I remember some of the names of my high school classmates. Sylvia Coulson, Jane Cripps, Janice Butler, Valerie Russell, Penny Lewis, Peter Blackwell, and many more. My memory gets worse every day, but today I remembered one person who changed my perceptions. Her name was Penny Haag and she joined my class when I was about fourteen.
Everyone else in the class had grown up in the neighborhood and we were aware of each other even if we didn’t actually know each other well. Penny Haag, however, was an outsider. She came to west London from Holland. She looked a lot like us, but she was “other.” She was not discriminated against, exactly, but she wasn’t immediately accepted, either. When I think of her now I wonder how much our slack-jawed bewilderment affected her psyche. We weren’t acquainted with otherness, and we did not respond well.
That was bad, but my response to the differences of others did not improve for many years. The first time I saw someone who had a different colour skin from mine was probably around the same time. The tire factory in Southall, the nearest town, was bringing in people from India and Pakistan to do work that the locals were reluctant to do, and for wages the locals would not accept.
Over time, the newcomers created a place of refuge in Southall and brought with them foods, language, music, and clothing that were unfamiliar to the white people who had lived there before them. Within a few years, the area was almost exclusively devoted to south Asian lifestyles and needs. As you may imagine, this caused some resistance.
The changes, and the resentment, crept up on us slowly, but the most important thing that I remember from that time is that my father volunteered to help immigrants to relocate. He moved furniture and people whenever he could to the best of his ability. At the same time, he and my mother delivered Meals on Wheels to people who were housebound. Those gestures have impacted my life immeasurably. I have not forgotten how they showed support, even though they had nothing to share. Now I realize that my parents were probably moving against the tide of local opinion. For my family at that time, though, helping out neighbours was normal.
Today, the global social unrest related to race relations causes me to reflect on my own culpability in the problems we now see. I am partly to blame. I didn’t see it happening, and I didn’t know how much it mattered.
All my life, people of colour and of different ethnic origins have been woven into the tapestry of my experiences and I hope I have never discriminated against anyone based on the colour of their skin. I have actually, consciously, tried not to. But that in itself is a declaration of difference, and I regret that, both socially and personally.
One of the interesting things about racism is that it looks different in each of my three countries. I was born and raised in the UK, live in Canada, and winter in the United States. Each country has different representations of racial bias and I feel saddened by all of them. England’s biases, when I lived there, focussed on regional dialects and immigrant populations. Canada’s biases revolve around the divide between the descendants of white settlers and the indigenous peoples. In the US, they have, primarily, a black/white problem.
I have lived and worked with people of various ethnicities, and the origins of their race have always been secondary to their more personal characteristics. Once, when I was discussing racial issues with my California roommate, I said, “I haven’t experienced racism. I’m white.” Then, she paused. Now I wonder if she could not comprehend how that might feel. I also now realize that racism is not something we can all understand equally.
As I think back now on my failure to welcome Penny Haag, I am realizing the many ways in which I have failed to include people of other racial, cultural, and ethnic origins into my life, and I am sorry. The recent protests have made me think about my biases, and I thank the protesters for that. Sadly, I now also reflect on how little has changed in my seven decades of life. In fact, it seems that intercultural relationships have become worse, not better.