Not Such a Small World After All

Bonjour!

Blogging has slowed down somewhat in the past few weeks, mostly because I don’t like to blog unless I have something to say. All I’ve had to say this week is ‘I’m tired’, ‘I hate my job at the moment, especially now I’m ill’ and ‘I’m full of phlegm’. I decided this wasn’t blogpost material.

Things got a bit more interesting at the end of the week. After my previous ramblings about TEFL courses and the possibility of me taking a year out in Italy, I looked into things further and realised that to do this in a European country I’d need some pretty hefty qualifications. I’d still love to do this, just… not right now. This year I’m trying to finish my first novel (more on that later) and I don’t think I’d have time to fit in the TEFL training as well.

This doesn’t halt my urges to get some more worthwhile, memorable life-experiences, though. I do not want to be trying to impress my niece in twenty years time, as she tries to decide what to do with her adult life, and the best I can come up with is ‘Oh, I remember that time I got to redecorate the noticeboard in the call centre – that was a wild Thursday afternoon!’ (Although I did get to do that this week, and it was a bit wild. I got to do Word Art and everything.)

So, I thought about something a little more short term. In a foreign country. I racked my brains for an entire afternoon, googling every short term job I could think of in Europe and not knowing where to start, and then my Mama walked in and just offhandedly said ‘You know you work for a wine company… why don’t you use your contacts and get work in a vineyard?’ Ah. Oh yeah. Why didn’t *I* think of that?

So, here we are a week later and I’m trying to write some very name-droppy emails in French begging to be a vineyard slave next month. I’ll see what happens.

It turns out my French isn’t what it was. Apparently, my girlish vivacity translates into French as a sort of over-enthusiastic can of crazy (thank the Lord for clever Grandpas who help me tone it down a bit into proper French. *waves at Grandpa, who is possibly the only loyal reader of this blog* HI GRANDPA!!) I clearly don’t know much about French culture, but that makes it all the more exciting for me to be going to France (hopefully!) – now I can learn. I can ask.

Can’t I? It’s just, in a discussion with my family today, it was asserted that people shouldn’t point out other people’s ethnicity or treat them any differently because of it. It shouldn’t matter. I can see the logic here – I do feel a bit angry every time a caller bemusedly asks my colleague Sunita to spell her name again. And – as a campaigner for Hope not Hate (the anti-racism group that recently bent over backwards to stop the BNP getting any seats in the General Election – hooray), I agree that race/colour/ethnicity should never be judged. But should I feel guilty for asking people about their culture?

Over-enthusiastic French aside, I actually don’t know much about culture in any other country. I’ve not been anywhere, and I really regret that. So I learn most of my foreign culture stuff from friends with different racial backgrounds to my own. For example, two of my most amazing teenage summers were spent getting to know a group of French and German kids as part of a council town-twinning scheme. They wanted us to learn about each others’ heritage, but we mostly learned each others’ best swear words and chat-up lines.

Similarly, one of the things my colleagues discuss most with me is my Italian heritage: our food, our temperament, our somewhat dodgy links with the Mafia (ahem. Generations back, I might add.) And it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy with pride as I talk about the parts of my life that make me feel Italian. I’m excited when people ask me. I am flattered when people I’ve never met want to know ‘where I’m from’ because my skin is a bit olive. And I get equally excited when my friends tell me about their life growing up in Trinidad, or feed me their Grandma’s Greek recipes, or teach me how to speak ‘ghetto’.

All three of the above examples come from people who are as British as I am, but their family have links to these cultures (like my links to Italy). If I’d never had the courage to ask where they come from, I’d never have learned these amazing things. Obviously, I ask where their family originates from because their skin is a different colour. Apparently, noticing this makes me racist.

Does it? Forgive me for making the most ridiculous pun ever, but is it really as black or white as that? I don’t notice their skin is a different colour and think that makes them different to me (let alone in any way inferior, for God’s sake.). If I notice their skin is a different colour it just means I realise that their family is probably from some other country originally, and I’m really interested to learn if they can teach me anything about that part of the world. It’s the same if their accent is different – even if it’s Irish, or Liverpudlian. It just makes me think they might have something to teach me about somewhere I haven’t been.

Culture excites me. Ethnicity excites me. The world is a big, diverse and fascinating place, and I desperately want to learn about it (without turning into Michael Palin). It’s not that I want to treat people differently because of how they look or where their family originates from, or that I think their nationality somehow defines them – that’s absurd. It’s that I don’t want to ignore that they have a different cultural past to me – I want to learn about it, drink it in, enjoy it, and stop it from being a politically-correct taboo subject.

People are racist in many instances because they are simply ignorant of other cultures. People fear what they don’t understand – and that’s something I want to stop happening (hence my interest in Hope not Hate.) One thing I never want to be is ignorant (even though I know I am – of far too much). So I ask questions to discover things, including questions about people’s ethnicity. Einstein said ‘The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.’ But if, in my endeavour not to be ignorant, my questions actually offend people, doesn’t that defeat the entire object?

Image taken from ShashiBellamkonda‘s photostream.

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7 thoughts on “Not Such a Small World After All

  1. You are without a doubt not being racist. While you may possibly be ignorant to other cultures and races, unlike racist people who decide not to look into this and continue to live through handed down stereotypes and other peoples’ experiences, you genuinely want to know about them and this just makes you curious and interested [and interesting ;)]. Asking where someone’s from because of their skin colour isn’t being racist in my opinion, if anything, it is those who deem this racist that have the problem and may be insecure about their race themselves. I suppose you could avoid this situation by asking where their family originated from that way there’s no cause for offence, but that’s entirely up to you. As Einstein said, never stop asking questions (within reason lol)

    Good luck with the France thing though. I wouldn’t mind coming to see you 😛

  2. Hehe, I wouldn’t ask ‘where someone was from’ – I would probably word it a bit less presumptuously than that. 😉 But it’s not even the ‘where is your family from’ I care about, it’s getting past that and finding out about their family culture that actually interests me. 🙂

    And YES – come to LA FRANCE and pick grapes with me. Hehehe.

    • Wow, thanks! 🙂 I love it when people I don’t know are kind enough to reassure me on here.

      Oh, and I’ve just checked out your blog and it looks great – I’ve bookmarked you and will look out for new posts. 🙂

  3. I feel for Sunita – I have a classc English name and frequently find I have to spell it out! I’ve resorted to using the male version of my name, which is fine – but nobody can spell that either. *sigh*

    This (is it OK to draw attention to skin colour?) isn’t a conversation ethnic minorities have. We can talk about skin colour all day! It’s a major signifier in describing how someone looks.

    I’ve seen my white friends wrestle with the complexities of dealing with issues around skin colour, for fear of being labelled racist: is it OK to say ‘black’? Is it OK to ask where someone’s from if they’re ‘ethnic’ and have an English accent? Do I laugh when my fair-skinned black colleague compares forearms with me after I’ve been on holiday and says ‘wow, you’re darker than me, I’m jealous’?

    In short, yes. Noticing someone is black, and saying they’re black, is merely an observation and a statement of fact. Using that as a basis for discriminatory treatment = racist. Never mind all this ‘PC gawn mayd’ nonsense – we’re really OK with calling a spade a spade… unless we’re being called a spade, that is.

    I get asked where I’m from fairly frequently. I can see why people have a problem with it (if I have an English accent then it’s fairly obvious where I’m from, regardless of skin colour) but I also know that black and Asian people aren’t native to these isles – this is Western Europe! So being asked about my ethnic background actually opens up the chance to talk about race and culture in a safe way.

    In short, it’s OK – like in any situation, if you ask questions then it’s clear you’re looking to learn. Frankly, I’m more suspicious of people who don’t feel comfortable talking about such things openly, and am only offended when people are snarky.

    (I think you should read the Stuff White People Do blog and Racalicious – they both discuss issues like this in depth, and opened my eyes to a few things.)

    • Wow, thank you so much for such a detailed response! You raise some really interesting points, actually. I just checked out Stuff White People Do – it looks amazing, and I’ll read it in more detail later, but already I’m feeling incredibly ignorant as there’s a whole post of how racist To Kill a Mockingbird is, and I’d never looked at the novel that way before.

      It is nice to hear that you wouldn’t be offended if someone asked you where you were from – although I do think it’s annoying when people ask it with the presumption you’re actually FROM that country and were born there, rather than it being your family’s origin (e.g. a customer asked me ‘where I was from’, and when I said Italy he gasped and said ‘Wow, your English is very good for an Italian!’ Which obviously prompted a somewhat embarrassing explanation of my perfect English being because I was born here. Duh!)

      The jokes about holiday skin is also interesting – a few colleagues of mine who are ethnic minorities often joke about getting a ‘tan’ when they go away, which is funny but obviously not a joke I’d feel comfortable making to them, even if they know I’d never mean it in a derogatory way. Is it a good or a bad thing that we have to wait for people with different ethnic roots to take the lead when it comes to jokes like that? I’m not sure.

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