Thursday, 29 April 2010

My very own Bigotgate.

The ghastly - but entertaining - mess that is Bigotgate is, it strikes me, quintessentially British.

British manners dictate that only in the most acute of circumstances (a murder, for example) would you actually call someone a bigot to their face. That would, after all, be rude. In Britain you keep your thoughts to yourself, smile graciously and, after they’ve disappeared, turn to your friends. ‘Did you hear that? What that woman said? Unbelievable!’ This is particularly true when dealing with older people. Actually telling your granny that it’s not acceptable to talk about ‘darkies’ or ‘those people.’? It’s just not on.

Gordon Brown may have shown himself up to be two-faced, rude, grumpy and inept. But the other options available to him - to challenge Mrs Duffy’s supposed bigotry, to state loud and proud ‘I think you’re a racist’…well, that’s just not done. Imagine how the press would have crucified him. Imagine the headlines.

I know this because I used to live in the Netherlands. There, no one would have paused for a moment in telling Mrs Duffy what they thought of her supposed views. ‘I think you’re bigoted’, a Dutch politician would have said. ‘Oh no I’m not...I think you’re stupid and out of touch,’ she’d have replied. The whole culture is based on a reverence for free speech that constantly shocked me for its sheer offensiveness.

My colleagues in Amsterdam were completely baffled by my attempts to deliver feedback tactfully. ‘You’re so…so…diplomatic’ one of them said, eventually. ‘Why don’t you just say what you mean? And why do you talk about the weather all the time? There’s nothing we can do about it.’

And I also know this because I recently had my own Bigotgate moment. My son plays football every week at a training ground, which has its own café. My friend and I were buying coffee when a woman rushed in. She wanted to complain about her drink, and started shouting at the young woman behind the counter. ‘It’s not what I wanted…I demand that you change it…I’m not paying any extra.’

My friend and I looked away. I studied the sandwiches. She scuttled off to the loo.

Angry Woman got more furious as the girl behind the counter tried to defend herself. ‘This wasn’t what we asked for. It’s wrong. It’s always wrong. Why don’t you understand me?’

Angry Woman tried to catch my eye. I avoided it. The centre manager who’d been dozing behind his desk came to back up the café girl. My friend and I grimaced at eachother.

The centre manager asked Angry Woman to wait outside for her free replacement cup of coffee. ‘Why don’t you go back where you came from?’ she shrieked from the threshold. ‘Go back to Poland…’

The centre manager took her cup of coffee. The girl behind the counter burst into tears. My friend and I sprang into action. We condemned Angry Woman, told the girl she’d done everything right. We loved her coffee. That woman - the bigot - had no right to speak to her like that.

We complained to the organisers of the football matches. We gave evidence against Angry Bigot Woman. It turned out she was the mother of a boy from another team in our football club. Eventually, I think, she was banned from one match.

Every time my friend and I have discussed it since we’ve asked ourselves why we didn’t intervene. Stepped in as soon as the woman started shouting. Told her she was over-stepping the mark.

Why didn’t we? We didn't like to get involved. We were worried about appearing rude. We're not proud of ourselves.


  1. Very accurate portrayal of the British, though personally the thing that would have stopped me intervening would have been the prospect of getting my face smashed in.
    *Plentymorefishoutofwater - One Man's Dating Diary*

  2. That aspect didn't occur to me at the time because we were three middle-aged woman at a children's football match. But that fear probably built the British code of manners.

  3. How right you are in your analysis of us and the Dutch!

    It always used to amaze me when I lived in Holland how the Dutch would quite happily stare at each other. The might be sitting opposite each other on the train or something and they'd quite openly look each other up and down. I started doing it as well (when in Rome and all that..!) but just hoped I'd get out of the habit back in the UK or I'd end up getting my head kicked in!!

    Rapunzel x

  4. I once went up to the manager of a Matalan store - who was openly abusing one of her staff on the shop floor for some pathetic indiscretion - and told her that I thought it wasn't appropriate for her to act like that in front of the customers. She looked at me as if I was completely mad!

    Still glad I did it, mind you.

  5. Let's face it, we're a nation of wussies. Churchill would be turning in his grave, lol.

  6. Thanks, Keren. I think your assessment is accurate and it makes me want to be more straightforward with people, particularly in defence of others.

  7. very difficult to know what to do in those situations, especially if there is the possibility that things could get violent. gives us all food for thought.

  8. It wasn't simple though, was it? The woman only really crossed the line near the end of the incident, when she started making racist comments. At least you complained afterwards and some action got taken against the bigoted woman. I wouldn't be too hard on yourself. In my opinion, there's a lot to be said for the British approach.

  9. coming from another country where people don't say what they mean, i totally understand that helpless should-i-shouldn't-i-get-involved feeling.

    but it is possible to surprise ourselves.

    one day queuing for the cashpoint on the holloway road, a woman barged in front of me. i said, "excuse me but it's my turn." she then burst into a stream of abuse while explaining that it was a mistake and she thought it was her go. usually i walk away from these things but i wasn't in the mood to be asian that day. i said, "the polite thing to say is 'i'm sorry, i didn't mean to take your place.'"

    she stared at me like she'd seen a ghost. then she said, "sorry, i didn't mean to take your place." and left. maybe she just needed a script.

  10. Haha! Candy, that was brilliant... The Filipina ladies I knew were constantly 'too ashamed' to say anything and communicated much more directly through other people.
    Brian - I don't know. She was being very rude and unnecessarily shouty, and I wasn't scared of being assaulted, I was more embarrassed than anything else. Perhaps if I'd said 'Look, there's no need to shout, you've said your piece,' she might have stopped short of voicing her bigotry. Or perhaps she would have turned on me - but I'm much less vulnerable than a young girl in a new job in a foreign land.

  11. Indifference to tyrants is being complicit with their action. ( Elie Wiesel has a good quote on that, indifference is the evil, or something similar) When bigotry is being committed one should never stay silent. Even if it is a small incident or a political affair, these acts are stains on our social fabric and we know that they do damage. I think the restraint from action when obvious bigots are bullying an innocent is not entirely a British condition, but a human one. Countless incidents prove around the Globe that some people are and will remain racists and some are not and will never become; some are cowards and some are courageous, weather they are from Asia, Europe, North or South America, East or West Africa or Middle East or Australia; weather poor or rich, ugly or pretty. But,one thing unites the tyrants it is hate of the other and what is common to all is a fundamental conditioning( either social, dogmatic or religious) and fear.
    Hesitation is not inaction, nor participation. At the end, you spoke up, you did not remain indifferent, so do not despair.