Sunday 2 December 2007

Bargainers and Challengers

The white driver of bus 21

I overhead this on Bus 21 shortly after getting on from a meal at the 805 restaurant – usually, I take a black cab from London Bridge to the restaurant and the hop on Bus 21 back to London Bridge – black cabs rarely ply South London routes and I am rarely keen on mini-cabs.

Two (Nigerian) ladies, most likely grandmothers in their late 50s or early 60s and looking like they have been in London since year dot.

1st: I am going to Manor House, is Bus 141 the right bus?

2nd: Yes, it is, you can get it at Newington Green. It is better because of the cold than London Bridge.

1st: Thank you. I thought so too, when I asked the bus driver, he did not answer me. I ignored him because I knew when I ask my people they would know.

2nd: They are always like that.

1st: He just looked at me - imagine this is the job he is paid to do.

2nd: Don’t mind him, he is a white man.

Deep-seated feeling of discrimination

I squirmed and shifted in my seat as I tried to understand how a simple enquiry had turned into a full racist put-down, I have never been able to understand or appreciate how some people see everything through the lens of race, oppression, rights, deprivation, discrimination and antagonism.

Each time I have tried to reason this matter, I have almost always been branded a sell-out in extreme cases, otherwise the more benign but insulting moniker of coconut or bounty bar has sufficed even though it is just as damning.

I ruminated over this conversation to see ways in which I could sympathise with these women at the expense of the driver but could not arrive at any objective reason why the bus driver should attract such opprobrium – I felt the women had issues that they needed to deal with, but it was probably too late to re-educate them on these matters.

Don’t blame the driver

There might be reasons why the bus driver was not able to give the woman an answer apart from probable abruptness, rudeness or his inability to understand her because place names in London can be quite funny – Manor House however should not trip anyone like Southwark (Sudork); Leicester (Lester) Square or Marylebone (Marleborn) would.

Bus 21 runs a long route from Lewisham in South-East London to Newington Green in North London – a journey of 45 minutes. Bus 141 runs from London Bridge to Palmers Green going through Newington Green and Manor House Station which are just 6 minutes apart.

Probably, the man should have known, but his bus company is run by London Central whilst Bus 141 is run by Arriva London. Bus drivers are not necessarily guides, they might be able to tell you where to get off along a route but do not expect them to how to get beyond the limits of their route.

They are not like black cab drivers who do the knowledge and twice in one day I did catch black cab drivers out, one can only memorise so much of all the streets and routes in London.

The two masks for gaining advantage

I have always counted myself fortunate for being born in England, but most importantly for growing up in Nigeria, it meant I was not subject to the race and deprivation politics of the 70s and 80s and my identity as a black man was never at issue.

That is one part of my story that I can explain to some extent, though people have different perspectives of having Western citizenship albeit with African parentage and how to thrive in those societies; there is another perspective that amazed me when I read an article about Barrack Obama in the Time Magazine under the title, The Identity Card by Shelby Steele.

It explored the issues of Senator Obama’s mixed race parentage; the conflicts and balance between his white Mid-Western values and the Black Value System. Now, the American society is quite entrenched in race we can still find marches very much like in the 60’s happening - Jena, Louisiana is case in point in Septmber 2007.

However, there are some clear and interesting points this article raised when it talked about how black Americans gain advantage in the mainstream through bargaining and challenging. Reading this piece, I realised that it did not just apply to just blacks or Americans – it applies to every minority in means, status, ability, creed, idea or number in the whole world.

Bargainers and Challengers

I acknowledge the authorship of Shelby Steele in the excerpts below, because there is no better way to depict this than in the words of the author.

Bargainers make a deal with white Americans that gives whites the benefit of the doubt: I will not rub America's history of racism in your face, if you will not hold my race against me. Especially in our era of political correctness, whites are inevitably grateful for this bargain that spares them the shame of America's racist past. They respond to bargainers with gratitude, warmth, and even affection. This "gratitude factor" can bring the black bargainer great popularity. Oprah Winfrey is the most visible bargainer in America today.

Challengers never give whites the benefit of the doubt. They assume whites are racist until they prove otherwise. And whites are never taken off the hook until they (institutions more than individuals) give some form of racial preference to the challenger. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are today's best known challengers. Of course, most blacks can and do go both ways, but generally we tend to lean one way or another.

Putting this in the context of the conversation on the bus, I would think I fell on the side of a bargainer and the ladies were challengers. It goes on to say that Obama is a natural-born bargainer and that is why his quest for the Presidency is plausible, whereas the Sharpton and Jackson quest could not have garnered the broad spectrum needed to make a good run for that office because no one would want to vote for a scold.

Making ones way

In a broader context, the bargainer-challenger issue is not black-and-white but shades of grey, there are people who are more bargainers than challengers and vice versa, I do not have statistics to show which end is most successful but I would think the bargainers can secure a better deal than challengers.

Ditching the black and white labels and applying this to circumstances in life one can surmise that a challenge indicates you want to take ground - you then have to be equipped to take that ground off the occupier who is entrenched, equipped and strongly defensive of their position – very few win those kinds of conflicts and programmes put in place to address issues like that in terms of immigration and affirmation do not in the long term address root-cause issues.

Bargaining requires dialogue, seeking common-ground, education and civil action by peaceful means as employed by Gandhi in India and King in America, it is how to accommodate each other for the common good. Indeed, those who wield power sometimes have to be goaded into realising the duty, responsibility or just plain ethics and humanity of doing the fair and just thing.

Need for more analysis

A blog cannot in anyway properly address this deep social issue, but we can see bargainers like Mandela and challengers like Mugabe and Chavez and those in the middle like Gaddafi and begin to understand why a deeper study of this needs to be made.

This begins to give meaning to why Mugabe as a challenger is being revered for giving the white man a bloody nose but in the process failed to bargain for the sustenance of his country. It is sad however when a whole people gravitate on the excitement of the challenge, the clash or the confrontation as it makes good press unlike the quiet and slow activity of bargaining and diplomacy.

It is all well and good to challenge if you can win that fight, it is however necessary to be smart enough to choose the battles you can win and bargain on the ones you cannot.

Rushing to the refuge of racism as a means of making progress is a function of the burden of history we all carry; the community and society in which we have been raised; the possible ignorance of all parties involved and sometimes the lack of confidence and low self-esteem.

One group I have not covered here are the fundamentally defeatists who can neither challenge nor bargain, even both sides have a duty to inspire those to greater heights. Like I have written before, when social disadvantage is yoked with the feeling that the circumstance is destined and ordained - there is much work to be done for our humanity as a whole regardless of race.

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