When I lived in New York, there was a small shop across the street that was owned by a man from Afghanistan. I used to visit him in the days after September 11, and he had a bewildered, beleaguered look about him. Business was slack, he said, and the few people who did still come into his store were often either cold or abusive. Whereas on September 10 he was the local newsagent, on September 11 he suddenly became a “Muslim”, and a national of an enemy country to boot.
Since then, I have been very interested in what happens to Muslims every time there is a terrorist attack and the official panic level hits “elevated” or “dark orange” or whatever it is right now. And I’ve noticed something different since I moved back to England, something best expressed by a guy from Kashmir I was talking to yesterday. I asked him if he’d seen any hostility in the last few days and he told me no, none at all. Then when we’d been chatting a little more, and I’d given some examples of the backlash in America after September 11, he said, “British people are not like that. They might hate you, but they keep it on the inside.” Then he said something the words of which I can’t remember exactly, but his point was that a lot of British people are racist, but they are mostly nice to him on a day-to-day level so he can make do with that.
This sort of makes sense to me, and it ties in with what others have told me too. Of course it’s not scientific by any means, so I’d be interested to hear what anyone else thinks. But if it’s true that Brits tend to be racist on the inside while Americans are racist on the outside, my question is: which is better? To express racism openly, or to hide it inside? If it’s expressed, clearly it causes great pain to the recipient of the abuse, and it may also incite others to share the same views. But at least then it can be challenged in the open and exposed as the ignorance it is. If it’s repressed, there’s the danger that it just festers and breeds more resentment, more violence, more support for draconian, racist legislation. And you end up with a country that’s tolerant in word, but racist in deed.
I am not sure about the answers to these questions, except for the obvious one that it’s better neither to express racism nor to feel it inside. That’s clearly the goal, but I’m interested in how to deal with the other 90% of white people who harbour racist tendencies to one degree or another. I am deeply concerned, in particular, about the danger posed by “closet” racists, those who think of themselves as liberal and tolerant because they’ve never called anyone a paki, but who gladly go along with racial profiling, torture camps, pre-emptive wars, assassinations, “surgical” missile strikes and whatever else is deemed necessary to keep them safe from those angry, threatening brown folk. But I’m not sure it would be that great for them all to come out of the closet either. In theory they would be challenged and defeated by less ignorant people around them. But in reality perhaps the good would be drowned out and the ignorant would gain strength. Perhaps we would simply regress about 30 years to the time when racist abuse was rife in all areas of life and even openly racist TV shows went unchallenged.
In any case, as a white man, I don’t think I really have the right to provide answers, since I have no experience of being the recipient of racist abuse. My instinct is to say that when negative feelings are repressed they always multiply and become more dangerous, but I would not be the one to bear the consequences if white people were to go around expressing their hatreds and fears openly. So I’ll throw it open for comments. Would love to hear some other views.