When everybody looks like me, I feel most out of place
I was back in the area where I grew up, in the small town in the south of England where I went to high school for seven years. I was visiting my parents, and had gone with my mother to buy groceries for Sunday lunch. Somewhere near the bakery station, I suddenly felt deeply uneasy, as if something was seriously, profoundly wrong. My mother asked what the matter was.
"It's just that everybody in the shop is so …" I grasped for the right word. "So … white."
Some clarification is required here. I have nothing whatsoever against white people. Some of my best friends are white people. In fact, I'm white people myself. What was making me uneasy was not the white bit, it was the everybody bit: a homogeneous population, minor variations on the same DNA, the same skin, the same language and, with a few minor variations, the same haircuts. After spending most of the past two decades in big, noisy cities where people come in all shades of brown, yellow and pink, suddenly finding myself back in Outer Caucasia was rather disturbing.
Watch out: this is going to be one of the big social divisions in the coming century. Not the division between blacks and whites or Muslims and Hindus or Flemings and Walloons, although all those gaps will persist. The gulf is between homogeneity and heterogeneity, between those who stay in their own cultural comfort zones, and those who find nothing unusual in the idea of living alongside others who look and talk and dress and pray differently.
Of course, there have long been cities, such as New York and London, with large immigrant and transient populations. The difference is that as, for the first time in history, the majority of the world's population is living in urban areas, this is becoming the rule rather than the exception.
The most obvious example of this is seen in South East Asian cities, such as Singapore, and the rapidly expanding Gulf states. Economic globalisation and affordable travel have combined to create a cacophony of locals, expatriates, immigrants, tourists and people who aren't quite sure how they ended up in that particular place. Even previously homogeneous environments such as Japan are changing; in Tokyo, one in 10 marriages includes a foreign partner.
Those who yearn for some notion of cultural authenticity may sigh at the presence of a 7-Eleven and a Starbucks on every street, but this isn't just about big American corporates branding everything that moves; it's also about smaller traders setting up Arab shisha cafes and Brazilian barbecues and Irish pubs in Bangkok in the same way that Indian and Chinese takeaways appeared in London 50 years ago.
There's an argument, sometimes put about by the better dressed type of racist, that different ethnic groups are better off not mixing. "It's not that we think black/brown/white/yellow people are inferior," they insist. "They're just … well, different. And their food smells funny."
It is true that when a newcomer arrives in town, he often seeks out people who speak the same language, play the same music, cheer the same soccer team. And I'm not such a hippy idealist that I believe urban living will inevitably create a multi-cultural, multi-coloured melting pot of social harmony, life as some sort of 1970s Coca-Cola advert. There are tensions, there are feuds, there are tragedies.
But surely the fact that ordinary people can have their eyes opened to other cultures and possibilities must, on balance, be good? And if, in turn, it makes them think that their opportunities are not restricted by geography, that can't be such a bad thing either. Insular, passport-shy fans of Sarah Palin in the US are becoming less and less representative of the world as a whole.
This shift to global cities means that, as an adopted Londoner, I now feel more at home somewhere like Barcelona or Hong Kong than I do in the place where I grew up, only about 100 kilometres from London. The idea of being in a town where everyone looks and talks and walks like me seems preposterous. That said, once I'd recovered my composure in that all-Caucasian supermarket, I was still able to find Chilean sea bass and Thai lemon grass.
Tim Footman is the author of The Noughties 2000-2009: A Decade That Changed the World
Updated: December 12, 2010 04:00 AM