about ? Haven’t they been the reflection of generations of others? 

And then we got to the knub. 

A few years back a black youth pushed past Alan in an aggressive manner , he remembers that, he associates that aggression with the youth’s blackness. I spoke of when I was aggressively approached by 4 Scottish youths  “ yes but that’s differ…” he didn’t finish the sentence . 

We talked a little about how far he would have to travel to have a conversation with a black person given where we live, we talked about what newspapers focus upon in their reports  in order to sell. We talked about being familiar with other cultures and what can fill the void when familiarity is missing . We talked about the imperfections of great men. 

When good,  community,  minded people are scared of race . When such people believe that colonialism benefits those  at the sharp end of things,  when they are resentful that Black people see this differently. When you weigh those things on one side of the scale and you see how little that is challenged, it might not reflect your views but  it is impossible to say that we do not live in a racist country. 

We can, and should question the teaching of history in this country. Not just Black history as it affects their community but White history as it affects Black people. We must  challenge  what colonialism did without the sugar coated sweetener of Britain’s “greater” past. We need to know what colonialism was, why it gave an economic boost to our country and what it has done to hold back the development of others. 

It struck me that one of the most iconic of patriotic songs, Jerusalem, speaks of “these dark satanic mills” reflecting upon the imperfection and exploitation  behind Britain’s rise to economic  primacy, but where in our received culture as White people do we speak of the exploitation of people of colour?

Black people  deserve to have their history taught to children, black and white,  but just as importantly white people  deserve and need to have a balanced history taught. Otherwise we have no accurate clue of where we come from. Neither do we have a proper taught basis for our thinking on issues of race. 

You might  argue, as human beings, should we need that ? 

In writing this piece I took time to test it with a friend and they caused me to pause and reflect. That reflection was also educated by two other men ; Patrick Hutchinson and Boris Johnson . 

It is perhaps ironic and worrying that we might see the label “institutional racism” as something  that,  because it relates to a collective responsibility,  excuses individual inactivity .  

Patrick Hutchinson showed us what individual action can do when he threw someone over his shoulder  who was clearly not of his thinking or background and saved his life. He has since commented that he didn’t think, he could see what was happening and his fundamental instinct as a human being told him the right thing to do. 

Boris Johnson thought and decided that he needed to have a commission and a report on something that hundreds of thousands of people  at the BLM protests could write for him based upon their daily experience of racism. How many people have to die, how many people have to be wrongfully arrested, how many people  have to be discriminated against at work, how many need to be stopped and searched before we know enough on this subject to act? 

Prejudice is born of unfamiliarity and herd mentality, but it is sustained by inactivity. Collective and individual . 

Racism has no rights, only wrongs.

Good but wrong people on this subject  need to reflect on their personal position and challenge their understanding of themselves. 

Powerful people  need to reflect upon their responsibility, and act. 

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10 replies »

  1. Excellent piece!

    The slave trade generated an enormous amount of wealth for both the UK and the USA but history never tells us about that. I originally come from Australia and went back for a few years. I found out a lot about how colonial Britain taught history when I went back to Australia. In the 1970s we were never taught about the Aboriginal Wars and Massacres, the Stolen Generations and the Stolen Wages which Aboriginal people are still trying to get back. In those days there was not one mention of Aboriginal people at all in our history books and there is still no mention of Aboriginal people. Maybe a mention of their art and music but not the huge contribution they made propping up graziers to earn vast amounts of money without having to pay for labour. Aboriginal people were excellent stockmen, they had superb tracking skills so they could find cattle over vast distances. They were used to the climate.

    There is no way that white people could have existed without Aboriginal people helping them or the Muslim cameleers opening up the outback. All these people got were bags of flour and permission to camp on the grazier’s land which incidentally was Aboriginal land as there has never been a treaty between white people and Aboriginal people. It really does make me angry when I hear white Australians saying what a lazy bunch of people Aboriginal people are when the first settlers relied on the food provided by Aborigines and the explorers all used Aboriginal trackers to discover Australia. And the reason for this racist attitude is that Australian history books don’t give any acknowledgement at all about the Aboriginal contribution to how the country was developed. The same can be said of the the UK and the US, colonial Britain needs to re-write its history books and include the contributions of indigenous people and the slave trade to the United Kingdom and the United States. Maybe a few statues of the slaves that so enriched our island wouldn’t go astray!

    • Aye heday, and how many other places have a similar story to tell? First, they helped those that arrived in their land, who wouldn’t have survived otherwise, then – the incomers appropriated their land etc. etc. etc. Way back through time, all over the world.
      For that matter, that’s not just ‘black’ and ‘white’ either – it’s people.

      The Australian Aboriginal peoples you mention, as far as I can tell, being one of the few sets of people, who don’t see the land as belonging to them – to hold onto, or not – maybe that’s why they were easy prey for the incomers.

      In some places, whole races were simply wiped out. Gone. Language, culture – maybe some genetic traces left. What’s left of the Carib peoples? https://theorkneynews.scot/2019/06/06/whos-who/

      And in many of the far Northern lands – new arrivals would have perished, often did perish, without the knowledge, and help of the people already there.

      I could go on, and on, and on – but, I won’t.
      Me writing this, won’t make a ha’porth o’ difference. It’s not going to change basic human behaviour.

    • I spent 3 years in Papua New Guinea in the 1990s a bit less than 20 years after its independence from Australian Administration . I had the vision in my mind that the ” New World” had a very different approach to colonialism and race than back home. I was shocked to find the remnants of signs ” white only ” on toilets and beaches. I had no idea that Australia used form of apartheid there .

      Nor, until really recently did I know of the price paid by the Athlete Peter Norman for his role in the Black Power salute . It was poignant that 2 of his pall bearers at his funeral were the other two athletes on the podium with him . We all have a long way to go….sadly

      • Yes, Australia’s apartheid was the best-kept secret at that time and still is. When South Africa was undergoing sanctions Australia had brought in the White Australia policy. Even now there has been legislation to deport Australian aborigines. To where, you might ask! Fortunately, the High Court overruled it. I agree with you but baby steps are better than putting it in the “too hard” box!

  2. For some reason, what made me gasp most when I read this, was this…

    “they would still be in Africa and undeveloped if it wasn’t for what we did for them .”

    I suppose I’m familiar with much of what you’re writing about – and in agreement. I think I must also be aware that there are people who actually see it that way – that ‘they’ would have been ‘in Africa’ and ‘undeveloped’. But, reading that shook me up.

    No idea that ‘they’ might prefer to have stayed in ‘Africa’ or wherever else, in many cases.

    That’s an astonishing attitude. You say prejudice is born of unfamiliarity and I agree. I’m aware that I see as I do, because I grew up in Bradford, with a real mixed bunch as my friends. But still – that some should actually see it that away – shakes me up.

    It reminds me of the idea that the peoples of what is now called Britain, should be grateful to the Romans, for what they brought, as they were all living in huts and having a terrible time, until the Romans brought sanitation etc. No – what is now called Britain, had a very reasonable way of living before that particular group of fascists turned up.

    I’m rambling, and ranting a bit.

    I know there is prejudice – on both ‘sides’. What’s often referred to as racial prejudice, isn’t to do with race – it’s to do with colour. One generation, the accent is gone, and people find it harder to point the finger. It’s colour prejudice and it’s there, in all kinds of ways, some more open than others.

    I’m going to say something now – and it might get me into bother, but it’s something of what I’ve been thinking about recent …events –
    How would many of the people who are being so high minded, react if their child brought home a person of a different race? Not even different colour, but …different? That’s one question – following on from that – how many would actually make a ‘thing‘ of being oh so ‘understanding’ and ‘liberal’ about the situation, whilst……really…..? And I mean – on either ‘side’ of a cultural divide.

    Your articles always get me thinking, and reacting. Which is probably your intention.

    I’ve been having these thoughts and just wittering at Mike about them.
    It’s a huge and very, very complex matter – how a person actually does feels about ‘others’, and how they would like folk to think they feel about ’others’.

    Growing up with lots of different kinds of people is a good way to not even think about what they look like – well, except the obvious – beauty, hits the eye, and gets a response, whatever form it takes. We’re as biased in favour of beauty, as we are about other forms of appearance.

    I’m going to stop now. It’s just that the ‘they’d be in Africa’ being seen as a terrible thing, is such a…stunningly …narrow, stupid, smug thing for a person to say or think.
    Smugness plays a part in these ways of behaving, too.

    Oh dear, you’ve sent me off on one. You’ve written the article, I needn’t labour the points made therein.

    • Lol – sorry to have set you off on one !

      I think, unsurprisingly, we are in agreement in pretty much everything you said. The notion of when prejudice comes up against its subject, or is that object since they are objectified and the reality of what their relative humanity means is something I think you imply by you ” guess who is coming to dinner?” comment. Connection and familiarity both creates and eases tension which tends to say that it is the quality of the connection that counts .

      I am fascinated by your comment about what we see . In my ” other life” I am a photographer and I have just founded a Charity that is dedicated to Ethical Imaging in the third sector and the overseas development world. How we depict things is essential in my view in how we relate to them.

      • One thing I think, among many things I think along these lines, is….
        the best thing that can happen to someone who is racially prejudiced, is to find out that they have ancestry in that race. Ah – Ha!

        I’ve known that happen, to someone I know – I was…crowing!

        I’ve written of difference – the joy of difference, while all being one, in many articles for TON, if you’d care to have a look? I don’t know how’s best to do that, as I am stunningly rubbish at that sorta thing. Someone asked me for a link which included all my gardening pieces, and I had to ask Fiona (G) to help me out!
        Thank goodness for Missus Editor, is what I say.

  3. Heday talks much of Australia – and much I agree with.
    Perhaps we should study the recent history of New Zealand.
    It is not that long ago that Cook discovered the place, and soon after, the British colonisation
    began it’s occupation and domination. The Maoris suffered heavily.
    However with a western style balanced political system the country has found it’s multicultural feet.
    Over the last ten or so years the revered sacred Maori lands and culture have been restored,.
    to the NZ identity.
    They have taken their proportional and rightful place in the NZ government and parliament.
    Just like NZ has so well managed the pandemic, perhaps we should not be too proud to ask them how they managed to bring the two races together so successfully.
    America has been trying to do this for nearly 200 years, and us oh I don’t know.

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