In the wake of current events, “Tales of a single, middle-aged gay man” looks at the question, “Is everyone unintentionally a little racist?” Are we, as a society, guilty of labelling others just at a glance? Does our upbringing dictate our fear of others that might be perceived to be different from us? How can we move forward and make changes, so everyone is seen as equal?
These days, you cannot escape the “Black Lives Matter” slogan. It’s everywhere and it breaks my heart that we still have to hear those words. We think of ourselves as a civilised society and yet some of us still feel the need to proclaim that their lives have value. Even during the pandemic, crowds of people are taking to the streets begging to have their voices heard.
Strike at the root
Why in 2020 do people feel that their lives matter less, and why does anyone need reminding that a life matters? We all breathe the same air and wake up with similar hopes, dreams and stresses. Why should anyone feel that others think they or their very lives matter less? It is time to make sure that future generations never have to be reminded that a life matters. As with so many serious problems, you must strike at the root. Since no-one is actually born a racist, let’s teach children we are all the same.
A racist – someone who believes that other races are not as good as their own and therefore treats them unfairly, discriminating against other races, religions or others they perceive as a minority group.
Five years ago, I was sitting in the hugely uncomfortable Noel Coward Theatre, wondering if the Marquis de Sade had designed the seats especially for people under 5’ 2” who hadn’t eaten anything in the previous year. Putting that aside, I am here to see one of my guilty pleasures, “Avenue Q”. It’s a kind of adult puppet show that has me in stitches every time. But there is one song in particular in the show that makes me a little uncomfortable: “Everyone is a little racist”. Princeton Puppet asks Kate Monster, “You’re a monster, right, so are you related to Tricky Monster, my neighbour?” Horrified, Kate tells him she finds that racist. Princeton goes on to point out some of her racist qualities, and they burst into song.
“Everyone is a little bit racist at times.” Now, I’m sure many people reading this will be thinking to themselves – I may not be perfect, but racist is one thing I’m not.
That’s exactly what I thought as I left the theatre “Do not put me in that category.” At the same time, Kate Monster’s indignant reaction touched a nerve with me. You wouldn’t believe the number of times in my life I’ve been asked if I know a certain gay person, just because I’m gay too.
The gay book
One woman at a wedding party in Guernsey charged up to me and before formal introductions could be made, blurted out, “I hear you’re gay! David from EastEnders is gay, do you know him?” My reply was, “No, but I’ll look him up in the gay book.” Her eyes widened with excitement. “There’s a book?” I assured her there was (she did not get irony), and off she popped to tell her friends, who seemed to find me of great interest because of my sexuality. Was it ignorance, racism, homophobia or just misguided? Either way, it did not make me feel very comfortable and I kept an eye out to make sure a wicker man was not being built in the town square that weekend.
Yes, as members of the human race most people can be racist, many unintentionally, even if it is just a little bit. This topic is close to my heart for personal reasons, which is why I’ve hesitated to comment until now. Take my beautiful best friend of ten years, Dee. Her amazing personality and talent were what hit me first, not the colour of her skin.
My eyes go to the heavens when I hear, “This is my gay friend.” My friends are not categorised by skin colour, sexuality or religious belief, but by who they are as people – their loyalty, personality and kindness. This is what I see as a human being.
The N word
Colour only comes into play when a friend shares with me (for instance) that when she was a little girl, she had a friend who was white and who loved to play outside with her. One day she rushed to meet her, and the girl told her that her mum had said she could not play with her anymore, as she was a n—–. My friend rushed home in tears and told her mum what had happened. Her mother replied that sometimes in this world people are not very nice. As my friend recounted this story, I could see – from her eyes, her body language – that it had left a lifelong scar.
How do we fix this, so no child feels discriminated against? Taking to the streets in a peaceful, safe protest is one way. But let’s not get into a mob mentality, or the agenda changes. Let’s keep things in perspective. There is no doubt that Churchill, Gandhi and many more celebrated historic figures, by today’s standards, were racist, due to the nature of society at the time. If we judge them on a way of life back then it brings nothing to the table, as – where do we stop? If a statue needs to come down because atrocities have been proven to have been committed let’s lobby to get it down. There are ways to deal with this, but vigilante behaviour isn’t one of them.
Nor am I convinced that we’ll get anywhere by banning old TV shows. We need them as historic references to start with, and if we allow censorship to come into play here, where does it stop? Waking up to hear that the “Faulty Towers” episode “The Germans” (sometimes known as “Don’t Mention the War”) had been banned was the final straw. “Little Britain” has gone too, apparently, as it causes offence.
Racism off the scale
If you want to see real racist shows you only have to go back to the 70s and watch the likes of Alf Garnett or “George and Mildred”. The homophobia, sexism and racism is off the scale from Hylda Baker in “Not on Your Nellie”, which was primetime Sunday viewing in the UK at one time. In one opening scene, she asks a police officer for directions and when he turns around and she sees he is black, she tells him, “You won’t know as you’re not from here either.”
Benny Hill is a programme steeped in misogyny, homophobia and racism, but still embraced in the US as quintessential British humour, and the classic Carry On films are full of the same. “Bo’ Selecta!” came under fire from Trisha Goddard, yet Mel B embraced it and appeared on the show, as did the singer Craig David. “White Chicks” is still one of my favourite comedy films, where two black police officers dress up as two white society girls.
Trying to alter the past to make it more acceptable is always futile. Sure, petition and lobby for a statue to be removed that’s celebrating someone’s life if they’ve turned out to be an evil character, but let’s all have a say, not just a small group deciding what comes down or up. We need reminding of what can happen if we do not keep things in check.
How would you feel?
There are so many people going on about “All Lives Matter”, and they’re so right, but completely missing the point: nobody is saying that black lives matter more, just that black lives matter as much as anyone else’s. Could you imagine if this was you in the picture below and it referred to your forefathers – how would you feel?
Let’s face it, for most of the LGBTQ community, we have all had it: the comments, the bullying and the hate. People of my generation, or older, also know what it’s like to grow up with racism around you. Please do not think it’s only white caucasians I am pointing at. Black people can be racist too, as can any race. So, let’s look at what lays the foundation.
Let starts at the root, with children: books in schools should not just have token non-white characters, but should have all aspects of society equally featured. Let’s integrate classrooms and educate, promoting our heritage and the idea that we are all one while acknowledging our complex past for what it was but within the context of the day. Then we must give reasons for why things are different now.
When I grew up in the 1970s, my school had not one single person of a different ethnicity. I was the outsider. Moving from Scotland to Whitley Bay and having red hair made me stand out like an alien and an immediate target for bullying. Redheads often are a huge target for bullies and even now, when I explain to some highly qualified individuals that red-haired people’s skin can be much more sensitive, they look bemused. Katie Hopkins’ hateful comments on redheads are typical of the mindset. “There is nothing worse than a ginger boy in younger years” – a hateful and nasty comment.
We may not be born racist, but it’s a poisonous lesson many of us learn even from our first day at school. Growing up, my dad hated the Welsh. He was always on about the fella who stole his army uniform when he was in the services. “Never trust them.” He went on tarring an entire country with the same brush, though he had a soft spot for Katherine Jenkins. Much as I knew this was just ridiculous, on my first visit to Cardiff there was a slight nervous feeling. It had been bred into me as a small child, even though I knew most of what my dear dad said was racist, homophobic and misogynistic. His generation sat around in bars and clubs, judging others.
I remember childhood visits to family and friends, in whose mouths (you would think) butter wouldn’t melt. Grandmothers and mums would sit knitting away and make a comment like, “I don’t mind the coloureds as long as they don’t move in next door to us, it brings the property price down.” Or even as an adult, a friend’s mum saying (much to his horror), “Enoch Powell had the right idea, you know.” His Rivers of Blood speech is still thought to be an acceptable way of thinking for some, let’s not forget.
It would make a difference, surely, if schools were more proactive in teaching children that we’re all made in the same human mould, and bullying and looking down on people is never acceptable. From day one, yes, we may have different heritages but let’s embrace and learn about cultures and approach them inclusively.
My musical influences, as well as Bowie and Marc Bolan, included the brilliant Diana Ross and Motown sounds in general. There was also the beauty of the jazz greats such as Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald. Moving to London was my first time mixing with other cultures and hitting clubs like the Embassy and Bangs Adams. It was exciting to be dancing to the likes of Grace Jones and Sister Sledge, and my only thought about those who had darker skin was how beautiful they looked.
On my first visit to New York, it really hit me how racist people can be. “Do not go to that area, it’s a black neighbourhood.” “Why not?” I asked. “It’s dangerous.” And there were lots of comments about black people from those who looked like civilised people. This was in the early 80s. Needles to say, being me, I explored Harlem and the Bowery, despite their warnings. But why are there “black” neighbourhoods even now? Besides which, other people suggesting these neighbourhoods are too dangerous to enter is one of the things that keeps segregation alive.
New York is one of the more tolerant states. It makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when people tell me they know the US when they have just visited one city. Go to Dallas and travel a few miles out where life is all church and sport, and you will be gobsmacked at the homophobia and racism. Take a side trip from LA through San Diego to the beautiful town of La Jolla, and you can sit for hours without seeing one black person. I know this as I worked there.
One thing in favour of the US is that to become a hairdresser you must be able to do all types of hair and their state board exam mirrors this. As a result, I can do starfighters, jerry curls and all types of black hair.
The same cannot be said for the UK, where there are for the most part separate salons. Several times when I have turned up to a job and the actress or model was black, their faces dropped when they saw a white boy. One in particular shook her head: “I am just back from Michigan and spent £600 on this weave. No offence honey, no white boy’s getting near it.” In the end, she was very happy with the result. Still, here at least, the UK needs to learn from America, and make sure all hairdressers can work with all types of hair.
Dee and I are often mistaken for a couple and even though we are not, we have had our fair share of bad attitudes from both black and white waiters and others, even in cosmopolitan London. At a funeral of a friend’s mother who originated from the Caribbean I was waiting at the church. The mourners were largely black. As I stood there, I was twice asked to park the car and others seemed to think I was working there and asked me for various things. Then one asked if I was related to our friend’s husband, who was white. When I said no, he replied, “Easy mistake, you all look the same.”
There is no doubt in my mind racism is learnt and is everywhere. I’m not sure that sudden efforts at drastic change, made in the heat of the moment, will last. Let us start from the core with groups like Diversity Role Models and others going into schools. Let’s talk about issues without everyone name calling, and stop telling the young people anyone from another race is worth less or has odd ways. Let’s embrace all cultures in a positive light.
It leaves me wondering: if an alien nation attacked earth, as humans, would we all come together in unity to fight back? Looking at the governments we have today, I doubt it. After all, they can’t even agree what to do when our planet is being attacked by a virus.