Friendly Racism

We live in a world where racism is being addressed and challenged like never before. Black Lives Matter, debates on slavery and removal of statues, equal opportunities in education, job discrimination, positive discrimination by having quotas of non-whites in TV advertising and films, as well as in some industries.

And much more, even extending to the censorship and banning of some books.

Then we saw the now-famous Oscar ceremony ‘slap’. Two black men having a dispute in front of a mainly white audience, seen by a worldwide television audience of tens of millions, with some 17 million watching in America alone. That dispute, which started over a joke made in bad taste, ended in violence. Arguments have bandied back and forth since about it being a bad example to others. Maybe Will Smith should have his Oscar taken away, maybe not. I have no firm opinion either way, but I do know that if it had not been a popular millionaire actor delivering that slap, the chances are the offender would have been arrested, whatever his/her colour.

That got me thinking about my past, in working-class London in the 1950s and 1960s.

Until I went to secondary school in 1963 at the age of 11, I didn’t know any black people. I had never spoken to one, nor socialised with any. There were some around the dockside area where we lived: mostly sailors from the ships in port, national servicemen on leave, or workmen fixing up the bomb-damaged houses. But only a few.

My dad had served in India during WW2. He had a high opinion of Sikhs, who he spoke of with respect as ‘brave fighters’. He also loved to listen to black singers and musicians, like Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Paul Robeson, and Count Basie.

Yet he called black people ‘Spades’ or ‘Schvartzers’ in everyday conversation. My mum, who was a very kind lady, referred to black babies as ‘cute piccanninies’. And she meant that as a compliment. People of mixed race -also a rarity where we lived- were referred to as a ‘half-chat’, or ‘Chalky’. When considering the need to sound polite, my parents upgraded this term to ‘Half-caste’, a saying my dad had picked up during his time in India.

I was too young to know any different. And even if I had been old enough to challenge all this as racist, I am sure they would have been shocked. They both considered themselves to be completely tolerant to all races.

Other races were not spared. Anyone from SE Asia, Japan, or China, was called a ‘chink’, or ‘chinky’.
(Even Prince Philip, as recently as 2017, referred to Chinese people as ‘slitty-eyed’. )

When many Indian-owned restaurants and corner shops began to appear on the streets of Britain, my mum referred to them as ‘Pakkies’, even if the owner was from India, Sri Lanka, Kenya, or Uganda and had no connection with Pakistan whatsoever.

But my mum would have been mortified to ever have been called racist. She was a member of The Labour Party all her life, and described herself as a Socialist. Yet when she was older, she would think nothing of saying something like “That bus driver was very nice, considering he was an African”. She had smiled at the man, and made what she regarded to be a compliment in his hearing. She was friendly to him, and thanked him as she got off the bus. In her way of thinking, she couldn’t have been anything like a racist.

When more African families moved into Peckham, the part of London where she lived, she became annoyed at the way the shops were changing. They began to sell things like Yams and Plantain, Salt Fish, and ‘exotic fruit’. The world she knew was changing fast, and she could no longer find what she needed in the shops she had once known well. She telephoned me, asking me to drive over and take her a couple of miles to a large supermarket.

“I can’t get what I need in Peckham anymore. All they sell now is foreign muck, and I can’t bear to even smell it or look at it. And all those fat-arsed black women are so big, I can hardly walk down the pavement with me shopping trolly”.

Meanwhile, my own experience couldn’t have been more different. I had met black pupils at secondary school, and become close friends with one West Indian girl in my class. When I left school and started work, I made a new group of friends, including one mixed race guy with an afro the size of a small country. Then I joined the Ambulance Service and had a crewmate who was originally from Barbados. I worked with him for almost eight years, met his family and friends, and enjoyed learning about West Indian food and culture. My next door neighbours in Wimbledon were a young couple from India who were delightful as neighbours and as friends.

Then my mum became old and infirm. She needed the services of home carers, all of whom in that area were foreign, and predominantly black. One of those was Vilma, a West Indian lady who went on from being a carer to becoming a real family friend. When mum needed that care increased, she became increasingly frustrated with not being able to understand the accents of the carers, and begrudged having to be undressed and washed by them too. She finally asked me to speak to Vilma, and ask her to become the only carer, paid for by us.

I remember saying to my mum, “But Vilma is black too, mum. And she has an accent”. My mum just shook her head and replied. “But she’s a good one, I like her”.

‘Friendly racism’ is what I call that.

49 thoughts on “Friendly Racism

  1. Just read this really interesting and relatable post and the quality comments on it. I think too much is made of language used in the day when attitude and actions were more indicative of people’s real behaviour.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I also believe that one should judge people’s attitudes only in the circumstances and times in which those people lived and expressed themselves accordingly. Do we have any former rulers who voluntarily give up what their ancestors as robber barons have had unlawfully taken? 😉 xx Michael

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Outstanding post, Pete! This is much how it was with me growing up, too. I don’t like people who turn something into racist, when it truly is not. Like you said, ‘friendly’.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Jennie. My parents were kind people whose own parents were brought up in the Edwardian era. They would not understand that anything they said was being racist.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Like

  4. My father was exactly the same with the names and comments but wouldn’t have liked being called racist however my dads sister’s husband was American and he would not have anyone who wasn’t white serve him in a store or a restaurant he was openly racist yet to us was the nicest , kindest man you could meet 🙂 x

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I was shocked back in the ’70s when a friend and colleague of my then husband made a disparaging comment about black people.
    I asked, ‘What about Wayne?’ (another friend and colleague whose parents hailed from Jamaica). ‘Oh, Wayne’s OK. Wayne’s different.’
    I might perhaps have expected such a blinkered view from our parents’ generation – change in perceptions takes time – but not from our own age group.
    On the other hand, there are always those precious individuals who seek unintended slights to take offence at, and do no favours to community relationships. But with luck and better education the pendulum shosuld settle eventually.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve worked in a hospital for 20 years, including 3 years on a medical ward. There was a doctor of Indian origin who spoke perfect English with no accent, and yet some elderly white patients used to ask if they could speak to an English doctor. This particular doctor was English (2nd or 3rd generation), but because of his surname which was difficult to pronounce, he was often looked at with suspicion by some of the patients. My best friend as a child was a girl whose parents had just come over from St. Lucia. When I look at photos of my ancestors I realise I am probably of mixed race. We are all in one big melting pot really.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My maternal family originated from Sweden, and my Dad had a Spanish female ancestor. People who bang on about being ‘British’ have never read enough history books.
      Thanks, Stevie.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Ahhh good old Andy N, always remember how he hated the cold, have no idea how he managed to move around with all those layers on (and how he survived in the army) Once, when I worked with him he got more stick from the Afro-Caribbean community than I did.
    My parents were the same as yours it was just the way things were back then, just like language (spoken and written) things move on.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, Bobby. When I worked with Andy, he was often called a ‘Coconut’ by black people who resented him working for an ‘authority’ whilst wearing a uniform.
      The other side of that was that he was regularly stopped by police for no reason, often when driving home after a busy shift.
      Cheers, Pete.

      Like

  8. Racism has been dominant in human DNA since the beginning of time and governments should come to understand that “Love of Fellow Human Beings” cannot be legislated into reality!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. The Oscar situation – Will Smith should have got up with his wife and walked out.
    In NZ we have the All Blacks rugby team. Our soccer team plays in all white and is called the “All Whites”. That Is now unacceptably racist so for the current world cup play offs they are playing in all black.
    As a white New Zealander (dad born in Yorkshire, mum a daughter of a Scot), when I arrived at the LAS in 1980 (and due to an issue with a previous Kiwi), I kept quiet where I was from. But once found out, I took a lot of genuine racist comments. I was seriously asked if “we still eat people” with several workmates surprised “I spoke English well” and was frequently told “foreigner go home”. This shocked me with the shoe on the other foot after being brought up where there was much open racism towards the Maori.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Some British people only need to hear a foreign accent to bring out the xenophobe inside. Add that to a different coloured skin, and you have a double-whammy. The legacy of Empire seems to be alive and well in some parts of this country.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Like

  10. A thought provoking post, Pete. Well written.

    My experience as a well-educated, newly married, never traveled abroad, Indian young lady living in England in the 70s, 80s, and early 90s was mixed.

    My husband’s family has lived in England since 1963, were educated, worked, paid taxes, and contributed to the local community. We had many wonderful English friends. My children were born and brought up in London. We had adapted to the English culture without compromising our culture.

    I moved to England from India in 1976, spoke the English language (a legacy of the British Empire) fluently and grammatically accurate and my accent though not pronounced, (like the one most comedians mimic) was different. However, I found that just as I couldn’t understand certain English accents, the locals didn’t understand mine! Our neighbors were an elderly English couple who were very friendly and helpful. But I knew there was an unspoken line at which the familiarity stopped. I respected that.

    We faced some incidents in the late 70s and early 80s that were quite frightening and dangerous to our well-being. In the 80s and early 90s, I attended college, taught in Nursery schools and in schools for children with learning difficulties. I was liked and respected but felt that I was not considered an equal.

    I had not known racism before I stepped out of India, but I knew certain groups of people are treated differently in every society. However, my experience of 20 years in my adopted country, England was quite an eye-opener. I have no complaints as I have fond memories of my life, my family (left behind) and my friends in England and enjoy every visit back.

    My experience of over 27 years in the USA is quite different. I live in a cosmopolitan city, went back to a university full of diversity, have taught in the school system with multi-cultural staff and students, and have a lot of wonderful friends. There is a certain amount of comfort in knowing that I am contributing to and benefiting from being a part of a diverse community.

    I feel racism exists everywhere and is born out of ignorance, fear, a sense of superiority, misinformation, or reluctance to broaden one’s mind. There is open racism, subtle racism, and implied racism and I wish, hope, and pray that one day…

    “Imagine all the people
    Livin’ life in peace
    And the world will be as one
    Imagine all the people
    Sharing all the world”
    John Lennon

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thanks very much for adding the story of your personal experiences, Chaya. As we all know, some parts of America remain openly racist, and often hostile to prople of colour and immigrants from anywhere. I think you must live in a part of America that has embraced multi-culturalism, and I am happy for you.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. It seems the pendulum swings hard and fast, right to left. We are either apologizing for racism or scavenging for it in every nook and cranny. My own belief is that it’s almost impossible to live within a race/faith/caste dominated society without having some vestiges of prejudice. There is no such utopia.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly right, Pam. I have some issues with the so-called Gypsies in Britain. But if I say anything bad about them it would be called, ‘Hate Speech’, and a potential crime.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Like

  12. The Oscars have always had jokes in bad taste – they had to have something, most of the movies stick.
    When BLM shirts and signs first started appearing, I said to someone, “That’s all well and good, but I believe ALL lives matter.” I was called a racist.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, in modern times, so much of what we say is taken the wrong way, GP. I tire of being overwhelmed by Political Correctness, to be honest. I recently told a friend who is a dog-walking lady that I liked her new hairstyle. She liked the compliment, but her female friend said that I was being ‘blatantly sexist’. I give up.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. (1) After watching Will Smith terrorize Chris Rock on television, Ayman al-Zawahiri is thinking of creating slapper cells in America.
    (2) Out here in cowboy country, a shootist is someone who shoots guns, and a racist is someone who races horses.
    (3) Friendly fire is more dangerous than friendly racism.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Totally my experience Pete! I think my parents were not racist. They just thought “our lot” were better than anyone else. Which I think included Americans. My dad was intolerant of his carers too, much to my embarrassment.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Fascinating…..my whole family with the exception of my mother we racists….after all we lived in the South….my mother was never a harsh word for anyone….but I understand your mum’s thinking. chuq

    Liked by 1 person

All comments welcome

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.