An eminent British documentary filmmaker recently gave a speech to a group of young Americans in London. Over the years he had interviewed dozens of political figures including many in the segregated US south in the 1960s. During his remarks he chose to give his audience a flavor for his experiences. Too much of a flavor as it became clear that he was fond of impersonating southern accents. The Americans were “treated” to a voice impression of his black hotel porter – complete with bent over shoulders! Next he imitated former Georgia Governor Lester Maddox using the n-word – twice. Oblivious to negative reactions around him he droned on for another 25 minutes. Why was he so far off base? As one of the British members of the audience pointed out, it had nothing to do with culture or nationality. This was unacceptable behaviour – period. But the speaker clearly thought that he had before him an appreciative audience. What were they meant to appreciate? His high level racist contacts? His mocking a porter at a London dinner?
Some of the audience attributed the speech to the pre dinner drinks but I am not so sure. His eyesight may have been fuzzy but I am convinced that his color sensors were unimpaired. Even completely drunk I doubt he would have given that speech to a majority black audience of any nationality. I think he saw a largely white American audience and felt secure. But this is not the 1960s, it’s 2010 and the American audience was not amused.
Americans have changed but it is not easy for people abroad to perceive that. He is an older man but I am not sure age is the major factor in this case. The older you are the more evident the changes are. He has gone from seeing white candidates win office on an openly segregationist platform to seeing millions of white voters turn out for Barack Obama. The truth is that sometimes people are fond of static images. Race perception of the US is particularly prone to this phenomenon because the brutality of racism in South in the 1960s made Europeans and others feel morally superior. Even in the 1960s many white American audiences would have objected to the remarks but the point here is that he made an incorrect judgement based on a misperception that in any given white American audience there is residual racism. So his remarks were insulting to everyone. In terms of general perceptions of race in the US – leaving aside this extreme example – it is also true that the definition of diversity in the US has widened to the point where it is hard for outsiders to keep up. It was years before many non Americans interested in US race relations realized that it was not just about black and white.
Misperceptions on race can run both ways. Americans generally think of western Europe as a “white” continent. And it is certainly less diverse than the US on the whole. Once I invited a US consular officer to speak to British Fulbright scholars in their pre departure briefing and he cited statistics that London (the most diverse city in the UK, if not in Europe) is less diverse than Pittsburgh, the least diverse major city in the US. This was surprising to the Londoners who regarded their city as the most diverse in the world. The same Londoners would have acknowledged that the countryside and other regions of the UK are very “white.” However, the UK is also not in the 1960s and there is no part of the country which is totally without racial diversity nor is any profession “off-limits”. The Anglican church is an excellent case in point. When the upmarket property magazine Country Life ran a contest a few years ago for the best country vicar, one of the entrants nominated by his village was an African-British vicar in rural Yorkshire. The assistant curate in my London parish is a Black woman born in the Caribbean. In fact the Archbishop of York, the second highest ranking Anglican priest after the Archbishop of Canterbury is also African-British. This is totally at odds with the outsiders’ image of Britain as still harboring strong imperial habits. The British Empire is the drawer Americans and other foreigners pull out when they want to feel superior.
However, the real lesson for me about European diversity took place in the northern Finnish city of Oulu where I attended a conference a few years ago. Unlike the capital Helsinki where even the taxi drivers speak English, in Oulu you really feel you are in Finland. Arriving on a Sunday I decided to go to the cathedral which I was intrigued to discover had a service in English. As the tiny congregation of about 40 entered I was surprised to see that half were black. Some were black couples, others were mixed black and white couples. Then the priest emerged and he too was black. While I watched the priest conversing in Finnish with the children (all black) on their way to the Sunday school, I smiled inwardly at my impression of Finland as an entirely monochrome country .
I had been to Helsinki twice before this and I realized that on those visits I had not bothered to ask Finnish colleagues the kinds of questions about diversity I might have asked in Spain or Italy.
That is a misjudgement I knew I would not be making again.