Invisible black

posted 17 January 2005

Tonight London social life kicked into gear again when we went to see Festen, an excellent and deeply disturbing play. If you would like to see it stop reading now, as what I want to write about involves revealing a few major plot elements which might spoil it for you.


Gone yet?


Go on. Go.

Right. In my now-usual Motorcycle Diaries fashion* the curtain went up without me having an inkling that incest was a central theme of the play, so I was even more shocked than the rest of the audience when the family's "dark secret" (as every review insists on calling it) is revealed. And so, maybe, having already been noticeably more shocked than the others around me earlier, I was more aware when it happened again.

The play also touches briefly on racism, in a clever scene that brings humour to the play and also provokes thought about our contrasting attitudes to these two generally abhorrent topics. Namely, that while "abhorrent" is a name readily applied to incest, I don't think I would find as many people applying it to racism.

Make no mistake, there were shocked gasps from the audience as the family revealed their appallingly bigoted views. But was it only me who thought they dissolved too quickly afterwards into laughter? Did it seem to me their shock was dismissed a fraction too soon? The play never, at any point, tries to make light of the crime of incest. The audience was shocked into silence for several minutes each time it came to the surface. So why did they giggle 30 seconds after the racism? Why is it okay to make a joke of racism? Is it really a much lesser crime? Is it that mental degradation is less offensive than aggressively physical degradation, even when the latter is only obliquely referenced while the former occurs right in front of us on stage?

Personally, the casual, even conspicuously joyful way the family bonded over racism was far more shocking to me than the father's sexual acts. Everyone in the family was appalled and disgusted by the father's behaviour, and yet they sang along to a song that had me recoiling in horror while people a few seats away were laughing at the lyrics. I can't help but think that it's me. But what would it be about me that would mean this apparently unusual reversal of horrors?

On the tube on the way back, I came up with a possibility. Racism is something that very few people in the (overwhelmingly white, middle class) audience would have experienced. But growing up, the racial minority was me.

Now, I will be the first to admit that white in Trinidad hardly have a difficult time. Four decades after the end of colonialism, a group who make up less than half of one per cent of the population still hold a very disproportionate share of the wealth and influence (although their reprentation in government and the public service at nearly all levels is a lot fairer, i.e. nearly nil). However, I do know what it's like to be thought less of because of your colour, and what a humiliating experience that can be, how unfair and ridiculous it is.

I also know that for all its fine talk of equal opportunities and multiculturalism, Britain is still a profoundly racist society. And I know that precisely because of my position. You see, it's not talked about, but when there are a lot of white people in a room together, the boundaries of what is acceptable to say... relax somewhat. Tongues are a little looser. Attitudes are not quite as squeaky clean, reservations usually unvoiced are mumbled, secret dislikes are whispered. I know what you say about black people when you think no one who would mind is listening. I know what you say about Muslims when their backs are turned. I know that when you say 'Muslim' you mean brown guys with beards, not people who follow Islam and can come in any colour. I know that you think 'ethnic minority' is a synonym for 'brown'. I have heard those things you say, those things you thought would never, by unspoken agreement, leave that room. And I was disgusted.

It makes me feel like the invisible black person. I can hear what you're saying about people I consider as close to me as I am to you -- i.e. not very, but your colour doesn't make a difference -- and yet you seem unaware that I'm there, unaware that you offend, as unashamed of your crime as that father was of the crimes he committed against his own children. It's like being a closeted homosexual in a room full of heterosexuals making gay jokes, and twice as offensive because while homosexuality is (stupidly) still an issue it's considered possible for a rational person to have negative views about, racism was an issue we were supposed to have got over decades ago, and yet it's not gone, it is merely hiding.

I expect I will hear many protestations of innocence, and many defences of the progress the UK has supposedly made against racism. I don't deny that progress has been made, but I dispute that we have come as far as we like to believe. Because I know the expression someone has when they look at you and have already judged you, because I've had it given to me by black Trinidadians who should know better. And I also see who you give it to. And with thick lips and a 5-week Caribbean tan during my university days, I have even seen it given to me, just underlining the stupidity of a system based on something as mutable and irrelevant as colour.

Do I overstate the problem? Perhaps, but really I don't think so. I think the UK has a problem it doesn't like to talk about. Perhaps that wasn't the message I was supposed to take home from Festen, but that's what I got, so I'm giving it to you.

* I sat through the entire film without realising it was supposed to be about Che Guevara, not having read any reviews of it.

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