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Can you excuse casual racism?

CAUGHT OUT: a black American teenager filmed a white shop assistant who kept following him in a store and posted the video on YouTube

LAST WEEK, my husband took the morning off work to wait for an engineer, who was due to arrive at our home between 8am and midday (you know they can never give a specific time). Upon arrival, the engineer – a white, middle aged man – soon proved himself to be one of the chatty ones, talking to my other half as if he’d known him for years.

The workman then asked my spouse how he liked the area, before telling him: “Yeah, I used to like it round here, but then all the fighting started between the blacks and the Greeks.”

When my husband – who is black – relayed this story to me, I was unsure of what to say or how to feel. I just couldn’t seem to find the appropriate emotion. Part of me wanted to laugh at the sheer tactlessness of the engineer, while another part of me wondered whether the man was a casual racist.

Was the ethnicity of the alleged troublemakers really that important to mention, especially to a black man? If the alleged fighting had been between groups of white boys, would the engineer have stated this when sharing his feelings about the area?

I asked friends what they made of the scenario. Some were in no doubt that the man was racist; others thought he was just relaying a fact; and some felt he was simply tactless to say that to a black man. I remained unsure.

Many black people are often wary of crying racism, for fear that they’ll be accused of ‘playing the race card’. Meanwhile, others are quick to find racism in situations where, perhaps, there is none. But with much of today’s racial prejudice being far less overt than it was in years gone by, (the days of hotel doors featuring the infamous ‘no blacks, no Irish, no dogs’ signs are, thankfully, behind us), racism is often not as black and white as it once was.

Now, on occasion, incidents like the chatty engineer’s “blacks and Greeks” comment, leave us unsure of whether seemingly innocent remarks hide casual racism. And without knowing for sure, should such incidents be brushed under the carpet?

Think back to last year when Naomi Campbell accused Cadbury of racism. In an advertising campaign for a new chocolate bar, the confectionery giant went with the strapline, “Move over Naomi, there’s a new diva in town.” To put it mildly, the supermodel was not best pleased, accusing Cadbury of being racist by likening black people to chocolate.

CONTROVERSY: Naomi Campbell (below) felt that this 2011 Cadbury advert was racist

Some black people were in full support of Naomi’s complaint. Recalling the type of racism that took place in English schools of yesteryear, where black children were teased about their skin looking like chocolate, many felt that Cadbury was indeed racist to liken a black model to a chocolate bar.

But then there were those who rubbished the cries of racism, firmly believing that Cadbury was referencing Campbell’s diva reputation and not her skin colour.

So when it’s impossible to prove whether or not an incident is racist, should we be up in arms about it?
I had similar thoughts upon hearing another story recently from one of my friends (another black man).
He told me that he had decided to leave his job as a city broker, after being told by his boss (a white man) that the company thought it best not to send a black man to do a particular job.

“Sometimes, towards the end of the month, the company used to send junior brokers to clients’ houses to get cheques,” recalled my friend, who chose to remain anonymous. “It's fairly normal for small investment houses and it increases that particular month's revenue.

“I was all set to go when my line manager came over, looking sheepish, as if he wasn’t sure what to say. Then, another supervisor – though not the main boss – came over and told me that the boss ‘doesn't want to send a black guy to one of the clients.' Apparently, they thought that a black guy turning up at the client’s house might ‘shock him’.

IN YOUR FACE: racism in Britain in the 1960s was much more overt than modern day racial prejudice

“They basically decided it would reflect badly on the company somehow, and so told me not to go. I was so angry that I decided to leave my job at the end of that month.”

What was interesting about my friend’s saga was that his supervisor didn’t think my friend had any cause to be offended by the company boss’s decision.

“He wasn’t even a little bit bothered when he told me what the boss had decided. In fact, I think he felt like I should have be more understanding about the potential racism of an old man.”

Here lies my issue. While I was disgusted to hear what my friend had been through – and was in no doubt that he was the victim of racism – it got me wondering if any racism can be ‘justified’.

When it comes from an old, white Englishman, who grew up as part of a generation where such racism was deemed fair game, should we be surprised?

When a middle aged white woman in a restaurant a few years ago asked me where I was from and I replied “London,” and she retorted, “no, where are you really from?”, was she just curious, downright ignorant, or attempting to make me feel that while I may have been born in England, it’s not really “my” country?

When shop assistants coincidentally find the need to ‘tidy up’ every area of the shop that a black customer happens to stop at, are they just doing their job, or indirectly insinuating that black people are prone to stealing?

Last year, a black American teenager filmed a white man, assumed to be a shop assistant, who kept following him in a store. In the video, which was posted on YouTube, viewers see the man appearing behind the teen every time he turns a corner.

It certainly seems that the young man, who is shopping with his friend, is being followed. And with the video titled ‘Racist guy following us’, it’s clear the teen believes he is a victim of racism.

But unlike the unquestionable racist intent of a white person calling a black person a ‘n****r’, this type of incident (which many of us have experienced whilst shopping), is much harder to prove as being an act of racism.

The fact is, racism today comes in many different guises and very often it’s hard to prove. So when the motive, the reason or the thinking behind incidents of potential racism is unclear, should those incidents be challenged or just shrugged off?

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