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.