Tag Archives: racism

A new orthodoxy

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We are in the age of post-modernism. The modernist era which begin around the time of the enlightenment was all about certainty, scientific and industrial progress, the putting away of old fashioned myths and stories, and the eroding of faith. This was the era of proof. And what couldn’t be proven would almost certainly be at some point in the future. Truth was out there, and it could be found, but most probably not in the church.

By the time we got to the final third of the 20th century, things weren’t all that certain. Yes, there had been huge strides in medicine, healthcare, poverty, democracy, civil rights, and welfare, but we were coming to the realisation that some problems would always be around, and some questions were not answerable by scientific method and social progress. This, combined with increased multiculturalism and globalisation opened us up to alternative perspectives from all around the world. Suddenly, your solution or opinion was deemed as good as mine and equally valid. There was now no absolute truth and no way of discerning one truth from another. Everything was subjective.

We are in the age of post-modernism. Or are we?

I’m not so sure.

The rise of twitter has made it abundantly clear that there are still many, many opinions out there. But a number of recent events have led me to question whether society in general really does still hold to the postmodern mantra of no absolute truth, with all opinions equally valid.

First we had the Luis Suarez racism debate. What was said, what what meant, and how was the translation? Was he a racist, or was something else meant by the remarks? I the midst of that we had Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Cole embroiled in a twitter row over the term ‘choc-ice’. For example, what constitutes racism? Simply inserting the word ‘black’ in front of an insult?

Second, the failure of the Church of England to pass the legislation to allow women to become bishops. The three chambers of the house. made up of bishops, clergy, and laity (non-clergy) were overwhelmingly in favour, with just the house of laity narrowly failing to get the two thirds majority required. The Twitterverse couldn’t believe it and there was very little attempt to understand the reasons why it might have failed.

Third, the debate and passing of the first reading of the equal (same-sex) marriage bill in parliament yesterday.

In all of these cases, the general feeling of society perceives that there is a ‘correct’ answer. In a true postmodernist society, both those speaking for and against the issues would have their voices heard, and their arguments engaged with. Sadly this no longer seems to be happening. There is a conformity to which we are expected to adhere. The debate on these subjects is shut down, often with the throwing around of insults, such as ‘racist’, ‘sexist’, and the catch-all, ‘bigot’. Tosh is last term in particular has been bandied around a lot this week during the same-sex marriage debate.

I heard someone today call this new way of thinking a ‘militant liberalism’, to go alongside the new or militant atheism that has risen up with the loss of religion, but is it not liberalism in the truest sense, neither is it tolerance. It is simple the expectation that everyone should conform in belief and practice, or else stay out of the debate and keep their opinions private. The views and morals to which we are to conform are vastly different to what they were a hundred years ago, but the expectation is that these views are the norm and there is an intolerance for anything else.

Some time ago, Ed West, in The Telegraph echoed this as he was commenting on the suggestions of some contemporary philosophers that atheists take the best, but non-spiritual, parts of religion.

The real problem is that religion is always replaced by something else. The rise of fads such as homoeopathy is well documented, but more commonly people’s religious desires for certainty, morality and community are transferred to their politics; that is why there is this sense that those outside the communion of correct beliefs today are morally unclean, and new sins such as “racist” and “sexist” replace “heretic” and “sinner”. That is the real “religion for atheists”.

Post-modernism was always difficult to define. What was agreed was that it was the time after modernism, but there was no consensus on what would take it’s place. I think it is emerging. We could call it ‘neo-orthodoxy’ or ‘neo-conformity’, but what seems to be clear is this: there is a new set of right beliefs not based on any faith position. What worries me is, without a theological foundation, where might these lead us?

A personal reflection on the novel ‘Jubilee’, by Shelly Harris

Another novel picked for our book club, and this one is the best so far.

Jubilee, a first novel by British/South African author Shelly Harris, is the story of two photographs. The first, taken during a street party for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1977. A seemingly idyllic picture which represents the growing multiculturalism of the UK at the time. The residents of Cherry gardens, adults and children, sit each side of a long table adorned with patriotic tablecloths, Union Flags, coronation chicken, and all sorts of other goodies. Satish is from an Indian descent family, recently displaced from Uganda by Idi Amin, the first non-white family on that street. He is joined in the photo by  the other 8-14 year-olds who live on this middle class street, with a few of the parents further in the background. One moment which looked so idyllic snapped in a photo which quickly went viral and became famous (in the pre-internet sense), but a moment which hid the true realities of the day. This was a day in which the racism that had sat hidden under the surface suddenly burst into the open, and scarred Satish and some of the others for life.

Fast forward 30 years and one of the children in the photo is trying to organise a reunion photo, in the same place, in similar positions, and by the same photographer. the problem is that Satish, now a successful cardiologist, really doesn’t want to remember that day, and the photo really won’t work without him.

I had expected to find this novel interesting, given it’s subject matter, but I hadn’t expected it to touch some aspects of my childhood too. I am mixed race, brought up in a very non-ethnically diverse middle class town in the north-east in the 1980s. My father is from London, and is white (pink in the sun); my mother is from Mauritius. Ethnically, Mauritius is very diverse and, with the island having no native population, comprises almost every skin tone there is. My mother is French-Mauritian, descended from some of the earliest European settlers but who have mixed in with everyone else from India, Africa and Madagascar, so her skin tone is Indian but her bone structure is more European. That makes me olive-skinned in the winter, and nicely tanned in the summer. I don’t really burn in the sun. So, not very ethnically different, but different enough.

That said,  thinking back to my primary school, I can only think of one other none white person in my class. She was Sun-Ye, and her parents owned the first Chinese take-away in the town. I didn’t really know her well so I can’t comment on how she found the experience of being in a minority, but I found my first and middle school years quite difficult with similar taunts that Satish had to endure in the book. Thankfully I never got it as bad as him and by the time I moved to secondary school – a different one to those in my primary and middle schools, all of these stopped.  Here are a couple of passages that really struck me:

Firstly, one about friendship. Cai is Satish’s best friend on the street and the Chandlers are older boys who live a few doors down.

The Chandlers were an anomaly in Cherry Gardens: looks cannons, lads who edged just the wrong side of all the indulgent terms which make bearable the behaviour of children. They were not mischievous, or quite a handful, they even surpassed that merry catch-all, boys will be boys… Of Satish himself, they were contemptuous, not because of the things he did – there was nothing he could learn here, nothing he could modify which would change their attitude, but because of what he was. He tried not to be around much when they were present. Yet Cai adored the Chandlers, braving their quixotic moods, thrilled just to be in their presence. He didn’t seem overly concerned about their attitude to Satish either. ‘They’re just having a laugh,’ Cai would tell thin. ‘Don’t take it so seriously’. (p120)

Cai was not a true friend. Ditching him at school or in front of the older boys he wanted to impress. What would they think if he was seen with Satish? I remember quite clearly being aware of one friend at school, Nicholas, who would never join in with the taunting. He was a good kid and sometimes he got the teasing with me. Sadly he moved away to a different school at about the age of eight and I didn’t see him again. There was another friend who I used to hang around with too, but his attitude was much like Cai’s, happy to spend time with the different-coloured boy when there was no-one much around, but who joined in with the others so that he wouldn’t be targeted too. At middle school, Nick’s place was taken by Richard, who lived round the corner and who was in another class. Again a thoroughly good friend.

Although it remained unpleasant, after a while I became a bit numb to the use of the term ‘Paki’ against me. It was the nickname that I didn’t like. A few times my parents had been on at the teachers to stop it, but nothing had really come of it and that had just put the name back on the map for some of the kids. Here’s a passage from earlier in the book, again about the Chandler brothers.

At first, Paul [Chandler] had called him ‘Diarrhoea’ –  a little skid mark on the whiteness of Bourne Heath. they Stephen, the younger and brighter of the two, came up with ‘Splatish’, and the pun had stuck for a long white, lingering until it was finally neutralised. In that since it was like ‘Paki’, a term used so frequently in the daily hustle of the playground that Satish had been mystified when his casual mention of the term had seen his dad barrelling in to the Head’s office to complain. This tactless intervention, which threatened so much of the painstaking work Satish had done to shore himself up socially, would not be allowed to happen again. His job was to parry the blows, or absorb them. He didn’t need a protector. (p57-8)

Age 10, middle school, I had become completely used to the term ‘Paki’ as a nickname and was just biding my time before leaving to go to an independent senior school elsewhere. One break time whilst playing football on the school field, a female teacher who was the form tutor for a different class heard some of the kids calling me that and decided to do something about it. My first reaction was ‘Oh no, it’s ok’ whilst internally thinking ‘please don’t rock the boat’. Fortunately, she thought it wasn’t ok and she managed to stop it. I don’t know what she did and I can’t even remember her name. I can remember which classroom she taught in but that’s about it. Somehow, in the space of a week or so, people had stopped calling me ‘Paki’. I am very grateful to her, whoever she is. About six months later I moved to a new school, and not once did anyone use a racist term against me.

So, reading this book has taken me on a personal recollection of aspects of my early years. These are some things that I hadn’t thought about for ages and which, in some ways, are still a little painful. It’s made me appreciate the good people who were around at the time – the friendship of Nick and Richard, and the efforts of the nameless teacher. Having also grown up and become a Christian, my identity is no longer based on what others think of me or my abilities. In this regard, I’m content and now very happy to have a skin tone that tans!

Shelly Harris clearly understands what it is to grow up in a very small minority, and she has been very astute in observing and recording the details in her novel. She is clearly a great people-watcher as well and manages to get inside the thoughts, emotions and irrationalities of a character. Jubilee is very well written to boot. She takes the main character back to face that horrendous day, and in a round about route to face up to them and move on. The book ends with a staging of the new photo and a regrinding of the central character.

Thoroughly recommended. 9/10

Goodbye Bafana – a movie review

Last night we saw the excellent movie Goodbye Bafana, based on the book of the same name. It is the true story of James Gregory, a young prison guard in South Africa who gets sent to work at the maximum security prison at Robben Island in the late 1960s. As he speaks the tribal Khosa language which he learned from a black friend on the farm where he grew up, he gets detailed to guard new prisoner Nelson Mandela and some of his ANC contemporaries. They are imprisoned for acts of terrorism against the Apartheid government. Gregory is asked by the intelligence agency to listen into Mandela’s conversations and feed back any details of ANC plans.

Gregory and his wife Gloria are typical of their time. All their news they get from the newspapers, tey have no TV. ANC publications are banned so they believe what the authorities tell them – that the ANC are communist terrorists intent on taking away land from white people and killing them. They attitudes are similarly racist. At one point Gloria tells her children that it is God’s way that black and white should remain separate.

One incident in the story occurs during Mandela’s first meeting with his wife, Winnie. Sat behind a glass screen and speaking through telephones, Gregory is listening to every word. He feeds back to the intelligence agency that Mandela has a son from his first marriage who has just got a car and a driving license. It is not long before this son is found dead in a car accident. Gregory suspects that he was murdered and blames himself.

As the story develops, Gregory starts speaking to Mandela in Khosa, and their friendship gets closer. Gregory’s attitudes slowly change, particularly after he sees how blacks are treated in the street and get a chance to read an illegal copy of the ANC’s charter of beliefs. Finding life more difficult on Rebben Island, Gregory eventually moves to a different job, but six years later is reunited as Mandela and other ANC prisoners (Walter Sisulu, Andrew Mlangeni, Ahmed Kathrada and Raymond Mhlaba) are moved to a slightly more comfortable prison at Pollsmoor. Once again, Gregory is Mandela’s primary guard. This remains the case until Mandela’s eventual release from Victor Verster Prison on 11th February 1990.

Apart from the obvious touching friendship, one of the things that stuck out from the film was the attitudes of the society in the 1960s and on through into the 1980s. The prison guards and police had some very racist thoughts and actions which jarr with our modern attitudes. Some of the lines are difficult to hear. However, they were, I suppose, simply a product of their time. When fed propaganda by the government, when not many people had TV’s and given that most ANC and anti-aparteid documents were banned, there was no other source of information from which to gather their views. They views they held were the views fed to them. Gregory eventually saw through it.

It is worth making the connection to today – what are we being fed by the media and newspapers that dictates what we believe and think about things? True – we have access to a much wider range of information through the internet and more permissive governments, but it is still worth asking what that media is telling us and whether it is misleading or damaging. Things such as beauty is best, might is right, or the continual desire that is drummed into us to own more things and that this will make us happy. Surely we are all a product of our time that is difficult to escape.

Overall, a wonderful, thought-provoking film.