My DH and I have been engaged in a slow-burning debate since we first met over which national character is the more inherently racist, American or British. There is no acrimony or personalisation involved in this, it’s just an intellectual exercise to us, giving me (I can’t speak for him) a chance to show off my knowledge of history and powers of acute observation of human behaviour. (Of course, both of us being white, we can afford to be detached about it.) But I tell this to lead up to my statement that to me, the worldview of the typical white Briton is so overwhelmingly and obviously racist that I constantly marvel at how blind they all are to it. But that fits in with their general arrogance and blinkered self-interest in general, a fact that DH often marshals in his defence of his countrymen as maybe bastards, but not racist bastards.
For the last year or so, without any output or resolution, I have had these thoughts on national identity and “otherness” (which I am going to use without quotes as a more meaningful term for what is usually packed uncomfortably into the term ”racism”). The thought trail is so long and tangled that, like my thoughts a few years ago on the death of Christendom, it will take several quite long posts to get it all down. Even though the intro brought up the question of otherness in America, I will probably leave that to last, because, like America’s national identity itself, it is built up on that of its myriad predecessor nations. Instead I will start with the nation where I now find myself, which is either Britain or England, depending on who you ask, what language you use, the context, the season and probably the phase of the moon. (And thereby hangs a tale indeed). And I will discuss British national identity and its brand of otherness by comparing and contrasting with the French, the predecessor nation of England in many senses.
In a way, the impetus to begin this work was the absorbing story of Zinedine Zidane and what happened to him in the World Cup 2006 final game, final minutes. I won’t repeat the story; if you don’t know it and yet are still reading my blog, well, just follow the link and get caught up, OK? After England went out, folks at work naturally began to talk about the rest of the World Cup, whether they still cared, and who they would support and why. I said I would support France, because, well, I just like them. My next-desk neighbour, who was probably baiting me to some extent, asked about the well-known female predilection for supporting football sides based on the attractiveness of the players and I said I thought France excelled in that area too (neatly sidestepping, or so I thought, the personal nature of the question.) But, no, now he wanted to know which players in particular I thought this applied to. Henry, I replied, without hesitation, and Zidane. “Oh, so what you’re saying is you like black men.” Reader, I was speechless. I can just about imagine the most unregenerate redneck in Georgia (whom I personally happened to know back in the 70s) saying such a thing to me.
British people are always surprising me like that. Their arrogant assumption of superiority, for which they have no basis in evidence whatever, goes almost beyond mere arrogance into a realm of psychopathology. A fictional character who really illustrates this very well is that of Ronald Merrick in Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet. Although there are plenty of instances of the British treating African and Carribean people with brutality and contempt, the closest equvalent relationship to that of the one between white and black Americans is the strange co-dependency of the white Briton and the Indian, especially those of darker skin. I observe this every day and to American eyes, trying to decode it, it is baffling. The IT division where I work has many employees and contractors from the subcontinent and they are socially invisible to a great extent. With a few exceptions, a modern free-spirited woman who was probably second-generation and very assimilated, or a very light-skinned long-time passport holder with quite advanced skills who really, really tries to fit in socially, the Indian employees are only spoken to in a work context and are casually overlooked in a lot of informal social activity. Institutionally, I cannot help but notice that the corporate intranet has said not one word about the Mumbai bombings, as opposed to their strong reactions to 9/11 and 7/7, special collections, two minute silences, reports on our friends at the scene, despite the fact that we have far more colleagues either in or from Mumbai than either New York or London. But the thing that really surprises me is how Indians from India, as opposed to those born here, no matter how educated or Anglophile they are, completely acquiesce in their inferior treatment. DH says they are just naturally “like that”. Well, I rest my case.
It isn’t just India. Britain views her former empire as simultaneously still somehow hers and “nothing to do with me”, depending on the most expedient view for the case. If you try to pin them down on the unequal state of current relationships with immigrants from former colonies, or with a dysfunctional, exploitative relationship between governments of the same, they just sort of don’t understand the question, always a sure sign of a deep-seated superiority complex.
The French, on the other hand, just make me crazy. Looking at history, the coming together and breaking up of France’s overseas empire was more brutal and painful than that of Britain, especially after adjusting for relative length and size. But the thing is, that in trying to foil the independence of Indochine or Algeria, the French treated their colonies as enemies in a rebellion, not as recalcitrant children who must be whipped into obedience for their own good. The arrogance of the French was saying, why don’t all Africans and Asians just want to be part of France, as we want them to be? The arrogance of the British was saying, these dusky peoples will never be English (no more than the Scots and Welsh and Irish) but they should be grateful that we bother to rule them.
The following long quote illustrates, if nothing else, that I am not the only one to see it this way:
Lest you think this was a view biased by the writer’s own nationality or interest in the question, by the way, the source is a BBC World Service history of Africa.
People in Africa were burdened by colonial perceptions of who they were. The British believed Africans were essentially different from Europeans and would stay that way. This point of view invited racism, implying that Africans were not just different but also inferior.The French, by comparison, were prepared to treat Africans as equals, but only if they learnt to speak French properly and adopted the values of French culture. If they reached a sufficient level of education Africans might be accepted as French citizens. To fall below the required level was to invite charges of racial inferiority.France encouraged an increasing closeness with her colonies on the eve of independence and thereafter. Britain took the view that it would give limited support to its colonies as they moved into independence; for the British independence meant being independent of Britain.
Back in 1914 there was already an African politician in the French National Assembly (the equivalent of the British House of Commons). This was Blaise Diagne, representing Senegal. Another leading figure was Leopold Senghor. Before he became a politician, he was a teacher. In the 1930's he took the post of senior classics teacher at the Lycee in Tours, France. No British public school or grammar school at that time would have accepted an African as a teacher no matter how brilliant.At a military level, there was a continued reliance on African soldiers by the French. Senegalese soldiers continued to be in the French army after World War II. This stands in contrast with the British, who immediately demobbed African soldiers after the war.