In the summer of 1965, when he was twenty-two years old, my father traveled to Borneo, Asia’s largest island. A saxophonist and clarinetist in the Royal Air Force Central Band, he had been stationed there during the Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation. Tired and hungover after the previous night’s performance, my father wandered into the jungle near the base, seeking shelter from the punishing heat. He came to rest beneath a large tree. After dozing off in the dappled sunlight of the rainforest, he awoke to discover a large rhinoceros beetle scuttling just inches from his leg. He unlaced and removed his boot before bringing the heel down hard on the insect. Unfazed, the beetle continued on its journey. My father struck the beetle again and again, but despite his zeal to end the beetle’s life, it kept on scuttling to wherever it was headed. After several minutes, the bug’s resilience and the near-suffocating humidity of the island forced him to reconsider.

Over the years, my father has told this and many other stories countless times. There’s the one about how my mother once shoved a lit cigarette up the nose of a particularly persistent and aggressive would-be suitor at a pub when my parents were still dating at RAF Uxbridge. The story of how my great-grandfather was once offered the well-paid, yet somewhat unenviable, position of hangman at Craiginches Prison, one of the most notorious jails in Scotland. The tale of how my grandmother once calmly snapped the neck of my grandfather’s prize cockerel after the bird attacked my father when he was five years old. These stories have remained constants throughout my life — colorful anecdotes that have become intricately woven into the fabric of my family history.

My father is a good man. He loves his family, and worked hard for years to support us. He is thoughtful, considerate, and an excellent listener. Unfortunately, like many people of his generation who came of age in the Britain of the 1960s, he is also a racist. The saddest part is that he doesn’t even realize it. He casually and frequently uses expressions such as “coon,” “raghead,” and other racial slurs in everyday conversation. The notion that these epithets are offensive doesn’t even cross his mind.

During a recent, particularly exasperating phone call, I attempted to explain the difference between the terms “colored people” and “people of color,” a subtle yet crucial distinction that was utterly lost on him. I told him that not only was the former completely unacceptable, but that I found it deeply offensive. I asked him to try to refrain from using this and other similar expressions during our conversations, at the very least. He promised he would try, though it felt more like an attempt to appease me than a serious effort to change his ways.

When I was growing up, my mother would sometimes tell her own stories — how her mother had been the proprietor of a pub in Liverpool that also served as a base of operations for the resistance in World War II. How the Nazis had thrown her father’s parents out into the street and gave their apartment in Amsterdam to a ranking officer. How her Dutch father had struggled to master the complexities of spoken English after he arrived in England, and would always pronounce the hard “K” in words like “knife” and “knock.” During my childhood, she would frequently express her disgust for the French, the Germans, and the Spanish while we watched the evening news, making no effort to disguise her contempt. Her most poisonous ire, however, was reserved solely for the Japanese. As a child, before the true meanings of xenophobia and racism were clear to me, the depths of her hatred were baffling. I vividly remember asking her one day why she despised the Japanese so.

“They’re a cruel, vindictive people, Daniel,” she said, using my full name in one of those rare moments when she felt compelled to impress the gravity of the situation upon me. “They enjoy seeing other people suffer. You should see their television programs, all humiliation and mockery. They’re not like us.”

I’m a little too young to remember the Falklands War. The crisis ended a week after I was born, but I do recall the years afterward. The bleak, fractured Britain depicted in Shane Meadows’ 2006 film This Is England is not unlike the one in which I grew up. We moved around a lot when I was young, but eventually settled in a depressing coastal town not entirely dissimilar to the one in which Shaun, the movie’s protagonist, lives. Meadows’ semi-autobiographical film reveals to us a glimpse of a Britain divided by racism — a nation where intolerance masquerades as pride, and one in which young minds are molded by fear. Growing up in a working class town, racial slurs such as “Paki” and “wog” were inextricably interwoven into the vernacular of the public schoolyards in which I played. Some children used them cruelly. Others simply didn’t know any better.

Although racism in Britain can be traced back to the slave trade, the legacy of hatred portrayed in This Is England is enduring. A recent survey by market research firm OnePoll revealed that one in three Britons admitted to making racist remarks on a regular basis, or engaging in conversations that could be considered racist. More than one in ten people confessed to having been called a racist by someone close to them. Lastly, around forty percent of Britons polled had prefaced a comment with the classic refrain of “I’m not racist, but…” at some point or another. Perhaps most disconcerting is the fact that many of the two thousand adults surveyed by OnePoll claimed their feelings of racial prejudice had been passed down to them by older members of their family. In terms of demographics, individuals over the age of fifty-five were found to be the least racially tolerant, but young people aged between eighteen and twenty-four were close behind.

As if race weren’t a controversial issue enough, the contentious subject of immigration in the U.K. has my parents, along with many other Britons, deeply worried. During one of our twice-weekly phone calls, my father told me that my mother was literally losing sleep over the idea that their neighborhood would soon be overrun with Romanians, Bulgarians, and wandering bands of Roma gypsies “when they throw the doors open again” next year, referring to the fact that current immigration restrictions on the two countries are due to be lifted in January. Alarmist comments by politicians such as former Home Secretary David Blunkett, who warned that an influx of Eastern European immigrants could spark riots, and the sensationalist gutter “journalism” of the British tabloids, have further agitated tensions among many Britons, my mother included. Upon learning of my her sleepless nights spent fretting about Eastern Europeans, I began to question whether she was slowly succumbing to senility.

One afternoon, as I talked to my father, I tried to point out the hypocrisy of my mother’s anti-immigrant stance. Not only had her own father been an immigrant, but her son was, too. Time and again, both my parents had said I had done the right thing by leaving London and starting a new life in the United States — that I was “definitely better off over there,” an assertion typically followed by numerous examples of how the government was systematically dismantling the British way of life and pandering to the whims of “the Europeans.” I asked my father if he thought that my situation was so different than that of the Romanians and Bulgarians who would inevitably choose to leave their old lives behind and seek a new, more prosperous life in Britain. He admitted that my choices, and those of many of the European Union’s two newest member states, were not so different after all. Even this concession felt like a hollow victory in a perpetual verbal war of attrition.

In one of the most memorable moments of This Is England, recently released convict Combo makes a pivotal and ultimately divisive speech in which he says, “A proud man, learn from him; that’s a proud man. That’s what we need, man. That’s what this nation has been built on, proud men.” If that is true, then the words of German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer should serve as a warning — “Every miserable fool who has nothing at all of which he can be proud, adopts as a last resource pride in the nation to which he belongs; he is ready and happy to defend all its faults and follies tooth and nail, thus reimbursing himself for his own inferiority.” There is certainly no shortage of pride in the U.K., but it is a pride that I cannot share, and for what, I do not know.

I haven’t returned home in the three years since I’ve lived in the States. Not only am I keenly aware of the physical distance between my parents and I when we speak on the phone, I’m reminded of the emotional and cultural gulf between us — a vast expanse forty years and almost four thousand miles wide, one that grows a little larger twice a week. Try as I might to reason with them, to explain how things have changed and the world has moved on, they seem incapable of understanding the world in which we live. Perhaps I’m the fool for naïvely believing, or daring to hope, that my parents are even capable of change.

I love my parents very much, and miss them dearly, but our conversations often grow strained. Our phone calls are sectioned off by invisible fences — imaginary borders that, not unlike their real-life geographical counterparts, carry weighty consequences if crossed illegally. Sometimes, we stray perilously close, at which point sanctions are threatened, armies mobilized, warning shots fired. My father isn’t a hateful man, but we can rarely discuss politics without encountering our own strange, uncomfortable language barrier. It would appear that time and distance make for poor interpreters.

At least we’ll always be able to talk about the weather.

Image from This is England; Directed by Shane Matthews


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  • name

    Please learn the difference between English and British, there are other countries in Britain who don’t want to be labelled as a result of the English.

  • Red

    I feel like everyone who came out of the 60s generation is a tad racist, no matter where they live.

  • Sigh

    Isn’t it ok to favor one culture over another? Too often this distinction gets mislabeled as racism, but in fact we all judge the way those around the world live and behave. We adopt those characteristics we admire and discard those we don’t care for. I do not believe all cultures have equal merit and have a difficult time understanding anyone who proposes they do.

    Unlike his parents, the author of this article obviously has never been through a war or period of time when his very existence was truly threatened by an enemy country. Hopefully he never will. But my guess is he will have a lot more empathy for his parents’ points of view should he ever have that experience.

    Protecting the best parts of one’s culture against altering influences is not only reasonable behaviour, but is what has kept the world an interesting and varied place. The type of naive political correctness where everything is equal and no one can judge is an important part of what is wrong with my (younger) generation.

    • Dickybow

      Your argument panders to the instinctive; tribalism is a comforting ‘common sense’ approach, resisting change is couched as ‘conservatism’. Animals are instinctive, humans can have intelligent aspirations that sometimes may not ‘feel’ right, empathy that puts you out of your comfort zone is no bad thing.

    • tetriminos

      yes i have been thinking about how the world is becoming more and more globalised, and how everywhere is beginning to look the same – for example corporations with the same logo and the same products the world over

  • tetriminos

    yes i have a more intolerant father. i’m proud of being a european citizen with it’s magnificent history, but less proud of living in the modern british world with the grey cement and cheap advertising and endless shopping centres etc etc

  • Bezzer

    British jobs for British workers, stuff the EU.

    • No.

    • jesuschristcross

      is this the british version of a redneck slogan?!

  • I can’t help but wonder if the author and “his” world dismisses his parents’ attitude and trepidation over the future of “their” England a little too quickly.

    Consider their perspective: in the span of a few short decades the population of England has shifted from a largely homogeneous group to a distribution that the author would likely proudly label as “diverse”, or at least quickly arriving to that. Only 83% of English residents are native-born, with 14% arriving from outside the United Kingdom; 85% of the counter’s inhabitants are white. The foreign-born population is over double its number two decades ago and nearly triple over fifty years ago.

    Probably a more alarming trend to the author’s parents is the dependency of these immigrants on the welfare state and their slow or nonexistent assimilation into English culture. The European Union has demanded that the UK provide public assistance to immigrants, against previous adopted legislation; the number of foreign nationals receiving assistance recently passed 400,000. And while roughly 90% of British nationals (excluding, for obvious reasons, Northern Ireland) consider themselves British, this number is much lower among immigrants, particularly those recently arrived to the UK (which, given the increasing immigration rates in recent years, constitutes a significant number).

    This is to say nothing of the at times hostile attitude shown by some to their host country; the murder of Lee Rigby comes to mind, though one of the attackers was born in England.

    Of course, the author’s parents’ attitudes are not without fault. But to dismiss them as ignorant or relics of a regrettable era is perhaps as naive as the attitudes themselves. Indeed, the universal condemnation of anything less than unwavering acceptance of tolerance and diversity towards everyone, regardless of context and all in the pursuit of offending as little as possible, may itself be as delusional as the author portrays his parents to be.

    • jesuschristcross

      “Try as I might to reason with them, to explain how things have changed and the world has moved on, they seem incapable of understanding the world in which we live.”

      if you read the whole article above you would have notice this sentence. this is the point the author makes. he wrote all those words that simply boil down to that sentence. but obviously with your statistics you didn’t get the point. in the sentence the word “them” refers to you too.

      • How dare you question the doctrine! Do you really expect us to emphasize with worldviews other than our own?! You’re one of “them”! BURN HIM! BURN THE WITCH!

        I read, and understood quite well. How silly I was, though, to expect a group that prides itself on diversity and tolerance to be open-minded enough to consider viewpoints besides their own, or, [insert deity or non-deity of choice] forbid, make some attempt to understand other than to chastise others that don’t conform to “the world in which we [rarely have I seen that inclusive pronoun used with such exclusivity] live”.

        Never realized ivory was that structurally sound.

        • jesuschristcross

          that’s deep. the ivory and all. are you writing this on your awesome droid tablet?!

          “Do you really expect us to emphasize (empathy maybe?!) with worldviews other than our own?!” i didn’t expect you to “emphasize” with any view. you numbers are cool and all but still there is nothing you can do to change them (shrink them). you can bitch about them but that’s pretty much it. the author basically was just saying that the world moves on with or without you.

          as far as the witch and burning him/her…. whatever really.

          • “Empathize”, obviously. That’s what happens when I snark faster than I type.

            Regardless, it’s clear you’re blind to the hypocrisy of your attitude. The political-correctness-at-all-costs crowd is just as intolerant and small-minded as the bigots they so eagerly portray as the same. Worse, I’d say, because you think you have the superior moral position and therefore feel no compunction over simply attacking anyone who doesn’t completely agree with you without a hint of reason in your words.

            All I’m saying is that it’s possible that people like the author’s parents might have reasons for feeling the way they do other than ignorance and hate. Didn’t say it was right, or that I felt the way they do. But perhaps blind acceptance and advocation simply for the sake of appearing modern and tolerant is just as naive as fear and trepidation over the same.

            Of course, I should have known that such a extreme thought would rub the militant diversifiers such as yourself the wrong way, leading you to dub me one of “them”, as if that alone was more than enough to settle the matter undoubtedly in your favor, to say nothing of the irony in attempting to appear tolerant and anti-bias by labeling others into oppositional groups.

            Hence the witch hunt allusion that sailed so gracefully over your head. To spell it out for you, when you’re trying so hard to be on the accepting, tolerant, and morally superior side of the matter, it helps not to be steadfastly arrogant, dismissive, and hostile to others just because they said something with which you don’t agree. Honey, not vinegar.

          • jesuschristcross

            way too many words. not enough time.

            “it’s possible that people like the author’s parents might have reasons for feeling the way they do other than ignorance and hate.”

            they are not “feeling”. “feeling” is a emotional reaction of a sort. which has a cause. what the author’s parents are “feeling” is not caused by any particular event. they are indoctrinated that way. because of the environment they were brought and lived in. local tv, papers, pub, neighbors, etc. something/somebody to blame your problems on. chronic lack of self worth. or responsibility. god’s will. insurance. 3 years limited warranties. human excuses. etc. it’s not about hate. it’s mostly about a collective local cultural and social ignorance (pride, patriotism, bull sh!t, tribal intolerance, etc). these are all interchangeable. kinda like the deep south in the us.

            i’m not about attitude. or “on the accepting, tolerant, and morally superior side of the matter”. i really don’t give a rats ass. there are facts and philosophies. the fact is world moves on. you were using numbers with the intent to somehow remotely, subliminally justify or imply that there is a logic to the behaviour of the engraved cultural racism or intolerance in certain generational and or regional “populations”. philosophies. kinda like the madrasas in the arab world. it’s just something that is in the local social “fiber” if you will. and there isn’t much that can help.

            and next time use less and less poetic words if you want anybody to read the full post. accusing me of intolerance and what not is not helping your literary case. you might fancy yourself a writer but i’m not really your english teacher and you wont be getting a grade off me. any harry potter reference will “sail so gracefully over my head”. on purpose. couldn’t care less…

          • Forgive me for not dumbing down the conversation so that you might be able to comprehend the argument before replying; or, per your request, “Sorry words so big; I talk like this now”.

            It’s clear you have not yet figured out the point. Blame it on the “poetic” content all you like, but it’s a matter of ignorance, much like the ignorance you’re allegedly against. And this will be my last attempt to raise it, as I feel much the same way at the moment as the author does when speaking to his parents.

            The point is that you and the author are not the ultimate judges of whether or not “the world has moved on”, or whatever phrasing you’d like to use to highlight your progressiveness relative to the subjects of your derision. The fact is that a significant proportion of the populace still harbors an uneasiness against the demographic changes taking place in their country.

            The world has not moved on, here they are, very much part of the world, and they have objections. Are they based in racism and xenophobia? A large part, yeah. Is it a product of a general ignorance based on their environment? Of course. But it’s not related at all to the fact that their country has, in less than a half-century, gone from lily white to increasingly diversified? Or that this shift might have implications beyond turning the country into a happy rainbow center of love and tolerance?

            What’s happened is that YOUR world has moved on, as well as the author’s. You have decided to tolerate no less than unwavering acceptance of your worldview, and automatically deemed anyone who does not meet your lofty standards for nobility as ignorant, racist, or whatever you choose to label them, hence marginalizing their opinion.

            The cruel irony here is that this leads to just as much generalization as the environment you cite. You’ve already made two American South jabs on this article’s comments alone. Those dumb rednecks, always hating everyone, right? But it’s OK to say whatever you like about them, stereotype an entire region of millions of people, because they’re just ignorant racists. Or the English who don’t like foreigners. Obviously they’re too stupid to know what’s good for them, with their pubs and nationalism and whatnot.

            The fact is that the world does not revolve around you. There are still plenty of people who do not subscribe to your philosophy. Some of them say, “I don’t like all these brown people around here.” Yes, they are wrong and they need to be addressed. Others ask, “Is it a good idea to let everyone in even if they aren’t willing to assimilate?” You’ve already conflated this group with the first, simply because they both disagree with you, and you’re obviously correct, right? Anyone who strays from the party line on tolerance and diversity can’t be right.

            But this isn’t your fantasy world, these people do still exist, and your dismissing their ideas based on your personal construction of how the world works is just as delusional and ignorant as their supposed hate for people who look different than themselves.

            This is the world, reality, like it or not, and if you truly want to effect the sort of thinking you advocate it certainly doesn’t begin with the sort of arrogant ear-clamping that comes with treating anyone who doesn’t march in lockstep as obsolete non-persons whose thoughts are below recognition.

          • jesuschristcross

            jesus… you have way too much free time on your hands, don’t you? and keep telling me what am i thinking or dismissing and what the reality is and what should i do if i want to “effect a sort of thinking”. and “party line”?! do i see a panty line?!

            anyway…. you are welcome.

  • Grog Humane

    Ignorance, racism, religion and culture are not bound by region or borders.
    I think what most are not able to comprehend is the distinction between culture and race. The less than enlightened gentleman “jez” mentioned Muslim rape gangs but fails to perceive that such a gang can be composed of individuals of any creed.
    If their is a culture that promotes violence, than anyone can choose to embrace that culture and it has nothing to do with race.
    There are hundred of contributing factors to what a culture will develop into as well as the individuals in that culture; to say that race is the primary factor in that development speaks to not only a horrid lack of historical understanding, but a deep absence of any scientific knowledge, particularly of human biology and psychology.
    I stay clear away from any large crowd consuming alcohol due to group and crowd dynamics potential… yet according to “jez”, only the Black crowd will go berserk.. he believes the Asians are content to drink and sit around, while the Whites may or may not become aggressive.
    Think about that logic for a second and the other hundred factors it ignores and then you realize the extent of the ignorance at work in the minds of such individuals.

  • Lokesh

    I’d say your father is not racist but ignorant. You can’t be a racist unless you treat others with inferiority

  • SaintStryfe

    This isn’t English or British in origin. It’s the leftovers of the Baby Boomers – the folks who were born after WWII through the Mid-60’s. They got all the benefits of a post-War world – rapid growth, technological development, mass cultural movements, welfare, immigration that allowed them to take management jobs, ect, and then shat on everyone coming before or after them. They locked their parents in old folks homes and doped their kids up on drugs to keep them studying hard. They only had to see minorities as servants and as invaders. They kept the ignorant racism of their parents – the people who didn’t use black troops in WWII because they were inferior, yet lost all the even slightly valid reasons for it. My father is the same way. Patently racist. I love my parents but both are terribly terribly scared of things that honestly, won’t hurt them, while blaming their problems on the wrong people.