Rodney King (1992) famously said “Can we all just get along?”
Long before then, the notion that the world was ‘coming together as one’ was part of the movement of social values especially since the 1960s, and the song “What we need is a great big melting pot“-Blue Mink (1970)-was a great hit.
Many communities have sought after the idea of peace and harmony with their neighbours, but world history is littered with failures in that regard. Humans’ sense of territory and the notion of ownership and control lie at the base of many contentions between people.
One thing I’ve learned from being a migrant, or living in any place, is that people really don’t take too well to strangers. That need never rise to the level of open hostilities or aggressive behaviour, but exclusion can manifest itself in many subtle ways.
There’s some idealism that makes it appear that racism and xenophobia (fear of strangers) are somehow inhuman traits, whereas they are the bases of most social groupings, in the sense that people tend to be wary of outsiders–the less-well-known. If they look, sound and act differently, suspicion about them rises. It is often the case that suspicion goes to resentment, especially if it appears the strangers are the cause of something bad, or can be blamed easily. If the other group had stuff that was nice or not available to us, then let’s go bash them up and take all their stuff. Most of the world’s communities were formed by people taking over other people’s lands, enslaving the losers, ransacking their homes, raping their women, killing their children (reducing future generations) or by running from people seeking to do that. Who loves to be persecuted for what they are?
Association often breaks down many of the barriers between people, but it’s all about who you meet and know; no generalized love for the strangers, usually. Some people get excited about notions such as ‘post-racial’ society, because recently a predominantly Caucasian nation elected a president from a once-persecuted minority. The fact that many of the institutions of that country were still persecuting that minority, sometimes with lethal force seemed to escape some assessments.
I love watching modern British TV because it often paints a world that is wonderfully inclusive of non-mainstream lifestyles (sexual, racial, religious etc), and some of it is right but one has to ask, for example: ‘Do inter-racial couples really have such an easy time?’ or ‘How did so many ethnic minorities become top brass in the police force?’ or ‘Are lesbians and gay men so easily accepted as heads of organizations or co-workers?’
Because laws are in place to try to reverse centuries of discrimination doesn’t pull love out of a bag for the once-discriminated against. Ask women how getting the vote changed their domestic, social and working lives.
I never faced much overt racism or discrimination when I lived in England. One of the worst instances, ironically was at the hands of a Jamaican family who didn’t want to rent to me because of my inter-racial relationship. I liked that: clear where things stood.
I have seen racism and discrimination up close, though, as I wrote before, when Welsh people did their best to make English people feel the real coldness of being unwelcome. I know colour or my race didn’t matter, then, because I spoke Welsh and was ‘inside the tent’. I’ve had my race and colour included nastily in an epithet, but I’ve also heard and witnessed similar disparagement doled out when it obviously didn’t apply. Some insults just work well, I guess. (Some Jamaicans live to throw out a homophobic slur with no real idea of whether it fits or not, simply because once upon a time the mere hint of its being true could have led to major legal and social problems. When you hear a 3-year old spit it out, then you know its currency has just become part of the general bag of tricks.)
I’ve never had one of those experiences when I was called one of these names and then was given the “I don’t mean you” walk-back. Nor have had I had the “Sorry, it’s gone” routine when I showed up to rent, buy, apply for a job, having written or called and gotten a positive response. But, I know people who have experienced that. But, I’ve also been given ‘the treatment’ for how I dressed or spoke (‘too white’; more recently ‘not a real Jamaican’); so too have white friends of mine (‘You gone posh…You’re not one of us anymore’), especially when people have left quite tight communities who saw these traits as representing different and often oppressive classes.
When white English friends used to travel to the USA in the 1970s and 1980s, and came back with stories about ‘how friendly Americans were’, I always asked if they had met or travelled with any black people, or visited any black neighbourhoods (in a country with centuries of openly institutionalized racism) if they watched how black people were treated. The answer was no.
By the time I went to the USA to live and work, in the early-1990s, the racial climate had changed, but I never saw evidence that the country had moved far from its past, though in the odd, cosmopolitan and well-educated bubble that was the Washington metropolitan area it was easy to think that the world was one big happy family. Iranans running restaurants; Koreans having shops and their Christian churches; Ethiopians running most taxi businesses; a black American with a Jamaican background being Secretary of State living in a predominantly white upper-middle class Virginian suburb and sitting in church with his white Cabinet members. Chinese people staying in a small commercial enclave in DC. Vietnamese and Latinos vying for space and businesses in the same areas. Spanish speakers dominating a state. But, we knew about places with concentrations of people from Italian or Irish origins that were hard for any others to penetrate. The black ghettos. The Jewish quarters. The USA’s national motto is E pluribus unum–out of many, one; essentially the same as Jamaica’s national motto ‘out of many, one people’, yet these places don’t treat people the same. Though Jamaica has its layers of prejudice and discrimination, I’d take that over the US variants any day.
Fortunately, my work life has taken me to so many different places and often at a high official level that I know the expected behaviour and can adapt to see like I fit. I tell my children to always act as if you belong and most times you will, including if you can switch what and how you speak; one reason to learn a few different languages. But, don’t deny that it’s much easier to defend oneself against any discrimination within a space that you can call your own (country, town, city) than when you can really claim the same sense of belonging. Much as I loved life in England and was happy with my life in the USA, I am eternally grateful to be back home in Jamaica.