Because You Are Different …

I grew up in a white working-class area of the English Midlands in the middle of the twentieth century, and didn’t meet anyone who wasn’t white till I went to university in Liverpool in 1959. In my hall of residence, among others, there was a jolly Jamaican making delicious dishes in our shared kitchen, a sweet Chinese girl who played the piano like a professional, and a beautiful Indian girl with long hair down to her ankles. We also had a black Jamaican President of the Students’ Union in the early sixties. So my primary reaction was Wow! Awe and admiration! These were amazing, talented and exotic people, interesting to talk to and be with.

My first personal encounter with racism came a couple of years later in France, where my landlady was most upset because her niece was set on marrying an Algerian. I was studying in an international environment that included people from all over the world, and I honestly couldn’t understand how my landlady could object to this polite, intelligent young man who was obviously very much in love with his fiancée, simply on the grounds of his being an Arab. Later on, I realised that of course culture and religion are significant factors in a relationship, but at that time I was perplexed that prejudice could arise solely on the basis of skin colour, ethnicity or religion. To me what mattered was whether the person was decent, fun and good company. The individual, not the group, attracted or repelled me. How can you reject an entire population group? You might as well start persecuting people because they are left-handed, wear glasses or have ginger hair.

A year later, I found myself in a rather hostile environment in Germany. A sympathetic work colleague told her mother about me and I was invited to a meal with them. They were Jewish. My colleague’s parents had fled Germany in the 1930’s for Algeria, and now as a result of the Franco-Algerian war had once again been forced to leave everything and return to Germany. They were a large, happy, intelligent, music-loving family, and their generosity and hospitality to me, a total stranger, was overwhelming.  Why would anyone want to harm them? Again, I was perplexed.

The town I lived in then had a garrison of US American soldiers, who livened up the place and contributed to the economy. Some were white, others black, and there were many shades of brown in between. Some of these young men fell in love with local girls, some married, some didn’t, but I began to realise that the mixed-race babies appearing as a result of these relationships were already facing hostility from various quarters. As for me, I was English. Less than twenty years previously, my father had dropped bombs on these people. That was a reason perhaps to reject me, and some of the older folk did receive me coldly, but it was nothing compared to the icy reaction they had towards Jews and dark-skinned people, who had done nothing to them at all. Back in England, as the sixties progressed, I heard of race riots and warnings of doom from such as Enoch Powell, a right-wing politician who famously prophesied rivers of blood flowing from the influx of Caribbean and Asian immigrants. I was very perplexed.

I am no longer so naïve, having experienced bigotry and hatred in many forms over time. Sometimes, discrimination is subtle and covert, other times blatant and horrifying. What atavistic instinct drives xenophobia and racial prejudice? It goes so much deeper than logical reasoning and I still don’t understand. Almost sixty years later I remain perplexed.

I have friends of every shade of skin under the sun. Also, my best friend, a strong Christian making a highly valuable contribution to society, is of Jewish descent. Her grandfather died en route to a concentration camp. Yet even here in Switzerland, a vituperative neighbour complained that “Hitler overlooked you when he was filling his gas ovens!” How can this happen? Where does such bitter, irrational, all-encompassing odium come from? Political correctness doesn’t seem to have solved the problem. It has, rather, exacerbated it: by trying to ban the language of racism, the thing itself has become more virulent. I am perplexed.

19 thoughts on “Because You Are Different …

  1. I have reblogged this post. In this time of fighting over religion, colour and/or ethnicity it’s important that we speak out. Thanks Cat for doing so with heartfelt feeling.

  2. Reblogged this on I choose how I will spend the rest of my life and commented:
    I saw this post from Caterel this morning. It is very apt at present with all the wars and fights over religion, colour, ethnicity. I was brought up in a home in a small enclave of Christians in a mostly Jewish neighbourhood. And in our home, Mother was from a Jewish family, Father was a Methodist and we three girls were brought up in the Church of England.
    In our school, there were no people of a different colour and it wasn’t until the late 1950s when we had an influx of Jamaicans into Britain that I saw people of a different colour.
    iTo this day, it mattes not to me what your religion is, your ethnicity or colour. Are you a good person is what matters to me.

  3. Reblogged this on AuntyUta and commented:
    Catterel says: “. . . . I was perplexed that prejudice could arise solely on the basis of skin colour, ethnicity or religion. To me what mattered was whether the person was decent, fun and good company. The individual, not the group, attracted or repelled me. How can you reject an entire population group? You might as well start persecuting people because they are left-handed, wear glasses or have ginger hair. . . . “

  4. AuntyUta, I’m bothered tremendously by your un-American spelling of certain words: neighbour, colour, realise, etc. My American-set spell checker on my computer doesn’t even recognize these spellings. Socializing with you would be a burden too much to bear. (Silly, isn’t it? There doesn’t have to be any rhyme or reason to discrimination and prejudice.) Oh, by the way you speak English; I speak American. I would love to hear your accent! God bless you, my social media friend!

  5. I’ve read about the role bigotry and discrimination play in shaping power. The age-old equation, divide and conquer, seems to underlie nearly all forms of bigotry.

    Children aren’t born judgmental. They may notice differences, but they notice them like they notice the different colors and shapes of their toys–with wonder and fascination. They learn to hate and distrust certain groups of people from their elders.

    The elders are lead to discriminate as a means of sliding a wedge between people. Whatever is not right in this person’s life, can be attributed to those “other” people who are bad and are stealing or abusing the system. Then a process of dehumanization can occur, and once that gets a grip on a country or a group of people, all hell breaks loose.

    • So true. I have been fortunate in that I have spent all of my adult life in various international environments so I suppose that gives me a broader perspective.

      • I think it is very easy to manipulate provincial populations who do not travel or experience the glorious differences of humanity. Those who’ve traveled and interacted with a variety of peoples can’t help but have broader vision.

  6. Excellent, important, timely! Thank you for sharing this! I grew up in a poor neighborhood with families of several races, religions, languages, political leanings, etc. Yet, we all got along and helped each other and celebrated life with each other, etc. 🙂

    By the way, in my immediate family (through marriage and adoption) we are Caucasian, African-American, Bi-racial, Mexican, Chinese, Korean, and African. It is so wonderful! 🙂

    Again, thank you so much for your words/post! 🙂
    HUGS,
    Carolyn

  7. Very proud indeed to be your daughter – no wonder I am equally perplexed by racism, even though or specifically because I grew up in such a diverse world!! ❤

    • Yes, an excellent piece. Very many years ago my partner and I were waiting in the car on a London street. It was a hot day and the windows were wound down. In front of us two young black boys were larking around on their bicycles on some waste ground. Their antics amused me and I smiled warmly at them as they took off and rode past the car. One of them spat at me with great accuracy. I was deeply upset, but not angry, as I realised they – and undoubtedly their parents, had experiences like this (and worse) throughout their lives. That really saddened me.

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