Monday, 22 November 2010

Post racial my a**

I find the expression which some American Journalists employed to describe with optimism the climate when President Barack Obama was elected into office preposterous. Call me controversial and by all means feel free to disagree but I am of the firm belief that when it comes to race relations, the more things change the more they stay the same.

It gives me no pleasure to hold that belief and took me coming back to the UK after a decade living in countries where Black people were the majority, for me to reach that conclusion. When I moved back to London two and a half years ago, I noticed that things were as they were when I had left. Most of the middle class White people I work with have no Black friends and the Black friends I socialise with have no White friends. Everyone interacts at work and oftentimes on a one to one basis but you would be hard pressed to see a crowd of people, say friends at a restaurant and find a fair representation of people from different races. Someone is always the token race….and that token friend is usually the Black person among White friends.
While I think Black people have spent a number years learning and immersing in White culture, I wonder if the lack of knowledge, understanding and appreciation for Black culture as diverse as it is, is not borne of the fact that White people do not see enough about this culture or see true representations of Black people and therefore are still uneasy about certain aspects of a culture that may still seem quite alien. I’m baffled that the question of why my hair was longer yesterday and is short today or why the texture changed when I jumped into the pool still gets asked. The Western media seems afraid to show different images of black people - ones that reflect the multiplicity of our race whether it be the darker skinned or natural haired, head wrap wearing etc. etc. - these are facets of who we are yet the majority of White people still have no clue because they are fed images of people who look like slightly tanned version of them.

When it comes to retailers- the story is the same. The images we’re sold are as close to what White people look like as possible. It may be that it is considered less threatening for us all to aspire to one beauty aesthetic. Although I have no idea why I should find an Indian woman with a earring in her nose or a Jamaican with dreadlocks threatening.

UK clothes retailer, Next for instance has a gorgeous Brazilian as their main female model, yet aside from her darker complexion, there is very little that sets her apart from the White models she appears alongside. Marks and Spencer’s the quintessentially British institution has a Black model who is light enough to not cause any raised eyebrows and wears her hair or rather a weave - straight. On every single advert that appears on television you will see scores of either light skinned or mixed race models or actors negating the existence of Black people, the majority of whom do not look like those models. So is it any wonder that someone who is a darker shade of brown with afro hair will be viewed with some trepidation. Perhaps it seems as though I exaggerate but the fact that Producers, Directors, Retailers constantly shun darker skinned, African-looking models and actors tells me a lot more than their declarations of commitment to 'diversity' ever could.

Recently I found myself combing through websites and making frantic calls in search of 'skin' coloured tights; despite living in this country for 60 plus years, retailers are still convinced that black people's skin is dark grey hence the only option most offer the dark skinned customer is 'nearly black' - think charcoal grey- tights.

Before you dismiss this problem as trivial or purely British - let me get more serious and move to Europe, France in particular where recently French perfumer, Jean Paul Guerlain described himself as 'having worked like a negro' in an interview. I presumed that meant he worked hard but in order to clear up any doubts I may have had, he added "well I don't know if negros ever work that hard". I'd be lying if I said I wasn't taken aback by this comment...I know French people tend to be blunt, tactless even....but to make such an openly racist comment with no regard for an audience that is obviously made up of not just White French people; to voice such vile ideas and to not even think twice about the disdain that the use of the word 'negre' which could also be translated as nigger depending on which dictionary you use. Guerlain’s scorn is for the same 'negres' who fought alongside the French in World War II, who have lived and worked hard in France for decades, whose countries have served the French and continue to do so.

Wow! I thought...and had to remind myself that I was indeed living in the 21st century, nearly 200 years since the abolition of slavery, and more than 40 years since the American Civil Rights movement and at least 30 years since citizens of former colonies were encouraged to migrate to France.

Just when I thought it was safe to pack my bags and emigrate to the US where things were more progressive, then came the US mid-term elections with tea-party supporters branding Obama as everything from Hitler to the Devil. Even if we dismiss them as a bunch of 'clinically insane' fanatics, we still can't discount the reprehensible nature of their words and their blatantly racist rhetoric. The tea partyers aren't simply affronted by Obama liberal politics; they are outraged by the colour of his skin coupled with his position of power. They cannot see past the fact that he is a black man in such a position and I cannot help but wonder if they would have questioned his American nationality or his wife's patriotism had they both been White. I don’t recall anyone ever accusing Bill Clinton of being unpatriotic or un-American so it would appear that rather than confront a Black President on his politics, the tendency is rather to question his right to consider himself American. The colour of his skin becomes evidence that he is; he must be in fact an outsider.
What's makes the post racial myth even more nonsensical is that the preoccupation is less with one’s actions but rather avoiding the label of being….wait for it… a Racist. The recent hoo-hah with George Bush saying that Kanye West accusing him of being a racist was the lowest point of his presidency just goes to show how ridiculous we have become. Rather than worry about his actions or lack of and regret the way victims of Hurricane Katrina were treated, Bush is more concerned about preserving the appearance of being a Non-Racist at all cost. We now live in societies where people are less worried about the nasty things they say or do, such as discriminating against people on grounds of the colour of their skin and more preoccupied with being ‘called out’. I for one will dare to call you a Racist if that is what you are – because I will judge you on your actions not the deep feelings of love and tolerance you profess to have for all race, creed and colour.

I will judge you on the things that you do and say and until those actions say otherwise I put it to you that we still live in a society that is full of racist people!


Brenda in Cairo ;) said...

Totally agree with you on this issue of 'post-racism'- shocks me sometimes that the folk one went to school with/lived with at uni don't want their kids to play with kids who look like mine! I too thought it was crazy ludicrous that Bush was upset at Kanye's true description of what his actions declare him to be and not that he was disappointed at what happened then or that he lead the willing ignoramuses into a most unfortunate and irrational war with Iraq.

Love your writing girl!

Anonymous said...

Well said and written. It's scary but then again if I had your attitude from day 1 there wouldn't have been any surprises.