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Friday, May 31, 2013

Of aces and spades

I had a really disappointing conversation the other day. There were five of us: me, a young Australian woman, and three women between ten and fifteen years older than I am. I don't know the three women well, but I'd worked with all of them. They are British, specifically English--and oh yes, all five of us are white. Does this matter? Well, apparently it matters to them.

They started off having a perfectly understandable "moan" about things we can all relate to, living in the London area. It's crowded. They keep knocking down old buildings to house everybody. There isn't enough room.

Soon, the topic became "foreigners" and people coming from other countries. At this point, I exchanged a smile with young Aussie, because obviously, the other three women didn't mean us. They were talking about the open borders of the rest of the European Union, and the E.U. in general, which does leave a lot to be desired. Things had changed so fast, the three said. It felt out of control; this was a small island.

Even though I'm an immigrant myself, I understand where they are coming from. I didn't come here to diversify Britain's population or because I thought there was unlimited room. I'm just here because my partner is.

The three discussed which prime minister was to blame for taking Britain into the E.U. in the first place. It couldn't have been Margaret Thatcher, one said; was it Tony Major? (She meant John Major, although another one actually thought it could have been Tony Blair!) I repeated several times that Britain joined the European Community forty years ago, though I couldn't remember which prime minister off the top of my head. (For the record, ladies: no, it was not a Labour PM, it was Edward Heath, a Conservative.)

But it was like I wasn't speaking at all. Because facts were not the point. Someone said one in twelve people in London was foreign. I felt the need to say something, so I pointed out that I came here from Toronto, where one in two people was born outside Canada--including me. Aussie said she was the only white kid on her school bus. She didn't say this like there was anything wrong with it; she said it like that's the way the world is now, people move all over, from Australia or Canada. Maybe we younger people are just better equipped to deal with it.

What the three women were talking about wasn't Europe anymore. It was people who aren't white. They said it; I'm not putting words in their mouths. It wasn't just about immigrants, either, but second generation--people born in Britain just like they were. Only the three didn't see it that way. The word breed was used, several times: "These people" don't have children; they breed. It also became clear that hearing languages other than English offended these women's ears. "Shop staff speak to each other in their own language; they shouldn't be allowed to. How do I know they're not saying, 'Oh, here comes that bitch'?"

Well, I was thinking by now, I don't blame them, if they know you regard them as non-British vermin who "breed"!

Don't misunderstand me. However misreported in the tabloid press, there are issues with the E.U., and issues with the benefits system (abused, in Britain as in other countries, more by native citizens than by first or second generation immigrants). A small, crowded island really shouldn't have the same immigrant culture as the New World. And I would not expect the welcome and encouragement to citizenship in Britain that I had in Canada.

Nor do I agree with many laws and policies in Britain myself. I disagree with any restrictions on free speech--including the criminalization of racist speech. (I'm not sure how often people are in fact prosecuted for offensive speech, or if such law is designed more for self-censorship, to inhibit people in what they say in the first place. It certainly didn't inhibit these three.)

What disappointed me about this conversation is that, earlier in the day, we had been joined by a sixth woman, who (or whose family) was originally from the Indian subcontinent. None of these views were expressed in her presence. By expressing them when I was there, though, the three were including me, in a way I didn't wish to be included. They were saying, "You're white, so you must feel the same way."

Of course the actual words were: "And if you say this, people think you're racist!" Thing is, I don't want to think of these women as racist. They are not lunatics, giving fascist salutes or attacking mosques. They are likeable professionals who seemed to treat their colleagues and clients with perfect courtesy.

Nor do I mean to extrapolate from these three women to all British people of their background. To generalize by nationality, or any other category, is of lifelong repugnance to me, and no better than what they'd been saying.

In the next room were other colleagues and hundreds of our clients, of many colors and nationalities, including white British. Someday, if the three become old and sick, these are the doctors who will care for them. Maybe these women are not racist.

But when someone says, "The people around me aren't white, and that bothers me"--well...what would you call it?

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