Some of my Best Friends are…by Trevor Plumbly

Learning to be racist

I grew up in Royal Tunbridge Wells in the South East of England. Whilst a pleasant enough town, in the early 1940s it was hardly a classless or multi-cultural community; in fact, among the educated and privileged there was an inbuilt superiority that, sadly, we the less fortunate accepted as their lot in life. Oddly enough though, instead of identifying with the other lesser mortals we, being white, and indeed English, practised our own form of bigotry. “Eeny, meeny, miney moe!”, “Little Black Sambo”, “Sir Golly de Wog” and “Taffy was a Welshman” were considered acceptable reading or amusing ditties for children. So I guess I grew up to believe that, despite being on the lower portion of the class ladder, I was at least above the ‘foreigners’. Largely through lack of intelligent adult input, I and other kids slipped into a code of intolerance against anyone without an English accent or worse, with a darker skin colour. Religious differences weren’t spared either: whilst not publicly pilloried, Jewish people were certainly lumped in with the ‘un-English’. We weren’t born racists, we just learned from our parents, peers and literature.

Race relations

London in the 50s and 60s saw the first real influx of immigrants from the West Indies, India and Nigeria and, as a result of daily contact with people we’d been schooled to regard as lesser beings, attitudes softened. Sure we still used the same derogatory nicknames, but they took on an inclusive rather than an insulting slant. We certainly didn’t embrace a mixed race society overnight, but some of us began to realise that racial stereotyping was not only stupid but totally unjust, so for those few years the pendulum tended to swing to the side of reason. Sadly though, that tolerance was short lived. As the gates opened and the number of immigrants flooded into the main centres, services became overstretched along with accommodation and employment opportunities, resulting in ghetto-like communities ideal for fostering violent political discontent or religious extremism. Those of us living outside the problem areas had little conception of the difficulties facing immigrant families, we expected instant assimilation or at least an appreciation of the free health care and education that we provided, rather than the disapproval and anger that transpired.

Racism in New Zealand

Arriving in New Zealand, I discovered that racism was alive and well with plenty of targets, Poms, Dutch, Chinese, Indian, Japanese and even in reverse, Maori, all bore the prefix ‘bloody’ and were judged as either parasitic, money hungry or just plain idle. It would be a rich source of humour if it were mined but, sadly, laughing at internal failings isn’t our way. I’ve tried pointing out that bigotry hates ridicule but to no avail. When it comes to Maori the main problem areas are cultural respect and land ownership; the bulk of Europeans don’t attach too much importance to cultural heritage and customs while Maori regard them as essential to spiritual well-being. The Treaty of Waitangi, drawn up in the 19th century to protect native rights is still the subject of bitter and protracted dispute with little prospect of a final resolution ever being reached to bridge the ‘them and us’ divide. That same divide is present in the main cities with new immigrants prepared to work harder to get what most of us take for granted. Unless we direct and encourage that energy into rural areas it will be a problem waiting to happen. There’s a bit of the bigot in all of us and the best way to deal with it isn’t via a Race Relations Board or a raft of P.C. legislation; we need to stop taking each other quite so seriously, learn to laugh at ourselves and others and leave enforced culture and religion in their rightful place…History.

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