Friends

How Little Has Changed

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 neighbourhood 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.

Southall, West London UK via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Protest from StockSnap via Pixabay

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.

Black Lives Matter Minneapolis Protest via Wikimedia Commons

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.

 

 

 

29 replies »

  1. I think all of us are rethinking our own thoughtless biases at this time. I am. Many psychological studies have shown that people tend to like the familiar and steer away from the strange. This tendency may have served us well in the past, but I believe it is possible to transcend these “natural” prejudices. We are all living in a different world now. Your parents should be commended for being ahead of their time.

  2. We all evolve and become more compassionate and empathetic. Unless we’re born an old soul, or taught, I don’t believe as children we’re capable going against the tide. Our nature as children is narcissistic, not in a bad way…it’s natural. I believe it is easier for a white woman to empathize with discrimination than a white man because they’ve never experienced it in anyway shape or form. For us, though, it’s not a too much of a leap to understand that what we experience from time-to-time, people of color experience pretty much daily. With exceptions for each gender, it’s more common for women’s heart to break for the cry when a person of color is murdered either by a white or even more so by another person of color when the investigation into that murder is non-existent. The great thing about the protests is it’s opening up the conversation and allowing the collective consciousness of both genders to grasp what others are dealing with. I’m heartened by the shift I see, by the support from so many corporations and sport teams honoring Black Lives Matter and I believe it’s the dark before the dawn and that we’ll come out of this a much better place to live.

    • I amend my “any way, shape or form” comment. I recognize it there are exceptions. For instance if they had long hair in the 60’s they did get a taste of it. My husband was kicked out of the I-Hop, and pulled over multiple times having to unload his entire van filled with speakers, amps, and instruments because of his shoulder length hair. Truth is, it’s unwise to generalize, but I did.

    • These protests have certainly brought the anguish that racism causes into the daylight. I have also learned a lot from the films and television shows that have sprung from the heightened awareness.

      It is heartbreaking to realize not only the obvious and brutal acts of racism but also the microaggressions that I probably missed as they were happening to others around me.

  3. I was wondering when you would get around to this subject..I also have been thinking about my own upbringing and the differences I have experienced. I know I wasn’t *raised to be racist* I also know in my heart I am not..but I wonder sometime if in my head I was thinking *stay away from that part of town* or be careful who you talk to.. was it just concerns I had overheard or learned perhaps? I too am more conscious of what is going on to be truthful I think I was more of an Ostrich and sticking me head in the sand so as not to have to deal with any of it. Now it’s more difficult to explain this to my Grandchildren. But I do know one thing I have learned is that some of my friends here in Texas are racists and it surprised me. I have social media to thank for opening my eyes to what they are putting on FB. I won’t discuss politics or religion in a social media group. Here I feel safe thank you Anne.

    • You raise a good point about the assumptions behind avoiding certain parts of town and being careful who we talk to. Those parental warnings carry a lot of baggage, don’t they.

      I’m glad you feel safe to express your thoughts about race here, Sue. I hope that my thoughts are similarly accepted in the spirit intended. One of the reasons I left Facebook was because it seemed to have become a soapbox for some troubling ideas. I miss contacting my family there but I don’t miss the proselytizing or the conspiracy theories!

      • Oh, there are many cultural traits I embrace – I live in South Africa, remember, and am married to a Portuguese women, ostensibly someone who would have been regarded s a ”foreigner” once upon a time!

        Like you, I lived in England long enough to experience the problems more often associated with class distinctions rather than race.
        However, when I first phoned home from Jo’burg and told my mother I was bringing my new girlfriend home for a holiday the first question she asked was: ”Is she black, dear?”
        Now that is a story in itself, and maybe I’ll do a post on it one day!
        No, the things I refer to are regarding the abuse of animals, attitudes toward women and children and the environment in general.

        • Ah, I see. I wonder if those behaviors and attitudes are a result of limited education and awareness. But, I agree that those problematic behaviors do seem to be ingrained in some people.

          And, I think I like your mother.

          • My mother’s inquiry, while not overtly racist, was made with a certain amount of trepidation as she felt if Celeste was black she would have to let ”the others” know so’s to avoid any shock. It was a conversation of walking on eggshells.
            When I told her she was Portuguese a few days later <I received a call where she said that: ''Auntie Sylvia tells me Portuguese are dark skinned like Arabs, dear.''

            As for people's behavior …. difficult to say. I am sure much of it is, but then a lot of it isn't.

            • I misunderstood, originally. I thought her question meant that she was receptive to that possibility. That must have been a really awkward conversation for you. One of many, I suspect.

            • This will raise an eyebrow and seems relevant under the circumstances.
              A day or two after I arrived back in the UK from SA at the end of my first 12 month contract in Johannesburg I was passing through the dining room and my mother was having tea with a friend called Sally. She introduced me and mentioned I had just arrived back from Johannesburg.
              The woman said hello in a very terse voice then remarked right out of the blue:
              ”You are actually lucky I am talking to you!”
              ( In her mind me being responsible or at least a supporter of, Apartheid.)
              My mother seemed surprised at her outburst but said absolutely nothing to defend her son. I was 21 at the time.
              I was too shocked to fire off an ”Ark Style” reply, and also did not want to make things any more awkward for my mother, so I merely said .. ”Er well… nice to have met you” and high-tailed it out the house with Celeste.

              As they say back in the old country:
              ”There’s nowt so queer as folk.”

            • Wow! I’m sure your mother was as shocked as you were. That was so rude and uncalled for that I am not surprised you have never forgotten it.

              I am not good at thinking of quick repostes, so I would probably have spent hours thinking of things I wished I had said in reply if that had been me.

              Sally probably spent a lifetime feeling morally right about a lot of things that she knew little about.

            • They both belonged to the same church (group) so perhaps my mother did not want to rock the boat – especially as I was planning to return to Jo’burg.

              For what it’s worth, prior to me accepting a contract to work in SA (1979) I was, for all practical purposes, ignorant of the political situation, other than being aware of a few people who refused to buy/drink South African wine – I kid you not.
              Furthermore, at least a dozen of those who worked in the salon were contract workers from the UK and all seemed as ignorant as I was.
              For me it was mostly weird, and only became shocking some time later when the reality hit home.
              There are so many tales …. phew!
              Imagine witnessing a black woman go into labour outside Woolworths, central Jo’burg on xmas eve and then having to wait because the ”wrong” ambulance was sent!

              But I was one of those in line in’94 to cast my vote when democratic elections were declared.

            • Yes, twas a shock that while there was still lots of cricket and tea drinking shooting natives was soon banned – unless one was a member of the SA Police force.
              God save the Queen. Toodle-pip, what?

            • In actual fact, Ingelsmen, or Rooineks or Souties as we were sometimes referred to were often just as vilified back in the day.
              Fortunately that has all gone by the wayside now and we are all fun-loving South Africans … except for the, Italians, Greeks, Russians Blacks, Whites, Coloureds, French, Chinese, Zulus, Xhosas, Boers, Indians, Welsh,Irish, Spanish and Manchester United supporters, of course. In fact everyone
              Bloody foreigners! Should go back to where they belong.,

  4. Thank you for saying what it might be hard for others of us (myself included) find hard to say so well. Like you, I was blessed to have parents that showed how to treat others as not being others. Like you, I have lived in more than one part of the world, and have had the benefit to see how anyone that’s somehow imagined to be different can be treated. Sometimes, I was the “other” while different times I saw how those “others” were treated. I come back to the difference between nouns and verbs, between labels and actions. “We” aren’t a noun or a label, just as much as “they” aren’t. Instead, what we do and say and how we treat others defines what we are at that moment. Even little changes to those separating, labeling thoughts is something I can do less or at least aspire to do less.
    Thanks for what you’ve shared.
    Vincent

    • Thank you, Vincent. If I could wish it, I would have all high school graduates travel for a year to unfamiliar lands. Just living with people from other cultures has a wonderfully broadening effect on the mind. For most of us, anyway.

  5. Because I grew up in the US, my understanding of racism was that it was all about black and white. This struck me as the central division of the whole world. I can’t entirely explain this, but when I realized that other countries had different forms of racism, different lines drawn in different place, it changed my sense of what racism was.

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