Attempting to reconcile the irreconcilable

Deputy Editor Tom Williams recounts his experiences with racism and xenophobia whilst distributing the newspaper and attempts to proffer some advice on how to deal with unsavoury situations.

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Whilst the majority of The Saint’s readership consists of students, we seem to have developed a cult following among the locals, of which I am very proud. Handing out papers on your own at 8:30 am on a Thursday morning can be a lonesome task; a difficult one too, especially if you’ve been out drinking the night before. In the event that I have, there are three things that carry me through my hour-long attempt not to put another splash on the front page: offering the paper to reluctant people in sports attire who are clearly doing the walk of shame after last night’s Sinners; the disappointment in the eyes of said people when they thought they’d left early enough to avoid being seen; and, my personal favourite, chatting with passers-by about my passion — The Saint.

For the most part, locals will compliment us on our work and say they look forward to reading the paper every fortnight. Some criticism ensues, but it is mainly constructive, and is therefore wholeheartedly appreciated. I was astounded when one lovely woman told me that she had trekked a mile into town the previous Thursday specifically to pick up a copy, expressing her severe disappointment when she realised we were all away on spring break. However, these conversations, more often than you would think, devolve into something far more sinister. Without fail, every handout morning, a different (usually local, usually middle-aged or elderly) gentleman will engage either me or a colleague in conversation. Personally, I have never conversed with the same person more than once, to my recollection. The conversation usually begins innocently enough with the typical questions: “where are you from?” and “what are you studying?”

Given that I study international relations, when I answer the latter question, this is usually a segue into an unsavoury line of assertions with regard to minorities in the town. As I am a white British male, it seems to make this undesirable parlay more acceptable to have with me. There is a rudimentary assumption that because I share their appearance (or at least I will in 40 years), that I will agree with what they have to say. It is a bizarre phenomenon that when I reply, “international relations, it’s kind of like world politics,” the conversation becomes unreservedly racist. A quintessential reply begins as such: “we need more people like you in politics.” The fact that the man knows nothing about me other than the colour of my skin, and my subject of study, makes me severely question his judgement.

Although this assertion could be construed as a compliment to my personality, my suspicions of alternative, less savoury motivations are usually confirmed by the remarks that follow. The classic format which has endured in my three years of handing out the paper runs something like this: “There’s too many [X. Y, or Z] people in this [country or university], something needs to be done about it.” The scale of the “problem,” university or countrywide, depends upon the xenophobe, as does the country which confounds their concern. I am yet to have a two-sided conversation with one of these Thursday morning ramblers regarding the pros and cons of our current immigration system.

I once had a dialogue with a man who was clad in painting overalls: he remarked that he was looking forward to reading the paper while the next coat of paint dried. He seemed friendly enough. I then made the mistake of revealing that I had an American girlfriend — something I immediately regretted. “That’s good. Better get out while you can and live with her stateside,” he said. “All those Pakistanis, Sikhs, Muslims and Indians are gonna take over. Probably not in my lifetime, I’m 60 next month, but definitely in your lifetime — there’s not gonna be any white faces left here.” I must reiterate that I’m not paraphrasing here. I remember this conversation vividly because of the question that followed regarding the countries and religions he named. The man enquired of me which religion Pakistanis, Sikhs, Muslims and Indians “studied.”

Those who know me best, and undoubtedly my colleagues in The Saint, will know that I am prone to the odd outburst when things go awry. In these situations, one might think that it takes every ounce of strength to withhold visible rage and an ensuing verbal assassination. However, it does not. By this point, a man’s view is unlikely to change based upon a five-minute conversation with me. Retorting back with an attack upon their character will do nothing but reaffirm their closeted opinions and corroborate a loathing for students entirely.

In these situations, I attempt to convey myself as being as non-threatening as possible. I seek to disagree, but, most importantly, seek to inform. If someone is under the assumption that Pakistanis, Sikhs, Muslims and Indians all follow one religion, explain the difference, and try not to be patronising. And if he asserts that “they’re still all the same,” persist a little further, or accept that you will not be able to change his mind in five minutes. At the end of the day, my job is to distribute as many copies of The Saint as possible. So, steering a conversation to an end around the five-minute mark is typical.

I have no tolerance for racism in any capacity. As I have said, I do not relish the opportunity to have a discussion with a xenophobe; it dampens my day considerably. Nonetheless, I will never refuse one. While I’m distributing the paper, I can only really afford to give anyone five minutes of my time. Whether you are complimenting The Saint committee on the quality of the paper, or informing me that the eastern European students will “steal my grad job” — everyone gets five minutes maximum. Had such an individual approached me during any other situation, I’d be far more likely to contribute more than the arbitrary five minutes of my time. However, this never happens. Whether it’s because of the two independent variables that define the handout situation — the fact that I happen to be standing still for an extended period of time, and the fact that the inherently political nature of a newspaper tends to provoke discussion — distributing The Saint seems to be a unique prompt for distasteful dialogue.

I suppose the point of this article is to urge the reader not to dismiss the discriminatory views held by individuals, should they encounter a similar situation: the answer to the problem of intolerance is not more intolerance. Neither should one verbally or physically attack such an individual, which would deter future communication and engagement, and lead to the creation of deeper divisions within our community. Instead, the primary aim should be to inform. You may argue that someone so deep-set in their views cannot be changed — for some, this sadly may be the case. However, it’s not as arduous for the intolerant to become even more irreconcilable. So, choose your words carefully, and just remember that the facts are on your side.

You can email Tom directly to give your thoughts on this issue, or share your story with him at: print@thesaint-online.com

The views expressed in Viewpoint are not the views of The Saint, but are the individual opinion of the author.

 

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