(Many) years ago, after leaving University, one of my first jobs was working in Clinton Cards. Hardly what I imagined when I donned the gown and hat thing and collected my scrolled certificate, but there we are.  Not just any old branch of the card giant though.  This was Wood Green, North London, and, I was reliably told, we were better paid than other branches, due to the fact that we were likely to be held up and stabbed by ne’re do wells at least 3 times a week.

Needless to say this never happened in the 6 months I spent there and, inevitably, I learned more about human behaviour in that short time than throughout my entire 3 year Psychology degree.

One of my co-workers, let’s call her Mona, was a ‘woman of a certain age’.  Immaculately turned out, even in a brown and orange nylon-fest, she’d been there forever, was revered by her co-workers and commanded the most coveted area of the shop…. the soft toy section. She was, on the surface at least, pleasant, witty, and very chatty, which is always a good thing when you spend most of the day stooped over a card rack, growling about people who take the wrong envelope and rearrange without a second thought for the poor prole who has to tidy up after them.

Mona and I were ‘break buddies’, we got to sit together in the airless cupboard that doubled as a staff room, drinking tea and eating marmalade on toast.  I seem to recall making most of the tea but y’know, she was practically royalty.

Gradually things changed, the witty comments turned to diatribes, the observations on who we were to keep the closest eyes on always seemed to focus on a particular section of the community and the bile overflowed into my tea, making me sick.

The problem was I’d done nothing to invite this.  I didn’t nod sympathetically when she ranted about all that was wrong with ‘this country today’, I gave no impression that I might in any way share her views, I didn’t ask for her opinion or even counter what she said- I knew better than to invite debate with such seasoned hatred.

I got my head down and respected her right to her opinion on the shop floor but here, in my break, in my escape, it bugged me, it coiled inside and made me want to take that bile, wrap it around a soft toy and shove it down her scrawny throat.

But of course I didn’t do that.  What I did was ever-so-politely ask her to desist.  I let her know that I didn’t agree that it was all the fault of ‘the darkies’ and that her opinion offended me and would she mind, ever so much, not going on about it to me? Not aggressive, not haughty, just me being me and hoping for some mutual respect.

What I got was a meeting with the manager where I was reprimanded for the fact that I’d made a valued member of staff so upset that she’d had to leave the soft toy section in tears to report my unreasonable behaviour.

And that was when I saw it.  Saw that it’s apparently ok to harbour xenophobic views, ok to pollute other people’s airspace with these unfounded views based only on fear, ignorance and hate, but not ok to be called on them, not ok to be asked to question them. If I disagree, I’m a bleeding heart liberal, or lost in PC-World or just blinkered and disrespecting of  Mona and all her kind’s right to express themselves.

So now, when it happens what do I do?  I find it really hard.  I’m a long way from perfect but I am open-minded and open-hearted.  I’ve travelled to some amazing places and been shown incredible kindness by strangers, and if you ever needed help I’d do my best to provide it.  So I find it very difficult to understand the fear, the irrationality, and (at times) the sheer stupidity directed at people who look or behave a bit differently.

We have a motto in our house:

Different People, Different Things

It’s a good catch-all, and one I reminded myself of when I was mulling recent events. I don’t know who’s right (NB, I do really, but I’m being magnanimous), but Mona, you know what?  I forgive you your horrendously shortsighted views, I’ll even defend your right to them and, should we ever meet again, I’ll make you tea and marmalade on toast and refrain from poking you in the eye.  And if that’s haughty or arrogant…. sue me, you miserable old cow!

Dear Mona,
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14 thoughts on “Dear Mona,

  • February 21, 2010 at 12:12 pm

    Love it! Will try to take a leaf out of your book about being more magnanimous. Have had a situation over the past couple of days with similarities but hey – life’s too short (especially when you’re my age!)

    Thanks again!

  • February 21, 2010 at 12:49 pm

    I grew up in Wood Green (or Hollywood Green as it is now)! I can’t believe you got in trouble for what you said to Mona, she sounds like a nightmare.

    I was chatting to my mixed-race neighbour when she told me that our postman was lazy because he is black. She then said it was ok for her to say this as she is half black herself! I just didn’t know what to say.

  • February 21, 2010 at 12:58 pm

    Great post! I have to withstand “canteen culture” every day at work. Not overt “zieg heil” stuff but lower level ingrained attitudes. I just shake my head. I’ve always thought it better to fit in than to stand out, but I have to draw the line somewhere. Good thought-provoking stuff. Thanks for sharing.

  • February 21, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    This sort of thing is a bone of contention between me and my mother. She never used to be so xenophobic – we had a house of pakistanis across the road for years and she used to get on with them. I don’t know what happened but she is regularly racist and I have read the riot act to her, put the phone down on her, or nearly walked out of her house on various occasions over the last 10 years.

    Her latest gambit was I mentioned my 4yo (her grandson) was doing a sponsored aerobics session at school to raise funds for resources for Arts week but that some of the money was going to Haiti. I then had a minute long rank about how the money would just end up in someone’s pocket, they were all as bad as their prime minister etc. It wasn’t the time to challenge her on it at the time, but ffs, she could have least offered a quid or two for her grandson rather than focus on her skewed vision of a terrible disaster.

  • February 21, 2010 at 2:06 pm

    oh i hate people like this, you are such a bigger person than i am, i would have poked her in her stupid racist eye. Grrr.

    I think I love you even more after reading this, you write so well.

  • February 21, 2010 at 6:46 pm

    It sounds like she took exception to someone younger (and more accepting of others) correcting her un-PC ways and you were an easy target. Well done for standing up to her and making her aware that whatever she thought wasn’t necessarily right. You can give her a poke in the eye from me 😉

  • February 21, 2010 at 6:50 pm

    I can be polite with that kind of behaviour for a short length of time, then I just have enough. Sometimes I can remove myself gracefully, but occasionally I get cross. Neither works out well for me. Regardless of how tactful or rude I am about it I am the bad guy but life is too short to allow someone else poison my valuable time and energy. Some people are so absorbed in themselves they just can’t see outside their bubble, kind of feel sorry for them in a way. You described it perfectly:) Jen.

  • February 21, 2010 at 8:35 pm

    Life really is too short, although that’s not always easy to remember when you’re knee deep in a situation! Wish I could say that I’m always that magnanimous…. 😉

    Thanks J, xx

  • February 21, 2010 at 8:36 pm

    Are you serious? Hollywood Green? I shudder to think what they’re calling Turnpike Lane these days!

    What on earth do you do in those situations, apart from pick your jaw up off the floor and move on? It all makes me feel very sad and concerned for what the future holds…


  • February 21, 2010 at 8:40 pm

    Thank you 🙂

    I’m well aware of prevailing attitudes having worked on the periphery of your industry… not least towards women…and I can understand your view. I knew that this was not a job I wanted to stick with, it was paying my rent and that was about it. There are definitely times that require a cheek to be turned, but, as you rightly say, it’s important to know where you draw the line.


  • February 21, 2010 at 8:46 pm

    It’s a generalisation but I honestly think that part of the blame lies with the Daily Fail and all who sail in her. So often the views spouted in that vile rag are heard literally word for word across the table at family get-togethers up and down the country. It’s all got a bit Orwellian…it’s true because the Mail says it’s true, and next week a different version of its doublespeak will be true.

    I feel for you, you don’t want to turn every family occasion into a war, but how do you reconcile that with your own, more sympathetic views? Soon enough your son will be old enough to question her..what will she tell him when he asks to be sponsored for Red Nose Day or some other charity that cares for other nations? Often a child’s logic can be much more powerful than ours…


  • February 21, 2010 at 8:53 pm

    Thanks Heather…you know it’s a mutual love-in!

    I was sorely tempted, even back then as a nervous 21 yo. It still makes me really sad to hear any kind of hatred expressed; it’s insidious and recently there’s been a fair amount in blogland and on Twitter. But really, it’s so obviously founded in ignorance that it’s clear that even a poke in both eyes won’t help them see any more clearly 😉


  • February 21, 2010 at 8:54 pm

    Thanks Nic, if I ever see her again I will…right after she finishes her tea and toast! 😉


  • February 21, 2010 at 9:03 pm

    Thanks Jen, I know what you mean about feeling like the bad guy. I think that’s because of the negativity from the commenter affecting you…because how can it be bad to put a hand or a barrier up to such poison? To work positively to bringing about a change?

    Nowadays I look at my children and think how I’d like them to react, I love that they have such a strong sense of justice and an innate acceptance of everything. If that’s a natural thing, then I don’t understand when it changes…like Kate says above about how her mother has changed, what happens to us to turn us into xenophobes, and why doesn’t it affect all of us?


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