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How will we deal with London racism?

12 March, 2010

Yesterday, my wife, Janet, was in a conversation with a young employee of a major department store here in London.  Initially, it was about makeup, skin care and colouring.  As the conversation furthered, however, they commented on one another’s non-British accent.  After 25 years in the UK, Janet’s accent suggests somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  The young woman whom Janet met that day spoke flawless English but came from another European country.

As they chatted the woman mentioned to Janet that she finds living in London very hard.  In particular she finds life in England lonely.  Janet asked her what she meant by this.  She went on to say that she finds London people cold and unfriendly, rude even.  The young woman immediately pointed out that Janet is one exception but then qualified her comment by saying, “But, of course, you aren’t British!”

What took Janet aback, however, was when the woman went on to express her sadness concerning her experiences of racism in London.  Apparently, she reported, because of her skin colouring and her accent she believes Londoners treat her dismissively and, she said, with occasional disdain.  She ended up saying to Janet, “I wish I could meet nice, friendly English people!”

Janet said she’d be delighted to introduce her to folk we know who are wonderfully friendly and welcoming.  Truth is, we are privileged to meet and know lots of very kind and friendly English people.  But, as she later told me, the one part of the conversation that troubled her was the comment about perceived racism.  How is this countered?

One film especially deconstructed my self-belief that I am free from all racist problems — Paul Haggis’ Crash (2005).  Some time ago I posted some thoughts about this film.

If you’ve seen the film you’ll recall how artfully this film reveals the sub-level propensity towards racism in just about all of us.  On one hand, therefore, what the young woman said to Janet about her experiences in London (whether she is correct or not, I don’t know; but it is her perception nonetheless) ought not to surprise us.  Racism has not been eradicated despite efforts to promote multi-culturalism and greater tolerance.

On the other hand, countering racism (in whatever form) cannot be accomplished by legislation, exhortation or compulsion.  Civil liberties and legal accountability are necessary and in this limited scope legislation is vital.  But telling someone to do something or be something isn’t ever ultimately successful.  “Laws” or “rules” cannot change the human heart, redirect the human will and promote human society.  There is, frankly, something about us that is profoundly out of sync that can only be corrected, healed and transformed by something or someone greater and more authentic than legal or rule imposition.

This means that while I’d like to hope that Londoners can make a difference by civility, politeness and courtesy (all of which are virtues), I suspect all of this could result in self-efforts (however good they be initially) that simply go only so far.  Truth is, a more radical and more profound change is necessary in me and others here in London (and, of course, elsewhere).

Once again, I am struck and intrigued by what the Jew, Paul, who was an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, wrote to his fellow Christians who were non-Jews but sharers with Paul in a new humanity/new society brought about in Christ:

10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.

11 Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.

13 Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Colossians 3:10-14)

  1. Good post Gavin – it is depressing indeed (not least because I like to think that I’m a nice friendly English person.
    Something else that “deconstructed my self-belief that I am free from all racist problems” was Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart – he is a white liberal who grew up recoiling at his Afrikaner privileged background in South Africa. But had to confront realities about himself when he returned from his self-imposed exile in the USA. An important book…
    My Traitor’s Heart

  2. tomstan permalink

    I think your para beginning ‘On the hand …’ is brilliant it sums it up from what I understand.
    When thinking about racism I often go to Martin Luther King quotes.

    ‘An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his indvidualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.’

    I figure I have a lot more living to do!

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