Sunday, July 24, 2005

You know her 

In London last month, while waiting for the barrel to be changed in a pub, a friend and I got chatting to a girl next to us who was waiting on a couple of Chardonnays. We talked for maybe 3 or 4 minutes, and in that time, we decided we knew her. She was attractive, well dressed, well spoken, and self confident. That much you could tell from looking and chatting. I can also tell you that she went to public school and then university, her parents are relatively wealthy, and her boyfriend is probably called Rupert or Jasper. She goes skiing in the winter and to the beach in the summer, she lives rent free in a flat in a nice part of town owned by her family, she drives a small Peugeot or Golf, and her idea of roughing it is crumpled sheets at the Hilton. Am I right? Probably pretty close. It’s based on years of experience and observation of the British, and if I got to know her further I’m sure that I would refine my perceptions, but I’ve certainly got somewhere to start. Incidentally as we left the pub, we saw that she had a lap dog and a boyfriend who was a blond Hugh Grant. I rest my case.

So is this prejudice? Absolutely. Without the negative connotations, prejudice means making a preliminary judgement about someone based on superficial details: clothes, hairstyle, car, for example. Or skin colour. But then that would make me a racist. On that basis, I am, but I would contend that anyone is. Once you know someone, you don’t see the colour of their skin or notice the superficial stuff, or if you do, then it is only as a part of the whole. At least that’s my excuse for never noticing when my wife has had her hair done. If you don’t know someone, then the colour of their skin, especially in South Africa, is a pretty good indicator of a lot of other things. Having said that, as a bleeding heart liberal, I go out of my way to avoid making just that kind of pre-judgement, without - of course - any success. Reacting sub consciously to someone’s skin colour is a small step away from consciously trying not to react to it.

The only way to avoid making those judgements is when the judgements are no longer accurate. You can’t make a call on someone’s wealth or status in Cape Town based on what they wear at the weekend, to pick a trivial example. A millionaire is as likely to be wearing board shorts and flip flops as a surf bum is. Beach attire is useless for making social judgements. When the society has reached a point that the colour of someone’s skin is as useless a guide to who they are, where they came from, what they do, as the colour of their shirt, then we are there.

Is this an apology for racism? Only in its subtlest sense. There will always be those who treat people differently based on their skin. The rest of us will get by on subconscious short cuts and feel guilty about doing so. You get rid of the first kind, and the second kind goes away too. Take care of the pounds, and the pennies don’t matter.

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