Sunday, 6 July 2008

Being Ethnically Reclassified in the UK

Many readers will be familiar with the character in many of the Agatha Christie detective novels called Miss Jane Marple. She is an elderly woman who solves crimes by relating them to parallel incidents that she had experienced in her own small village. Authors soon become familiar with the fact that whatever the setting whether it is Ancient Egypt, contemporary Britain or a colony many light years away then people generally behave the same, they have anger, jealously, envy, pomposity, compassion, love and many other factors. Being human even when we write about alien or fantastical species we do it through the vision of being human and we make these characters as human or as anti-human as we choose, but for us we define them on the spectrum. Sorry, back to the point. Anyway, for me, I tend to analyse things less by incidents I have witnessed in real life, I tend to spend a rather reclusive existence, but parallels in fiction whether written or in movies. I access the global village of fiction which of course is based on numerous incidences that the authors and scriptwriters and to some extent actors and directors have experienced themselves.

It is in this context that I am going to turn to an interesting problem which I have seen unfolding over the past few weeks. As regular readers will know I live in a house with a white woman who was from South Africa and is now naturalised British and her six-year old son who attends a local Church of England school. Now, this is where the problem started. Each year the school sends home a list of all the information they have about the children for parents to update, especially as mobile phone numbers for emergency contact change so often. We have moved house twice since the boy started the school as well. The peculiar thing was in the category marked 'ethnicity' they had put 'East European' which in southern England these days is usually taken to mean Polish. Whilst people have been arriving from many states of Eastern Europe which are now in the EU (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Romania and Bulgaria; Greece has been a member since 1982 and was never a Communist state, so I leave it out of this category) the Poles have been most visible with Polish shops appearing and Polish DVDs in rental shops. Around 10% of the population of Southampton is now Polish and cars with Polish registration plates are a common sight on the roads of South of England. I have no problem with immigrants, by arriving they have proven they have 'get up and go' and clearly there is demand for their labour in the UK. Many people forget that vocational training in Eastern Europe is often of a higher standard than in the UK for people such as builders and nurses.

Anyway, the background of the woman in my house is that she was born to a mother of Afrikaaner descent (originally back in the 18th century Huguenot settlers, i.e. Protestant refugees from France) and a father who was of German descent and his birth certificate was issued during the war so shows he is German back generations, certainly not Polish. I suppose this is the closest to Eastern Europe she has come, but German is not usually seen as East European. This is the terrible thing about the school defining the boy's ethnicity, we have all begun to analyse our antecedents on their basis of racial definition and it has terrible overtones of Nazi racial policy. The boy's father was white British with some Dutch connections.

Why did the school redefine the child from British to East European? For a start East European is not an ethnicity (British is even less so), it includes Slavs as the predominant people, but there are others such as the Magyars of Hungary who come from a different context and many people in those countries are also descendants of German medieval settlers. Ethnically most East Europeans are Caucasians (in Syria there are people called Circassians who are of Caucasian descent but presumably in this system would be labelled 'Arab') but as in the UK people can be a range of ethnicities and can come from a country. You can be black British or black Polish. So East European like British is a regional specification not an ethnic one. If you ask the child himself he defines himself as 'White African' and is very proud even at six of coming from Africa even though he has only spent a total of 2 months there in his life.

To some extent I think the school is conscious that its intake is almost exclusively white. When the boy started the only non-white pupil was a single Korean but now, even though the mix has widened to include mixed-race (predominantly White with Afro-Caribbean), Afro-Caribbean, East and South Asian children they are in a complete minority and make up only 1-2 children per class of 30 pupils. Maybe the school thought they could gain some credit by moving some of the White British into the East European 'ethnicity' and thought no-one would notice: they were very wrong. This is where I begin referring to the media because in fact it has unleashed a level of reaction which is quite stunning. If you have ever seen the movie 'Brazil' (1985). In this film set in a dystopian 'Nineteen Eight-Four' type world an insect falls on a typing machine changing the details of the arrest of a revolutionary Archibald Tuttle to that for a Mr. Buttle and much of the movie is about a civil servant trying to rectify this situation as the authorities close in on the wrong man. You will see why I draw a parallel in the moment.

The mother returned the form, corrected, to 'White British' to the school but the information that she was in fact 'East European' seemed to have leaked out. Many parents volunteer in the school and some of the clerical staff are harridans very much like doctors' receptionists and so a parent may have seen it or a member of staff gossiped about it. Teachers often like to bring out children's multi-culturalism. In my youth for some reason people thought I was Scottish and would ask me to talk about my 'home country' when I never actually went to Scotland until I was 36, so a teacher may have asked the boy to say something about Poland and this was reported back. Given the hostility to Poles which is growing in the South of England, it was probably unsurprising that at the school sports day a father of another child came up to the mother and said 'I cannot say what I want to say to you in a school playground' implying it was going to be very offensive and said 'I do not talk to people like you'. He then shepherded other parents away from the woman and spent the event scowling at her, implying that she was somehow soiling the event by being there. He said his son who is friends with her boy would never be permitted to come to our house or socialise with her son.

Now, for someone who grew up in apartheid South Africa and has witnessed racism of a perverted sophistication on a scale that no-one (especially whites) who has lived all their lives in the UK has ever experienced, you can imagine how offensive it was to treat the woman in this way. She left South Africa to get away from such attitudes and found them thrust back at her. She showed immense courage to stand there and stay for the sake of her son. Now, I know racism is a common disease in the UK, but as someone who is a white man, I have rarely experienced (once in West Germany I was told to 'get back on the ferry') so it has brought it home to me. What is bizarre is that this all stemmed from an error on the part of the school office.

I was reminded of the novel by James McClure (1939-2006) called 'The Steam Pig' (1971). McClure wrote crime novels set in apartheid South Africa and this one is about a woman whose father is ethnically redefined when he attends hospital, away from white to mixed race (in South Africa they had a long list of physical characteristics that they used to define people and would sometimes redefine people when characteristics became apparent) and so refused treatment at the whites hospital. The woman 'goes for white' bleaching her hair had wearing blue contact lenses to make herself appear more white so that she can have access to better housing and jobs than her father was pushed into when redefined. As readers know I am always interested in settings in which crimes or particular motives can occur which would not work elsewhere/when and this is a classic, but is chilling in its exploration of the implications of racial classification.

To some extent we are now entering into their game by worrying about how the mother and child have been ethnicall classified and getting this rectified. They should not behave in that way to any parent or child, and especially given they are a specifically Christian school. What sort of lesson does that teach for the future? I heard a headmaster from a school in Birmingham talking back in the early 1990s and he said that often teachers are challenged about why they cannot do more to stem the rise of racist attitudes and he said that 30 hours a week for nine months per year that children spend in school is insufficient to overturn the brainwashing in racism that they get at home. Schools do not give up in challenging such attitudes, but they are often fighting a losing battle.

No-one has pushed flaming rags through our letterbox or written grafitti across our house, things that so many people from ethnic minorities still experience. To some extent inadvertently the woman and child have become a rallying point for some of the mothers from other ethnic groups now that they have been thrust into that category. It does indicate that close beneath the surface of even a prosperous, overtly Christian sub-set of British society racism is very strong and leads people in almost a mundane way to be offensive and through segregating schoolfriends on racial grounds as this father is doing, give such an appalling message to the next generation which should be growing up with different attitudes if multi-cultural Britain is going to have any chance of surviving let alone thriving.

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