It’s taken me a week to recover from an embarrassing incident or to be able to write about it, and it taps into the zeitgeist of today’s heightened political correctness. You might have seen Sky News coverage recently of a clever piece of writing by The Guardian’s Arwa Mahdawi who talks about the link between political correctness and the rise of Brexit/Trump.
I had my own Trump moment of cringe last week when I went out to lunch with some of my family for my Grandmother’s 88th birthday. She wanted to go to a popular carvery restaurant frequented by the older generation and although it wasn’t my ideal choice, I picked my parents up on the way and along with Baby S and Grandma, we went out for a meal. My Grandmother is not your typical gentle grey haired old lady; she is a tiny, feisty, smart mouthed, lividly purple haired retired accountant who is used to making waves and being the first of her kind. She was an accountant when it was very much a man’s job, and battled sexism in the workplace before the words were even invented. She’s also a religious refugee (a Polish Jew) who has her own personal story of survival of WWII. To say she’s a tough cookie is an understatement!
We were sat in a tightly packed busy restaurant and to our left was a mixed-race Chinese/English family made up of an elderly lady (Grandma?), a couple in their 60’s (Mum and Dad?) and a younger man in his 40’s (son?). The mum and Grandma were Chinese, the man was white and their son was mixed-race. The reason for all this context is that Baby S has mixed parentage. I haven’t mentioned it before in my blogs as it’s not relevant. Her ethnicity is relevant for her own life story and if she’s with me for any length of time, then I will ensure she understands her two very different cultures and can identify with them both, should she choose to. However for the purposes of my article, she looks mixed race and as her hair is beginning to grow it is coming through black and delightfully curly.
The family next to us looked at us periodically during the meal, maybe noting we are a white family with a mixed heritage baby, hardly surprising in this modern multi cultured world. After all, we’re not living in a 1950’s secluded middle England village! After a few more furtive glances, the Mum leans over and say’s ‘what a beautiful baby’ and Baby S batts her gorgeous eyes and smiles on cue. This breaks down all barriers and before I can blink, everybody has scooted over and the two Grandma’s are try to chat in Pigeon English as my Grandma’s Polish accent is still thick and the Chinese Grandma’s English was limited. Just when I’m thinking how sweet, everyone is chatting (apart from me and the son on the other table), the Chinese Grandma leans over and says ‘Is the baby a bit of a Darkie?’
The son’s eyes widen is horror and he literally shakes his head and covers his face with his hands to hide his embarrassment. I’m shocked by the use of such an old fashioned derogatory term, but it seems that no one else on either table has blinked or been surprised. My Grandma then equals out the race insult by saying loudly (she’s very deaf!) ‘Is that your son?’ pointing to the younger man ‘as he looks a bit Chinesey’. He catches my eye and this time it’s me that wants to sink into the floor. It gets worse. The Grandma looks at my mum and says ‘how do you feel about a darkie grandchild?’ I can’t take anymore and want to leave but I’m trapped by my position on the table and my mum replies ‘Oh she’s not my grandchild, she’s fostered but we do love her’.
The meal was excruciating and it seems each family was trying to top each other’s race comments, even though I tried to step in and either change the subject or correct their terminology. My loud, very spirited Grandma would top off with another remark about how ‘he’s got the Chinese eyes’ or their Grandma would say ‘You don’t look Jewish’ to my Grandma. It seems it was impossible to insult each other as they were still living in a world where is was acceptable to use the terms ‘Darkie’ or ‘Chink’. My mum thinks she’s being politically correct when she says ‘Coloured’ or ‘Half Caste’. I tried to explain to my parents on many occasions that terms move on and evolve and the correct way to address Baby S’s ethnicity is by saying Mixed Parentage or some prefer Mixed-Race, if it has to be acknowledged or addressed at all. My mum is trying and makes an effort not to offend, but there is literally no telling my Grandma anything.
She adores Baby S and has done from the minute she saw her. She reaches out for cuddles the moment I visit her, and Baby S is hugely taken by my Grandma’s lined and expressive face. She studies her and saves her the biggest, sweetest smiles.
By far the most mortifying moment of the meal was nothing to do with inappropriate race comments; as we were all leaving the restaurant, my Grandma followed out the son and reached out and pinched his bum. He turned round astonished by her action and she gave him a large cheeky toothless grin and looked innocently away. My Grandma has been torn from her homeland, survived WWII persecution and an intern camp, lived through the tragic loss of a young child post war, endured an East End London sweat shop working 17 hours a day, put herself through college, married out of her faith and brought up a family. She winked and said to me as I dropped her off ‘you can do anything when your 88 years old’. Apparently, you can.