Current affairs

Was my dad racist? I don’t think he meant to be…

21 Oct 2022 | Written by By Paul Phillips
An old photograph of Paul's parents' wedding

A photograph from Paul’s parents’ wedding day

Paul Phillips reflects on the different – but all equally insidious – ways racism can manifest itself in day-to-day life, using anecdotal examples from interactions with fellow rugby fans, his village Facebook group and his father.

I’m not sure I should be writing this. What do I know of racism – particularly racism based on skin colour? I can imagine how awful it is to suffer racist abuse but if I haven’t actually experienced it, so how can I know what it’s like? 

What I do know though is that it is absolutely abhorrent to differentiate between human beings just because of skin colour. We all know about the far right groups and their disgusting racist chants and rants. Their vile views are obvious; the intent is clear – even if, to any fair-minded person, the reasoning is ridiculous. 

I witnessed this extremist thinking after a rugby match in South Africa a few years ago. I was in Johannesburg to see England play the Springboks. It was a wonderful experience, but it was irretrievably soured by an incident in a bar after the game. Supporters of both sides were enjoying each other’s company. Of course much beer was drunk, many songs were sung and friendships forged over the common bond of the love of rugby. But towards the end of the evening things took a different turn. I was talking to two men in Springbok shirts when one of them said to me in his strong Afrikaans accent: “Why do you think we’re all racist?” I was a bit stumped because the question came out of the blue and was quite a tangent to the rugby stories we had been sharing.

“Look. We are NOT racist,” he said. “What you have to understand is that black is a different species.” 

He really said that out loud. I know how shocking it sounds. I was so astounded that any human being could hold such a view – and express it – that I just stared, probably open-mouthed. A friend of mine wisely suggested that it was probably time to leave. There was obviously no doubt about this man’s racist view. It was extreme as it can get.  

Another form of this insidious behaviour shows itself through what should be labelled quite simply as ‘utter ignorance.’ My partner’s father was from Trinidad. She was bought up in Norfolk, admittedly hardly the most diverse area of the UK. She still talks of being called the ‘P’ word at school. The same word has been used to describe our village shopkeeper. She’s Sri Lankan, by the way. 

Quite recently a post appeared on our village Facebook page. 

It said: “My pet rat’s life matters. But I don’t ask anyone to take the knee for it.” 

What goes on in someone’s mind to say such things? Probably not a lot, I guess.

But there’s another form of racism that I would like to explore. Which brings me to my dad. 

Let me tell you a bit about him. He was a true working class London east-ender, literally born within the sound of Bow Bells. He left school at 15 with no qualifications and became a cabinetmaker. He was a fine all round sportsman and won prizes for ballroom dancing. His politics were very much left-leaning which caused some friction in our household as my mum was what I will call an ‘aspirational conservative.’ Come election time there would be two opposing political posters on our living room window. 

When they married in 1954 my dad chose his oldest friend, Don, as best man. Don was of West Indian heritage. He was like an uncle to me when I was growing up. He and my dad remained firm friends and saw a lot of each other.

Fast forward 40 years or so. My dad was staying with me for a few days to fit a new kitchen in my house. One day we popped out for an early evening pint in my local pub.

It was quite busy and fairly noisy but I noticed that three people sitting at a table were looking uncomfortable as a man stood in front of them and talked at them in an increasingly loud voice. It became clear that they were being subjected to extreme racist abuse. You can imagine what might have been said. As the abuser’s voice rose the rest of the pub started to take notice. A space began to clear and people looked at each other, perhaps wondering what to do. 

I confronted the abuser and asked him what the heck he thought he was doing (or words to that effect.) He was clearly drunk (no excuse) and became aggressive. The landlord intervened and I found myself outside the pub with him, the abuser, and a few spectators. There was a bit of pushing and shoving and the abuser was advised that his custom was no longer welcome at the pub. 

When I went back inside my dad was talking to the three people who had been abused. I heard him say: “Sorry about that. We’re not all like that in this country.”

I was staggered. What on earth was my dad saying? He didn’t know the people, but had made an assumption based on the colour of their skin. They were just three people having a drink in a pub, no different to anyone else also enjoying a pint in that pub at that same time.  Would he have said the same thing to them had they been white? 

If there is such a thing as ‘unconscious racism,’ my dad had just demonstrated it. But it’s not really ‘unconscious’ is it? Because just by thinking that someone is different because of the colour of their skin is surely inherently racist.

I’m also acutely aware that my actions are questionable. Who am I to decide to intervene in something that had nothing to do with me? Well, I’m just a human being who despises any form of racism. 

You may have noticed that in the story about the people being abused in the pub I haven’t mentioned their skin colour. That’s deliberate. They were just human beings, as are we all. 

Paul Phillips has been a journalist for over 40 years, had senior editorial roles with the BBC and Sky News and worked in many parts of the world as a consultant and skills trainer. Paul is also a university lecturer specialising in broadcast journalism and TV production.

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