Saturday, July 18, 2009


I have had several encounters that have inspired my reflection on race and culture and the very different approach I am finding here, in England, yet I have hesitated to share them. I have hesitated because whenever the issue of race is brought to the table in my country, the US, defenses start to surface, barriers are erected, hackles are raised, wagons are drawn into a circle. I then began to parcel out my thoughts into careful, muted, words, afraid they would be misconstrued by some as typical white, generalizing blather, by others as naïve and wide-eyed and bleeding heart. And in the process of doing so, the message got muffled, and the words became bland and meaningless.

So I endeavor to tackle this issue with apologies to all who may find my thoughts and words somehow offensive. I am merely speaking from my own perception of what I have come to know in my interactions with racial issues in the US, and what I am learning about the very different way it is approached here, in the city I live, London, in my new country, England—a way that feels refreshing, and liberating, and fills me with a sense of hope about our ability to live together in a spirit of tolerance and harmony.

I was invited to live with a woman who offered a room to me in her lovely, large, Victorian home near my work. She is a black woman from St. Lucia, in the Caribbean, who came to London when she was twelve years old. She is a delightful woman of 48, who left her comfortable job with the Croydon Council to pursue her dream of becoming a trained therapist. And although our backgrounds and upbringing are very different, we have much in common. She and I share political leanings that can aptly be described as “leftist,” and I hear her, sometimes, shouting at the TV news, much the way I have been known to do, when she is outraged by some latest remark or development. We have long discussions, sometimes late into the night, about family dynamics and relationships and all of the pain and complexity that comes with being the youngest child. But our most interesting discussions are around race. We talk about how our respective races impact our views of the world, our interactions with others, our capacity for relationships with those outside our race. And I have found myself thinking that conversations like ours, between races, are rare in the United States, and, if they do occur, they are laced with the burden of our difficult history.

I related to Cynthia, my roommate, an incident that occurred at my last job, as a Social Worker in Medical Foster Care. We had a developmentally delayed African American girl, who was severely disabled and in a wheelchair, placed with an elderly white couple, and the mother in the family found coping with the little girl’s hair cumbersome and time-consuming. Transracial placements in the US are often impacted by issues of hair care, since white folks tend to lack knowledge of how to work with hair so different from their own. But the woman decided that it would be easier just to shave the little girl’s head, than to try to figure it out. And the Social Worker I was supervising, who had the case, felt that this was an outrageous act. Not only did it further stigmatize a little girl already stigmatized by her disability, it made her look like a boy, and it felt insensitive and racist. But when this issue was brought to the attention of our team, a primarily white team comprised of nurses, it was not perceived as a problem. To them, it felt logical and utilitarian, not neglectful or insensitive. They didn’t understand the racial overtones to this act, and they felt that my Social Worker and I were making an issue out of nothing.

Yet when I related this incident to my roommate, she was shocked and appalled that someone would do this, and that professionals would condone it. She spoke of how hair and the maintaining of it is a huge part of a black woman’s identity, and an important part of who they are and how they present to the outside world. And, even if this little girl was delayed, having a bald head, like a sheared sheep, seemed dehumanizing. I recognized, while talking with her that an act like that could never happen here. First, a black child would not be placed in a white home. Transracial placements are rarely done. And, secondly, preservation of identity and culture are central to every assessment and all the work we do here as Social Workers in Child Protection. It’s not on paper merely for the auditing people to check off. It is part of every discussion we have, when we are talking about these children and their families.

The other day, one of my colleagues at work had had her car stolen and her house burgled. She is from Rwanda but was raised in Belgium. She had an idea of who had robbed her, but, when I asked her if she had shared her suspicion with the police, she said no, that she didn’t trust the police to protect her, as a black woman, that she was worried they would tell the man of her suspicions, and he might retaliate. At the time, I thought that it would be unusual for a person of color in the US to share something about her experience of racism so openly with a white person she barely knew. She would keep that to herself, or share it with someone from her own community, but she would be careful about making a statement like that to someone who is white. Because we (whites) are so quick to dismiss such statements as prejudicial themselves, to characterize the person who said it as being angry, and defensive, as having a ‘chip on her shoulder.’ We deny that racism is systemic in our society, and we discount and minimize their experiences of it, so these feelings are not shared with us. They are there, but they are below the surface of our interactions, hidden, and untouched. It keeps us from fully understanding one another. It distances us from each other. It keeps us forever apart.

And, finally, I encounter the difference in the way we relate to each other everyday, here, when I step onto the double-decker bus that takes me to work. I see a few white faces, but mostly my bus is filled with people of color, and I think, as I sit with them, how a white person in the US would feel threatened when entering this environment. He would stand and hold the rail rather than sit down, she would clutch her purse closer to her side. Yet here, we sit together. There are Sikhs and men in kufis and women in hijabs. There are Indian women with shawls wrapped around their heads and men with dreadlocks down the middle of their backs. There are rhythms of languages from Africa and India and Poland and Romania and Palestine. We feel comfortable with each other. We don’t carry the fear and distrust that surrounds us in the US. Here, (at least in London—I am told it is very different in the countryside), people have learned to live together, to share a bus, a table, a grocery, to begin to make a stab at understanding one another, to look at each other, to talk.