30 Mar 2011

Are we all racists?

I’m at the counter of The Seafood Bar in Gatwick airport’s South terminal, my regular pit-stop on journeys between the UK and France over the last three years.

I think the woman preparing lemon slices, toast and salad is Phillipino and her English is a little broken and rushed. ‘He come take your order soon Madam,’ she says smiling at me and nodding towards a man busy with customers at the far end of the bar. I can hear his eastern European accent.

‘No problem, I’m not in a hurry,’ I say and take out my book, a French translation of one of Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels, Fleshmarket Close. Translated British and American crime novels, or policiers, are perfect for improving my French; their tension keeps me turning the page and the syntax is much easier to understand than a lot of contemporary French literature.

Nous sommes tous racistes, inspecteur…, moi aussi. Ce qui compte, c’est la façon dont nous abordons cette triste réalité.

The words of Mohammed Dirwan, a Glasgow lawyer working with immigrants and refugees on the fictional estate of Knoxville.

We’re all racists, inspector…, myself included. What counts is the way in which we tackle this sad reality.

After a few minutes, she notices that he’s still busy and takes my order herself, although he delivers the plate with an equally lovely smile, and during the course of the next 40 minutes they both check to see that everything’s okay, that I don’t need anything else.

I love good service, and since living in France I’ve even got used to being called Madam; it makes me feel like a valued customer. My smiles are probably as wide as theirs, in reciprocation of their attention as well as the gorgeous food.

The Classic Salmon Balik
Caviar House & Prunier
I’m half-way through my Balik, and Rebus is contemplating another evening in the company of a bottle of malt, when the cut-glass English accent to my left grabs my attention.

‘You mean he’ll come and take my order,’ she says in response to the Phillipino woman, and there’s something pointed about the slow and deliberate way it’s delivered. It feels like a lesson in grammar and pronunciation, and not a kind one.

A minute or so later she places her order for two spoons of caviar without a please or thank you, a long manicured nail hovering above her choice on the menu; offers a clipped ‘yes’ when he suggests a glass of champagne or Muscadet because she’s taking ages to make up her mind. The characters in my novel take a back seat to the character next to me.

After she’s finished and he lifts her plate and starts to turn away from the bar she impatiently waves him back indicating with her snapping fingertips, and without saying a word, that she wants to keep the serviette. When he hands her the bill and explains she’ll need to pay separately at another till for the box of biscuits she’s picked up from the shelf, she interrupts him sharply. ‘Yes, I know. I know.’ When she leaves she doesn’t say thank you or goodbye.

I’m beginning to understand why waiters might spit in someone’s food. I’m also wondering if I’m more irritated than usual by this kind of rudeness because she’s black.

The thought has shot through my mind that one minority group should have more compassion or consideration for another, a ‘she should know better’ kind of response, but that idea seems quickly  ridiculous in the light of racial intolerance in all parts of the world.

So perhaps it’s her behaviour combined with the Received Pronunciation. An old colonial aspect that jars with my Welsh working class upbringing.

Or perhaps it’s just her abruptness and condescension that I’m taking umbrage against. Because the people serving her are gentle, polite and friendly and good manners cost nothing.

La politesse, ça ne coûte rien.

But I keep on thinking about it during the flight. There was no doubt I was initially surprised by her colour after hearing her voice. Is that racist? What counts is how I tackle that reality.


Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about a journey.
  2. Write a biography for a character who annoys you.
  3. Write about a time when you judged someone.
  4. Write about the colour of your skin.
  5. Write about politeness.