The other day I was approached on the street by a black youth who asked me whether I had any credit on my phone. I did (I have a contract) but was a bit wary of saying so. He blurted out his reason for asking: he was late for college and needed to call and tell them but, since his own phone had no credit, could he use mine, please? There was no one else around and my street instinct – such as it is – warned of a scam, so I summoned the following reply: “Well, if you’re late, you’re late: that will be obvious to them. There’s no point in phoning. You should just make sure you arrive on time instead.” And with that I walked away. It was a rather churlish response, admittedly, but it served two purposes, the primary one being to avoid handing my phone over to him; the other being reiteration of a pet gripe about people phoning to state the obvious.
Afterwards I was wracked by remorse. Had I made an unfair assumption that, because he was young and black, he was intent on stealing my phone? Would I have reacted similarly to a white youth? The answer to both questions, I concluded, was yes, which at least eased my conscience apropos racial prejudice. Besides, I thought, I may have been guilty of making assumptions, but so was he in assuming that I was carrying a phone worth stealing and that I would hand it over to him. Never mind, I reasoned, at least I had given the whippersnapper a deserved lecture on the virtuousness of arriving on time as opposed to the futility of apologising for failing to do so.
All this was still meandering through my consciousness days later and came to the fore while I was mooching around the exhibition Revolution at the V&A. I felt comfortable there among so many others of my ilk, some of us watery-eyed with nostalgia, but when I entered the room showing a gigantic projection of the Woodstock film, I was struck by the fact that in all the footage of the “half a million strong” audience I could see no black faces. They were all young and white; the only black people visible were on stage. It was a long time ago and populations generally may be more mixed these days, yet the oft-quoted description of America as a “melting pot” is misleading. It would be more accurate to liken the cultural landscape of America to a mosaic – with some bleeding at the edges – than a stew which might one day become a perfect blend of its ingredients. And I’m not sure that Britain is any different in that respect, given that a majority of us voted to reject the principle of a European Union, thereby implicitly abandoning any ideal of cultural integration.
Some days later I stepped out of Forest Hill train station to catch a bus to Dulwich Picture Gallery – a classic hangout of white, middle class, middle-aged folk – and, unable to locate the bus stop among the confusing junction of roads, I decided to ask a local. Conscious, perhaps, of the need to build bridges I approached a pair of scary-looking black youths who were hanging around. They didn’t know the answer but, undaunted, pulled out their smartphones to consult their apps. I was impressed by their politeness and willingness to help but they couldn’t get the hang of orientation until I pointed out that the names of the roads were visible on the sides of the buildings. “Oh yeah!” they said in apparent astonishment. And so, working together, we located the stop. I thanked them for their attentions and they bade me “Have a good day”. It felt like a nice riposte to the start of the week.