Sunday, March 02, 2008


The question of race seems to have been cropping up on a lot of blogs I read lately.

It started when I read this post on racism by the always brilliant OTJ. One or two of her readers commented that they'd found the UK to be a much more racist place than America. I was honestly surprised at reading that, having personally experienced much more overt racism here than back home. I have been called 'the right kind of immigrant' more times than I care to remember, I've known so many intelligent and well-educated people carelessly toss the words 'wetbacks' or 'illegals' into conversations and blame them for everything from ERs closing to peeing in fountains. I always found this a shock, being an immigrant myself and knowing becoming legal is not as simplistic as some might imagine, and having struggled myself to keep everything above board. Plus, my one big issue with people spouting about 'immigration' here, is that their definition of an immigrant usually starts about 10-25 years after their forebears arrived.

You're all bloody immigrants.

This overarching concentration on race can go both ways too. At my first job over here one of my colleagues went to great lengths to explain that her fiance 'was white'. Ironically, her name was Blanca.

I was consistently amazed at the way racial slurs were bandied around over here, at the number of mass emails that would arrive in my inbox forwarded by people I knew, concerning how America was better when it was whiter, churchier, and everyone assimilated to a perfect WASPy norm. I'm sure this isn't specific to the States, I'm sure the same emails are flying around the UK, I just haven't seen them because I moved over here before the age of email *gasp*. Those emails make my blood boil though, and moved by what OTJ had said, I spoke up on a website that had published one of them. I agree that no-one should suffer discrimination, whether it's reverse discrimination or not, I agree that being seen as too tolerant a country can make you feel that your society is being taken advantage of. I understand what it is to love and cherish your country (two countries in my case). I understand it's a many-layered debate. I don't think that justifies vitriol. I think we should be trying to find some common ground, channel our inner John Lennon. This is America after all, the land of diversity. There was a lot of respectful discussion, and eventually a consensus that you don't have to agree on every issue in order to be friends. And after about 3 days my heart stopped racing at a thousand beats per minute.

I am not a confrontational person.

In contrast, my experiences with racism in the UK were very limited.

Until I gave it some thought.

Doris Lessing once wrote that the only people in the UK who thought the class system was dead belonged to the middle class. Basically if something isn't affecting you first hand it is hard to have any perspective on the issue. I grew up in a very white, rural area of Northern England. I distinctly remember the first time someone who wasn't white-skinned joined my primary school class. I was intrigued. Turns out they weren't Indian, or Pakistani, or Arabian - they had just come back from a holiday in Israel and were tanned.

When I went to University one of my non-white friends said she couldn't believe what a bubble Cambridge was, and how predominantly white. To me, on first arriving, it had seemed wonderfully diverse.

In essence, my experiences with race and racism up to the time I emigrated to California had been mostly academic in nature. I had not perceived the UK to be more racist than the US because I'd simply not been anywhere near the issue whilst knee-deep in sheep droppings or libraries. Upon closer reflection, I was being more than a little naive.

I thought I'd better turn the mirror on myself, was I standing in a big glass house with a fistful of stones?

When we moved to our present house, school districts were not at the forefront of our minds. The fact that we had the chance to own property where a two bedroom fixer-upper is six figures was our main concern. Plus the creature was minus 2 weeks old when we signed the papers. Things change though, and I found myself on this website last week and was pretty gobsmacked that Anna's prospective primary school was 98% Hispanic. You can bet that the phrases 'white flight' and 'sanctimonious hypocrite' flashed through my head.

I culled my friends' opinions. Was my sudden decision to start researching other primary school options for Anna as bad as saying 'if you don't speak the language get out of the country'? As usual my good friend set me straight:

"Dude, half my family's hispanic and I wouldn't have Anna go to that school either. That doesn't make you a racist. If it was the best school in town and you didn't want her to go because it was mostly Hispanic then you'd be a racist."

Big sigh of relief.

"It makes you a snob."

So there you have it. 98% of the school may be Hispanic, but 100% of the kids are listed as 'socioeconomically disadvantaged'. Apparently you can't be a Brit and shrug off that 'clarse' thing.


Wonderful World of Weiners said...

Very well written. I am so glad I hopped over to read this.

I really enjoy reading your take on this issue.

Thanks for enlightening me.

I really appreciate it!

Btw, you did NOT need to say it was warm AND you had a Thin Mint. That was just mean!

Hallie :)

Anonymous said...

I agree. There are very few coloured people in NH as it is still a very red neck society which "blows my socks off' when I hear the racist comments!

You sum it up so well "most americans are immigrants!"

Will we be seeing some suny CA photo's soon to cheer up the depressed snow covered fans?"


Almost American said...

I live in a New England town that is relatively diverse (for New England at any rate)and was saddened when my daughter's swim teacher said she and her partner were going to be moving to Atlanta, because they felt very uncomfortable here as a bi-racial couple. I have had many people tell me that they 'prefer' the more open racism of the US south to more subtle racism in the north.

I'm a snob too, especially where education is concerned, and we chose to live where we do because we are pretty sure that in general the schools here are better than the ones in surrounding towns. Do what you need to do to get Anna into the best school you can! As your friend said, it would only be racist to avoid your local (98% Hispanic) school if it was a good one!

Zoe said...

i shocked that the uk is more racist. i live in michigan and i have a biracial son and a gay best friend. i can tell you with out any hesitation that racism is alive and well in the midwest. we are not talking subtle either.

Amy said...

While enjoy, "fluff" posts (as I call them), I really enjoy thought provoking posts such as this.

When it comes right down to it, you have to make the decision that works for your family. In this case, it's a school that would be a good fit for your daughter. What ever decision you make is yours, and not for anyone else to judge.

If someone were to judge you, wouldn't that be just the same as someone making a racial comment. I think so.

Thanks for making me think tonight. Take care!


AliBlahBlah said...

Thanks Amy - you are one of the people who got me thinking (in a good way) in the first place. I try to be very careful, spouting about issues that are germaine to my adopted country. I know what it is to bridle at a slight to the mother land (even though it's usually about the weather and usually spot on!).

I like your point that judging someone can be akin to racism - provided you are being judged for the colour of your skin/religion/weight/sexual orientation, less so if you're being judged on your words or actions. That's what I was worried about, that my 'action' of avoiding our local school spoke for some hidden racism. Instead of a need for Anna to get a good education and a good career and support her parents in their dotage!!!

American Mum said...

I think you're right about the UK ing less racist than the US, especially if you've ever lived in the south. It's out of control - people make EVERYTHING a race issue. I grew up in NY state and lived in chicago for a while, but moving to the south was an absolute shock.

I have heard some pretty out of control statements from some of the teachers at my husband's school here though, judging the ability and future success of an Indian student based on his race. But overall, it doesn't seem to be as much of an issue.

Lucia's Mom said...

Very interesting post!

I've lived in Canada (til 23), the UK (age 23-27) and the US (27-32). I think people everywhere can be racist, and it just sucks. The problems with the school/health care system in the US just makes the racial disparities exacerbated. I honestly think Canada is much more tolerant of all people. I think it's cool that people can live in Toronto and pretty much get by with their native non-English language (Mandarin, Portuguese, French etc.). The UK seems to have a problem with Asian (aka Indian) and Muslim immigrants and the US has a problem accepting hispanic immigrants. I hate going somewhere in the southern states where ALL the people with the crummy jobs (hotel cleaners, fast food restaurant staff) are of one ethnicity and all the people walking around spending money are another (white). I think it's awful, and people need to fix it.

As for the UK, people in England were horrible to me, because I was from Canada, I can't imagine how bad it must be if you're not white. Actually, people in England might just be horrible to everyone though, it was hard to tell. The concept of customer service and being nice to your neighbour doesn't seem to exist there. Sorry, harsh but true. England has many very nice qualities, but people being nice to each other isn't one of them.

I'm probably naive, maybe Canada is just as bad. I don't know, it didn't feel like it. Being Canadian by birth makes me totally biased though.

AliBlahBlah said...

American Mum & Lucia's Mom - thanks for commenting, I think you're right the UK and the US are probably on a par with the issue - I was trying to convey that no personal experience of racism in the UK was a very poor basis for me to get all riled up about someone calling the UK a racist country. I'm pretty sure you're right that some Brits hate everyone that doesn't have Typhoo Tea flowing through their veins! I've only noticed it more here because I live in a town where race is a big issue - there almost seem to be 'demarcation zones' where in some districts the only Mexicans are gardeners and others where the only white people are driving through (we live in the latter). I'm sure you get the same vibe in Bradford or Oldham or East London.

Thanks for reading!!

Expatmum said...

I'm a bit late with my input here, but a great post Ali. What hit me when I first moved over here was the lack of inter-racial families, and the lack of diversity in pubs and restaurants. I worked in London in the 1980s and saw people of all colours socializing. Over here, I can walk into most restaurants on the near north side of Chicago and guarantee it'll be 99.99% white. Furthermore, when you mention "the projects" (the US equivalent to council housing) you automatically assume the people living there are African American, whereas council housing in the UK has no colour attached, and much less of a stigma.
I would say that racism in the UK tends to be more of a reaction to the latest wave of immigrants, while here it is more entrenched and often directed against people who were dragged here in chains in the first place.

Mary said...

Great post Ali!
Bottom line, as always, you have to do what is best for you and your family.
Love the picture in your header!
It is adorable :)

Oh, The Joys said...

I really appreciate your honesty and your struggle in this post. I submitted it to jen from oneplustwo for the just post roundtable. I hope that's okay.


Law Student Hot Mama said...

Thanks for stopping by my blog . . . I hope you'll return.

Your post is way more thought-provoking and interesting than my blog in general. I noticed you mentioned "I don't know how you do it" as part of your comments. I actually just did a post on this . . . here's the link.

Now, in response to your post, your assessment is very interesting, especially with regard to the UK. When I think about racism and the UK I think predominantly about job and other discrimination against Arabs and Northern Africans who are Muslim. We have our discrimination, too, in the US, though sadly I think it's against more groups of people. I'm just glad I live in a country that people want to immigrate TO instead of immigrate FROM. The immigration debate depresses me.

I also wanted to respond to the part of your post where you hear "well-educated people carelessly toss the words 'wetbacks' or 'illegals' into conversations . . . " I think this is interesting. Certainly, 'wetbacks' is a derrogatory term - everybody would agree with you there. I think the 'illegals' term is a more nuanced form of racism and not everyone would believe that term is offensive. Technically, undocumented immigrants are 'illegal' immigrants because they are not in compliance with immigration laws. But use of the term creates an aura of criminality that goes far beyond 'undocumented.' Anyway, I think it's interesting you group "illegals" with "wetbacks."

Ok, that was way too serious of a comment for me to post. I'm scaring myself a little bit.