Tuesday, 27 September 2016

The seeds of racism in all our souls

Some decades ago, I was a lodger in a house owned by Jewish friends. They were perhaps slightly closer to the Jewish mainstream than I was, but otherwise had similar views to my own: they were secular, leaned to the left politically and were deeply English in character even though the grandmother had never lost her native Russian accent (she had attended meetings addressed by Trotsky, and spoke wonderingly about how he could generate a wave of collective enthusiasm uplifting an entire audience).

On one occasion I met one of their cousins, a man of quite extraordinary culture and who ultimately suffered, or perhaps enjoyed, a remarkable end. We had a mild but warmly defended disagreement on some aspect of human behaviour – I forget which – and at one point he said to me:

“Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto”

I looked at him, completely blank, the sad – embarrassed, indeed – product of five futile years of studying Latin at school.

“So sad, so sad,” he said, “they teach you but they don’t educate you. We’re forgetting that our culture has roots steeped in Latin.”

He shook his head, overcome by sorrow at the pitiful state of our schools.

“It’s Terence,” he said, “the great Roman playwright. ‘I am a man and I hold nothing human alien to me’.”

Publius Terentius Afer
Smart man. Got his humanity right
Well, the words have never left me. Partly it was the context in which I learned them. Partly it was the idea itself. I am a human myself and therefore anything that can be found in a human, could be found in me too. I can’t say, “oh, no, that’s not me.” If it’s human, then admirable or repellent, it can be in any human.

It’s invaluable advice. It came to me just the other day, in the course of a conversation on Twitter. “Most people aren't racist,” I was told. Well, that’s a nice idea, but I don’t know. Racism strikes me as a fundamentally human response, and I find it hard to believe that it isn’t in all of us. Some combat it with more determination than others, some more successfully. But surely none of us is entirely free of it.

I know that I’ve found myself stared at, with my white skin, on night-time streets by gangs of young black men and felt distinctly uneasy. Would I have felt different if they’d been white? I’m not sure but have a nasty feeling I might have felt less alien, even though I might have been no safer. 

Then there was my visit to Mbabane, capital of Swaziland. We’d been told to avoid the city at night, but we had no local currency and couldn’t find an ATM in the country. So in the end we went into town well after nightfall, and drove around the streets looking for ATMs. We saw several, but each had a large black man, armed with a vicious looking stick, sitting next to it. We drove away quickly from three until, finally, we realised that the men weren’t there to rob us, but to protect us.

So at last I wen up to one of the machines. The man with the club couldn’t have been more helpful

Ah, no, he explained to me, your card won’t work here.

He gave us accurate directions that were easy to follow that took us directly to an ATM that provided us with the money we needed. 

Again, would I have felt less uneasy if the guards had been white? I simply don’t know. What I am sure about is that it would be no healthier for me to pretend that I don’t have those anxieties: we can’t overcome them if we deny them. So I don’t accept the notion that “most people aren’t racist.” I think the best we can say is that a number of people have controlled their racism better than others, but no one can say they’re wholly free of the contagion.

At least, not unless they merely want to live in denial.

In particular, what I’m sure of is that the racism boot is sadly on the other foot at the moment. Where, for decades, racism has been shameful and keep its head down, today it feels far more at liberty to express itself freely. In Britain, far too many Poles and citizens of other European nations have been asked, since the Brexit vote, when they’re going home. People argue that the vote was motivated by many considerations, but I would counter that a huge part of it was simple racism – or at best xenophobia, which is only racism’s little brother – and far too many seem to feel it’s permissible once more to spew its toxic messages.

That, as far as I’m concerned, makes it more dangerous than ever to deny the racism deeply within us. “Most people aren’t racist” sounds like a positive statement. It isn’t. It expresses a complacency that needs to be resisted.

Remember. If you’re human, then nothing human is alien to you. And that goes for the ugliest aspects of humanity as well as the most attractive.

Postscript What about my friends cousin’s end? I said it was remarkable.

He wasn’t particularly Zionist. He never showed any real desire to move to Israel. On the other hand, it was always a wish of his to visit the country, although it took him years to realise it. Eventually, however, he got there and spent three weeks touring around and seeing all the sights he’d longed to enjoy.

Then back at the airport, as he was walking across the tarmac towards the stairs to his flight home, he was struck by a massive heart attack and died on the spot.

It’s hard to imagine a better death. Quick and merciful. And having just realised his heart’s desire.

Of course, it was terrible for those he left behind. His family most of all. But even to me: I’d hoped to have another conversation with him and give him the opportunity to open my eyes to further aspects of our common culture I’d missed.

Now, sadly, it was not to be.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I guess your view point depends on weather you accept a basic human emotion, or you resist it and fiddle with the instinct of protection and fear. It's the rules that society has created that are the problems not the natural instincts which if left alone form their own natural balance.

The book I am reading currently is "The Problem With Migrants" by Derek Laud. I am only on page 81 so I don't know what it's conclusion is yet, but it's an interesting read with many interesting observations.