Overcoming Prejudice One Contact At A Time
At the end of this weekend I’m heading for New York on a very brief stopover. I haven’t been back in years, and for too long my main contact with the US has come from the UK and US press.
Consequently, I’ve heard far too much about the extremes of American society, either the super-rich or the dispossessed and desperate. I know that LA, where I once lived, now has record homeless figures, and that farmers are killing themselves in astonishing numbers. What’s been missing for too long is any sense of normal day-to-day life for millions of ordinary Americans.
I’ve just had a delightful time with American friends who represent the ‘squeezed middle’ of hard-working, smart professionals with complex family backgrounds. Their energetic lives are built around ironclad seasons of rituals that include football, holidays, outdoor pursuits like hiking and diving, Thanksgiving dinners and other shared family activities.
It seems to me that British life has very few of these tentpole markers upon which to hang social life, and have very little of their positivity or proactivity. These are the folks I’d forgotten about, the ones who feel that anything is possible, the ones who made me fall in love with America when I was a teenager. A colour-saturated America flooded my dreams, but living there was tougher than I had ever imagined it would be.
I’d forgotten about this silent majority of American families because I’ve hardly ever met any (LA media folk don’t count). They don’t get reported in our press. Instead we see food banks and gun crime, the toxic Kardashians, Trump’s three-ring circus, paedophile pastors and teen dotcom millionaires, just as American no doubt sees us as rainsoaked glumbies, Russell Brand-style rockers and lickspittle nonentities like Nigel Farage.
Both sides are taking their knocks right now, between the UK’s disastrous Brexit negotiations and a US presidency that turns a still unrivalled example of democracy into a banana republic. Caught in the middle are hardy people with innate decency and healthy attitudes.
But more and more lately I’ve heard of people experiencing intolerance on either side. Today a friend of mine – a good, tolerant liberal – was spat at outside Finsbury Mosque. Another friend is vociferously pro-Brexit despite the fact that he only employs Eastern Europeans.
It’s confusing to cope with. But we have to cut through the endless depicted stereotypes, go out and talk to people one-on-one and remind ourselves that nations have a richly diverse human bedrock. Right now it’s harder than ever to do that, which is a good reason for going the extra mile.