Last Friday, I experienced my first direct racist confrontation since I was at primary school – that’s some thirty-four years ago! Whilst there may have been subtle and not so subtle insinuations and discrimination based on ignorance, assumptions and fear over that time, this experience was more akin to little Wayne shouting “Go home Paki” to me whenever he felt the need to assert himself. Poor kid.
So, there I was, sitting in our lovely local cafe for the first time, having finally managed the twenty minute (5 minutes for the able-bodied) walk there, sipping my roobois tea and chatting to my partner and daughter about the lovely decor when a woman who’d been flitting between the bar and window area for a good 10 minutes, suddenly came over to our table, looked directly at me and said “Can I just ask? Why did you come to my country?”
Stunned, I said “Excuse me?” to bide myself enough time to come up with a suitable response that I wouldn’t regret saying in front of my almost 3 year old.
“Why did you come to my country?” Sigh.
The woman seemed slightly inebriated but not drunk enough to excuse such ridiculousness, so I think I attempted to explain politely but firmly that this wasn’t ‘her country’ and perhaps it would be better not to make assumptions about folk. Or something along those lines. She didn’t seem to understand and kept asking the question. I pointed out that I was here with my family and didn’t wish to discuss her chosen topic and repeated “Okay, have a good evening” until she started backing off. But of course, by that time my partner was a little aggrieved and (understandably) expressed his anger a little less discreetly than I had.
I looked over in a frozen moment of time and saw his anger meet hers and it looked too, too sad. Letting go of my own anger and the long held need to defend myself, it became apparent that the woman was upset about something other than needing to know my reasons for being in ‘her country’ What I could make out from her sometimes unclear communication was that she saw herself as a victim, consigned to the scrap heap with no-one to care for her needs.
When she – let’s call her Mildred to give her some dignity in this story – described herself as “poor, white, working-class”, she did so with a look I’ve seen from toddlers like my daughter, so faux it’s laughable, knowing or expecting that particular words will elicit a specific, hopefully sympathetic response. And when my partner paused from telling Mildred to go away, I felt able to step in with a calmer response.
I suggested that the label she gave to herself or allowed others to assign to her, was only that – a label, not who she really was.
“What am I then?” she asked, presumably a bit stunned by my turn around from ‘Push off’ attitude to one of ‘Okay, I can see you’re hurting. How can I help?’.
“You’re a woman, stronger than you think, wiser than you realise…” I offered this not as a platitude but as mere fact. Mildred began to tell us about her daughter being on drugs and how she felt unable to help her. She talked about going to the now closed down pub opposite for years and how things had changed since those days. And it was clear that she wanted to blame these travesties on me and any other folk who looked different to her simply because there didn’t seem anyone else to blame who could be held accountable.
It saddened me deeply that Mildred and so many others like her, feel so utterly abandoned by society and unable to help themselves out of the often dire and hopeless situations they find themselves in.
I use the word ‘they’ only to illustrate that I do not feel the hopelessness or need to be rescued by someone outside of my self. The reality is that Mildred is me and I am her. We – you and I dear reader – are the same whether or not we voted for Brexit, whether or not we voted for Trump (or Clinton for that matter – let’s not kid ourselves that life would be any better under her presidency). Whether or not we cast those particular votes, we are complicit in the societies that have allowed these seemingly unthinkable situations to take place.
This is not a bid to induce guilt of any kind. Far from it. Whether or not and how much responsibility we take for the bizarre moments we are living through, is up to us and ultimately irrelevant. What matters is that we stop seeing others as others and blaming them for what’s ‘gone wrong’. The time for grief and incredulity is coming to an end. There is no room for fear induced anger and hatred anymore. Just as there is no longer room for the social, cultural, economic and political systems which have resulted in our current sorry state of affairs.
The time is ripe for healing our own hurt and the damaged souls of our communities; for listening to each other and hearing the pain that we all feel one way or another; for designing, creating and building new ways of living that do not rely on the old, failed methods.
Imagine a world where no-one feels maligned or consigned to the outskirts of society because they are made to feel different in some way to those who make the rules. Imagine that we are the ones who make the rules for ourselves and that those rules are led by love, kindness, acceptance and support of each other. Imagine a world where equality and sharing replace poverty and a sense of lack.
Mildred reflected my attempt to reach out to her, by saying that she liked me but she appeared too caught up in her tale of woe and a tad too tipsy to let go of the (possibly fictional, sugar-coated) past that haunted her. At least not that evening.
I imagine I’ll bump into Mildred again under more sober circumstances and we can have a chat that is less about who is to blame for society’s problems and more centred on how acceptance and love can change both our worlds for the better.