In this day and age, when borders seem to be forever shrinking in the face of the new language everyone in the world seems to want to learn – capitalism – it is harder to be overtly racist than it used to be.
It isn’t as if racism was de rigueur in times bygone, but no one would have looked askance a decade ago at, say, a bus driver in a sleepy English town not taking the bus fare from the hands of an Indian girl, or a Frenchwoman doing likewise when aforesaid woman tries to buy a book on Van Gogh at the Louvre (in the year 2000). Just for example.
Now, however, what with ‘political correctness’ taking centre-stage in our scheme of things (and how can it not, when migrants form such a large percentage of any place’s population?), one complaint to the right people and the bus driver and shop assistant would be out of a job.
Does this mean, then, that racism has vanished altogether? That we’ve managed to beat down this ugly monster and relegate it to the realms of nothingness? Far from it. All that we’ve managed to achieve, with this superficial propagation of that which is PC, is to force racism into a new shape; make it necessary for it to assume a new form.
Cut to 2008. Frankfurt airport. I’m flying Lufthansa, and arrive at the counter, ready to check in. The woman at the counter asks me to weigh my cabin baggage too, for some reason. Having stowed my laptop in there, it was a little above the stipulated 8 kilos. I told her as much. She turned her sweetest smile upon me and said, “Well, feel free to throw it away then.” I thought she hadn’t heard me, and repeated that it was overweight because I had my laptop, which I was allowed to carry as a separate piece anyway, in there. She smiled and said, “You heard me – I said ‘feel free to throw it away’. You could do that, for example.”
For example. This is when it dawned on me that I’d stumbled across someone who was very au courant – a la mode, culturally, to the tee, what was being used upon this unsuspecting country cousin was the ‘latest’ form of racism – metamorphosed into this sickly sweet politeness, chilling by virtue of how it uses the smile – that ultimate leveller which speaks to something in us all, regardless of what language we speak or where we’re from – and disconnects it from what we associate it with most; the ability to empathise or ‘connect’ with another human being.
I stepped out of the queue, and attempted to “throw away” whatever I possibly could – the casualties were the posters, newspapers, calendars and other literature I’d picked up at the music festival I’d gone to Germany to cover. It was that, or the laptop. This done, she made me queue up again. I didn’t mind. I watched her fawn over the people ahead of me (with bigger, heavier bags too, mind you), and help them out as best she could. When it came to my turn again, that smile didn’t wither, but the light in her eyes that accompanied it did. I couldn’t wait to get out of there. Paying the (exorbitant) ‘excess baggage’ sum she said I owed the airline, I did.