The traveling community is hardly packed with racists, it would seem almost contrary to the basic spirit of the thing. That’s not to say we always get race relations right, navigating an ill defined path through the confusion of a multitude of different cultures. As an Englishman our past shows quite clearly we got it wrong a lot more than right.
My school was white, very white, which probably accounted for the fact that it wasn’t until the age of twelve that I first had to confront the idea of racism in myself. The image of that brief and relatively inconsequential encounter has always stayed with me however, hopefully for more valuable reasons than my pointless ability to recall TV adverts from the same period. There was one British-Chinese kid, who would now be referred to as a BBC – British Born Chinese, simply referred to as, “Chinky”. In my youthful ignorance I followed this convention, until the day, when on one of the rare occasions I spoke to him, using the term, “Chinky” of course, we were accompanied by my far wiser friend, Stephen Hellman (he went to Oxford, I became a builder, say no more), who pointed out that he did indeed have a real name and that what I had called him may not have been entirely appropriate . Although I can’t remember it now it was one of those Chinese surnames with an English first name, maybe chosen so that his parents didn’t have to listen to us massacre the beauty of their language or maybe just to help him fit in. Thankfully I did possess enough grace, for which I can only assume I owe to my mother, to recognise the profundity of my error and apologise, henceforth using his real name. Never again in my life have I considered calling anyone by a word which refers to their race in a similar way.
Stephen was also responsible, I hesitate to say guilty, for introducing me to Dungeons and Dragons, the fantasy role-playing game. While this may have been nerd factor 10 and about as white as a Breitbart editorial meeting (at least in those days but I suspect not much has changed) it did at least generate a fascination for strange cultures and religions. This fascination is at the heart of the motivation for travel, certainly for me but many others as well I hope.
This was 1970’s England, where otherwise decent people would talk about going to the “Paki shop”, for any store run by a South Asian family. After my experience with “Chinky” I found the term “Paki” wince inducing and forever regret not always having the guts to call people out for it. These days only the near certainty of a good kicking from a violent cretin would dissuade me from saying something. What passed for humour in those days was peppered with jokes about racial stereotypes, particularly Irish and Jews but thankfully 1977 brought punk rock and later, the Rock Against Racism campaign to help shake off these bigotries. It was music again, in the late 80’s with Acid House that further broke down racial barriers. Off our heads on E at free parties in fields and warehouses or at festivals in the 90’s, hugging complete strangers, racism was intolerable to everyone I knew or met. Constantly in search of the new, with artists looking for that elusive, unique sample, electronic dance music was only too eager to raid the global store of sounds. Black and Asian British had an inexhaustible supply of their own musical cultures to throw into the mix of the 90’s music scene that I and my friends gobbled up obsessively. When world music festival Womad opened up to the expanding global dance scene by inviting the Whirlygig club to put on acts and DJ it was a combination that captured the essence of everything that was important for me in music at the time: open, welcoming and infinitely varied, albeit with a bit too much of nice, white middle classness about it at times. It was this that laid the groundwork for me to open my travel horizons beyond its largely European confines.
If we are going to truly get to grips with racism, travel and the Englishman we need to take a step back though to the deeper roots of England’s engagement with the world beyond Europe, to the 16th century, when Britain’s naval exploration brought black Africans back to Britain. While personal accounts of this period before our institutionalization of slavery are extremely limited, it’s clear that our attitudes to race were markedly different to today. That’s not to say we all welcomed blacks with a big hug and a nice cup of tea, or rather a flagon of ale, as we hadn’t encountered tea at that stage, negative attitudes certainly existed. For many English, attitudes revolved around religion as the mark of civilisation not race: Christianity was the African’s route to some level of acceptance in society and often protection from slavery, at least in Britain, as colonies elsewhere operated under different laws. Some Africans did come willingly before plantation slavery and a number became well settled in society, one even became a trumpeter in the royal courts of Henry VII and VIII. Later it became fashionable among the wealthy to have black servant boys, no doubt there was a demeaning element to this but it wasn’t slavery, particularly given the conditions that many English worked under at the time. Over the centuries there was a small but constant flow of Africans and others into the country but no really sustained communities were established until the twentieth century, and mostly with mass migration after the Second World War. The often neglected reason for this was love: from the earliest days of the 1500’s there have always been enough British women prepared to put aside the supposed barriers of race, colour and religion to fall in love, marry and have children and over a couple of generations the darker skins were simply assimilated into the population. The only traces left in historical records, hiding, waiting for the invention of DNA tests at the end of the 20th century.
Campaigners against slavery may have been honoured with statues and at least the stories of some important blacks, like Olaudah Equiano were immortalized in print but beyond a handful of names, almost devoid of any detail we know next to nothing about the thousands of women who rejected hatred, society and family pressures and shame to say, “I love you”, to a man of a different race. These are my heroes in the story of resisting racism in our country who get to stand in the hall of fame, beside all those of different races who had to endure that racism but prevailed.
The story of race in Britain might often be a grim one but those of us whites who are striving to get things right can at least draw upon an unbroken line of tradition that has always rejected racism, as I have attempted to show above. Even the colonial period, which still has a frighteningly high level of support these days, produced occasional figures who developed a genuine respect for the cultures we encountered, some even converting to the religion and marrying, as foreigners have always done in Britain. This was ridiculed as “going native”, for me I regard them more as part of that same tradition to draw upon for inspiration in my travels, rather than only having to apologise for the monumental heap of shit we caused for millions of people. One of the reasons that the British Empire was so ruthlessly successful was that we often made an effort to understand some of the societies we ruled over, generally so we could keep them divided and so easier to oppress with our finite military resources. I have always been surprised by the way that so many people in countries like Bangladesh and Sudan, where we really should be going down on bended knee to offer recompense for our forefather’s crimes, that people have moved on. Not only do they ignore my efforts of accepting some kind of collective responsibility but praise the positive aspects of our shared history instead.
Such is the difference between being one solitary Englishman surrounded by darker skinned people in their own country to that of say a black Britain surrounded by whites in England. For me it is unlikely to be tainted with racist abuse for a start, in fact I can only recount one instance of genuine racism on my travels where my race was actually referred to. Whereas a BAME (Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic) person in the UK might be entitled to respond, “Fuck me! Only once? That’s an exceptionally good week for me, not half a lifetime”. Incidentally I’ve only been subjected to outright racist abuse once in my life in England and he was without doubt a total wanker: after commenting on my race he kicked a guy’s headlights in and drove off to blast a shotgun at the front door of a man he had taken a dislike to, as the police later informed me. That’s not to say I haven’t been treated with complete contempt by virtue of my status as a white foreigner, such as in Ethiopia in particular but whether this could be classed as racism or not is open to interpretation, as the poverty of those in question for one thing, was at least some of the time a mitigating factor.
I have come away from a number of countries with friends who have become very dear to me, who I make every effort to go back and visit when I can, particularly as being black and or Muslim with limited finances usually generates a, “YOU CAN JUST FUCK RIGHT OFF” response from UK immigration services. I even managed to entertain a short affair with an Ethiopian lady, which, if it only proves one thing I have at least been able to put my twelve-year-old self far behind me, but none of these experiences qualify me to say, “I know how you feel”, to a Chinese or black person brought up in England or to a Black traveller seeing the world and I doubt if I ever will, bearing the privilege of being a white Englishman.
Note: some historical details have been taken from the excellent Black and British by David Olusoga