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Anti-Semitism in the Post Office queue

Londoners queue for the Post Office on the Walworth Road in Southwark; Will Self had a shocking conversation while waiting outside another south London Post Office - Credit: In Pictures via Getty Images

WILL SELF on what to do when confronted by racism.

“You know,” said Annette, a woman from Cote d’Ivoire with whom I’ve struck up an acquaintance while queuing for the post office, “some people say Hitler had the right idea.” I shook my head, as if to dispel this meshegas, while nevertheless continuing the conversation: “What makes you say that?”

“Well, the Jews now own all the media and the money, yeah – so Hitler, he was only getting a sort of head-start.”

Holocaust denial is something you might expect to find anywhere, including south London – but Holocaust support? The mind did indeed boggle. “You do realise, Annette,” I said emphatically, “that I’m of Jewish heritage.” But whether she realised it or not was impossible to say, because at that moment the queue moved and Annette disappeared inside the post office.

We’ve encountered each other since, and neither of us has raised the matter again, simply reverted to the sort of chitchat about work and family that had filled our wait times formerly – is this, I wonder, a form of cowardice on my part, or worse racism? Am I unwilling to confront Annette over her anti-Semitism because she’s black? If so, aren’t I like those people who worked for the authorities in Rotherham and didn’t do enough to tackle a paedophile ring because the perpetrators were of Asian heritage? Racism may be inverted in this way – but it remains racism.

Which is not to suggest that all ‘racism’ is monolithic: years ago I had a job with the magazine publisher responsible for The Grocer; which in that pre-internet era was the essential source for wholesale grocery prices, so subscribed to by every shopkeeper in this nation of them. My job was to pitch for publishing contracts and then fulfil them – we did an employee magazine for Safeway, at that time a burgeoning supermarket chain, so it seemed only logical to pitch to Tesco’s. My boss took a different view: “Oh, you don’t want to be bothering with them, Will,” he said when I asked him if he had any contacts at the Tesco head office: “They’re all yids.”

I wasn’t that shocked by his casual racism – this was the 1980s, and you heard a lot of this sort of thing if you ‘passed’ as a gentile; the question was how you reacted. Sometimes I would push back – but on this occasion, what with him being my boss, I let it slide. But I wonder which episode makes me feel more ashamed, now?

On balance it remains the one with my boss at the magazine publisher’s – known as a sharp-tongued and feisty fellow, he should’ve got as good as he’d given. He was also an establishment figure: sitting on government committees, and eventually awarded an OBE. More damning still: he knew whereof he denigrated – because at that time Jews remained prominent in the food industry; while as a native Londoner he’d also grown up among them. Or us – the object pronoun employed depending on quite how Jewish I feel on any given day.

By contrast, I don’t imagine Annette encountered many Jews growing up in Cote d’Ivoire. Hers seems to me a racism born of ignorance rather than bigotry. I may well be wrong about this – and arguably even this hypothesis may be a function of my own ignorance, or prejudice. But there seemed nothing rancorous in Annette’s outrageous statement – rather it came from the same place as others: “Where I come from, if a man is a sex pest – a rapist or a molester – the women would gather round him, pour petrol on him and set him on fire!”

There’s this, um… flamboyance on Annette’s part, and there’s also her occupation: a healthcare assistant, she’s worked throughout the pandemic – only receiving her first vaccine dose a month ago. During one of our first chats she informed me – with great pride – that she was one of the few HCAs in her team qualified to work with C5 patients: those with damage to the spine that renders them paralysed in all four limbs. I’m not saying that communicating about food through the media is a wholly unworthy occupation, and nor do I mean to imply that being good in one area of your life absolves you from being bad in others – it’s rather that for prejudices to really foment and become genocidal bigotry they have to be catalysed by power.

It’s a suppressed premise of bleeding-heart white liberalism that there’s no inter-communal prejudice among BAME people in Britain. In my experience there’s quite as much as there is in the majority community – it’s just that healthcare assistants, nurses, bus drivers – and those corner shop owners who used to read The Grocer, but now subscribe to Asian Trader – lack the power to stop and search people merely because they ‘suspect’ they may’ve committed a crime.

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