Yes, it’s a cliché to open with a definition. So sue me.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about racism; about what is or isn’t acceptable.
In my job, you meet a lot of people from a lot of countries, and also a lot of people who have visited a lot of countries. Needless to say, this means that my colleagues and I see a lot of cultural diversity in almost everything we do. Is it entirely wrong to comment on it, or only to do so with malice?
Amongst my closest friends here I have Mexicans (obviously), a Frenchman, a Texan, a Hungarian, a Welshwoman, a guy from the Czech Republic (if memory serves) via well to so Middle England, and others. I am from working class South Yorkshire. We often joke about cultural differences and stereotypes (discussions often but not always instigated by me), and I wonder where the line is amongst friends. I think all my friends and colleagues here are friendly, warm, likeable people, and it would hurt me greatly to think that I’d offended them. That said, I don’t think I have. I think these issues are easier amongst people you know.
On the other hand, there are third party observations that ESL teachers are also guilty of. I’ve heard (and said) things like:
– “If you think it’s corrupt here, you should see XYZ!”
– “Yeah, Mexicans walk slowly, but ZYX walk slower.”
– “Mexico’s problem is just how disorganised it is.”
– “I hated ABC. Everyone was so rude!”
These points are asides from all the things we love about a place, of course. As teachers, we have a tendency to moan. British teachers doubly so. Mexico is here as an example because that’s where I am right now.
Anyway, when you’re at home amongst people who share a culture (even if it’s not your whole ethnic make-up) it’s a little easier to draw the line, I think. In Britain, there’ll always be the middle class fear of offending someone, but broadly speaking, you neither badmouth people who are different nor discuss the ways they are different, save on an ideological level. Out in the world where you’re living the cultural differences, it’s almost impossible not to discuss them. Particularly when you come across the rarity which is an accent that matches your own.
At the risk of mentioning Jeremy Clarkson in two posts in a row, the Mexican Top Gear scandal from a couple of years ago particularly comes to mind. In the episode (see below) Richard Hammond and co. compare a Mexican car to the bigot-approved “facts” about Mexican people as smelly, lazy, stupid desert-dwellers*. This is a perspective from men who leave their country only to mock others while simultaneously living up to the worst possible white Westerner stereotypes. This is racism, and outside of irony with friends, far from what I would ever allow to genuinely pass my lips.
I suppose this is more of a question-post than an answer-post. When you see cultural difference every day, when you travel to places where ideals, processes and habits are different: is it wrong to say so? I’d love your opinions on this.
*I have to say here that since I’ve been in Mexico, I don’t think I’ve met a lazy Mexican. Certain none lazier than me. Though I’ve seen some corruption (and even benefited from it) and a few ripe-smelling people on the tightly-packed public transport, these are certainly the exceptions rather than the rule. Geographically, there is so much varied landscape to see in Mexico without a grain of sand in sight. From a non-native Mexican inhabitant, Clarkson is an idiot.