Sunday, 11 April 2010
Vive la difference
When I first left the UK to move back to Africa, I often gave my reason for leaving a predominantly white society for a predominately black one as my weariness with always having to apologise for myself. By that I mean that I had to either make myself small, blend in or try to justify my being so obviously different. I’m dark skinned so there is no way I could even ‘blend in’ even if I tried, I’ve worn my hair naturally for as long as I can remember, and my personality..... well let’s just say I’m no wallflower. Granted my reason for emigrating sounded was a little political, putting it into context, I was twenty- something, opinionated and thought I had the answers to all the ills of the world.
Having calmed down and returned to my adopted country i.e. the no longer very great Britain – I can’t say I feel as though I have to apologise for my being but I do think that things have stayed the same more than they’ve changed and many people would feel a lot more at ease if we just all blended in.
As crazy and cosmopolitan as London is, at a micro level, colleagues and friends prefer not to have the boat rocked by something or someone which forces them to think outside the box or recognise that the world out there is very different to what they are familiar with. London is for all intents and purposes a very cosmopolitan city with sizeable communities representing all the corners of the globe, yet at the office, we would prefer for everyone to act the same, speak the same, preferably dress either the same or conservatively enough to not bring attention to themselves. I am still baffled by the lack of tolerance shown in the work place – the foreign colleague who would dare bring in their traditional dish which may not be decipherable to the English pallets, will face nothing less than a mini Spanish inquisition. Likewise if you speak differently, for instance with a non British accent, or being American/Canadian/Russian/Nigerian may not necessarily relate to the British sense of humour... this becomes a source of irritation or sniggers for the intolerant majority. Finally should you dare to reflect your brash personality in the open plan offices which we all seem to be cursed with, you will face a barrage stares and probably tuts; mind you no one will ever confront you as this is simply not done. Instead they will express their irritation in a passive aggressive way by shooting evil side glances, willing you to tone it down.
So the question I’m left asking myself constantly is ‘What’s so wrong with being different?’ and why does it make people so intolerant? Perhaps it’s true the world over, that people do not like those who are different to them. I don’t know – however my limited experience of living and working in East and West Africa, France and the USA would suggest otherwise. I found people were amused by my accent in the US but there was no constant effort to get me to assimilate. In France they wanted to taste the unusual food I cooked and quiz me about my origins but in spite of the political mumblings of wanting the immigrants to assimilate into la culture française, I never felt such pressure, perhaps speaking the language was enough assimilation as far as they were concerned. In Africa, I was often the centre of attention being a ‘black muzungu’ or a ‘just come’ but never again was I encouraged or cajoled into being more like those I worked with or socialised with. So I wonder if the problem I face in the UK reflects a British superiority or inferiority complex? Let me explain.....if it is the case that the British believe they are better than everyone else, i.e. the superiority complex then it stands to reason that they would want us all to be like them because of course their way is the better way. On the other hand their irritation for all things different could reflect a fear that the rest of us with our strange language, food and clothes are stark reminders of what they lack. Could it possibly be that we remind the Brits of their eroding culture, or just that their Britishness was never strong enough to withstand outside influence. Many of them will struggle today to define what it means to be British especially with curry being the British national dish. I’m divided as to which of these two is the most accurate reflection, perhaps a bit of both. When I think of the majority of British people I come across though, I think less arrogance and more insecurity. The typical British persona is self-deprecating; unlike the French and the Americans, we are never encouraged to sing our own praises, no matter how incredible we know we are and even when paid a compliment, it’s always best to play it down. Foreigners find this behaviour odd and no doubt a little disingenuous. Furthermore what it has created is a society where we all negate the differences that make us unique in exchange for blandness, and a complete lack of honesty. We know for a fact that we are not all the same; our education, houses, neighbourhoods, salaries tell us so, nonetheless we toe the line, we confine our odd behaviour, strange food, strange dress sense to our four walls so as not to make anyone feel uncomfortable. Fortunately there are and will always be the rule breakers, who shout loud and do as they please regardless of what the rest think. They will wear their crazy clothes, have the strange hairstyles and if questioned will quite happily tell you that this is their reality and that where they come from, they blend in just fine.
Somewhere in the middle are some of us who having grown tired of explaining ourselves and our differences, have decided to conform for now but take comfort in the shocked faces when someone else breaks the rules, when a ‘crazy’ joins the open plan office with their odd shouty ways and their loud colours that are not at all this season’s and what on earth is that smelly food coming from the kitchen? We will secretly snigger as everyone else shifts about uncomfortably in their chair willing the strange sounding and looking foreigner to blend in or just go away.