Saturday, 20 July 2013

Clutching Your Handbag in an Elevator is Not a Hate Crime

I live in the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom used to be something like 99.99% people of English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish descent. Of course, over the centuries following the Norman Conquest (1066) sailors, soldiers, servants (or slaves), traders and refugees of other ethnic groups would either breeze through or settle, but that was in small numbers. About 40, 000 French Huguenots (Protestants) settled in the UK over a period of two hundred years. And the small, London-based community of Jews was so augmented by Central and Eastern European Jews over the nineteenth century that there were about 250,000 by 1900. That was a significant change from the 20-25,000 Jews in 1800, but this can be explained by massive persecution of European Jewry in the 19th century.

I mention this because when I wrote my "Living in the UK" test, the study guide was very keen that I think of the United Kingdom as a nation of immigrants (like me). But as a matter of fact, until the 20th century, people migrated to the UK in such small numbers, or over such a long period of time, that it was easy for them (or, at any rate, their UK-born children) to blend in and become English, Scottish, Welsh, or Irish.. Arguably it was tougher for the Jews, but many of them became absolutely establishment figures, some having become Christians (like Prime Minister Disraeli), but others not (like Lord Rothschild).

Still, there was a lot of anti-Jewish feeling in the UK even before more Central European Jewish refugees turned up in the 1930s, and I suspect this had as much to do with their comparatively large numbers as with plain old anti-Semitism. A good book about this is George Eliot's Daniel Deronda. Nowadays a London Jew is as English and as stereotypically "London" as the Tower or a pearly king strutting about.  There are 263, 346 Jews listed on the 2011 census. (Gracious! What a small rise since 1900.)

In contrast, there are 1,200,000 Pakistanis in the UK today, and 521,000 Poles who were actually born in Poland. There were 15,000 Pakistanis in the UK in 1951, and about 162, 339 Poles. Many of these Poles had British-born children who are so indistinguishable from the rest of what is now called the "white British" population, that the claims of the Scot who yelled at me for speaking Polish  that he had a Polish ancestor were not risible.

Ah, you had to have been there. There I was in the local polski sklep, flirting with the nice Polish shopkeeper behind the counter, and a young man who was rather drunk for that hour of the afternoon, popped in and shouted, "You're in Scotland--speak English!"

We turned and stared. I felt rather protective of the Polish shopkeeper, which was stupid, as the Polish shopkeeper was bigger than the drunken youth. Really, the person in most danger of violence from the drunken youth was little me if I talked back. So I didn't talk back. Instead the youth went on about how he was not racist, and had a Polish ancestor, and he eventually admitted he was drunk and took himself off. And, frankly, he seemed to me almost as much a victim of history as a modern-day Mohawk Indian sitting on the corner of Toronto's Bathurst and Queen Streets yelling at "white people."

Which brings me to my next point, which is that post-1950 mass migration has exacerbated old and invented new ethnic and racial tensions in the UK. Migrants come to the UK, and sometimes we are homesick or disillusioned, and sometimes we resent the native population, either because they resent us or because we find their social habits disgusting or amusingly stupid.* Rather in the way some horrible white men in western Canada have exploited and hurt First Nations girls, a newsworthy number of Pakistani and other Muslim men have exploited and hurt "white British" girls. Don't get me started on my inner ideological warfare whenever I look for a cab.

The UK is now in a rather US-like situation when it comes to race, only here "race" means "ethnicity" or even "country of origin" and if some drunken Scotswoman called me a "Canadian cow" I could conceivably report this to the police and they would have to take it seriously. If I ever shoot a German national, I may have to prove in court it was not because he was a German national.

Which brings me to the Zimmerman case, not that Zimmerman is a German national. First of all, he is an American, and second, he apparently self-identifies as Hispanic. His mother was born in Peru, and as far as I know what Peruvian looks like, George Zimmerman looks Peruvian to me. I bet he looks Peruvian to my average American reader because I lived in the USA and I think only apartheid-era South Africa could have been as obsessed with race as the USA. Of course, in Toronto, too, the worst thing you can call someone is a "racist." You can get a lot of power over someone if you can prove he or she is a "racist."

But this is not power like the power in your right arm or, to get to my central point, the right arm of a man who wants to hurt you or steal something from you. When I was in the Polish deli, I may have had a lot of "social privilege", being English-speaking, well-educated and even reasonably well-connected, but I was the weakest person there. The strongest person there, despite being a recent immigrant, was the big Polish shopkeeper. Had the drunken Scottish kid started smashing stuff or me, the Polish immigrant would have jumped over the counter and squashed him. So much for all my social privilege.

The President of the United States identifies as an African-American, and was televised last night speaking with sadness of how often people fear young African-American men. And I can see how this is sad. I would be sad if every time I got on an elevator and everyone smaller and/or weaker than me took a firmer hold of their purse. But it would be sad, not scary. It would not be a patch on the terror of a woman who is afraid, for whatever reason, that a man might hurt her or take her purse away.

In short, I say once again that, when it comes to the politics of victimhood, woman trumps race. Whatever you think of the George Zimmerman trial, I hope my young female readers have not imbibed a message that they must ignore their fears or remain in what seems to them a dangerous situation for fear of seeming racist or making President Obama sad. George Zimmerman is a man; what people have to say about him and what he did has nothing to do with your lives as women.

Men have a lot of physical power. Really, they do. And some of them--of any race or ethnicity--are perfectly willing to use it against you, and at the moment a man does, none of whatever "social privilege" you have will be of any use to you. What will count will be your ability to get away or, if you can, enlist the help of those around you.

*I have a serious problem with grown women being reeling drunk in public. Bridget Jones is not as funny now that I know what a British "High Street" is like at closing time. Being "off your face" is not Girl Power; it's Girl Vulnerability to men who despise Girl Drunkenness and take advantage of Girl Weakness. As an educated colonial woman,  I know perfectly well that not all British women go out to clubs to pick up men or to get smashed. Nor do I think a promiscuous or a reeling drunk woman "deserves" ill-treatment (like rape). However, the minicabs and the chip shops of the UK are not staffed entirely with educated, colonial women who have had "No means No" drummed into their heads their whole lives.


truthfinder said...

Your link about cabbies scared the heck out of me, and then I had to catch cabs today.

Sometimes I question myself if my actions are only because of someones race, but then I think to myself, if that guy was white and acting that way, I'd still hold my purse or whatever.

Seraphic said...

I didn't hear the whole speech, so I don't know if the American president emphasized "male" and "teenage" or even acknowledged that teenage boys who dress to look scary or emulate "ganstas" should EXPECT adults to be scared of them. As it is, adults, especially older, weaker adults, have been wary of tough-looking teenagers for three generations now.

As for UK cabs, the most important thing is that you always take a proper registered cab from a well-known company and never a private hire "minicab."

If I am tipsy at a party and my husband is not with me, I ask a trusted friend to accompany to the cab and give instructions to the cab driver. This should send a message to any cab driver that (A) he has been seen and will be remembered by a third party and (B) I am not some friendless drunken American-sounding woman who might even be just a tourist (C) I am the "kind of woman" men take care of and are nice to. I also keep my mobile phone close at hand.

I rarely get that tipsy, though.

Seraphic said...

By the way, in London and Edinburgh, a proper taxi cab is a big, black, square, old-fashioned looking vehicle with a clear partition separating driver and passengers. A minicab is just a normal car with writing on it.

It is ILLEGAL for minicabs to pick up passengers from the side of the road; to get one you are supposed to call up the specific mini-cab company. However, at airports and wherever, you will have men (called "touts") coming up to you and saying "Taxi, lady?" Ignore them and find a proper black taxi cab.

So far, most black taxi cab drivers in Edinburgh seem to be Scots born and bred. The biggest danger from a legitimate cabbie in Edinburgh, in my experience, is having your ears talked off.

truthfinder said...

It was a bit unnerving when I took a cab in a different town. Where I'm from taxis can be yellow or white and clearly marked on the door as well as a very large sign across the roof. I travelled elsewhere in Canada and most of the companies only had a small sign and no other markings. I did my research though and found out what companies were legitimate.

Katy said...

My view of all this is that we are all so interdependent as the human community that our dignity as man is increased when our fellow humans are heroic, and we are all truly victims of what our fellow humans do that is wretched. That is all the more true the closer your get to us, meaning, when your government acts badly in your country, you are at least partially associated with that government and its bad behavior when you travel. Too bad for you, fair or not. When your neighborhood is a crime-ridden wreck, and you later must say that you are from there when someone asks, you will be looked down upon. Too bad. When more people in your racial group behave badly compared to other racial groups, you are at least partially associated with that bad behavior. It's not fair, but it's not based on fiction or fantasy. It's based on a truth that unfortunately affects how people perceive you. It's not racist to be afraid of someone from a group that more frequently commits crimes, particularly if the person has gone to pains to dress and carry himself in a way that does not put your mind at ease. It is not fair to the person if he is utterly un-criminal, but it is not YOU who has victimized him, it is the badly-behaving members of his group. That's not to say that we shouldn't try to give each human being his own dignity as best we can. But prudence and safety require unfair judgments sometimes. When you are weaker and slower, you don't have the luxury of broad-mindedness that the Polish shopkeeper had.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. I recently learned about an opportunity to tutor those studying for their GED, but when I learned that it was on the outskirts of a rough part of town I felt very hesitant. I have felt conflicted and even obligated to lend my efforts because of my "social privilege." Though I've been reassured that I have nothing to worry about it and that there is a security guard in the parking lot to the library where tutoring takes place, I still feel uneasy.

Sherwood said...

Anonymous, listen to your gut feelings. There are too many stories of people who felt uneasily that something was "off" about a situation but went ahead anyway because nothing LOOKED wrong, and regretted it. Perhaps in such cases our subconscious has probably picked up details of the situation that we don't notice consciously, but end up with a vague feeling of uneasiness about. (This is, I believe, the premise of "Gift of Fear", a book about safety recommended a while back by another Seraphic commentator.) Anyway, always better safe than sorry. Maybe you can tutor online if there aren't any other, safer opportunities of helping out in your area.

Julia said...

Since I'm a tall, reasonably fit and strong young woman, I don't really feel threatened by men. I also don't put myself in risky situations. Having a driver's licence and pretty easy access to a car is a big advantage.

I'm always puzzled when people who choose an aggressive appearance (tattoos, piercings, dour facial expression) lament that people pre-judge them and avoid them. What do they expect? If someone looks like he might beat me up, rob me and drag me into the bushes or stuff me into the boot of his car, well, excuse me if I don't very much seem like I'd like to go on a picnic with him. Making these snap-judgements (which admittedly can be inaccurate) is a habit that has no doubt helped many people to avoid death.

Having said that, threats can come from unexpected sources. When I was about sixteen, a female classmate of mine was held up at knifepoint and robbed in daylight hours (I think) at a railway station. The perpetrators were two younger girls. Girls are becoming more heavily involved in violent crime and gang life.

Also, I don't know what happens in other countries, but in recent years in my Australian city there have been a series of rape allegations made against taxi drivers by female passengers.

Seraphic said...

Anonymous, I also think you should listen to your gut. I am not sure how "a security guard in the parking lot" would ensure your safety in a violent neighbourhood, especially one in which fish-out-of-water might be attacked.

I suppose the only question for me is if the information you have about that neighbourhood is accurate; it may have changed and no longer deserve its reputation. Checking online police reports might help you decide. Another question is whether you would will be driving, and how close your car would be to the door of the library, etc.

I don't drive, so I think about personal safety all the time I travel. Fortunately for me, I don't live in a city where there is much hatred or resentment of people who look like me. However, I do live in a city with a public drunkenness problem, so I have to be careful anyway, especially at night.

Julie, I am not surprised that there have been a number of allegations against cab drivers in Australia. My question is if there have been convictions. A quick check of Google shows that there have, although I also see the story of a driver in Australia who was accused of rape but then acquitted.

Katy said...

Anonymous, as much as it pains me to do it, I must paraphrase Oprah Wnfrey - she often says that a woman's instinct or "creep-factor" is God's gift to the weaker sex, and must never, ever be ignored. If you ever feel creeped out, never, ever, ever ignore it. Too bad for anyone whose feelings are hurt.

Cordi said...

I think though, that a woman's intuition, like a conscience, can be badly formed and too sensitive (or not sensitive enough) and sometimes we are creeped out for no good reason. For example, there have been plenty of times I've felt uneasy because a man is not acting in a manner consistent with social norms, but then when I stop and think about it, I realize it's because he has autism, or a developmental delay, or is Italian (I am American, and I prefer WAY more personal space on buses!) or from another "warmer" culture, and I realize my alarm bells have been sounding for no reason. I'm not suggesting that they should be ignored, just that one's intuition shouldn't be calling all the shots, and that some times the reasonable thing to do is to acknowledge your uneasiness, but proceed (cautiously, perhaps) anyway.

truthfinder said...

I kind of missed your comment about Obama, but I saw the news clip on TV, and it actually made me upset. I am not usually one to throw around the term, but to me, it sounded like woman-shaming.

I tend to clutch my purse around most men - primarily because I'm small and weak and even if a guy is the same size as me, he's still probably stronger. Further, it is sometime absolutely nothing to do with it being a man - I don't want my purse to swing and hit someone (I manage to get my stuff in peoples's way all the time).

I can understand how black men (or any non-white race in the northern hemispheres) would be particularly conscious of this, but it doesn't necessarily have anything to do with race. Sometimes its gender, and sometimes I clutch my purse around women too.

I'm sorry, I had to vent, because his comment bothered me. Most men cannot understand being a small weak woman who wouldn't be able to defend herself well in a fight or run too fast.