I had cause to take the tube at rush hour two mornings last week – a rare event now that I am retired. It was packed, of course, but I was so struck by how companionable we were as we stood pressed next to each other like sardines. Men and women of all nationalities stood up for pregnant women and I was offered a seat several times (it has taken some adjustment to accept I look old enough to be offered a seat!). I accepted with the graciousness with which it was offered.
The journey from the tube door to the escalator at Oxford Circus was a slow one through the endless tunnels and up the steps and yet everyone slowed to an orderly snail’s pace. All colours and creeds cooperating, no pushing or shoving, just individuals quietly in their own space yet acting as a united crowd.
It occurred to me that the experience of being on the tube has changed radically since I first came to London in 1967. The number of passengers has increased exponentially and yet the good will remains, bar the odd bad behaviour. The diversity of the passengers travelling has also altered exponentially and yet my feeling was that although people inevitably find the experience of travelling on very crowded tubes or trains more tiring and stressful than travelling on empty ones, it didn’t seem to matter who these crowds consisted of. They could have been any colour or background. It was the number not the ethnic diversity that caused discomfort. Everyone on those tubes seemed perfectly amicable with one another, perfectly comfortable despite the environmental discomfort.
It surprised me, therefore, when I read an interview in The Guardian with the poet Linton Kwesi Johnson who said that he felt that “racism is in the DNA in the UK since imperial times”. Of course there are pockets of racists here as there are anywhere and everywhere else in the world but this blanket statement of racism didn’t ring true to my experience. What it doesn’t allow for is the fact that there are tribal factions, alienations and enmities in all kinds of areas of human life and that the concept of friend or foe is buried deep in our unconscious threat-alert system whether we are black or white or simply of a different creed or tribe. It is a natural human function to be wary of strangers and difference.
We too can feel like a minority and this change has happened within my own lifetime. A recent report has shown that the number of pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds in English secondary schools has soared by more than fifty percent in a decade. Figures show that black and Asian children account for 17 per cent of pupils aged 11-16 and in inner London white British pupils are now in the minority. A considerable number of schools have more ethnic children than English in several areas of the country. And yet, on the whole, daily life is companionable despite the odd flare-up of bullying or problems (and one mustn’t forget that bullying can occur white on white or black on white as much as white on black or ethnic).
The outrage at the treatment of the Windrush Generation came from a sentiment that these people are now one of us, as are so many others who have come here from Asia, Uganda and many other parts of the world. And interestingly some of those immigrants also voice their own concern at the numbers entering the country today. I have known ethnic families who were not at all happy when a son or daughter brought home a potential spouse who was white English! Wariness of change works both ways.
When I have travelled in Nigeria, Egypt, India, the Middle East I am inevitably the one who is different and endeavour to align my behaviours to the culture in which I am living or working. In the area of London in which I have lived I rarely heard an indigenous English voice in recent days and did rather wonder, as I got older and more vulnerable, whether anyone would be able to help me or know how to phone 999 if I fell in the street. Perhaps silly of me but nonetheless a consideration.
A programme on Radio 4 this week discussed the 1970s-80s policy introduced by the Labour party of ‘bussing’ ethnic children to white schools, with the intention of supporting greater integration. Some had seen this as having the unintended consequence of ethnic children feeling singled out. Others said that although it had been difficult they had, in fact, learnt a great deal more about English life and had integrated better with the culture as a result of this policy. Today some head teachers are concerned that the changing demographics of English secondary schools are leading to a kind of unhealthy separation and that perhaps there should be a return to a policy of positive integration where there is an imbalance of ethnic mix. Certainly we all need to work out the best way to help people feel at ease with one another. Read more →