Becoming the victim of discrimination is something that haunts many people. I don’t want to limit my concern to black people, because I know that the problem is not limited to people of any one colour or race. But, my concern is not so much about racism, which I sometimes see as being identified too readily as ’cause’ once black and white people are involved in disputes. Many of my friends will have their own stories of discrimination, which have nothing to do with race as the main cause, but because they are female, or male, or gay, or did not go to university, or went to a certain school, or did not go to a certain school, or live in a certain place, or come from a certain country or region, or eat certain foods, or …
However, once again, some highly publicized incidents raise public awareness of something that is all too common, although, as is all too common, the focus is on racism.
Oprah Winfrey is now in a public spat about what happened recently in a Swiss store, when she wanted to buy a handbag. The bag she wanted was very expensive and she felt that a store worker’s refusal to show her the bag reflected racist motives. I am always leery about getting into other people’s heads and what they are thinking. But, to keep it simple, let’s agree that Oprah believes what she’s saying. The worker has now taken her turn to contest publicly the celebrity’s account. Let’s take it that the shop worker believes what she said. So, we have two people telling what they believe to be the truth, about an incident, but their stories do not seem to gel. Such is the making of misunderstanding. Here, one person feels slighted and it’s quite possible that the other person meant no slight. The slighted person takes it as a sign of discrimination; the alleged offender denies the charge. Outsiders have been quick to take sides, some seeing Oprah as motivated by opportunities for publicity as a new movie is coming. Some wonder whether a store worker would pass up the potential large commission from selling a very expensive item to play out some prejudice. The water gets muddy. We will see how this plays out. Just a few hours ago, a new story came out with Oprah apologising and saying that this was “just an incident in Switzerland”. Maybe, this will end with no harm, no foul.
That is different from another recent incident, when a black American baseball player (Adam Jones of the Baltimore Orioles) alleged that he had bananas thrown at him on the field. I say alleged because he did not see the thrower, and someone claiming to be thrower has come forward to admit throwing the banana, but also claiming that it was in disgust at how his team was playing against the Orioles, not at the player. The Jones incident is different from what happened to Mario Balotelli (AC Milan) some months ago: he was taunted by rival Inter Milan fans, who waved inflatable bananas at him. In the world of sport, taunting by rivals and their fans is not new, and the abuse seems better if it is more likely to ‘get under the skin’ of the intended victim. Anything to get an edge. Players do it. Fans do it. It’s not nice. I was reading last night about the rant on Twitter by English golfer, Lee Westwood, who was upset by ‘trolls’ who took on his lack of success at the PGA (and other majors) and he told them to “bring it on”. It may seem childish. It may get the actors on both sides into trouble. But, humans have not been conditioned to do only sensible things and fear of trouble has not stopped many idiotic acts.
My view is that one has to be highly deluded to believe that the human world is without discrimination. We may see more of certain types than others, but it’s something that is very much part of the core of how many of our societies have developed. Prejudgment, preference, unfairness, insults, etc. underlie many activities that we see as normal. What is deemed normal is not agreed universally. I am not going to defend any practices, but I’m also not going to get into any wholesale condemnation, because that may easily betray my own prejudices, preferences, sensitivities, etc. The motivation behind such actions is what we find bothersome. I may try to bring up my child by pushing certain values, but she will have other values pressing on her which are in contradiction. She’ll end up bending one way or another. I hope my way, but no guarantees. She may just end up well-equipped to see what is going on, but in no position, or with no personal inclination to take it on.
Oprah is black and very wealthy (estimated net worth about US$2 billion). She let her sensitivity about being slighted for her race be known. Would some feel that her willingness to spend somewhere in excess of US$40,000 on a handbag and being upset about not getting what she wanted displayed any offensive behaviour? I’ve read some comments from people who wondered what her conspicuous consumption might have displayed, and that she too is guilty of discrimination. I leave that as food for thought.
When I see people railing about black people being mistreated by whites, I always smile and remember being in a pub in Wales, where a group of (white) English-speaking tourists came in and wanted to be served, but the (white) Welsh-speaking landlord ignored them until they left, at which point most in the pub (mainly Welsh speakers) cheered. (I speak some Welsh and could understand the unpleasant comments coming from those happily having their beers. Though, I’m black, I have a true Welsh name. I was more ‘insider’ than the English ‘outsiders’.) There’s a long history of animosity between the English and their Celtic neighbours. The Welsh symbol is a red dragon. The English patron saint, George, was famous for slaying a dragon. Modern people may see that as evidence enough that the two nations should dislike each other–even though in the past the red dragon was part of English monarchy symbols. The dragon/dragon-slayer imagery alone would seem to support the idea that serious disagreements are the norm between these people.
News media do not often publish stories of incidents where white people are the victims of other white people’s prejudices, unless it occurs in some big context such as results in social conflicts, often cataclysmic ones. Think of Nazi Germany and Jewish persecution. Think of Bosnian genocide. Incidents on a smaller scale–say, one-on-one, are rarely reported, or get classed as something ‘normal’ rather than something that involves any major social issues. If sports teams from the US South are in a spat with teams from the North, do the writers run for the ‘Confederates versus Yankees’ box? The media have their biases, and when racial or ethnic issues are big in a society, those biases may get played out in what is deemed newsworthy. Think hard now. When is the last time you read about ‘white-on-white crime‘? Of course, it occurs a lot, but it’s seen as part of something other than prejudice or other discrimination. Men killing or harming women is not often tackled as evidence of misogyny. Men killing men is not often tackled as signs of any discrimination unless it is staring the reporters in the face (such as when one party is homosexual) and there is evidence of some rift). Groups taking it out on each other will get attention, as in some civil war context. But, more often, such incidents are seen as evidence of disaffection within parts of a society, and discussion moves to ‘subcultures’: think about Mods versus Rockers in the UK in the 1960s; punks; hippies; skinheads, etc. So, it is not easy for ordinary people to get a handle on what is really going on. Their conclusions and those of so-called experts may be simplistic. Neither may be totally right, and neither may be totally wrong. Conclusions will depend on prior assumptions–prejudices, preferences, etc.
But, we have to deal with our perceptions, but they are not pure and can be due to misunderstanding. Dealing with them need not involve action, and we have to understand that much is absorbed without evident reaction.
When talking with friends over the weekend, plenty of stories came out about how the English treated Jamaicans badly when they were new immigrants in London. The stories of available rented rooms, which suddenly were let once the prospective tenant was seen to be black. “Europeans only” or “No blacks” were not unusual signs, back then. If bad intent existed on the part of the English, then it was not good. If it was based on ignorance, do we feel any better about the slights? Now, after decades of migrants and their offspring living in the midst of the host population, ignorance is less, though not gone. British teams have the faces of West Indian offspring who speak and live more like the British than like people in the Caribbean. But, they are not necessarily loved by most and acceptance may never be reached. I often laugh when I hear one soccer team booing and taunting the opponents’ black players while cheering on their own. Confused?
The Oprah incident shows how a seemingly simple exchange can take on a very complex character. It also shows the difficulty of people having different recollections of incidents. Then comes the matter of intent and perceived intent. You cannot disprove a negative.
Jamaica has as its national motto ‘Out of many, one people’. However, not unlike many countries, it is clear that not all Jamaican people are seen as equals. I remember when Rasta were vilified, but now they are more revered than rejected, having given much to make Jamaican music renowned to the world and to stand for aspects of black culture that people now see as positive. Jamaicans have a reputation for their often violent reaction to homosexuality. Many people in Jamaica will justify that attitude yet still rail against any sign that they are being slighted for what they are: treat a Jamaican badly when passing through US or European Customs and Immigration and hold onto your helmet as the flood of cussing hits your ears. Ready to reject one minority? Upset at being rejected, especially if perceived to be a minority? We give insults, but we don’t take them? Imagine the national reaction if Usain Bolt was greeted by any banana throwing when racing in Europe. I’m sure that not much time would pass before chants of “Europeans hate black people” and link it fast to slavery days. But, how much love did he get when it was known that he had a white girlfriend?
We are humans, complex to the core. We are filled with likes and dislikes. Ignorance guides many actions but knowledge does not cure all differences.