Racism and Bigotry
No idea why, but I woke up thinking about this today.
When I was young, I had never met a black person. I had seen them singing on TV, and by the age of 11, I owned many records recorded by black artists. Outside of some day trips to France, I had never been out of the UK, and my family circle did not include anyone who was not from a working-class, white English background. I took my lead from my parents, and believed what they told me, using the same terms they used, and holding the same opinions they did. I didn’t know any different. It was very common back then for black people to be called ‘Darkies’, though sometimes, the Yiddish/German name ‘Schwartzers’ would be used instead. Their well-dressed children would be admired, but referred to as ‘Piccaninnies’. There were few children of mixed race at the time, but those that were seen around the area would be known as ‘Half-Chats’. Until I was in my early teens, I had no idea that these terms were derogatory. In fact, I considered them to be affectionate, strange as that may seem now.
Then there were the people of Asian origin. Most Chinese people in London at the time seemed to only be involved in the restaurant trade, so unless we went for a Chinese meal, we never came into contact with them. They were always referred to as ‘Chinks’, sometimes as ‘Chinky-Chonks’. The Asiatic races were never separated by nation, either. There was no difference, as far as we were concerned, in someone from China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, or any other Asian country. They were all happily known as ‘Chinks’.
This wasn’t just about people of a different appearance and colour though. Irish people were also looked down upon, and often mistrusted too. They were called ‘Micks’ and ‘Paddies’, and everyone believed that they were all ignorant and uneducated. Of course, I had never heard of James Joyce, Brendan Behan, Oscar Wilde, or many others at the time. People from the country districts far from London were called ‘carrot-crunchers’. They were also considered to be unintelligent, with indecipherable accents, and a bad taste in clothes. Scottish people were known as ‘Jocks’, and thought to be always drunk, and ready to fight anyone. Then there were the Welsh, known as ‘Taffs’, also considered to be little more than primitive sheep-herders or miners, with nothing in common with us at all.
Because of the area where we lived perhaps, there was no religious or racial bigotry towards Jewish people in my youth. They were admired for their business acumen, and the fact that they used to own many of the shops we used, especially for tailoring. They also lived in very clearly defined parts of the city, so you would rarely see a Jewish person unless you went to those districts. Despite our good relationship with those people, it was still considered to be perfectly acceptable to refer to them as ‘Yids’ though. Once again, I believed it to be an affectionate name, and would never have known it was insulting.
By the time I started secondary school at the age of 11, I had spent those formative years totally immersed in prejudice and bigotry. It was never violent or aggressive, and had no hatred attached. But it was no less tangible, and no less offensive to those on the receiving end. My attitude to other races and religions was already moulded, and my belief that I was somehow better than all of them was entrenched.
Luckily, I went to a mixed school. Not only mixed in terms of gender, but taking in a large catchment area around the boroughs immediately south of The Thames. Within days, I was mixing with children from Nigeria, The West Indies, and also India and Pakistan. Not that many of them mind you; they still stood out enough to be noticed, often pointed out, and sometimes ignored or avoided. There were kids from Irish backgrounds too, and one or two Chinese who came from Hong Kong, still a British colony at the time. There were some from Cyprus, of Greek origin. We called them ‘Bubbles’, from the rhyming slang ‘Bubble and Squeak’. Also Turkish Cypriots, feared as the children of men we thought of as gangsters. They were called ‘Johnnies’, from the WW1 nickname for Turkish soldiers, ‘Johnny Turk’.
No longer in that white working-class isolation, I soon got to know many of these other children. Despite some cultural and religious differences, I quickly realised that they were just like me. They supported local football teams, watched the same programmes on the television, and liked the same film stars as I did. They bought the same pop records, and mostly ate the same food. Like me, they wanted to do well at school, and many had firm expectations of jobs or careers to follow their schooldays. In most cases, they worked harder than the rest of us. They handed in their homework on time, and often studied in their own time too, when we would be playing out on our bikes. As my teens arrived, it started to dawn on me that I was not ‘better’ than any of them. In fact, I could learn a great deal by following their example.
Once I became friendly with some of them, I also discovered that those supposedly affectionate terms and names were considered to be insulting. Those things categorised them unfairly, held them back in ways I couldn’t even imagine, and affected their well-being in ways I could never understand, coming from the dominant race and class in that area. I started to feel guilty, to challenge my parents and their uninformed perceptions of people. Perhaps they were too old to change by then, but I was determined not to follow in their footsteps. I discovered something else too. You can change. You do not have to be a prisoner of your upbringing, or the attitudes of others.
I lived the rest of my life as free of bigotry as I could. Because I chose to.