A lighter look at racism in Britain

Rudy Otter Wednesday 24th June 2020 12:04 EDT

An astute observer of British life once said: “If you see a white man dashing down the street, he is running to catch a bus. If it’s a black man sprinting, he must be running away from the police.”

In the 1950s, a British television documentary set out to discover whether white landlords and landladies were “colour prejudiced” as we used to say in those days as a euphemism for racism.

A black reporter would go to a house advertising “Room to let” and tell the owner he was looking for accommodation. “Sorry,” he would be told. “The room is taken.” Ten minutes later a white reporter approached the same owner. "Yes, of course," was the response. "The room is yours for £XX a week."

When Asian doctors first started working for Britain's National Health Service, they were surprised to hear mainly elderly white patients take one look at them and demand to see a "proper doctor" -- meaning a white doctor.

This attitude sparked a newspaper cartoon in which an old white woman, waiting in a crowded surgery, sees an Indian man enter and head straight for the doctor's door. She jumps up and tells the Asian in deliberately broken English: "We all wait for doctor, you wait for doctor." The man gives her a withering look and remarks in equally fractured English: "No, YOU wait for doctor. Me, doctor."

Asian shopkeepers in the 1950s/60s were addressed by white customers in slow and loud voices:

"H-O-W M-U-C-H D-O-E-S T-H-I-S C-O-S-T?"

Some shopkeepers in those days would give equally slow and loud responses before reverting to fast and fluent sentences, to be met with a surprising question: "Where did you learn to speak such good English?"

Witty shopkeepers would quip: "Oh, I picked up the language on my way to Britain," and rejoice in customers' open-mouthed admiration of their amazing intellectual ability!

Once, on a tube train, I got on the same time a white man. I sat next to a white person while he sat next to a black man opposite and gave me an indignant stare. I stared back because his manner spoke volumes. According to his racist mindset, I should have sat next to the black guy and he next to the white guy.

Racism can flare up when least expected and it is always a good idea to stay alert to this possibility at all times so one can retaliate with a quick and effective retort. No point in being dumbstruck when it happens and thinking of a brilliant riposte three days later.

However, I must say that racism in Britain has receded considerably since the bad old days. This is why I do not think Blacks and Asians should resort to the desperate measure of using skin-whitening substances to make themselves more acceptable to white folk. What a pathetic way to seek approval for one's existence! A Black woman once said on television: "If only I were white, all my problems would be over."

Really? Don't white people have problems too?

Let us take comfort in the undeniable fact that complexion is only skin-deep. It is the person inside the skin, the personality, that can exude a positive, wholesome and happy attitude to everyone they encounter.

A smile is infectious. Try it.

* Rudy Otter, a retired Anglo-Indian journalist and columnist, was for several years a regular contributor of news, features and personal columns to ABPL's former New Life weekly newspaper and Asian Business, a fortnightly magazine for independent retailers.

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