Working Lives

Assumptions (20th Century)

Location: Africa

Jeremy reflects on his life experiences around the world, especially in Africa and how his outlook changed over the decades. 

Why they never get it

One of the things I’ve decided over decades is that nobody ever really understands someone else’s position. I think of this whenever anyone (sometimes including me) comments adversely on someone else’s job: like teachers (which I was for most of my life). Of course they get all these long holidays, and surely all it amounts to is explaining something you are an expert about? Or social workers: they always talk sociobabble (i.e. they have a vocabulary of terms useful in talking to other social workers), they’re always trying to take children away from their families or they failed totally to take that child out of an obviously abusive family and the child got hurt.

But one of the most interesting things people comment on is what it’s like to be older. Or rather, what it’s like to be in whatever the next phase of life is. When I was small I used to feel very impatient of people who planned to get married young (result of being the only middle-class child in a working-class population, probably). I thought I’d get round to it when I was about thirty. When I was 20, I felt quite differently. Being married turned out to be unimaginable to the person I’d been before; then having children was nothing like I thought it would be; then when they were teenagers I couldn’t’ have imagined it until I was living it, and so on. Now (in my 60s) I’m beginning to wonder what it’ll be like to be really old, and later die. The difference is that now I’m not pretending that I can imagine it.

I also watched my parents doing the same sort of thing. My father was rather old when I was born, so he grew old (and eventually hopped the twig) rather sooner in my life than is common. I vividly remember how he said he would never put up with getting old and feeble. He joined Exit and kept pamphlets explaining how to kill yourself. When he got to the age when he had to be put in a wheel chair all that had vanished as though it had never been. My mother is now going through the same process. She got feeble, depressed (also lonely, because my father died when she was still quite young) and did actually try to kill herself once, by taking sleeping pills. She knew very well that you had to drink some alcohol as well, but explained that she couldn’t bear the thought that she might be found in a pool of vomit. The pills gave her an excellent night’s sleep and she woke up the next morning muttering ‘I shouldn’t be here’. There has been no repetition, although she regularly tells me how tired she is of life.

This idea, that you can’t plan on the basis of understanding what the future will be like, is not reassuring at all. When you’re young it’s quite nice to have a solid framework of confidence that you can imagine what’s coming and plan for it. Similarly it’s quite nice to be unquestioningly condemning of things other people do and you don’t. (‘I’m sure I won’t behave like that when I’m old.’) I’m sure it’s true, though. Consequently although it seems wise to plan for actually predictable events (like getting old make sure you will have a pension), I think some other kind of attitude is better for what it will feel like. With luck this will make us more tolerant of people who are in situations we’ve never been in.

Racism and sexism

When I was in my twenties I went to Africa. I was employed on something called the ‘Teachers for East Africa’ scheme and lived in Kenya for six years, teaching in government African schools. They were secondary schools, so quite significant in size, and pupils were taught in English, so it wasn’t very difficult work. Nor did we live in a genuinely African community: we lived in compounds lined with nice government bungalows and our main contact with the local population was by employing servants. (We had three by the end: a houseboy, a gardener and a nanny.) We didn’t learn the local language, making do with a tiny bit of pidgin Swahili. However I was there long enough to recognise that my attitude to Africans was hung about with all sorts of prejudices. (So was theirs to us, of course.) This was not merely racism: at first I had what was in those days probably a natural European reaction to black people: they had funny shaped faces, especially the thick lips, which made me feel (not think: I wasn’t that stupid) that they were deformed in some unpleasant way, their hair was like wire wool and their eyes were often yellowish. In addition they often smelled different (sweat and wood smoke, coming from living in houses with open fires and no bathroom). Before very long I got used to African faces and eventually arrived at a state where I reacted to a new face primarily as a face, rather to the fact that it was (or wasn’t) black. I learned that facial types go across races and frequently had the experience of thinking: gosh, that person has a face just like someone I went to primary school with. I also had no difficulty telling black people apart. I still didn’t like the smell, but then I’m just as prejudiced against smelly Europeans, especially as they have less excuse.

However cultural differences were much more difficult to deal with. I remember a very up-wakening insight about attitudes to lending. Because we were relatively rich and nearly everyone else was poor we were sometimes asked for loans. I remember one of my pupils whose attendance had been very bad (unusual for a society where education is your only route to the good life and the whole village has probably clubbed together to pay your fees) asked me to give him £7 (140 Kenya shillings) to pay a witch doctor to ward off spells he said had been cast against him. I gave him the money and his attendance improved spectacularly, as did his health (he started playing rugby), so the money was well spent. However although you couldn�t really blame people for trying to cash in, nevertheless it grated. It also grated with other Europeans, and I noticed a tendency to say that Africans were thriftless because they were always asking for help. Thinking about it and the feeling was surprisingly intense. I eventually twigged: in our culture (white, protestant British) asking for help is a very serious thing to do. You risk being refused, and refusal (as those notices in shops used to say) offends. It offends mortally, in fact, and if I worked myself up to the state where I had to ask for help I would probably have great difficulty ever speaking again to someone who refused. As a consequence, if an Englishman is asked for help he has to give it. The unspoken agreement is that you never ask for help unless it’s really serious.

Now, Africans asked for help much more easily. (They also didn’t usually pay the money back: what they meant by a ‘loan’ was what we meant by a gift. In a society where it’s easy to ask for help, the lender can always ask for his money back if he needs it.) On the other hand, they didn’t take offence if you said no. They just moved on to the next topic of conversation, and thenceforward behaved as though nothing of significance had happened. Meanwhile the European had had to work himself up to saying no, and often ended up outraged at the ease with which the ‘loan’ had been asked for.

There was misunderstanding on the other side, too. Africans were aware of these feelings Europeans had, and put them down to stinginess. They had no idea how stressed a European feels if you ask him for help and he wants to turn you down, so their position was, OK, if you can’t afford it why not just say no? What’s the problem?

Another example of cultural misunderstanding had interesting historical connections (I was a history teacher, so appreciated this). As careers teacher (we all had to take on lots of special responsibilities, without pay of course) I often had to listen to the lamentations of employers who took on black workers, often my ex-pupils, about their having no sense of time. They put it down to laziness, and connected it with being black. On looking into a similar period in our own history, however, you find lots of complaints by the owners of early spinning mills about ‘Saint Monday’ and a tendency to set fines for lateness to work. Obviously what was happening was a painful transition from being a peasant farmer, which gives you a strong feeling for the seasons and the weather but very little concern for days of the week, let alone time of day, to being a factory worker. Again, a strong cultural difference, but nothing to do with race.

Which leads me to racism. Why is it that undoubted cultural differences so often get attributed to biology? Personally my only progress in understanding this was to discover that I was racist myself. I’d been brought up in a very liberal, forward-looking family and automatically thought of racism as something which characterised other people (nasty people, at that). It had connections with the Third Reich. (Actually, I never saw a black person until well into my late teens, nor Jewish either, that I was aware of, and anti-semitism was just as evil and other as racism.)

When I got to Africa I gradually came to realise that my reactions to black people were based on the unconscious assumption that they were not only other (clearly as Kenyan Africans they were) but inferior. I constantly caught myself thinking things like: I’ll be polite to them (but only if they are polite to me): forget who said that, but it hit the spot right on. Or making allowances (I was ever so kind) because they couldn’t be expected to understand. If asked whether I wanted one of them to marry my daughter I would instinctively have said yes, but my fingers would definitely have been crossed as I said it. The possibility of actually being hostile or violent towards people of another race was something I would have denied. But increasingly I have come to believe it’s there.

I also have no reason to believe it’s curable. What one can do, I think, is acknowledge it (it’s so much less dangerous then) and at the same time allow as much experience as possible to diminish it. The more black faces I saw, the less I saw them through the Prince Bumpo or Epaminondas lens. So if I could get used to African faces, maybe I could get used to Africans in the same way?

To some extent I did. But I remain convinced that the fear of the ‘other’ remains there, as part of us, and may erupt if we find ourselves in enough stress. I am simply lucky in that I haven’t experienced such circumstances in my life.

In relation to sexism I passed through similar experiences. The most spectacular, and the one which really caused me to think seriously about my own prejudices, occurred when I was about 35, in the staffroom of an (English) school where I was then employed. One of my colleagues was a likeable but aggressive and physically diminutive music teacher. He was a bit like a game-cock: small but never willing to be put down and rather over-ready to take offence. One day he got into a confrontation with a student (seriously bad news) and was formally told off by the management. I found him in the staffroom later, looking devastated. I was standing next to him and felt a strong impulse to put my arm round him to offer comfort. This was astonishing; I have always been unthinkingly heterosexual and don’t (or didn’t) touch men at all, more than shaking hands. Here I was wanting to cuddle him, what was going on?

The answer hit me eventually. He was physically smaller than me and demonstrably not managing his life successfully. Accordingly my subconscious mind had put him down as female, and therefore OK to cuddle. This cast a flood of light on my attitude to women. What was particularly fascinating was that, without that incident, I would sturdily and quite sincerely have denied any suggestion that I thought women were in any way inferior to men.

Once you realise these things it’s very interesting to go back to the kind of literature you read when growing up. Some of my favourites, John Buchan, Rider Haggard, Dornford Yates and so on; when re-read were absolutely sodden with unthinking racism and sexism (not to mention anti-semitism). How could one have read them all those years ago without seeing it? And given that one did, no wonder it trained one’s unconscious in unthinking prejudice.

Contributed by Jeremy C on 11th November 2005.

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