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Guest Host: Steve Roberts
Author Caryl Phillips is keenly aware of the tensions between modern society and migration. He was born in the Caribbean and raised in Britain. As a child, he and his brother were the only black students in his school. His struggle to fit in was thrown into stark contrast by the arrival of the school’s first Muslim student. Years later, he moved to America – the land of his dreams – only to discover the dream was fading. Now, in his new book “Color Me English” he explores the experience of both the immigrant and the exile. He challenges himself and us to reflect on the politics of identity and what it means to belong.
- Caryl Phillips author
British playwright and author Caryl Phillips moved to the U.S. two decades ago. Living in the shadows of the twin towers, he was drawn by what he saw as America’s more inclusive identity. Then the towers came down.
Fighting, Running, and Reading
As a child of immigrants, Phillips felt a great pressure from his parents to read, study, and excel in school. “But inevitably, you know, there was hostility and there was prejudice and there was difficulties at school as, you know, immigrant kids often have. So you had to learn to fight and you had to learn to run.”
Growing Apart from Family
The downside to learning was that Phillips sometimes felt alienated from his family as a result of growing more confident in the U.S. He was having a drink with his father once when the waitress brought him the wrong drink, and Phillips as for the right one. His father was upset. “To the first generation migrant, there’s still a tentative anxiety-fueled exchange that they have with society, that, you know, their children, often, just don’t have that.”
Immigration in the U.S. as Compared to Europe
“Here it’s made easier because of the nature and the structure of the society. You have the hyphen here so you can call yourself an Italian-American or a Jewish-American or a Swedish-American. European societies resist that hyphen so you don’t have Pakistani-Brits. Or, you know, you don’t have a Jamaican-Brit. There’s a sense that you have to choose, and that’s a much more brutal way of moving into a society.”
The majority of immigrants to America today are women, which is a change from the historic balance, Phillips said. “One of the things I’m always astonished by is you ride the subway in New York, particularly early in the morning or at the end of the day, seven, eight, nine o’clock, the majority of the people who look exhausted, battered, beaten down, whose heads are nodding and bobbing on the subway going back home after a long day’s work are women. And I often look and I wonder if there’s any other capital or major – not a capital, major city in the world that has such a disproportionate gender balance where it comes to basic blue collar manual labor that’s mainly women.”
You can read the full transcript here.
MR. STEVE ROBERTSThanks so much for joining us, I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane Rehm. She's away at a public radio conference and will be back on Monday. British playwright and author Caryl Phillips moved to the U.S. two decades ago, living in the shadows of the twin towers, he was drawn by what he saw as America's more inclusive identity, then the towers came down.
MR. STEVE ROBERTSIn his new book "Color Me English," he reflects on the fragility of identity and the nature of modern immigration. And he joins us now to discuss why we need to have the courage to change our ideas about who we are. Caryl Phillips, welcome to the Diane Rehm Show.
MR. CARYL PHILLIPSThanks a lot.
ROBERTSDelighted to have you here. And you can join our conversation with Caryl Phillips at 1-800-433-8850, firstname.lastname@example.org is our e-mail address, join the conversation, we'll be happy to hear from you. You were born in St. Kitts in...
PHILLIPSYes, sir. Yeah.
ROBERTS...British West Indies? And -- but your folks went to Britain when you were only four months old. Why did they immigrate?
PHILLIPSI think the normal reasons, for migration. At that time, economic -- try to get better job, you know. Britain, after the second World War, had a surplus of jobs and not enough people to fill them. So she turned to the colonies. So people from the Caribbean, people from India, Pakistan came to Britain in quite great numbers to help the mother country.
PHILLIPSSo there was a pull from Britain, but then it was also just the ambition of the immigrant to do better for themselves, have a opportunity to give their kids a better education and to move forward with their lives.
ROBERTSOldest story in the book, right?
ROBERTSWhat kind of work did your folks do in Britain?
PHILLIPSWell, to start with, they were doing traditional immigrant jobs, you know, working in a factory, manual labor. My mother worked on the buses collecting tickets. You know, just a basic normal blue collar jobs. But, again, as is traditional with a lot of first generation migrants, they eventually went to night school and got their bits of paper and then moved into the world of teaching.
ROBERTSAnd yet you say that there are a lot of immigrants were drawn from Pakistan, from West Indies, but in Leeds, in the city you grew up in, you were the only black kid for most of your time in school.
PHILLIPSYeah, I was the only black kid in that school because it was one of those situations where, if you went to a particular school, you know, that didn't really reflect the full demographics of the city, there was no such thing as bus in, there was no attempt to, sort of, equalize the numbers or the ethnic complexion of the schools.
PHILLIPSThere were other schools which did have significantly higher immigrant populations. In Leeds, it's sort of -- the three main immigrant groups that were in Leeds were not just the West Indians and the Pakistanis, you had a very large Irish immigrant population and a very large Jewish population, too. Largely refugees from Germany, in the '30s and then refugees from Europe, Central Europe and Eastern Europe after the second World War.
ROBERTSNow, you write in your book "Color Me English" that as a child, growing up, you had three main occupations, fighting, running and reading. Talk about those three.
PHILLIPSWell, you know, sometimes I wonder if I don't still have the same obsessions. Well, you know, you were a child of immigrants so it was a great home pressure to learn to, you know, you were always told you must study, that's why we came here, to give you a better education. So I read a lot. But inevitably, you know, there was hostility and there was prejudice and there was difficulties at school as, you know, immigrant kids often have. So you had to learn to fight and you had to learn to run.
PHILLIPSAnd I guess, the only thing was, you had to know which to do at which particular times. Sometimes you stayed and fought and it was, unfortunately, not a good result. So, you know, those were -- it was a typical immigrant's upbringing. And when you read, when I was, you know, grown up now and started to read work by other immigrants, not just immigrants to Britain, but other immigrants, particularly to the United States, Canada, countries which traditionally have taken people in, it was surprising to see how much the reading, running and writing dominated young kids' lives.
ROBERTSWell, as you and I were discussing, off the air, we both have a deep interest in immigration. I'm the grandson of immigrants from Russia and Poland and have written several books on the subject. And one of the things that strikes me about this, is that there are elements of the immigrant experience that are universal. Every immigrant feels the pain of leaving home.
ROBERTSEvery immigrant struggles with the question of merging their old traditions with the new culture. And as you have -- and since you've been an immigrant twice, first moving to Britain, now to the United States, and that universality of the experience keeps echoing for you.
PHILLIPSIt does really. It's absolutely true to say that you can look at the patterns of migration, in this country, say, patterns of migration from, as we were talking about, Russia and Poland, Jewish migration at the start of the 20th century or Italian migration. All the more recent migration from the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico, you can see that same anxiety of belonging, the complication around the word Home.
PHILLIPSThe difficulty of dealing with one's children as they move into the society with a great deal more confidence, perhaps, and fluency and ease then their parents who may be to some extent is first generation migrants, continue to stand on the edge. Sometimes that peripheral position is reinforced by linguistic problems, of course.
PHILLIPSBut these patterns of, you know, assimilation, moving toward the center of the society, participating, having complications around home, not quite knowing how to belong to a society, I think, are very universal.
ROBERTSAnd you tell a poignant and painful incident in your book about having a drink with your dad and you being more comfortable and confident in your identity, sending back a wine that was below your standards and your dad really being upset about it. Tell that story.
PHILLIPSWell, my standards are not that high for wine, but they're high enough to know the difference between chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, basically. No, it was just a story about sitting, not so long ago, with my father and realizing the degree to which the fragility of participating in society lingers in a lot of people. You know, we ordered a couple of drinks. I didn't get the right drink. I asked the waitress to, please, bring another drink.
PHILLIPSAnd, of course, my father was, you know, regarded this as my making an unnecessary fuss. Couldn't I just sort of make a peace with what I had in front of me? And, of course, I said, she didn't mind. I didn't mind. It was a perfectly amicable exchange. But, of course, to the first generation migrant, there's still a tentative anxiety fuel exchanged that they have with society, that, you know, their children, often, just don’t have that.
ROBERTSYou know, a story I heard from three sisters from Burma who settled in California and one of them said to me that her mother would always say, you know, you got to be so careful, they can always send us back. And she said, mom, they can't send us back, we're American citizens. But there was that edge of anxiety you're talking about.
ROBERTSBut you also tell a story, particularly in your first chapter, though that you were the only black kid for a long time, a classmate named Ali (sp?) comes to the school and tell the story of what happened with Ali and the bus ride and your mixed feelings about that.
PHILLIPSWell, I think it's only recently that I sort of began to think about this young fellow again. We were both about, I guess, 13 or 14. It was a strange thing to suddenly have in the school another dark-skinned person or be it a guy from the -- what I thought was probably Pakistan, called Ali. And there was a desire, I think, on both of our parts to become friends, to have some form of sort of trauma bonding, I guess, in some way.
PHILLIPSBut we never really did become friends. But the one incident that I talk about in the book is when he was basically picked on and bullied by a group of kids on the school bus and they threw his book out of the window. And I sort of came to rescue him, like a sort of Sir Galahad figure, and escorted him to the school to complain about what had happened, thinking that I understood his predicament and we would bond around this incident.
PHILLIPSOf course, the school did nothing about it and we sort of drifted apart. Now, I think the reason I began to think about him again, I think about how we never really became friends, was because of some of the incidents that have happened in recent years around questions of Islam and particularly the bombings in London a few years ago.
PHILLIPSAnd the rising sense of anti-Islamic feeling in Britain, made me think again about that young man and think again about, perhaps, the way in which it may have been faith or not having a shared religion that kept us apart. And in a sense, that was more important as a staff of identity then both of us having non-white skins.
ROBERTSYeah, it was an interesting incident on many levels but it caused you to think that perhaps race was not always the critical dimension because you mentioned, not only, did you not share religion with Ali, but you, as coming from the British West Indies, spoke English...
ROBERTS...and so you -- in many ways, it was easier for you to assimilate into Britain despite the racial differences.
ROBERTSAnd for him, who had much bigger differences and was, as you put it, was on the more of the outer edge of race society.
PHILLIPSYeah. Well, precisely. You know, it's -- you know, there's always been an assumption, I think, in myself, growing up, that, you know, if one could somehow just hurdle this question of race, hence the title of my book, you know, "Color Me English," if you could somehow just navigate this tricky question of race, then you would be able to move to the center of British society. And I was completely forgetting the other cultural factors, language, religion, which keep people on the edge despite their race, you know, or in spite of their race.
PHILLIPSAnd this, I think, has really become the reality, not just in Britain, in Europe and obviously we're seeing some of it here in the United States of America after September the 11th. This whole question of identity rooted in faith, not so much rooted in race.
ROBERTSCaryl Phillips, his new book "Color Me English: Migration and Belonging Before and After 9/11." Give us a call. There are some lines open, 1-800-433-8850, email@example.com. Caryl Phillips and I will be right back so stay with us.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane while she's away at a public radio conference. She'll be back on Monday. My guest this hour is Caryl Phillips. A well known writer, novelist, essayist. His new book is "Color Me English: Migration and Belonging Before and After 9/11." And we've been talking about the whole question of race and faith and language and immigration.
ROBERTSAnd your account reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend of mine, a woman who is Tamil. This is a minority group from Sri Lanka . And very dark skinned and she was engaged to a Tamil who had settled in Britain. And she was living in Washington. And she said to this man, I will marry you but only if we move to America because in Britain, I'll always be a packy (sp?) , this slur that is -- you heard a lot, you know, as a young man.
ROBERTSAnd it raised the question of whether, as you put in the book, is it possible to be black and European. It's possible to be black and American, but you ask is it possible to be black and European. And what answer have you been working out to your own question?
PHILLIPSWell, it has to be possible, otherwise the societies are in big trouble, and not just Britain. France, the Netherlands, Germany, all of those societies are in big trouble if it's not possible. The question is who is helping this to happen. Who is, you know, making the effort to usher these societies towards a sense of transformation?
PHILLIPSI understand why the Tamil lady that you quote and would want to move to the United States because it's implicit in the very mythology, the notion of the United States, that one can participate in the society no matter where you've come from. Yes, there are going to be difficulties moving to the center of the society. Yes, there are going to be obstacles which you have to navigate. But the idea is that you can participate and that you can belong. And it may take some time, but you will move to the center.
PHILLIPSEuropean societies are not set up in that way, and particularly colonial societies such as Britain and France and to some extent the Netherlands too, societies which for many, many hundreds of years have established themselves on the basis of us and them. The way in which they have operated is with a very secure sense of their own identity. And then a lot of their history and a lot of the sense of themselves has been acted out in other people's territories. Once those other people started to come then those barriers to participation began to grow higher and higher.
PHILLIPSSo it's a very different sense of national belonging in Europe from the United States of America.
ROBERTSAnd the other dimension of that is when you talk about the colonial template is a notion of superiority. You know, that the home country, the white country was -- not only ruled the colonies, but were culturally and even racially superior.
PHILLIPSWell again, this is the whole question of, you know, how do you set up a multicultural society. I mean, the way in which a lot of European multicultural -- so called multicultural societies are set up is the notion of one central society or one central notion of cultural normality and then kind of satellite cultures on the peripheral that are tolerated.
PHILLIPSThe United States of America, again, while not perfect, is much more of a melting pot. That's a phrase you hear a lot in this country, the sense that people's cultural practices have seeped into what we might consider the mainstream now. Such as, you know, you get up in the morning, you buy a bagel. It's much more fluid, much more open, much more porous. European societies are much more fortified. And it is partly because of, as you said, the colonial template.
ROBERTSAnd of course, also in America, you have had such a long tradition of immigration that there's no one notion of what an American looks like. I was in Scandinavia over the summer on vacation. And the presence of Muslim immigrants and African immigrants in Scandinavia just from a visual point of view stands out so strikingly, where those same people walking down the streets of New York or Washington would not stand out in anything like this anyway.
PHILLIPSWell, of course. I mean, you're right. I mean, sometimes I think there's a sort of weird irony. You know, when I walk down the streets in this country people assume I'm an African American, of course, until I start to speak. There are many, many streets in Britain that I walk down and they assume I'm a foreigner until I start to speak. You know, the perception of what is the national face of somebody who is a Brit or somebody who is a Swede or somebody who is a German still doesn't necessarily include somebody who's a different race.
PHILLIPSAnd certainly in a society like Britain where...
ROBERTSTo say nothing of someone who wears a Muslim headscarf.
PHILLIPSExactly. That's what I was going to say. In a society like Britain where you can't actually be the Head of State if you're a Catholic or if you're Jewish or if you're Muslim, which is ludicrous. In the most multicultural and most multiracial country in Europe to still have these barriers to participate in at the very top level of society does send down a signal to people, such as your Tamil friend, who will then say, you know, forget it. I'm going to America.
ROBERTSWell, basically you said that, too. I mean, you came to America 20 years ago. And as you write in the book, this fluidity of American culture, the openness of American culture was part of what drew you. Talk about your decision to come and the experience since then.
PHILLIPSWell, my decision to come was a professional decision to come and teach here for one year. I mean, I didn't have much experience as a teacher. I was, I was gonna say, just a writer. That's what I did.
ROBERTSAlthough your folks were teachers as you pointed out.
PHILLIPSYes. But I -- you know, I'm one of those kids who left university at -- clutching a Bachelor's Degree vowing never to set foot in one of these places again, you know. And ten years later, I found myself being offered the opportunity to come to this country for a year to teach in a college in Massachusetts. And I thought this would be a great opportunity to learn about the United States rather than just making the odd visit, to actually stay, to learn, to teach the next generation.
PHILLIPSAnd I found that I actually liked teaching. And one year lead to two years, lead to three years. And so that's why I stayed, you know, as a country which I think has enabled me to do the classic immigrant thing. It's enabled me to grow. I don't feel that some of the opportunities I've had here, I don't feel those opportunities would all have been available to me if I had stayed in Britain.
ROBERTSBut you also are critical of some of the American ideals and mythology, or at least the way Americans carry them out. You talk about the reality show that is the United States of America. Talk about that dimension of your...
PHILLIPSWell, I mean, I'm certainly critical because I feel that having been here for the length of time I've been here and having, you know, been an American citizen now, having participated in this society, I don't feel an outsider. And I do think that it's not a rosy picture for a lot of people, particularly in the last few years. It's still rather galling to watch some of the inequities that are visited upon people's heads in this country around issues of identity and belonging. Even the President of the United States is having to continually defend himself against people who are insisting that he's a Muslim, as if there's something wrong with being a Muslim.
PHILLIPSWho's, you know, got to the absurd position of having to show his birth certificate. There are things wrong many levels in this society around these issues of belonging and identity. So it's not just a bed of roses here.
ROBERTSWell, and history shows that, you know. One of the things I did is look back in history and you go back to the 1750s and the Americans passed something called the Alien and Sedition Acts which were designed to keep out the French. And then the next group they wanted to keep out were the Irish...
ROBERTS...and the Germans and then the Chinese and then the Jews and then the Italians and then the Japanese. There's a long history of American ambivalence about immigration.
PHILLIPSSure. Every generation -- and you've named some of the immigrant groups -- the national immigrant groups who've come in -- every generation has produced another group of migrants to this country, be they Ethiopians, be they Somalis, be they from Colombia or Ecuador who've had to go through the process of becoming American. And how does one become an American? Well, one has to assimilate. One has to decide how much of your culture you're prepared to jettison. How much you can hold on to. How much will play out in this society.
PHILLIPSIt's a painful often gut wrenching process of moving into a new society. But the United States is built on the principle of welcoming people from outside. The only group of people, of course, who didn't want to come here are African Americans.
ROBERTSAfrican slaves, yes.
PHILLIPSAnd every other group of people who are here in this country came here because they wanted to be here and they were prepared to pay the price of participating in this society even if it meant occasional discomfort around issues of racism, prejudice, economic -- you know, being economically disadvantaged. They were prepared to pay that price to participate.
ROBERTSAnd those inevitable and eternal and universal questions of identity, of defining home as you put it so well earlier. In the end the immigrant generation is never going to fully resolve those questions. It's only their children who do.
PHILLIPSOr the children's children and so on. The first generation, I don't think, ever really do resolve these questions.
ROBERTSMy grandparents never did.
PHILLIPSNo. They grapple with them. They still dream in another language occasionally. They certainly dream of going home, going back even though the evidence is that they're not going anywhere. They see their children moving further and further into society forgetting the language that they tried to teach them as kids. So I think it's very painful for that pioneer generation. And then it's complicated for the next generation.
PHILLIPSBut, again, when we were comparing Europe with the United States, here it's made easier because of the nature and the structure of the society. You have the hyphen here so you can call yourself an Italian-American or a Jewish-American or a Swedish-American. European societies resist that hyphen so you don't have Pakistani-Brits. Or, you know, you don't have a Jamaican-Brit. There's a sense that you have to choose, and that's a much more brutal way of moving into a society.
ROBERTSThat's a good way to put it. I interviewed a young woman not long ago whose parents were both from Francophone, Africa, from Senegal, Cameroon. And she's an American kid, grew up here. And she said, my parents met in Paris, but they moved to America because it was so much easier for them to be black in America than to be black in Paris, even though they had grown up in French-speaking countries.
ROBERTSBut she said, of course, the ambivalence of her father about her entrance into America as she goes off to Michigan State and brings home a white boyfriend and her father says -- she says of her father, he wanted me to be American, but not too American. And that summed up, I thought, you know, the ambivalence of the parents so well.
PHILLIPSRight. Well, that, again, is one of the anxieties that the first generation have to soak up. You know, who are their children going to start to date, who are their children going to start to marry. It becomes a problem because they can see -- you know, in the most basic way, genetically they can see themselves disappearing.
ROBERTSAbsolutely. I'm Steve Roberts and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." You're also listening to Caryl Phillips. His new book is "Color Me English: Migration and Belonging Before and After 9/11." And, Caryl, we've got a lot of folks who want to join the conversation. We'll start with Dawn in Fort Worth, Texas. Welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
DAWNI wanted to share my thoughts about the universal notion, the idea that all immigrants go through the same thing. I agree perfectly, but I also disagree a bit with the first generation fluidity. I look at my daughter, for example, didn't understand how myself and my husband holding on to our Jamaican identity would impact how she would choose -- the kind of American she would choose to become. And for her, race is a huge, huge issue.
DAWNAnd she lines up on the side of being strongly pro-black and very uncomfortable, though she grew up in a white world, of merging in this white world. And we look and we realize that we contributed to it probably because our sense of Jamaican identity was so fierce and has been so fierce that we limited our assimilation in the American society in many ways, even as we worked within this white world. And so it's interesting to watch her struggle through that.
ROBERTSStay on the line. I want to get Caryl's response. Go ahead, please.
PHILLIPSWell, I think that as somebody obviously of West Indian background, too, I think that the sentiments which the lady from Fort Worth has just expressed, actually I've heard it a lot and seen it a lot in the West Indian community. I think partly because of two reasons. One, the Caribbean Islands are actually within reach physically, geographically. There's a lot of traffic back and forth. One could actually keep contact with one's roots in a sense.
ROBERTSYeah, my Jamaican students maintain -- they're -- all their grandmothers are still back in Jamaica, very strong.
PHILLIPSRight. So that's why I like the phrase -- you know, the phrase the lady used about being fiercely Jamaican. I think West Indians are fiercely proud of their identity and they're able to renew those bonds. But not all immigrants are able to do that going and coming and to-ing and fro-ing and going back and forth.
PHILLIPSThe other thing, of course, is that, you know, Fort Worth, Texas I don't really know very well, but some parts of the country it is a lot easier to move and be fluid with that identity. Other parts, it's not so easier (sic) . I'm actually much more familiar with the east coast.
ROBERTSBut you made an interesting point that when you walk down the street in America people assume you're an African American until you speak. And that particularly for West Indians and also for people from Africa themselves, there's often this confusion. The length at which you are viewed is often not quite, in many ways, you're more like typical immigrants and say Jamaican and replace it with Vietnamese or Dominican. And you share a lot of the immigrant experience that's different from the African American experience.
PHILLIPSAbsolutely. And I think it comes back to something we were saying earlier about the difference between myself and Ali in England. You know, a West Indian immigrant come into this country doesn't carry some of the -- what we might term some of the cultural baggage that other immigrants carry. I don't mean that in a majority sense. I just mean you already have an understanding of American life through cable TV, through, as I said, geographical proximity's quite possible. And be quite likely that some members of your family have already migrated or -- you know, there's an exchange with the United States of America. There's a shared language. There's some kind of shared understanding.
PHILLIPSPeople coming from other parts of the world including Europe, Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America don't always have that cultural knowledge to bring to this country.
ROBERTSBut it was also interesting that Dawn said that her daughter chose strongly to identify with her racial identity.
PHILLIPSAbsolutely. Again, it's been the case that some people feel rejected by the society. Some people don't feel able to move into -- people are hurt. People feel slight. This is something that I witnessed and felt very strongly growing up in Britain. I see the same things here actually amongst a lot of immigrant groups. So it's not surprising at all that you would embrace this essential sense of yourself around race.
ROBERTSCaryl Phillips. His book is "Color Me English." We're going to be right back with your calls and your comments. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane, so please stay with us.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane. My guest this hour is Caryl Phillips, well-known novelist and essayist, originally from St. Kitts in the British West Indies, grew up in Britain and for the last 20 years has been living and teaching in America. And his book is called "Color Me English: Migration and Belonging Before and After 9/11." And, Caryl, a couple of emails from folks. Vanessa writes to us "How does Mr. Phillips feel about being mistaken for an African American?"
PHILLIPSFine. I have no problem with that. You know, some of the issues around identity, some of the issues around belonging are just natural mistakes. I mean, it's just -- it can be even humorous at time, so I don't have any problem with that. I mean, I think one of the difficulties that you learn very quickly unless you want to descend into a certain paranoia is to distinguish between curiosity and hostility. And I had to learn to do that very early in England, because if you assume that every encounter which is rooted and a mistake or a wrong assumption, is a hostile gesture, then, you know, one begins to feed oneself with a kinda bile and a kind of a knee jerk response to everything. So it's fine.
ROBERTSLet me bring in Richard from Tampa, Fla. Welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
RICHARDHello, good morning. Thanks for taking my call. Caryl, I just wanted to first of all say that I'm incredibly proud of the work you've accomplished and just wanna share with you kind of a harrowed I guess path that I have. My parents moved to England from St. Lucia when they were teenagers. And I myself grew up in England until I was a teenager. I lived in Brixton and then moved to Florida and have been here ever since. You'll quickly detect and I did a phenomenal job of doing away with my British accent.
RICHARDI regret that now as an adult, but at the time, you know, being 15 years old or 14 years old, the last thing I wanted was to be different. I'm curious if you could share your experience as it relates to how you think you're treated as a black person living in America once people indeed discover that you're not African American. From my own experience now, having kind of lived these two worlds as being a black person here with a very strong cockney accent, now being a black person in this country, of course, with an American accent, I can share with you my experience has been vastly different. And the later of the two probably being worse than the previous.
PHILLIPSWell, first of all, thanks for your kind comments. Your observation, I suspect, of your own experienced is rooted in the truth for most people. I think that there's a curiosity about somebody who is black but not participate in the traditional African American narrative. In other words, you know, I've heard this comment so many times. It's deeply annoying to me. Actually it's more than deeply annoying to me. You don't seem quite as angry as some other African American people, which is hugely patronizing to African Americans and actually a huge underestimation of the things that people have to soak up around issues of race and racism.
PHILLIPSSo, sure, I think that there are many occasions in which the fact that I have a British accent makes people think that it's easier to talk to me, but I think that's insulting to African Americans and I think it's actually insulting to me.
RICHARDI agree. It's insulting. In fact, just to comment on that, I've been actually told on more than one occasion back when I had an accent, literally people have told me, you're not really black, you're British.
PHILLIPSWell, again, you know, it's precisely that. It's people who are confusing issues of nationality with issues of race who actually don't actually see that they're not mutually exclusive.
ROBERTSRichard, thanks so much for sharing your experiences with us. We appreciate it.
ROBERTSLet's turn to Ruth in Marietta, Ohio with a different background and a different set of experiences. Please, you're on the air.
RUTHI've been listening of course to the last few comments. When Mr. Phillips was talking about discrimination, one of the things he left out was class. And my mother-in-law was an immigrant from Scandinavia and I think a lot of people at that time, probably also people from Ireland, women especially, worked in people's houses. And she was in church. Actually what prompted this call was his comment about sending the wine back. She came home from church absolutely indignant. She said the man sitting in front of her was struggling to get his overcoat on and she leaned forward to help him and he said, thanks, that's real service. She took such offense at his using that word.
PHILLIPSI would just like to say that you're absolutely right to introduce class into this equation and also gender because people's experiences are not just seen through the prison of their race, immigrants. Women immigrants have a completely different set of experiences often. And class is a factor as well. And the level at which one is operated in the society, the degree of pretense, the degree of what I often like to think of as performative anxiety with which the immigrant has to tie themselves up is often connected with class.
ROBERTSYeah, and as our caller points out so well, the tradition of particularly women working as servant in richer, whiter people's homes exacerbated that class issue.
PHILLIPSAbsolutely. I mean, it's -- again, there are novels, there are films which point very clearly to the experience of an immigrant family coming to this country and the women actually having more understanding and more access into the lives of the so-called native -- the American population simply because they were working in the homes, they were able to see it up close and personal, have an intimate understanding of how America worked.
PHILLIPSThey go back at the end of the day to their own family and they can't quite take that knowledge back and make it work within their home. They know something through the intimacy of contact. And so many immigrant women have to work 'cause they have no choice but to go out and work.
ROBERTSAnd one of the interesting things that's happened, one socialist has called it the feminization of immigration, that with the changing nature of the American economy, with the growth of a service economy and the decline of traditional manufacturing jobs, actually there are more economic opportunities for women than for men often. And, in fact, the majority of immigrants to America today are women, which is a significant change from the historic balance.
PHILLIPSOne of the things I'm always astonished by is you ride the subway in New York, particularly early in the morning or at the end of the day, seven, eight, nine o'clock, the majority of the people who look exhausted, battered, beaten down, whose heads are nodding and bobbing on the subway going back home after a long day's work are women. And I often look and I wonder if there's any other capital or major -- not a capital, major city in the world that has such a disproportionate gender balance where it comes to basic blue collar manual labor that's mainly women.
ROBERTSLet's talk to Neville in St. Louis, Mo. Welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
NEVILLEYeah, I had a problem that -- not a problem, but a situation. My grandparents like yours, Steve, were Russian Jews that came over in the 1880s. And growing up in (word?) Brooklyn which was predominately Irish with some Italian, one of the few Jewish families, in the neighborhood I was always referred to as the Jewish kid. The other kids were the Irish kids, the Italian kids. I was never the Russian kid. I was always the Jewish kid. And it's always bothered me the Jews are singled out as a race and not a nationality. And I wanted to get your comments on that.
PHILLIPSWell, the same thing is happening in Europe now. There are countless numbers of young people in Britain, in France, in Holland who are called the Muslim kid. They're not identified by their nationality. Other kids are identified by their nationality, but I guess it's the degree of anxiety that some societies have around certain religions at certain points. And certainly today in Europe there is a great deal of debate and a great deal of hostility in some quarters, blatant hostility towards people who are of the Muslim faith. So, I mean, it completely cuts across the other descriptions that the kids are getting. You know, they are certainly just the Muslim kid.
ROBERTSAnd one of the focal points of the debate are the religious practices which publicly identify them as Muslims, particular the head scarf or a veil, which just exacerbates exactly what you're talking about.
PHILLIPSSure. And, you know, you have the situation in Europe now where people are trying to -- well, not trying, people are legislating against visible difference. But that visible difference they're legislating against is not a difference which is rooted in anything other than fundamentally discrimination against one form of religion.
ROBERTSKate is next and you have been patient and waiting, Kate, and thanks for joining us from Washington, D.C.
KATEHi, thank you, Steve. Would you just give me a moment to set a frame for the question that I have for Mr. Phillips? One of the things that I'm noticing, because I deal in demographics and anthropology, is that the United States is at a crossroads in terms of whether the basis of the U.S. identify is going to continue to be white supremacy or whether we're truly going to become a capitalistic society as we've always said we were. Now, let me give you the example and then ask the question.
KATEAs a pragmatic black American women, I am more angry not so much because of the racism, but because as an African American our opportunity to participate in economic development for my country is thwarted because the Chinese are entrenched in Africa and bringing money to China. Then our people as African Americans are able to go to Africa and bring the economic development and the money back to this country mainly because of the race.
KATEThe same thing with Latinos in the population. I want Juan and Maria not picking tomatoes. I want them as professionals contributing to this system in this country so that the money and the economic development that we need in this country is going. With the demographic shift, I see more people, you know, talking about take the country back and spending cuts and all of this, to sort of undercut the other when the numbers...
ROBERTSI would like to ask you if you could formulate a question for Caryl. That would be helpful.
KATEWell, the question I have for Mr. Phillips is, is he seeing the same thing from a global or immigrant position? And that is with our numbers of people of color growing all over this world, that folks who are hugging on white supremacy rather than economic development, and talk a little bit about that. Thank you, Steve.
ROBERTSThank you very much for your call. I'm Steve Roberts and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Please go ahead, Caryl.
PHILLIPSWell, economic development is usually stimulated by immigrants. You know, it's...
ROBERTSWithout a doubt.
PHILLIPS...it's the basics kind of economics 101. If you want your economy to be stimulated, if you want your economy to grow, you better open the doors to immigrants to come.
ROBERTSAnd one of the key differences between the United States and Europe today is as you've got aging populations and expensive social welfare systems, the United States because of its percentage of immigrants has at least some workers to pay the bills. And one of the great crises in Europe as they close the doors to these immigrants, they're closing the doors to young workers and taxpayers who would help support a lot of those welfare systems.
PHILLIPSIt's no secret that, you know, you turn on the television every day. We get news about the way in which the American economy is ossifying and some might say atrophy and, you know, it's in a state of flux, a state of crisis, according to some. But, you know, my word, look across the Atlantic and see what's happening in many, many of those European countries. And I think what you're saying, Steve, is absolutely correct. It's not without some direct correlation to the whole question of trying to build your borders even higher.
ROBERTSLet's turn to Tonya in Raleigh, N.C. 'cause she too shares a common experience to yours. Tonya, welcome, you're on the air.
TONYAYes, hi. I just wanted to bring the comment about the psychology of growing up in the islands versus growing up in the United States. I think that one of the biggest things that I have spoken about with friends of mine relative to being an immigrant is the psychology of growing up in the islands, you're often surrounded by people of color in positions, often authoritative positions, whether it be the bank managers or your everyday principal or, you know, most of the influential folks in your life, you're accustomed to growing up seeing those people as persons of color.
TONYAWhile moving to America, a lot of the positions that are held in America for people in power are, you know, usually not people of color. So can you speak to the psychological effects that that can have as far as the pride or the differences in feelings of folks that may have come from, you know, West Indian or Caribbean backgrounds and then moving to the United States?
ROBERTSThat's an excellent question, Tonya. Colin Powell, to take a good example, just talked often about growing up in Jamaica and being surrounded by black teachers and black authority figures, and that he attributes this as a significant element in his own growing up and sense of possibility in his life. So please answer Tonya.
PHILLIPSWell, I was actually gonna say Colin Powell. And there are other West Indians who've achieved in this society I think partly because they've come and they've seen exactly what Tonya is describing which is sort of inequity of representation at levels of power in the society, but it hasn't actually put them off wanting to participate and wanting to move forward. It's not thrown them into a situation in which they think to themselves then there's no way forward because they have the example from back home of people participating at that level.
PHILLIPSSo, you know, it's possible some may wish to argue that it causes anger, anxiety, depression. I'm sure it does in some people, and frustration. But I think in a great number of people of West Indian background, the evidence is that it actually causes them to just buckle down and get on with it. West Indians have achieved disproportionately to the numbers that they are here in the United States. They've achieved at high levels in this society.
ROBERTSWell, and I brought up Gen. Powell because in interviewing him many times over the years and asking him about his own history, he would say something very similar to what Tonya said, that he had role models growing up and he had figures of authority that looked like him and that it was a source of encouragement and pride to him that helped make his way.
PHILLIPSI think it's inevitable, in a sense, that if you do grow up seeing people in positions of power and authority, people exercising a great deal of dignity, that, you know, you're gonna want to do the same.
ROBERTSCaryl Rivers -- I'm sorry, Caryl Phillips. Carol Rivers is another author. Caryl Phillips, "Color Me English: Migration and Belonging Before and After 9/11." What a treat to have you with us this morning on "The Diane Rehm Show."
PHILLIPSIt was a pleasure. Thank you.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts sitting in for Diane. She's away at a public radio conference. She'll be back on Monday. And thanks so much for spending an hour with us.
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