At the airport in Dhaka, Bangladesh, I’d gone through most of the official preliminaries before departure: passport and boarding pass examined, hold baggage handed over. Next came security. The line at the security desk was long. But I’m British, so I queued patiently.
And then I saw the security officer wave. It was one of those times you wonder ‘Who’s he waving at?’ Then I heard him shout, ‘Sir, sir, come to the desk’. He was talking to me.
So I squeezed past the twenty or more Bangladeshis ahead of me, wondering what I’d done or was carrying that a security officer was summoning me. He asked for my documents and then he smiled. Then and only then, I realised I was being given priority. If I’d been flying business class, I’d have been at a different desk, so that wasn’t the explanation. Was the officer hoping for a ‘gift’ from me? That had happened in several countries, but not this time. I’d been promoted up the queue simply because I was a white westerner. For a moment I thought of protesting and retreating back down the line. But I couldn’t. For one thing the officer had my documents and was well through processing them. For another, I’d likely have offended or embarrassed the officer. So, a minute later, I thanked him and moved on to the departure lounge, feeling ten per cent grateful for avoiding a long wait and ninety per cent guilty for being privileged.
In colonial times deference was demanded for white people. It became normative, and lasted for a while even after independence. Now it’s mostly gone, though not at Dhaka airport when I passed through. I wish preference based on skin colour or background was entirely gone. I no more deserve honour because of my colour than someone else deserves dishonour because of their colour. We’re equal, utterly equal.
That’s how I was brought up, though I admit my youngest years may have been innocent of colour prejudice because our town had hardly any non-white people. A small place near the east coast of Scotland wasn’t a destination for immigrants from the West Indies or anywhere. I still have class photos from my earliest school years and every face is white. About once a year a black family would attend our church while they were visiting relatives. They had two children, and I played with them just like any other children. No-one ever suggested I shouldn’t.
When I was 18 I worked in Glasgow for seven months, and I rented a room in the west end of the city. The population mix could not have been more different from my small-town. I was surrounded by Pakistanis. Not all spoke English, and occasionally I couldn’t make out what was being said by those who could, because the accent was so different. I felt guilty about that, but, there again, I had the same problem with native-born Glaswegians. I loved being there: the brightness of the ladies’ clothes; the smells of food from shops and cafés; the cheerful greetings I was given. But, sadly, I soon learned others didn’t share my positive views. The usual resentments and prejudices about immigrants were freely shared on buses and underground.
I was reminded of my Glasgow experience about 25 years later when I was guest preacher at a church in the north of England. The area where the church had met for a century was now Muslim-majority. After the service there was a lunch in the church hall, and I sat talking with some of the older members. In fact there were almost no younger members; membership had declined a long way. So, casually, I asked, ‘What’s been the biggest problem you’ve faced over the years?’ The answer was immediate. ‘The Pakistanis. They’re the problem’. Politely, I challenged that answer. But talking about the ‘new neighbours’ as an opportunity and not a problem didn’t get me far. Everything was different from how it used to be – too different for their comfort – and that was ‘the problem’.
I’m no scholar when it comes to racism, and especially in a blog piece I could neither explain nor solve such a difficult problem. But I’ll share three things I’ve thought about often.
Racism is not new The last few chapters of the book of Genesis in the Old Testament tell the story of Joseph being sold by his brothers to traders, made a slave in Egypt, but soon becoming Pharaoh’s right-hand man and governor of the whole land. Eventually his whole family are brought to Egypt to save them from famine. They’re welcomed and given the best land on which to settle. Sadly, it didn’t last. The opening of Exodus describes how new rulers came to power in Egypt, conspiracy theories were spread about the Israelites, and they were made slaves and given hard labour. Why pick on the Israelites? First, they weren’t Egyptians. Second, their culture wasn’t the same. Third, they had another religion. In other words, they were from another race and lived differently. So they were oppressed.
That was a very long time ago, but racism existed before then, and has continued down through every century since.
The caste system – primarily a feature of cultures related to the Indian sub-continent – is not the same as racism. (For example, different castes can exist within one racial group.) But race and caste issues both involve prejudice and discrimination. The origins of the system are ancient, but formalised later and then incorporated by the British Raj from the 1860s into their form of administration. In Pakistan I had tea in a café where the low-caste customers were forced to use cups different from those used by higher-caste people. Christians in rural areas debated whether all castes could sit together when lunch was served after the church service. Some would, some wouldn’t. In south east India, I visited aid projects set up after the devastating 2004 tsunami. Many of the lowest-caste people, the Dalits, had suffered badly because they lived close to the sea. My colleagues and I spent time with them, and one evening invited their leaders to eat with us in a hotel restaurant. We were all seated when the management asked the Dalits to leave. They’d had complaints from other guests. We protested, but our Dalit friends immediately asked us to stop and let them leave. We did, realising that we wouldn’t suffer later but they might.
In Thailand I was puzzled to see that labourers repairing roads were wearing balaclava masks (ski-type masks), even though they were working in the blazing sun. I asked a local ‘Why do they wear them? They must be unbearably hot’. I was told they wanted to stop their skin darkening, because the blacker their skin the lower their status. In north west Africa I came across the same prejudice. One darker-skinned tribe were treated as slaves by those with lighter skin.
Racism is centuries and even millennia old, and exists across almost the whole world. That’s no comfort as we seek solutions in our own cultures. We could think the cause hopeless, but it’s only hopeless if we give up. Racism may be old but it doesn’t have to live forever.
Racism is not a black/white colour prejudice In the western world we tend to see it that way, but often it has nothing to do with skin colour. In the 1840s, Ireland experienced deadly famine. Two million Irish emigrated to America, but were met with prejudice and sometimes violence for being foreigners and, especially, for being Catholics. They looked much the same as the large numbers of Germans also arriving in the US, but their treatment was very different. Every now and again in the UK, I hear strong invective against immigrants from Eastern Europe. There’s no colour difference. Just difference.
There are several reasons why people fear immigrants. The one that makes me grimace but want to smile is that ‘immigrants will change our culture’. I’d like to ask, ‘When did the UK have just one culture?’ Don’t the ‘nations’ have very distinctive cultures? Even within England, aren’t the Geordies of the north east very culturally different from the Cornish of the south west, and both very different from the Cockneys of London? We’re not all the same, and never have been. Nor has the UK been surrounded by a 50 metre high wall for centuries so we couldn’t leave and others couldn’t enter. People have come and gone, settled and left, for ever.
Just above I described prejudice against Irish immigrants arriving in the USA 150 years ago. Now their descendants are a celebrated part of the ‘melting pot’ that makes up the nation. In fact many people told me ‘I’m Irish’ or ‘I’m Swedish’ or ‘I’m Italian’, and I’d have offended them if I’d said, ‘No you’re not, you’re American’. They’re proud, very proud, of their ethnic background, now all together in a new land. There is, of course, resistance to new waves of immigrants, the old pattern repeating, so it’s not a nation singing in perfect harmony, but, for many, diversity is their strength.
No-one is born racist I wrote earlier that through all my childhood I never encountered racism. It just wasn’t part of my world.
Not everyone has so privileged a background except this part: no-one comes into this world prejudiced against others. There isn’t a racist neuron in the brain that gets switched on as we’re born.
So, where does racism come from? I believe it’s either taught or caught. It’s taught when a parent, or a friend, or a teacher, or a political leader, spouts racist views, and a young mind adopts their prejudices. Racism can be caught when, without words, actions and attitudes convey the message: black neighbours are shunned, violence against non-whites is accepted, support is given for policies that discriminate. What young people see around them as normal and acceptable becomes part of their thinking from early years, long before their intellects are mature enough to question what’s going on.
I’m aware of the view that a fear reflex is hard-wired in our brains, a protective reaction against the unknown or different, because what we don’t yet know to be safe may be unsafe. It could harm us, so we reject it. I’m no geneticist, but I can’t see why a fear reflex would be racist. ‘Difference’ isn’t only about nationality or colour. I’m not suspicious of people who are tall or short, thin or fat, nor do I care about social status, or accent, or educational attainment, no matter how different any of those are from me. My fear reflex doesn’t shun them. So why would I shun someone because he’s a different colour or from a different culture?
I’m also familiar with the ‘nature or nurture’ debate about childhood behaviour. Two kids from the same background may turn out very different, and likely their unique genetic mix and young experiences both contributed. But no baby was born racist. It’s not a ‘given’ at birth. Racism may come later, but it’s never inevitable.
Well, forgive me please if anything I’ve written this time is insensitive or simplistic. I wrote about racism because I hear it expressed, see terrible examples on the news, and because I think it’s one of the worst sins people can commit. As usual, if you find any wisdom, that’s great. If you don’t, move on and be at peace.
Lastly, thank you for patience while I had a major study project to complete before an immovable deadline. I didn’t finish with a lot of time to spare, but it was done. Now I need two things. One, to catch up on missed sleep. Two, for my assignment markers to be having such a good day they’re incredibly generous!