by Paul Eisen
Friday, January 6th, 2012
Some time ago I was traveling on the London Underground. Opposite me was a black woman. Having lived in inner London all my life, and out of choice, always amongst every kind of ethnicity, the presence of a black woman on the tube really means nothing to me at all.
But this black woman was like no black woman I had ever seen. I don’t know where she was from, Africa I suppose, but her ethnicity was one that I had never before come across – her features were completely and utterly unfamiliar to me.
Her colour was a blue-black of an intensity and depth I had never before encountered and her facial bone structure was of no type that I had ever seen before. And when I looked at her eyes they were to me expressionless and impenetrable. At that moment I could not and did not have any idea what she might be thinking or feeling. If I had spoken to her she might have answered me in clear and understandable English (the only language I understand) and I would have learned so much about her and I am also sure that had she smiled or expressed anger or sorrow I would have at once seen all her humanity. But she did none of these things and I tell you, at that moment, sitting alone on that tube train with this woman – a stranger to me in every way – I could not for the life of me see her as human in quite the way that I see myself as human.
Did I seriously doubt this woman’s humanity? Of course I did not. Did I see her as less than me? I don’t think so. Did I wish her any harm? God forbid. Am I a racist? You decide.
Now the family story: My wife had an elderly relative who lived in the Lancashire town of Rochdale. Her name was Auntie Eva. I had never met Auntie Eva until, some years ago myself, my wife and our children journeyed up north to visit Auntie Eva. She was just delightful – a clever, funny, unassuming sparrow of a woman who, now widowed, lived quietly and alone in the same little two-up-two-down in the same tiny little cobbled street in which she had lived devotedly for years with her husband.
Auntie Eva loved her little house and she loved her little street which was now, filled, without exception, with Bangladeshis. The people were Bangladeshi, the language was Bangladeshi , the food was Bangladeshi , the shops were Bangladeshi – Auntie Eva was the only Englishwoman in a thriving and lively Bangladeshi community – in a sense Auntie Eva was a stranger in her own home. I don’t know if Auntie Eva minded but whether she did or she didn’t, she seemed to view her neighbours in exactly the same spirit with which she viewed the rest of the world and her place in it – with gentle but chirpy contentment.
But suddenly during our conversation Auntie Eva referred to her neighbours as ‘the Pakis’. Well, I looked at my wife and my wife looked at me and we both looked at both our children and both our children looked at both of us – and we all shifted uncomfortably and tried to focus. But Auntie Eva carried on referring to her Bangladeshi neighbours as ‘the Pakis’ and she continued to do this easily and naturally with the same quiet grace with which she made all her utterances, and with not a breath of malice. Was Auntie Eva a racist?
Some time later, we again made the journey to Rochdale and again because of Auntie Eva – but this time it was to attend her funeral. As the small funeral cortege drew up outside the tiny little terraced house to take Auntie Eva to her final resting place, all of Auntie Eva’s Bangladeshi neighbours came out of their houses – the men, the women and the children – to accompany Auntie Eva to her final resting place. The simple truth was that Auntie Eva loved the Pakis and the Pakis loved Auntie Eva.
Was Auntie Eva a racist? You decide.