How Do You Know I Don’t Understand Your Experience?

No doubt, many would say I have no right to comment on the sense of alienation and threat, let alone the actual discrimination experienced by British-Asians. How would I know the psychological reality of life as a member of a minority in this country? In his excellent Jews Don’t Count (2021, London: TLS Books) David Baddiel says, “Being white [is] not just about skin colour, but about security…White really means: safe.”(p117)

However, as I said before, I live in this country, too. I communicate with people of different ethnic and cultural heritage. I walk these streets. I’d notice if people were being dragged into them and shot en masse. 

In addition, if we are excluded from knowing and understanding the thoughts and experiences of other racial groups, surely I am better placed than the film makers to speak with authority on the motivations and actions of white people? I am a member of that complicit and complacent majority. 

But I reject the increasingly held view that we cannot possibly understand the experiences of others, merely because of these (literally) superficial differences. To dismiss people’s opinions not on their truth or falsity, but on presumptions you make about who they are, is to promote the very prejudice you are condemning. To do so on the grounds of your perception of their race is racist.

We all share a deep and fundamental common humanity. The human experience – the need for love acceptance and community, the misery of alienation, the fear of death is shared by all.

Community is held together by bonds of empathy that (nearly) all can access, and that we should cultivate and strengthen. These bonds are felt personally and individually. The key to breaking down ethnic divisions is individuals reaching out to each other across the barriers, accepting other individuals simply for who they are. 

We are all members of one sub-group or another: the left handed, the very tall, the gingers, the overweight. All have experiences that, although of incomparable mildness to the truly persecuted, allow us to imaginatively empathise with them. White people don’t feel universally safe, they fear all sorts of persecution, just not racial persecution. (Some do, of course, but they are simply wrong!) 

For example, growing up with proudly British-Scottish parents in the republic of Ireland, during the troubles, I experienced a very gentle form of alienation and exclusion, a murmured message that I was an enemy alien, but it wasn’t my fault, and my friends and neighbours loved me, anyway. There were even slight tremors of feeling that we weren’t entirely safe, when news reached us, occasionally, of the murder of people we identified as our own. There was a need to keep quiet about our Britishness among people we didn’t know. This must allow me, through empathy, to imagine some aspects of the immigrant experience in Britain. You, through warm and constructive communication, appealing to my imagination, can help me understand it further. 

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