In a recent creative writing class, we were asked to describe the days of week as people – the clothes they wore, their hobbies and the temperament that they displayed. Reading over my descriptions it occurred to me that much of what I had written was stereotypical. My Monday was a business man and he wore a bowler hat. My Friday was an unemployed youth, trousers half mast, spray painting walls. My Wednesday housewife was decked in leggings and baggy jumper and had “let herself go.” All stereotypes. As I writer I felt ashamed. I should be able to come up with something more creative.
I remember one Christmas season way back when I had a holiday job in Boots Pharmacy. I was on checkout, beeping my way through the day. For the most part the customers were polite. If things were moving slowly, they took it in their stride. There was one woman packing her carrier. Money had changed hands. Handing back the change, another lady in the queue piped up, “You’d better check your change. These checkout girls – they can’t count, you know?”She had fallen into the pit of stereotyping people. She couldn't know just by looking at me that I had a degree and seven years teaching experience. After a year of gospel outreach, I was waitng for another door to open.
At the Bike Shed cafe last night Lynda Stirratt was sharing her experiences as a black woman living in Inverness. Being a single black face in a white community in the early days of moving here was a real challenge. She talked about the racial slurs she endured, of children on a bus scraping the back of her hand with a fingernail wondering if the “blackness” came off and of feeling unsafe walking along a street. I have always known her as a confident and lively woman, so it came as a surprise to me. I thought that if some people were unpleasant to others of a different nationality, it didn’t include her because she was a generous and loving person.
She had us filling out a sheet that identified the ten most important people in our lives, their gender, and their religion. The sheet went on to ask about nationality, about their education and their sexual preferences. It was a tool to simply say that like gravitates to like. We are attracted to people who are like us.
But how do we treat the people who are not like us? We watched a short clip. It featured a man in a park stealing a bike. He didn’t try to hide the fact that the bike wasn’t his and he was using a chain saw because he didn’t have the key. He was challenged by some, ignored by many and one person phoned the police. The actor was replaced by a woman. Blonde hair. Pretty. She made it clear she was stealing the bike and men did the hard work for her with the chain saw. She rode off into the sunset. No one challenged her – they helped!
When the actor was replaced with a young black lad – the bystanders didn’t ask what he was doing. They presumed he was stealing the bike. There was no walking by and looking the other way. They gathered around the bike, around the boy and a mob was born. They didn’t listen to what he had to say, they took out mobile phones, took pictures and phoned the police. The atmosphere was aggressive.
How do we treat people who are not like us? It depends on whether we are in the majority or in the minority. Living in a multi-ethnic city like Leeds is different from living in the Highlands of Scotland. Inverness is more diverse than it used to be, but in Leeds there is a whole community to fall back on. You can be part of a majority in some areas of come cities. Here is Inverness that doesn’t happen. It was important for Lynda to make sure her sons visited family in Leeds, to feel what it meant to be a member of a black community.
Much of what we say or do is acting on a subconscious level. What we say and how we are heard can be very different. We don’t have the history that the black community has, or their mind set. We might say that we don’t notice colour. We are all human beings. We are all the same. But we are not all the same at all. Not to acknowledge colour is to not acknowledge the differences that are there and to be able to respect people regardless.
The young twenty-something Lynda was when she first moved to Inverness is very different from the woman she is now some thirty years later. The strength and confidence that is seen on the outside does not cover up insecurities on the inside. She is proud of who she is and what she has achieved. She walks tall.
The battle has not ended, by any means. Lynda called on us all to take a stand. Silence is taken as approval. If there is injustice and it’s not being challenged, not only does it continue to happen but if it is unchallenged, it’s like saying it’s normal when it is anything but. And it is not just about the other person and what they have said or done that treats someone as “less than”. We need to take a close look at our words and actions. What have we assumed about a person from what they look like or where they live?
Good societies, like good people, are not born that way. They are made.