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Clutching Your Handbag in an Elevator is Not a Hate Crime

Saturday, July 20, 2013
I live in the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom used to be something like 99.99% people of English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish descent. Of course, over the centuries following the Norman Conquest (1066) sailors, soldiers, servants (or slaves), traders and refugees of other ethnic groups would either breeze through or settle, but that was in small numbers. About 40, 000 French Huguenots (Protestants) settled in the UK over a period of two hundred years. And the small, London-based community of Jews was so augmented by Central and Eastern European Jews over the nineteenth century that there were about 250,000 by 1900. That was a significant change from the 20-25,000 Jews in 1800, but this can be explained by massive persecution of European Jewry in the 19th century.

I mention this because when I wrote my "Living in the UK" test, the study guide was very keen that I think of the United Kingdom as a nation of immigrants (like me). But as a matter of fact, until the 20th century, people migrated to the UK in such small numbers, or over such a long period of time, that it was easy for them (or, at any rate, their UK-born children) to blend in and become English, Scottish, Welsh, or Irish.. Arguably it was tougher for the Jews, but many of them became absolutely establishment figures, some having become Christians (like Prime Minister Disraeli), but others not (like Lord Rothschild).

Still, there was a lot of anti-Jewish feeling in the UK even before more Central European Jewish refugees turned up in the 1930s, and I suspect this had as much to do with their comparatively large numbers as with plain old anti-Semitism. A good book about this is George Eliot's Daniel Deronda. Nowadays a London Jew is as English and as stereotypically "London" as the Tower or a pearly king strutting about.  There are 263, 346 Jews listed on the 2011 census. (Gracious! What a small rise since 1900.)

In contrast, there are 1,200,000 Pakistanis in the UK today, and 521,000 Poles who were actually born in Poland. There were 15,000 Pakistanis in the UK in 1951, and about 162, 339 Poles. Many of these Poles had British-born children who are so indistinguishable from the rest of what is now called the "white British" population, that the claims of the Scot who yelled at me for speaking Polish  that he had a Polish ancestor were not risible.

Ah, you had to have been there. There I was in the local polski sklep, flirting with the nice Polish shopkeeper behind the counter, and a young man who was rather drunk for that hour of the afternoon, popped in and shouted, "You're in Scotland--speak English!"

We turned and stared. I felt rather protective of the Polish shopkeeper, which was stupid, as the Polish shopkeeper was bigger than the drunken youth. Really, the person in most danger of violence from the drunken youth was little me if I talked back. So I didn't talk back. Instead the youth went on about how he was not racist, and had a Polish ancestor, and he eventually admitted he was drunk and took himself off. And, frankly, he seemed to me almost as much a victim of history as a modern-day Mohawk Indian sitting on the corner of Toronto's Bathurst and Queen Streets yelling at "white people."

Which brings me to my next point, which is that post-1950 mass migration has exacerbated old and invented new ethnic and racial tensions in the UK. Migrants come to the UK, and sometimes we are homesick or disillusioned, and sometimes we resent the native population, either because they resent us or because we find their social habits disgusting or amusingly stupid.* Rather in the way some horrible white men in western Canada have exploited and hurt First Nations girls, a newsworthy number of Pakistani and other Muslim men have exploited and hurt "white British" girls. Don't get me started on my inner ideological warfare whenever I look for a cab.

The UK is now in a rather US-like situation when it comes to race, only here "race" means "ethnicity" or even "country of origin" and if some drunken Scotswoman called me a "Canadian cow" I could conceivably report this to the police and they would have to take it seriously. If I ever shoot a German national, I may have to prove in court it was not because he was a German national.

Which brings me to the Zimmerman case, not that Zimmerman is a German national. First of all, he is an American, and second, he apparently self-identifies as Hispanic. His mother was born in Peru, and as far as I know what Peruvian looks like, George Zimmerman looks Peruvian to me. I bet he looks Peruvian to my average American reader because I lived in the USA and I think only apartheid-era South Africa could have been as obsessed with race as the USA. Of course, in Toronto, too, the worst thing you can call someone is a "racist." You can get a lot of power over someone if you can prove he or she is a "racist."

But this is not power like the power in your right arm or, to get to my central point, the right arm of a man who wants to hurt you or steal something from you. When I was in the Polish deli, I may have had a lot of "social privilege", being English-speaking, well-educated and even reasonably well-connected, but I was the weakest person there. The strongest person there, despite being a recent immigrant, was the big Polish shopkeeper. Had the drunken Scottish kid started smashing stuff or me, the Polish immigrant would have jumped over the counter and squashed him. So much for all my social privilege.

The President of the United States identifies as an African-American, and was televised last night speaking with sadness of how often people fear young African-American men. And I can see how this is sad. I would be sad if every time I got on an elevator and everyone smaller and/or weaker than me took a firmer hold of their purse. But it would be sad, not scary. It would not be a patch on the terror of a woman who is afraid, for whatever reason, that a man might hurt her or take her purse away.

In short, I say once again that, when it comes to the politics of victimhood, woman trumps race. Whatever you think of the George Zimmerman trial, I hope my young female readers have not imbibed a message that they must ignore their fears or remain in what seems to them a dangerous situation for fear of seeming racist or making President Obama sad. George Zimmerman is a man; what people have to say about him and what he did has nothing to do with your lives as women.

Men have a lot of physical power. Really, they do. And some of them--of any race or ethnicity--are perfectly willing to use it against you, and at the moment a man does, none of whatever "social privilege" you have will be of any use to you. What will count will be your ability to get away or, if you can, enlist the help of those around you.

*I have a serious problem with grown women being reeling drunk in public. Bridget Jones is not as funny now that I know what a British "High Street" is like at closing time. Being "off your face" is not Girl Power; it's Girl Vulnerability to men who despise Girl Drunkenness and take advantage of Girl Weakness. As an educated colonial woman,  I know perfectly well that not all British women go out to clubs to pick up men or to get smashed. Nor do I think a promiscuous or a reeling drunk woman "deserves" ill-treatment (like rape). However, the minicabs and the chip shops of the UK are not staffed entirely with educated, colonial women who have had "No means No" drummed into their heads their whole lives.