I just had an incredibly uncomfortable conversation; I told someone I couldn't have dinner with them because they were racist.
I recently arrived in England from Australia and rented a room in a suburban house, from a gentleman in his 60's - Fred. We've been getting along fine as I settle into the area and he's been kind enough to show me some nice local places and, as you do when you live with someone, we've chatted about life. He's a big fan of Spain and goes there for walking holidays a few times a year.
As I plan to move-out to more suitable accommodation, I was helping him find a new tenant by taking nicer photos of the place, writing the advert and talking with him about the many applicants for the situation. This evening the best-seeming, applicant arrived for an inspection. She's a young woman, working with disabled children in a local school and, miraculously, happens to be from Spain - what a bonus, we both thought! She knocked on the door when Fred happened to be upstairs so, I greeted her and invited her in. I told her that Fred would provide the downstairs tour and I would take her upstairs. She was very smiley, friendly and at-ease in her casual clothes and backpack; she had walked to the appointment from the school.
As Fred arrived at the bottom of the stairs I went up to await my part in the process. I could hear Fred describing the place in a stilted way but, it's typical for him to seem a bit awkward at times. When Fred was finished, she came up the stairs and I showed her the/my room and the bathroom, and we chatted about the house and Fred's partiality for Spain.
She asked about the possibility of having the room and Fred excused himself by referring to other applicants that were coming. But, no other applicants had been scheduled. Fred had been so optimistic about her application (a friendly, informative email including her background), that he hadn't replied to anyone else! He showed her out and I keenly asked, "what do you think?" - she seemed like such an affable person and the Spain 'thing' was such a great bonus! Fred was edgy and had already opened his email to look at other applicants.
Awkwardly, and to my surprise, Fred said he didn't think he could live with her. I queried this and he explained: "Well, it might sound bad but, I don't think I could live with a black person." My response of mild surprise prompted him further..."I've just always thought I wouldn't live with a black person, or a Chinese person, or a Pakistani. You know. I feel bad, I know I shouldn't say that but... it seems a bit racist, doesn't it?" I gently nodded. My stomach felt more sick.
Fred went back to looking at his email and then started to put on his shoes; we had agreed to go out to dinner and I realised he still intended to go despite this awkward moment. I also realised I would have to not go. He asked if I was ready and, as kindly as I could, I said, "You know how you don't think you could live with a black person? Well, I don't think I can go to dinner with someone who couldn't live with a black person." It was such a confronting thing to say; I knew it would be hard for him to hear and I knew, as he was my landlord, that I was putting myself in a vulnerable position but, if I think racism is wrong, I have to act on that value. I felt more sick.
Fred was flabbergasted. His eyes widened, he slumped in his seat, "really?".
"Really", I said.
"But, I have to feel comfortable with someone I live with."
"Of course", I said, "and, as we've discussed before, if it was a cultural difference we were talking about then, it would make perfect sense. If someone were from South Africa and their values and their habits were incompatible with yours it would make perfect sense not to live with them but, that would apply to a white South African as well as a black South African."
Fred remained shocked. "Don't you respect that I need to feel comfortable with who I live with?"
"But, you don't want to go to dinner with me."
"Don't you respect that I need to feel comfortable with who I go to dinner with?", I countered. Kindly, I said, "I can understand that there are differences which make it impossible to live with someone, I really do, cultural differences. Help me understand what difference the darkness of someone's skin makes - how that does effect you?"
"Well, I suppose I have pretty dark skin" he correctly noted.
Fred is a plain man, not adept at the art of discussion so, he floundered for a while around the comfort and respect issues. I stayed in the room to let him express himself as I didn't want him to feel abandoned or rejected, and to have the opportunity to further the conversation, if possible. After a while of repeating the same issues and some silence, I told him I was going upstairs to do some work. I needed a break from the tension too as it was very difficult for me to, even politely, confront someone and trigger such confusion and shock.
Later, I came back downstairs and started making my dinner. Fred must have thought the matter was a passing fancy as he was surprised to see this, thinking that now we'd go to dinner after all. Unfortunately, I had to reiterate my point which threw Fred into distress again. Again he pleaded the case for being allowed to live with who he was comfortable with. Again, I agreed, reminded him that he had rejected the young woman because she was brown and genuinely asked how the colour of someone's skin made him uncomfortable. Fred couldn't answer. I asked if he understood the difference between culture and colour. Apparently, he did.
Fred was vulnerable and expressed how much this was distressing him, making him feel sad and guilty. I sincerely sympathised with his emotion and told him that guilt is only necessary if you've done something wrong, "If you think you're doing the right thing by judging on the basis of colour then you have no need to feel guilty."
"But you don't respect my choice", Fred complained.
"I do respect your choice."
"But, you won't go out to dinner with me."
"Do you respect my choice?" I asked.
Becoming more forthright, Fred challenged me..."you aren't respecting that I need to feel comfortable with who I live with."
I explained, "I respect your choice. That means I do not interfere with who you choose and how you execute your preferences but, it doesn't mean I have to agree and it doesn't mean I act as though I do. I respect your right but I don't agree with it."
This is where Fred is struggling, I think. He complained again about feeling guilty and sad and that he had "tried so hard with me" to be friendly and nice...which is true. Exasperated, he covered his face and concluded that he shouldn't live with anyone because it was so hard. "It is hard getting along with people you live with..." I sympathised. Fred expects, I think, that if he is nice, there will be no conflict because no differences will be aired. No differences that require negotiation, or partings, or self-examination. I truly feel bad for Fred because he is fairly good-natured...although he does have a problem for every solution.
He's gone out for a walk now as he was getting more exasperated by my unwillingness to 'accept' his racism. I won't accept it. I will respect Fred's right to live with only white people but, I won't pretend or agree that it's moral or reasonable. I hope Fred will search for the answer to the question, "How does the darkness of someone's skin effect you so that you can't live with them?" I hope he finds the answer is that it doesn't. I hope he starts to examine some of his other ideas that make him a rather melancholy man who admits to having few friends. I hope I've been a good friend to him on this issue by being honest, kind, and not racist, despite the emotional turmoil it's created.
Fred returned after walking for four hours. The next morning, without malice, he brought-up the issue again and told me about his childhood. Fred revealed he had been bullied because of his dark skin, chased by gangs of school children and left with only one friend at school. His skin was dark because his Father had dark, Caribean skin. He said it affected his relationship with his Father. "Because the darkness that the children thought was bad about you was from your Father?", I asked. "Kind of.." said Fred. I sympathised with Fred for the fear and loneliness he had experienced.
I was impressed at Fred's candour and insight, though he hasn't changed his mind (so far) about living with a black person. Isn't it sad that the racist bullying of children 50 years ago means a charming brown girl from Sapin, who would have made an ideal flatmate for Fred, now gets rejected and Fred feels guilty and sad 50 years later.