Tony Grist (poliphilo) wrote,
Tony Grist
poliphilo

Where I'm Coming From

The world of my youth was deeply racist. (And sexist but we'll put that aside for the time being.) Almost everything I was taught, read or watched as a boy centred on the doings of violent white men- because a violent white man is the pinnacle of God's creation. If BAME people featured at all it was as savages- at the best "noble savages", at the worst cannibals. Frequently- as in the still popular Zulu- which is a kind of British western- they consisted of undifferentiated hordes- over whose mowing down by white men we were not expected to shed many tears.

(Brief shout out for my man Rudyard- who put an Indian boy at the heart of the Jungle Books- the only instance I can think of from my boyhood of a BAME person being presented as someone with whom one might wish to identify.)

The history I absorbed was mostly myth- and consisted of stories of British men beating foreigners- men like Drake and Clive and Rhodes. The Second World War cast a light- or shadow- backwards and forwards- confirming us in the notion that the British- who were always white- were eternally virtuous in their warfare and eternally victorious.

Until very recently slavery had no place in that narrative. It was something that happened "over there". We took credit for ending the north Atlantic slave trade- but coughed politely and changed the subject when it was suggested that we might also have started it. Colston- who is reckoned to have sent 84,000 people to the Americas- killing a high proportion of them in the process- was memorialised as a philanthropist; not a word about how he made his money.

As I grew to adulthood black people began appearing on the streets. We'd invited them in from Commonwealth countries because we were having difficulty running the country on our own. (This is the Windrush generation that Mrs May's government decided to kick around the houses.) They mainly took low status jobs- the kind the lockdown has taught us to value- in hospitals, transport, the mills. Inevitably they started appearing on TV and in the movies- at best as the sidekick of a violent white male or as the straight man (a noble savage) in a comedy about white racists. Ooh, that Alf Garnett, he's awful but you've got to love him.

Not infrequently the black man was played by a white man with paint on his face. I was in my late 20s before the BBC finally retired the Black and White Minstrel Show. Comics like David Walliams were still blacking up in the early years of the current century- and getting away with it because they were young and hip and what they were doing was ironic (whatever that was supposed to mean).

And all the time, black people were being discriminated against in housing and the job market- and shouted at on the street and disproportionally harassed and killed by the police- with most of it going unreported.

I watched all this- or avoided watching it- from the side-lines. I am white, middle-class, male. I wasn't on the receiving end of any of the bad stuff. The culture was made by people like me, foregrounded people like me, sucked up to people like me.

In the circumstances I don't think it's an over-reaction to knock over a few statues. They stand in the way of us learning the truth.
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