Hate Thy Neighbour – Racism in the 1970s

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When I was nine years old my parents did something to me that I would never dream of doing to a child. I know this because I was talking to my wife about this over the weekend and we both agreed about the damage that it can cause. What they did was move me away from my school in Burnley, Lancashire, to another school in Bristol, Avon (as the county was called in those days).

No big deal. People move house all the time. But while there was certainly no malice involved on their part, no evil intent, the 200 miles or so of separation had cataclysmic consequences for me. All at once my cosy life in a small but friendly Northern working class town was over. I had lost my place. I was suddenly dislocated. Everything about my life was different in every way. And the relocation gave me my first taste of what it was like to suffer racism, or rather its distant cousin ‘regionalism’.

The journey from North to South marked me as something outside the norm. Sure I looked the same as my new schoolmates: I was and remain whiter than white in complexion, however much I lie on the beach. However, the moment I opened my mouth I was a marked man. My deep northern accent presented a huge contrast to the west country Bristolian dialect sported by practically everyone I came into contact with. It marked me as an outsider. I was different to almost everybody else in school. And my schoolmates inevitably reacted to this difference in a variety of ways.

Some seemed not to notice it and treated me no differently to anybody else. Others saw it as an opportunity to improve their standing in the school at the expense of my own. And a small minority saw it as a chance to bully somebody who wasn’t the same as them. But I was a relatively hardly child; in an even battle I could usually give a good account of myself. Black eyes and bruises became a regular part of my school uniform; and they gained the approval of my father, who saw them as a badge of honour. When I was outgunned I simply used my wiles – pretending to be unconscious on the floor, for example, when a much larger boy once attacked me.

It didn’t help that I went to two other schools in Bristol (thus I was put through the thoroughly harrowing process of relocation three separate times) before eventually settling in a large comprehensive with probably a 3:1 ratio of white school kids to black. It was there that I encountered others who were also outsiders. Because that’s what they were. Black people were outsiders: objects of ridicule, objects of fear and misunderstanding. And subjects of all the sorts of things that I as an outsider had been experiencing. It was small wonder that they tended to keep to their own groups.

This is was in the 1970s. And if you think we’ve got it bad now you’ve only got to take a look at some of the TV programmes that were around at the time and how black people were depicted in them.

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To name but a handful there was ‘The Black And White Minstral Show’, in which white people ‘blacked up’ and sang to white audiences (I remember that one show actually had white people ‘blacked up’ wearing kilts and singing in pigeon Chinese while pinching their eyes to depict Chinese eyes!). There was ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’ which celebrated British colonialism by simultaneously attacking anybody who happened not to be born in England (the Scots, Welsh and Irish were also fair game) or was homosexual (woe betide you if you were gay in that era).

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There was ‘The Comedians’, in which an ugly array of working class ‘comedians’ took savage pot shots at black people, at Asian people, at gay people, at fat people, at women; in fact, anybody who wasn’t a working class ‘comedian’.

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Last but not least there was ‘Love Thy Neighbour’, in which a black couple move next door to a white couple and are subjected to untold jibes about cooking pots, tribal dancing and their inherent laziness while routinely being called ‘nig-nog’ and ‘Sambo’ by their smug, beer swilling, pot-bellied neighbour. Even in those days it was utterly amazing that such a program could be shown on mainstream TV. Even more incredible was the fact that some 7 million viewers regularly tuned into to watch this racist, reactionary celluloid disgrace. (In an attempt to redress the balance, the black couple got the chance to call their neighbours ‘white honkies’.)

No small surprise then that is this climate of institutionalised racism trouble was not always far away in the playground. Fights between groups of black and white boys were a regular occurrence. In the home, too, racism was commonplace. Whenever she was looking for someone to blame for anything at all, large or small, my mother had no problem at all pointing the finger at ‘those coons’ as she called them (like many people she would deny it these days). While my father played it another way, boasting about the fact that he drank in the pub with a number of black people and that ‘there’s not a lot of difference really’. Apparently some of his best friends were black.

Yet from all this I somehow managed to emerge relatively liberal. Not politically I hasten to say, but ethically. And I think it was all down to the fact that like many of the racial minorities at my school (West Indians, Indians, Pakistanis, Chinese) I knew what it was like to be different. Even though my difference was in only in the way that I spoke it was enough to set me apart from the majority. And that’s often enough.

Because isn’t it true that we live in a world of racism? That it’s hard-wired into our very essence? I’m always fond of pointing out that our sense of tribalism is so deeply ingrained that if you walk down the street in North London wearing white on a Saturday afternoon you’re quite likely to get a smack from somebody wearing red. And it was the same in Bristol all those years ago when I was a kid: if you wore blue on a Saturday you were at war with those who wore red.

And this is why my wife and I we are staying put. We could easily put our London flat up for sale and get six or seven bedrooms in Kent in return. But we both understand the potential damage this could cause to our daughter, who is at a crucial stage in her development. Because to this day that move from North to South all those years ago still leaves me an outsider.

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20 thoughts on “Hate Thy Neighbour – Racism in the 1970s

  1. As a Yorkshire lass, with a father early stationed in Kent and who now lives in Buckinghamshire, I recognise every word here. Even to still being an outsider in the village that has been my home for he last fifteen years.We do draw lines and gather our familiarity close behind them.

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  2. Looking back at the 70s and TV, the worst thing about it was that even on the BBC, which was culturally superior, prejudicial remarks were so rife that they often went over our heads. The worst programme appeared to be ‘Til Death Do Us Part’, where Warren Mitchell was trying to highlight the problem with his gittish cockney character, Alf Garnett, but people didn’t get it. They just took it at face value and laughed at the racist, sexist, ageist and homophobic jokes. He over-estimated the intelligence of the viewing populace.
    As for regionalism. I was born in North Devon. My mother was Scottish and my father was from London. My parents were ‘foreign’, and so I was foreign too, and I was the class weirdo because my culture was so different, highlighted by the fact that we had no TV, and when we finally got one we didn’t watch ITV because it was geared to morons at that time. See? Weird!

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    • Til Death was also horrible. Truly horrible. I understand that Mitchell was aiming for satire but to me it failed. I, too, lived in Devon for a time. Certain parts are very racist. In Starcross I once sat in a pub with a black friend and the whole pub sang Old man River. I only saw a handful of non caucasians in the three years I was there.

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  3. A thought provoking article and good to know of your decision not to sell your house. In a fast globalizing world time has come to celebrate diversity.

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  4. Good decision – I moved a bit as a child and I agree with you – I never faced racism because I was white in a white neighbourhood – however, I was never accepted because I was an easterner in a western town..Some of those lessons still stay with me today – however, for the good – I treat all people as equals and I never get involved with clique BS – life is too short and interesting to waste my time with clique people.

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  5. I have lots of relatives who moved to the UK in the 60s, so I’ve heard the stories! I do remember “Love Thy Neighbour” (the theme song still rings in my head). I find myself in a similar situation now, in a new country, although the situation is much different from the 60s and 70s. Still, there’s always that persistent feeling of being as Albert Camus describes it, “l’etranger.”

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    • Between middle and high school my parents moved from an all white town to a racially mixed town, and, even worse for me, the schools mixed my transcripts and I was shifted down from advanced into remedial classes with predominantly Black and Hispanic students who recognized my total lack of familiarity with them and proceeded to terrorize me, not just because I was white but because the recognized I was smarter than them (which I didn’t, at the time). Even worse, my parent’s closeted racism came to the foreground in subtle ways. The records probems was soon fixed and I was moved back into advanced classes (without being told why until the year was over) but I still had to adjust to life in a racially mixed school and riding on a bus with kids who knew they had my number.

      But I learned to deal with it and made enough Black and Hispanic friends that I realized it wasn’t race I was fighting but my own terror.

      My wife and I divorced and she insisted on home schooling and then private school to keep him away from racial conflict. But the fees forced her to put him into public school where she realized the lack of socialization had only worked against him.

      As an artist and retired arts activist I’ve found so much beauty in other cultures I wish we didn’t have to kill each other to find the joy that remains in the ruins for those who survive.

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      • Quite a coincidence that a lot of writers seem to have experienced this early sense of dislocation. I suppose if anything is going to make you withdraw into your self this sort of life changing event will.

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  6. I don’t know if racism or regionalism or hating your somewhat more distant neighbor is hardwired into us, but it would be great if we all had a chance to stop teaching it to our kids and find out.

    Thanks for putting an interesting spin on the issue. I had no idea that wearing the wrong color on the wrong day was enough to justify a fight. Holy shit, as they said where I grew up.

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  7. It’s shocking to think that not only was this going on 50 years ago, but that it is still going on today. My friends complain regularly of racial harassment, the behaviour of some people is, frankly, disgusting.
    Thank you for such a good article highlighting the fights some people feel obliged to have.

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  8. Interesting. My husband is from Colne. I think Americans don’t understand that English accents vary from town to town. I know I didn’t until I met my husband. Anyways, I know racism is still rampant in America, and it’s a sad thing.

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  9. This post made me think about myself and my family. I’ve always wanted to uproot my parents from home to where I am at the moment just so I could get to see them everyday. I miss them so much, you see. But I thought of the possible effect this decision could have on them — the amount of adjustment they would have to make, the feeling of being different and the possibility of getting bullied. I know this as I have experienced them myself when I first came here to teach.

    Anyway, thank you for this excellent article on “racism.” This would be a wonderful addition to the text list we’re reading in class this term. Hope you don’t mind…

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