September 2nd, 2006


"I'm not racist, but..."

Unsettling encounter with a student. He turned up wanting to have a lesson on a topic that only appears on the IB syllabus - it's not part of A-level. So it's not something I already had a set of notes or questions prepared for. Managed to find some questions in one of my books, but my printer/scanner/photocopier doesn't photocopy books very well. There's a corner shop about 5 minutes' walk away that has a proper photocopier, so I was going to run round there, except I didn't already have my boots on. He was still wearing shoes and volunteered to go instead of me.

I don't know exactly what happened, but a 10 minute round trip turned into half an hour (he admitted he'd somehow managed to go the wrong way, despite my clear instructions of "Go to the mini-roundabout & turn left - you'll see a wine shop, a bridal shop and the corner shop, called [name deleted]") and he came back in a foul mood without the photocopies. Apparently the way the photocopier was set up made it impossible for him to get the book to copy properly (also despite my clear instructions of how to do A3 to A4 reduction). But even though he couldn't get the copies, the guy who was working in the shop at the time still wanted 10p for the messed-up paper. This had made him angry.

He said "I'm not racist, but I hate these grasping Asian businessmen."

My response should have been "If you're not racist, why did you need to specifiy an ethnicity?"

It's a historical accident that the vast majority of corner shops in this country are run by Asians. It's to do with the way Britain went out and colonised parts of the Indian subcontinent, and the fact that when our "colonists" came to settle in the UK, they found that racist attitudes about the quality of their education prevented them from getting a lot of jobs. To pay their children's way through university, so the same arguments wouldn't be applied to the second generation, they took whichever niche work was available to them. In the 1950s and 60s, supermarkets were starting to push the traditional grocers, greengrocers and butchers out of business. But supermarkets tended to be available only in the very centres of large towns, and people who lived in smaller towns or villages, or who didn't have ready access to transport, couldn't always manage to get into the supermarket - especially if it was for one "emergency" item like milk. Hence the idea of a corner shop was a niche market for the Asian immigrants to take. The fact that the immigrants wanted to work as hard as possible so they could afford the best possible for their children meant that corner shops started to be open later than the old grocers and greengrocers they replaced, and as many of them were not Christian, they had no qualms about opening on Sundays. Nowadays, a large proportion of the corner shops on the outskirts of urban areas are run by people of various Asian origins - some of them even second- or third-generation British Asians. Collapse )