Sunday, March 02, 2008

Permissible prejudices for polite society

This weekend's papers contained two classic examples of acceptable prejudice; obesity and the working class.

I really felt for Madeleine White when I read her piece in Guardian Weekend about being obese. Anyone of us fatties knows exactly what she went through with her description of job interviews and visits to the doctors, the sheer difficulty in being taken seriously and the chronic lack of self-confidence due to living "in a society that excludes on the basis of body fat". I understand too her sense of triumph at weight loss. I did the same in my twenties and held the weight off for nearly ten years, but it was hard. The confidence I gained then is the basis of me not giving a toss that the weight is back, but does not mitigate the anger.

The sad thing is that she hasn't escaped this modern morality play. She still blames herself. "Obesity is not the result of a lack of information or self-control; it stems from not valuing sufficiently yourself and the food you eat". Since she has had to take up a rigorous diet, run 15 miles a week and undergo radical gastric surgery to reach and maintain a weight that others keep to effortlessly, she might one day realise that the main reason for her size was physiological.

In the second article, Andrew Anthony detects a middle class liberal distaste for the white working classes running through next week's season of programmes on BBC2. It's a patchy piece, but he finishes with a devastating observation. In discussing working class racism he sees a distinct generational shift in attitudes, as shown by the children of 'Dave', an ageing white racist whose daughters have black partners.

Yet in Dave's story, we see, even if he can't, the hidden success of multicultural Britain. Not the tolerance and respect for separatism as preached by archbishops and playwrights, but the messy, difficult and tense business of living and loving together.

It's the children of people such as Dave who live cheek by jowl with new arrivals and adapt to rapid change. They are the ones who really embrace people from other countries and cultures by forming relationships and raising children together.

And then comes the killer blow,

Meanwhile, the liberal arts community, for all its eloquence in anti-racism, is far more inclined to retreat to private schools and affluent enclaves, the better to maintain a homogenous culture while pronouncing on the benefits of diversity.

Ouch! And let's not forget, amongst their many sins, the working classes are seen to be too fat.


Nomenklatura said...

I appreciate your comments, which are often spot on.

If you were actually to visit a private school in England today though, selected at random, you would be likely to see a more effective mix of races than you do on the street. Socially exclusive schools do exist, but private schooling is mostly about parents who have aspirations for their kids, are willing to make sacrifices for them, and understand the value of a good education. This turns out to mean immigrant parents much more often than you might think.

With pupils of many races working side by side, cooperating (and not knifing each other), and having their daily work evaluated on an exactly equal basis, private schools in the UK actually offer one of the best examples of real racial integration in action you are ever likely to see anywhere.

I'm always surprised how little people living in Britain know about either the United States or their own country. The decades go by, but neither of these observations ever seems to budge.

The Plump said...

Thanks for the kind remarks. I take the point that the article is full of sweeping generalisations, of which this may be one. However, I am not sure that educational segregation by wealth is really progress. I once heard a more extreme example of this argument at a widening access conference at Cambridge University (really!) when a spokesperson for the University said they had no problems with racial equality because they "educated the sons and daughters of princes and prime ministers from all over the world", prompting a walk-out by a group of community educators.

Where the article does hit the nail on the head is in identifying the tendency of the middle classes to view the working class as a gentrification project. This is not recent. One of the reasons why I like 19th Century radicals is that many of them were staunch defenders of the pleasures of the working classes against miserable middle-class mores.