Stupid is as stupid says...

>> Monday, 14 June 2010

On Friday I wrote about being English. Given the England football team's lacklustre performance in South Africa on Saturday night, I might shelve that one for a while...


Reading Susanna's British Mummy Bloggers update this morning, I came across a couple of posts on MummyTips written by Sian and her husband. They were about racism.

Living in Russia, where racism is a part of daily life if you are anything other than caucasian, I have so much to say on this subject, yet on the surface I'm not personally affected by this issue. I'm white, British, middle-class and privileged, no question about it. You think?

Dig a little a deeper and it's not that simple. I think my family's ethnicity is probably not so different from many people's in the UK; many people who, in fact, might unthinkingly use some of those thoughtlessly racist terms that Sian and her husband mention. A 'chinky' to refer to a chinese take-way. An 'Indian-giver' to refer to someone who gives with one hand and takes away with another. In the Netherlands, calling someone 'East Indian deaf' if they pretend not to hear what you're saying. A 'Paki-shop', to refer to a corner shop owned and managed by Asian shopkeepers. The list of casually abusive racist terms in common use is endless - and none of them are acceptable.

And a lot of them, in fact, may be a lot closer to your own personal heritage than you might think. I'm going to use myself as a case study to illustrate...

So, I look like this. Dark hair, olive to medium-fair complexion, brown eyes, and I burn before tanning - although then I do go pretty brown. In fact, I'm hard to place; I could come from any number of countries probably, which is actually not far from the truth.

My maternal grandmother, for example, looks Spanish. My uncle and cousins - her grandchildren - look like Moors. You could parachute them into Morocco, Algeria, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, the Lebanon, and they would fit right in. We always assumed that this was because there was a link to Spanish sailors who survived the wreck of the Armada on the South Coast of England, and their very Catholic family name seemed to bear this out. However, this theory appears to bear very little relation to actual fact (especially because the wreck of the Armada took place on the coast of Ireland rather than Dorset, and most of the sailors who survived the wreck were then killed by the Irish).

The truth behind our dark eyes and hair is both more interesting and more recent than that, as my mother found out when she made a first attempt at putting together a family tree. It seems that as recently as the beginning of the last century, my great-great-grandparents were Romany travellers. We can't be sure of this, because historically once a family left that part of their lifestyle behind them they did their absolute best to hide it due to the shameful connotations involved, but based on parish records and census information we are as certain as we can be that that's the case.

And my paternal grandmother's maiden name was as Irish as they come, due to the fact that - again, we only think, we don't know, and she certainly never discussed her family's heritage - her family left Ireland during the Great Potato Famine and moved to the north of England where they made a life and a fortune, only to lose the latter in cotton when the UK market crashed after the 1st World War.

So, let's see. Without going back more than 100 years or so - only 4 generations - there are Irish and Gypsies in my ostensibly more English than English background. Both of whom, whilst I was growing up in ignorance of this, were the frequent butt of what was seen at the time as acceptable mockery (thank god, we've moved on since then).

Now, let's throw my blue-eyed Dutch husband into the mix. His family - as I've probably mentioned before - is much more complicated than mine, and includes Dutch, German, Russian, Indonesian, and Chinese heritage. And that's what we know about.

And just to cap it all, when my older son was born he had (and still has) a birth-mark which one of the doctors in the hospital told us is typical in shape and location of children with African genes, and when my younger son was born and for the first year of his life he had the dark blue bruise at the base of his spine which I'm told is also typical of children with that heritage. Where did they come from? Who knows, but my point - I hope - is clear; we're all a composite of different ethnicities and backgrounds. Dig deep enough and no-one is 'only' from one place; whether you like it or not we're all related.

Please, think about that before you turn a blind eye to casually racist terminology. Not so long ago it was acceptable, for example, to call some-one wearing glasses 'speccy four eyes', a clumsy person a 'spastic', a supposedly ugly or not very bright person a 'mong'. Thankfully - at least in my experience - most of these terms have now slipped out of public usage; it's one of the positive side-effects of political correctness. And now, just as our mothers did with those terms and us, we're in the perfect position whilst raising our kids to make sure that terms like those which Sian and her family have experienced disappear just the same way.

You might think that you know your family's heritage like the back of your hand, but do you, really? Just a few generations ago, it could have been you - or your children - on the receiving end of this stupidity.

14 comments:

Mwa 14 June 2010 at 09:11  

I must have Spanish/Roman/French blood in me, too. Too dark to be completely Germanic.

Sian Mummy-Tips 14 June 2010 at 10:42  

Thank you for adding to this discussion - your post made me remember back to when our eldest child was born. He too had THE birthmark. We were told it was a Mongolian blue spot!
I had forgotten about that completely.

Potty Mummy 14 June 2010 at 11:47  

Mwa, exactly. We're all a mixture!

Sian, I KNEW it had a proper name - thanks for reminding me of it!

planb 14 June 2010 at 13:17  

Really interesting. And interesting too that there are lots of us out there at the moment thinking about what a bunch of mixed up kids we brits are....

As for the Russian thing - I learnt about that the funny way. I got accosted by a man in the metro who started trying to chat me up. Being a polite sort (and probably having forgotten the Russian for f-off) I was answering his queries as tersely as possible:

Him: You've got an accent. Are you from the Baltic States?
Me: No
Him: Where are you from:
Me: The UK
Him: You can't be. You're not blonde.
Me: I am. Sorry
Him: Well why aren't you blonde then?
Me: Probably because my dad's Jewish
Him.... nothing... he was moving away from me as fast as he could travel, lest anyone see him talking to a "yid" (and yes, that word has been used in my hearing...In a business meeting to be precise. I stood up and walked out).

It turned out quite useful in the end. Chatting up conversations from then on went something like this:

Him: You're very pretty
Me: Yes, it's because I'm Jewish.

I'm being flippant, but I think you make an extremely important point. And, perhaps more importantly, whatever our own ethnic or religious background, it's not for us to judge or slander anyone else on theirs.

Tattie Weasle 14 June 2010 at 13:19  

The mix in my family is exotic and pedestrain and adding in my OH we cover a variety of religions too. I am proud of my heritage mixed up, low down and linked to the highest in the land all at the same time. I want my boys to see beyond to the people we are under the skin and indeed without the creed.

Crystal Jigsaw 14 June 2010 at 14:27  

All I know is that I'm English, as far as I do know there are no other nationalities in my blood, but I could of course be wrong.

You are quite right, there is no place for racism; we are all equal, all the same and no matter what we look like, we always will be.

CJ xx

Nora 15 June 2010 at 03:29  

You are right, PM, and doesn't your heritage and your children's make you all the more interesting because you can trace your lineage to all these different pouplation groups? I think it is fascinating and I would have my DNA examined and have it pinpointed.

Potty Mummy 15 June 2010 at 09:40  

PlanB, well done you. I remember once waiting for Husband in a bar in St Pete's (he was late, as ever), being chatted up by a Russian guy who, it became clear, had rather antiquated views of our multi-cultural society in London. I won't write here what he said, but something tells me you can probably guess...

TW, hear hear!

CJ, I bet if you did one of those dna tests showing countries of origin, you would be surprised...

Nora, it IS fascinating - although you know boys, so far they haven't shown much interest...

Jennifer 15 June 2010 at 11:24  

Very interesting post! The Russian racial thing is terrible, and I don't think it will ever change. All the Russians I knew could not believe we had and still have an Obama '08 sticker on our car...because they could not believe we would be in favor of a black man being President. Silly silly silly.

It's good to be reminded of the phrases that have crept into our modern vernacular and how hurtful they can be. Excellent post!

Glummy Mummy 15 June 2010 at 16:57  

My mother is Irish too, and again, one look at her maiden name and you immediately know that she's from Ireland.

Potty Mummy 16 June 2010 at 07:22  

Thanks Jennifer!

And GM, Irish names are generally unmissable, aren't they?

mothership 16 June 2010 at 18:12  

Great post.
I feel so deeply affronted by racism/sexism/homophobia.
Our family is an exotic mix of which we are extremely proud - we think it makes us more interesting (and more beautiful, of course!).
Thanks for speaking up!

Anonymous,  12 April 2011 at 18:34  

I absolutely love racism. Anti-racism is dull. Thank God that when I checked my family tree, I found nothing but North-West Europeans. If I had even a drop of Gypsy heritage, I'd kill myself (after killing several others, of course). What's good is that people like me will always exist. We'll always be around to shit on your vision of a perfect world.

Anonymous,  12 April 2011 at 18:39  

Ah, I've just noticed a mistake in your post. The birthmark you mention is called a Mongolian blue spot. It's a sign of Asian, not nigger heritage, which shouldn't be all too shocking given your husband's substantial inferior race heritage.

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