Is my neighbour a bigot or ‘just a foolish old man’?

Coping: Our neighbour had worked himself into a great rage and the veil of socially acceptable artifice came down

‘People describe my neighbour as a joke, a relic of a time that never was. He is harmless, they say. He’s ‘just’ a foolish old man’

‘People describe my neighbour as a joke, a relic of a time that never was. He is harmless, they say. He’s ‘just’ a foolish old man’

 

It is important not to “just” any person you meet. I think of “justing” someone as reducing them disdainfully to one or a small number of usually negative characteristics, real or perceived. We “just” people as a means to dismiss them. Perhaps you’ve been “justed” before. Maybe someone tried to make you feel small or irrelevant by saying you were “just” a woman, “just” a slut, “just” a white man or “just” a child. Who cares what you think? You’re “just” something or other. You are entitled to inhabit no space but the one you are allotted by whoever is pointing their finger at you. There is another, possibly almost as sinister form of “justing”, however. This happens when we dismiss the ugly views expressed by someone because they’re “just old and don’t know any better”, or they are “just spouting what they heard at home growing up”.

One older man in my area, being akin to walking satire, is widely dismissed by our neighbours. People describe him as a joke, a relic of a time that never was. He is harmless, they say. He’s “just” a foolish old man. The sort who would keep your Frisbee if it went over his wall, and throw it with satisfaction into his room of confiscated Frisbees, the earliest of which likely dates back to the 1950s.

This week, my partner Jules stormed through the front door in a rage I have never seen before. It gave me a terrible fright to see him – eternally optimistic and friendly – stride out to the back garden and kick over the black bin with a yell the like of which I’ve never heard. Baffled and not a little unnerved, I asked him what had happened.

It is often when people become angry that their bigotries come out. With the urge to win and make the other person feel small and bad, comes the desire to tell that person all of the things for which you think ill of them. The night before, Jules had asked this neighbour something very politely, and the man misunderstood, took offence without seeking clarification, and walked off.

He had clearly stewed all night. We’ve all been there. Someone says or does something that you (correctly or incorrectly) take great offence to. You continue the conversation in your mind long after it has ended. When you see them again, you launch into an “and another thing” type monologue despite the fact that they may have forgotten the whole thing.

Our neighbour had worked himself into a great rage and the veil of socially acceptable artifice came down. He called Jules “boy”. “You boy, get over here, boy”. Yes, it is dismissive. It is an older man trying to rob a younger man of his masculinity, his experience, his agency. “Boy” is how an older man tells a younger man “you are not my equal, you are small”. But Jules is mixed race, and considers himself a black man. He is a black man. He calmly explained the connotations of this older white man calling him “boy”, and firmly requested that he stop. He didn’t stop. In fact, he escalated the racial abuse and then suggested that Jules isn’t really a person of colour. A sort of “you’re not black enough to satisfy me, but you’re black enough to be ‘other’” logic.

To save himself from punching an old man (which is obviously unacceptable), Jules extricated himself, came home and kicked over our bin instead. He was visibly upset and very angry – “You’d think I’d be used to this by now,” he said, “I’ve had it all my life”.

We think of racism as systemic (and it often is), but systems are composed of individuals who prop them up. The story went round our small cul-de sac like lightning. Each person we encountered unknowingly propped up the elderly man’s bigotry. “He’s just an old man,” they said. One neighbour described the racist abuse as “a clash of personalities”, hence implicating Jules himself for “starting it”. “Don’t make a big thing of it.” How isolating it must feel to live around people who claim to condemn racism, but only when it’s comfortable for them. It’s “just” one bigot after all. Right?

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