Sometimes stories come to me from the strangest of places – the back of my retinal screening van, for one! Recently I was surprised and pleased that in the middle of an appointment, my ears pricked up almost of their own accord, and I started listening intently as I realised that the gentleman was telling me his story. And I should listen.
I had been telling him about the Old Soldier, who had been there for the Normandy landings. The chap commented “I know – kids today don’t know how good they’ve got it”, and then launched into his story. I got chills. And as soon as he was gone, I grabbed my notebook and jotted down everything I could remember…
…about the time he almost got shot for being white.
He was an unusual patient from the offset, with strangely shaped bifocal sections in his very round glasses, which made his eyes look vastly out of proportion to his face. His white hair was tied back into a neat ponytail with an elastic hairband, the bright, candy-striped colours of which would have delighted a nine year-old girl. His shirt had cartoons all over it, and he completed the effect with a neat, white goatee. He was wonderfully courteous – courtly, even – in manner, and I got the impression that here was a gentleman who took pride in being a gentleman, no matter how slightly eccentric his look.
There we were, then, in the almost-dark, gently lit by the glow of the laptop, and he started talking.
40 years ago he had been offered a contract with his job, which required a move to Johannesburg, South Africa, for two years. He and his wife upped sticks and moved over, finding themselves a place to stay, and he worked and did well for himself. But towards the end of the two years, the Soweto uprising took place, when the government tried to make it mandatory for black students to be taught certain subjects in Afrikaans – as far as they were concerned; the language of their oppressors. It was a vastly unpopular move, and the black students staged protests. The police were called to help manage matters, but some of the children started throwing stones at them. And so a police officer fired the first shot in what was to prove a violent and disastrous time.
Many blacks (including children) were hurt or killed – 21 in the first day alone, along with two whites, and some of the other townships began to riot in sympathy, against apartheid and the separation and oppression they felt. My patient was scared, as feelings were running high in his neighbourhood, and he found it necessary to carry a gun to work.
The blacks continued to attack the whites, with the military being brought in to assist the police in restoring peace to the area. My patient and his newly pregnant wife were walking outside one day in the streets, when a shot rang out, and a white man just a few paces ahead of them dropped to the floor – dead, just for the colour of his skin. It could just as easily have been either of them.
They decided that the final few months of the contract weren’t worth remaining in danger for, so they broke it, and came home to England ahead of schedule, to reestablish themselves and have a baby. She was happy and healthy and is now 36, and they don’t regret one bit of their decision to return to safety.
Sometimes the world, or the authorities at the very least, need to experience an uprising in order to clue them into the strength of passion their oppressed minorities are feeling, I’m quite convinced. But when it comes to hurting others, that’s where I struggle to support the cause – when it turns to hatred and violence perpetrated against fellow humans in the name of whatever.
Living in intensely multicultural England, I am rather insulated from racism. I know it exists here. I know awful things happen here because of it, and because of man’s determination to segregate society based on the most arbitrary things. But I don’t see it often, and when I do, I am shocked and saddened by it.
That anyone should be subject to ostracism, hatred or negativity based on something as (really, yes) silly as the colour of their skin or the features of their inherited biology strikes me as ridiculous. And it sickens me, because underneath, we’re all the same.
We all feel happy and sad and hungry and eager and accomplished and distraught in the same ways. We all enjoy and relax and relate to others and find our people and make connections and develop a sense of self, in ways which bear striking similarity (in terms of emotional landscape) as every human across the world and in all generations before us.
We’re all angry the same and upset the same and delighted the same and enthusiastic the same.
We all hurt the same.
We all love the same though, too, and in the end, isn’t that what matters?
That we love.
Because in this world – this complex, amazing, broken, glorious, intensely painful, messy world – we have to realise that no matter our heritage; our looks; our background or future or who we know or the things we’ve gone through, we all belong to each other.
I don’t have a dream – I have a reality, where we must love each other, because we’re all in this together.
I’m just waiting for the day when everyone’s cottoned on.
…or perhaps I’m just naive.