helen-louise (baratron) wrote,

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"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.

"I hate these grasping Asian businessmen." What do you think he meant by that? A sweeping generalisation about all Asian businessmen? Or just about corner shop owners? People who run corner shops are usually Asian, but... they vary. Within the local area, I can think of 8 corner shops run by Asian people, 2 of which are very well-run, 3 of which are okay, 2 of which are kinda crappy and I'd only go there if I didn't have another choice, and 1 I've never been into because there are other good ones closer. One of the shops in particular is so good I'll go out of my way to go there - they always have lots of staff who are able to help you, their photocopiers are well maintained, they provide a variety of services (including an internet cafe and passport photography), and they stock some sweets that are hard to buy anywhere else. One of them is really awful - they stock hardly anything I want to buy, the guy who runs it smokes and smokes in the shop, so it always smells bad and I have to use my inhaler if I'm going in there, if he's talking on the phone when you go in, he won't interrupt his conversation while he's serving you, and they keep semi-erratic hours so you can never be sure if the shop will be open in the early morning or evening or at weekends. But it's at the end of our road, and sometimes it's the only place I can go to get a bus ticket or Oyster top-up. I do go out of my way to buy nothing there except the bus ticket, though.

So I'm not even sure you can make sweeping overgeneralisations about Asian shop-owners, let alone the entire class of Asian businessmen. Some of them are extremely competent and professional, and others are a disgrace to humanity. Just like people of every ethnic origin.

Perhaps he didn't really mean the "Asian", it just got appended to the sentence because that particular shop owner was Asian. I hate "grasping" businessmen too - the ones who want to charge you good money for rubbish. But I've encountered those in enough different contexts not to generalise about the race or class of the person who's going to try to rip me off. (I have discovered that eBay sellers who write ENTIRELY IN BLOCK CAPITALS WIT TEH TYP0S AND SPEELING MISTOOKS are likely to be people who will be difficult for one reason or another, but that's a different type of overgeneralisation, I think.)

But the worst thing about it is that he's a white, privileged, upper middle class person - and he assumed that I was too. From what, I don't know. Yes, I went to a "good" school, yes, I am middle class, yes, my skin is even fairly pale in colour. But I'm not white. I identify as mixed race, white & Asian. And if you're going to make sweeping generalisations about Asian businessmen, that's my dad you're talking about.

I don't have another lesson with this student booked. I'm not sure what to say if he contacts me again. I feel as though I should bring up what he said in anger and point out it was inappropriate. But then again, I do know he was angry, and a lot of people - particularly young people - say stupid things when they're angry.

I could just shut up & take his money. But wouldn't that make me a "grasping (half-)Asian business(wo)man"?
Tags: damn students, racism, rants
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