Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Old White People's Syndrome


For some time my husband and I, both born in the late 1940’s, have been suffering from what I call “old white people’s syndrome.”  This is a syndrome in which other old white people attribute to the sufferer racist attitudes which they do not have.

We’ve had several incidents of this, mostly when we’ve been travelling and conversing with strangers.

Once (when we were actually not yet very old) a taxi driver taking us to the Los Angeles airport spent time telling us how filthy Mexicans were. We didn’t argue; we were his hostages on the LA freeway. Relieved when he finally dropped us off, I didn’t have the sense to tell him that I wouldn’t give him a tip because of his racist attitudes.

In 1998, we were taking a day-long canal cruise in Italy.  Sitting across from us at lunch was a white South African man with his wife and sister-in-law. He told us in great detail how happy black South Africans had been in apartheid South Africa (though his wife tried to suggest that he was wrong).  I went into sociological mode, listening without arguing, since I had never before conversed with such an openly racist white South African.  Surprisingly though, my usually silent husband interjected that I had been in South Africa (true: I spent a month there in 1992) and that I worked on human rights. That ended the conversation. When I asked my husband why he had interjected, he said that the only black couple on our cruise was sitting behind us.

A few years ago my friend Anne, whom I’d known since 1970, and I were staying at a Bed and Breakfast in Canada’s Niagara-on-the-Lake. We were chatting with an American couple who had recently taken their first trip to Europe.  Eventually they mentioned that although they had enjoyed their trip, there were too many Muslims there.  This time I was quick on the draw. I turned to Anne and said “Do you remember my brother-in-law Muhammad,” to which, equally quick on the draw, she replied “Oh yes, I do remember your brother-in-law Muhammad.”  This ended that conversation.  And indeed, I did have brother-in-law named Muhammad from 1971 to 1980; he was a foreign student married to my sister.

In 2013, my husband and I were passengers on a scenic railway trip in British Columbia.  We decided to have lunch with an elderly Christian minister and his daughter from New Zealand; the minister was an especially friendly chap.  In the course of the meal, he started to complain about how he had to stand in the “foreigners’” line when he visited the UK, even though he was descended from British migrants to New Zealand, while “Pakis” got to stand in the line for British citizens.  Once again non-plussed, I didn’t know what to say, although I knew I should have a quick come-back. Later on I realized that I should have said “some of those ‘Pakis’ are my relatives,” which would also have been a true statement: one of my first cousins is married to a man whose father was from India, and one of her three children looks as if he is purely Indian by descent.

As you can see, usually I am so surprised at these situations that I don’t do what I ought to do; immediately tell the people I’m with that I think they are racists. I live in a protected world of liberals and academics. When you are in the type of situation I have described here, and you can’t just walk away, the desire to be courteous takes over, so you ignore racist comments or deflect the conversation. I agree that this isn’t right, and I should do more to call out racism when I encounter it.

I thought of old white people’s syndrome today after learning about the (ex) TV star Roseanne Barr’s racist rants this week.  She tweeted anti-Semitic, conspiracy statements about the billionaire sponsor
George Soros
of Open Society, George Soros, and claimed that former President Barack Obama’s African-American adviser Valerie Jarrett was the child of a Muslim and Planet of the Apes.  

Valerie Jarrett (left): Roseanne Barr (right)

I have no idea why Roseanne decided to pick on Jarrett, though there is apparently a widespread belief that Soros, a Hungarian Jew, was an SS officer during WWII--at the age of 14! (This is a standard anti-Semitic trope: the Jews did it—the Holocaust—to themselves).  Later Barr tweeted that the reason she’d sent out these tweets was that she was taking the sleeping pill Ambien, to which the makers of Ambien replied that racism was not a known side-effect of the drug.  Perhaps Roseanne, an old white person herself, thought she had enough fans among Donald Trump’s heavily white, older supporters that she could continue her TV series about a white family debating immigration, racism, etc. Instead, her employers cancelled her show.

At my gym, we’ve been devising imaginary T-shirts for Old White People who aren’t racists, homophobes, etc. to wear while travelling.  One woman wants a T-shirt that says “Old white lady with gay son whom she loves.”  Mine would have to say “Old white anti-racist lady with multi-racial relatives and former Muslim brother-in-law.”  Or maybe just: “I’m a liberal,” a dirty word among many Americans (and some Canadians) today.

1 comment:

  1. This sure gave me a chuckle Rhoda. Somehow I cannot visualize you wearing a shirt like that, but hey, there is always room for a surprise! Racism, all over the world, is alive and well. People pay lip service to equality but act differently sometimes when they see somebody who looks different from them. We all have different belief systems and cultures, but we all are members of the human race and we should remember this. No one race is superior to another.....