Like Kureishi, I was a teenager in 1968 when Powell gave his Rivers of Blood speech. Like Kureishi, I was born in Britain, although unlike Kureishi, I was white. So even though I was appalled at what Powell unleashed, I was never the target of white racism. Ironically, I am a child with immigrant blood – my mother’s side of the family has maternal roots in 19th Century India. As I’ve written before, my great-aunts and great-uncle were clearly Indian (as can be seen in the photograph below), and my mother remembered the casual racism directed at her father when she was a young girl.
Perhaps because of what my mother remembered, I was brought up without being conscious of the fact that racism existed. I also grew up on the Isle of Man, and I only recall ever seeing one black person in real life as a child; he worked at one of the hotels during one summer season. I was more struck by the fact that his bicycle had a real radio on it, than by the fact that he was black. Nonetheless, racist attitudes existed in the wider society, and I must have subconsciously been aware of them. I recall one incident that happened when I must have been 11 or 12, and visiting my aunt and uncle who lived in Tottenham. I was walking along a London street and saw a very expensive car – it was either a Rolls or a Bentley – and being rather impressed by its beauty. Then, the owner and his family appeared and got into the car. They were black, and from seemingly nowhere, the thought popped into my head: “how have the likes of them got a car like that?” I stopped in shock, absolutely appalled at what I had just thought, and horrified that I could think such a thing. Despite my parents care and attention, racism had snuck in and lodged itself in my brain.
It’s an insidious thing. Look again at that photo of my great-uncle George above. The uncle that I was visiting in Tottenham looked just like a whiter version of George. By his, and my mother’s, generation, their Indian origins had faded enough so that they could pass for white. He lived in the same terrace house where he had grown up. Tottenham became a multicultural melting pot, and during the 1960s contained a large population of African-Caribbean people. I became very aware during that time that my uncle and aunt had racist attitudes towards their neighbours. I would often bite my tongue in their presence. Lovely people, but with that side to them that I found very difficult to deal with.
As Kureishi writes:
Appealing to the worst in people – their hate – is a guaranteed way to get attention, but it is also fatal. Powell talked in whole sentences and was forever translating Herodotus, so was known for his cleverness. But he wasn’t smart enough to resist the temptation of instant populism for which he traded in his reputation. Racism is the fool’s gold, or, rather, the crack cocaine of politics.
Britain survived Powell and became something he couldn’t possibly have envisioned. He was a pessimist and lacked faith in the ability of people to cooperate with one another, to collaborate and make alliances. The cultural collisions he was afraid of are the affirmative side of globalisation. People do not love one another because they are “the same”, and they don’t always kill one another because they are different. Where, indeed, does difference begin? Why would it begin with race or colour?
Racism is the lowest form of snobbery. Its language mutates: not long ago the word “immigrant” became an insult, a stand-in for “paki” or “nigger”. We remain an obstruction to “unity”, and people like Powell, men of ressentiment, with their omens and desire to humiliate, will return repeatedly to divide and create difference. The neoliberal experiment that began in the 80s uses racism as a vicious entertainment, as a sideshow, while the wealthy continue to accumulate. But we are all migrants from somewhere, and if we remember that, we could all go somewhere – together.
I hope we can survive Farage and Wilders as well.