A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Monday, 20 February 2017

My Experience of Race

Michael Story has yet another interesting question on Facebook:
Facebook pals, what's the most direct personal reason you have for your political beliefs? Not ideology, but experiences, wants, cares etc. 
Like I (probably wrongly, genetics etc) attribute my vague conservatism to living in the 3rd and 2nd worlds and seeing our 1st world political and social institutions from distance as immensely precious, fragile and in need of protection. My vague liberalism comes from being eccentric, highly open to other eccentric people and wanting us all to flourish.
Several of the responses deal with issues of race, which led me to think about my own experience of it. I'm as WASP as they come, but have known plenty of people of other races - both immigrants in the UK, and fellow students from around the world at CEU. It's hard to pinpoint any particular views I hold as a result of this, but it's also difficult to deny that my perceptions of race have been affected by what I have seen.

My primary school had a minority of immigrants, although it's long enough ago that I struggle to remember exactly what proportion of the school they were. I remember H (presumably Korean descent, I won't name this person for reasons which will soon be obvious), Nafees and Pardeep (Indian subcontinent), Reuel Clarke (Caribbean maybe?), David Edeke (going by surname, clearly African), Paige (if Mauritians count), Jason Inniss (African maybe?), and am fairly confident there were others who came and left before them. There was also Nikolai, who was half-German half-Russian and left for Germany when we were ten. Again this reliant upon a shaky memory, but I'd guess the school was on average working-to-lower-middle class; I, being upper-middle, was probably in hindsight one of the poshest people there. (I was also one of three people in my year, our of 27 who were there at the end, to go to a selective secondary school. It will not surprise you one bit to learn that the other two were Nafees and Pardeep).

Were the friendship groups in that group stratified by race? Can't really say by memory, since I don't really remember what they were outside my own (none of my most immediate friends were among those mentioned above, although I got along well enough with Nafees and Pardeep of course, and another friend, Jacob, was American if memory serves). I do remember that the most persistent victim of bullying was H. (I was what you'd call complicit in the bullying - pretty certain I never practiced any violence on him personally, but I was watching and laughing when various of my friends - and one guy in particular - would push him down the slope next to the playground. Certainly my behaviour then is something of which, in hindsight, I am deeply ashamed).

Then we move on to secondary school. I went to King Edward VI Camp Hill Grammar School for Boys, where white were definitely the largest ethnic group but more likely a plurality than a majority. We had lots of people from the Indian subcontinent, a notable contingent of Chinese descent, and the occasional person from various other races. At least within my year group, race was visible and was treated as a joke. When choosing sides for football, we would name one team - typically the one with the most blacks - "EDL". We had Racist Wednesdays, in which everyone would tell jokes about the other races (I remember that whites were mocked for our lack of athletic ability and Asians - "freshies", as in fresh-off-the-boat - for their accents) in a spirit of good fun. Less edgily, the combination of A-levels in Maths and three Sciences (possibly plus Further Maths) was referred to as "the Asian equation", although there were plenty of white guys taking it as well.

So race was visible, noted, and mocked. What of the friendship groups? Well, that's the thing - while absolutely everyone (so far as I could tell) had some friends of different races, and there definitely wasn't anything you could refer to as tension between the races, any given pair of people were considerably more likely to be friends if they were of the same race. Years 10 and 11 come to mind, when during form period we had a room with a fairly clear racial divide in seating patterns - Asians in the back left (aside from Nafees - a different Nafees from the one mentioned earlier, to be clear), whites and Immarni through the front and right, and Chinese all dispersed into other classes within the year group.

In contrast to my primary school, this was a very fine grammar school in which pretty much everyone had at least one parent in the civil service. It was what you would rightly expect to be a beacon of progressivism in the most Moldbuggian sense imaginable. And yet we still had this pattern of racial division.

Then I went off to the University of Manchester to study PPE. The PPE course itself was mostly, though by no means exclusively, white - but it was also noticeable how much the racial composition of different courses varied. Our economics lectures contained vast numbers of Chinese students, here for a degree, who you would never ever see outside the classroom. There were actually a couple of far-eastern students, Haydn (Hong Kong maybe? He's not on Facebook, which makes checking hard) and Shuen (Malay) on the edges of my immediate friendship group, and in first-year halls I had a couple of Chinese students as flatmates - one of whom left his room for lectures, to cook, and by the end of the year to play us at chess, and one who I saw perhaps twice in the whole year and who I don't think even went to lectures.

Philosophy, by contrast, was the whitest discipline imaginable. (That said, white did not just mean English - I met a surprisingly large number of Cackalack Americans on philosophy courses). Politics had plenty of minority students, but they were immigrants or progeny of immigrants rather than students from abroad. A more general note, and a very sad one for what it says, it that this was perhaps my first time with absolutely no peers of African descent. They'd been present at St. Mary's Primary School, they were unusual but just-about present at Camp Hill; the only people of that ethnicity I can remember from Manchester were a black-Jamaican medic who went to my church and the security guard at the on-campus Sainsbury's.

With the aforementioned caveat about lots of Chinese students with whom we didn't really interact, I had a reasonably racially mixed friendship group. Among my ten or so closest friends on the course were Naz Nahar (Bangladeshi descent, though we joked that it was spray-on tan), Rachel So (Cantonese descent, though her Cantonese was about the level of my Hungarian) and Jawdat Nassour (from Lebanon, although after graduation he made his immigration permanent; I don't know what Haydn did, and Shuen is currently at grad school in New York City).

Outside of the course, my friends were rather whiter. I did kayaking, a hobby in which I can't ever remember seeing a single non-white comrade; I went to church, which had black families but few black students (although in first year I was friends with a visiting Singaporean student). Giving What We Can: Manchester was very diverse within Europe, being led by a guy of Romanian descent and having as one of the most active members a Portugese student, but was ultimately as white as the rest of philosophy.

So then, on to CEU. CEU is a highly international university, with students from all around the globe. Earlier today I cooked alongside a Pakistani (?) woman, while some far-eastern-European girls nattered in the background and sighed over my use of a cheese grater (yes, really). We also have two Americans, a Canadian, a Swede, two Iranians, a Portugese-French-Swiss, an Assyrian who grew up in Georgia, a Hungarian, several Ukrainians, an Italian, and many more besides on the floor. Go up a floor and you'll find my good friend Bhavya from India; up another floor and you'll meet my lunch-companion for tomorrow, Ethelred (Hong Kong), his girlfriend Laura (Romania), the girl who I wish was my girlfriend, Ágnes (AKA Nesi, Hungary), and a whole bunch of others.

These people, by doing to a graduate school and travelling internationally to get there, are strongly selected both for openness to other countries and for intelligence. In short, for progressivism. And yet there are strong ethic lines of friendship. The Balkans kind of form a conglomeration around use of the Serbo-Croatian language, there's a pan-African group, Russians and Russian-speakers get together to smoke, etc. That's not the only thing - courses and academic interests are also pretty important - but it's an undeniable tendency.

So we have a variety of contexts in which you have highly progressive populations with racial divides, and these racial divides are replicated in friendship patterns. This need not mean any kind of prejudice, in fact I think it's primarily driven by shared cultural (and in particular linguistic) background - CEU is rather more polarised than Camp Hill, where we all had the same first language, and a fair few of my friends from UK minorities - Rachel So, for example, or Dwayne Spiteri (a guy of Jamaican descent who joined Camp Hill for Sixth Form) - were very "white" members of those minorities. I don't think the far-Eastern-European women who were enjoying my cheese-grating are from the same country - one is Armenian, one is some kind of Turkic, and no idea on the third - but they were enjoying the use of a common tongue other than English (and are on occasion joined by one of the Ukrainians).

This was originally intended as an answer to Michael Story's question, but it's far too long for that and doesn't easily lead into any particular belief I hold. But it does effect the kind of racial harmony that I think it is realistic to hope for. A world in which all were truly colour-blind would be wonderful. But ultimately, I don't think even the elites of global society believe in the ideal strongly enough to practice it.

(Incidentally, a context I haven't yet mentioned: online. #MCx is mostly but not exclusively white, most of the people I've come to know through online libertarianism are white continental Europeans; I don't know how different this is from the base rate of young neoliberal or conservative people from the UK. At Freedom Week 2015, which wasn't online but was how I came to know various people who I now know mostly through the web, there was one Asian Muslim guy who was very much at the Toryish end of the people there; Young Liberal Society is mostly white, although if Elrica can use her mixed race as a defence against accusations of prejudice then so can the rest of us in this case.)

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