British Blacks Don't Give the Nod
"The Problem We All Live With," a Norman Rockwell painting, depicts Ruby Bridges on her way to an all-white school in New Orleans in 1960.
This piece was first published in the Western Daily Press in Bristol on April 24, 2001.
I saw her walking towards me – the first other black person I had seen in the street after first arriving in Britain from the United States. I live in the rural West of England, which might explain why she – and I – were such a rare sight for each other. As we passed, I gave her a big smile, expecting the same in return, but she just passed me by without even meeting my eyes. I felt deflated, then, sad, angry, embarrassed and confused. When a few other blacks refused to return my look of acknowledgement on other occasions, I felt lost, utterly. As a black American who often found herself studying and working in predominantly white schools and jobs back home, “the look” could be likened, at its best, as a way of showing acceptance to a stranger whose race I shared and, at its worst, as a furtive look from one slave to another. However you characterize it, I don’t get “the look” in Britain, and I no longer give it. No other cultural cue better reflects the racial perspective that Americans perpetuate as their reality. Black Americans do it almost instinctively, it's so ingrained. How can we gain true equality if we send out signals which say that we are separate, we are interlopers, we are downtrodden? Some would say that sometimes we are in hostile situations and “the look” uplifts us. I understand that. But we are not always in hostile situations. When do we escape our mental attitude of oppression? It’s a box in which Americans are trapped. Ridding ourselves of racism becomes an over-the-rainbow endeavour because people are unwilling to climb out of its comfortable familiarity and those who do try keep slipping down the steep slopes of paranoia. At first, I thought that I didn’t get “the look” here because of the reserve which is British, irrespective of race. But it means much more than that. Racial lines are not drawn in the same way in Britain; the sense of us against them does not run so deep – not, anyway, in the experience of this black American. So, it angers me when I sense some in Britain striving to make this country’s racial problems comparable to those of the United States. It’s wrong to look toward the States as a model or view of the future when the two countries have such radically different histories, cultures and personalities. Worse still, it is dangerous. I would not wish our racial divide on any country. We have such a long way to go. Not true in Britain. Not even in the run-up to the General Election campaign, not even during the row over whether members of Parliament sign or refuse to sign a pledge to keep race out of politics is the racial divide shown to be as wide in the United Kingdom. In my country, by comparison, race has provided the very foundation of the nation. Native Americans lost their land before they were decimated. African slave labour developed the stolen land and the new American economy. We carry a 400-year-old legacy of blood, hate and shame on our bowed shoulders. Our race problem is a familial one. Not true in Britain. In my five years here, no stranger has looked at me as though he or she wished I were dead. With no dagger looks from “whites” – a term developed in the late 1600s in the American colonies to help legitimise slavery – there is no need for “the look” among “blacks” – another political construct. Race is in our language; it’s in our psyche. Not true in Britain. Although I don’t give “the look” to other blacks, I still sometimes smile at strangers regardless of their race. Some may think I’m mad. They don’t know that I’m an American and, therefore, unreserved.