When I was growing up, I was taught by my father that people are people and that basically we all want the same thing: a reasonable standard of living, good health and education for our children. That was somewhat at odds with what some of our neighbours were willing to grant us, growing up as we did in England of the 1970s during the Troubles of Northern Ireland. Having a Irish-Catholic background, people were not racist to our face, but often were behind it. My father was not perfect himself: he thought South Africa was the best-run country he had been to on that continent since it brought a better standard of living to more people, both black and white. On that basis, he was content to support the white apartheid government there. Being a marine engineer, he also did not have much time for Indian radio officers and electricians he encountered; considering them mostly lazy and inefficient. For that reason, I came to learn that he too was considered a racist.
It was when I was in my early twenties however, I took a trip down to London with a couple of friends. I had known one of them for years, but the other was relatively new to me. It was all very nice and very civilised until we got to the outskirts of Brentwood. There, they saw the first black man of the day. These nice, civilised people changed instantly. “There’s a nigger! You smell! You stinking gigaboo!” It wasn’t meant as a joke: there was real hatred in the voices. Sometime they were almost screaming. I had heard racist jokes before and had repeated them myself. That was the first time I had encountered serious, heart-felt hatred and I did not find it attractive.
When I was twenty four, I joined the oil industry. I liked it instantly as it was the first really decent job I had and also background did not seem to matter; as long as one could do the work, you would be accepted. Just what I needed. It is one of the aspects of the industry I still like today, but I have to temper my enthusiasm somewhat. Things were not and are still not today perfect. I was told by Pat, a wily and tough accountant, that I could go far. I pointed out to her that she too should be leading her accounts department, as her boss was considered weak and ineffective. “Yes Martin,” she corrected me. “But unlike you, I don’t have a pair of balls.” She was right. When I left the company to go to university, I was enlisted by my otherwise excellent boss to help select my replacement. We got the shortlist down to two and the outstanding candidate happened to be female. I pressed him upon his reluctance. His reason was that he “would not feel comfortable working with a woman.” At least she was hired, but only after intervention from above. Even when I rejoined the industry, sexism still continued to be an issue. I still remember managers who, when faced with a c.v. from a female applicant for an offshore position, would instantly throw it in the bin. I am glad now that things are changing, but female workers are still under-represented in offshore roles by a considerable degree.
As a strange coincidence, the last location where I spent both Christmas and New Year away from home, was also the place where I first witnesses hard-edged racism in the industry. That was in Cabinda, geographically part of the Congo but politically belonging to Angola. Not all the white fellows there were racist but many of them were. When challenged about it, or signs of disapproval were made, the stock reply was something like “I can be racist because I have to work with the fuckers ever day.” It was at that time a local employee had turned off an alarm that had sounded at the oil storage depot at one o’clock in the morning. The result was a discharge of up to 40,000 barrels of oil into the Atlantic, which polluted 180 miles of coastline. I raise it in context here because of the reaction of many of the ex-pat workers. Chevron would only admit in public that thirty nine barrels of oil had leaked, thereby avoiding the need to announce an international pollution incident. A government minister was reported to have angrily said “We may be black, but we are not stupid!” You can imagine the response that this brought privately among many of the white workers.
So we come to today’s inauguration, or “niggeration” that it has been called among most of the American employees on board this rig. Note I write “most”, not some. And it doesn’t seem to be a generational thing; all age groups are represented in voicing abuse. Most of the humour centred around President Obama potential for being assassinated, with one view that “I hope he gets a year in power so people can ask “what have we done?” before he gets offed.” I guess the new president didn’t receive much support from the eligible voters on board.
I hope such comments represent an decreasing view point, not just among Americans but among the peoples of the world. Obama spoke today of boundaries falling, of people realising their common humanity. I’m reminded of another fellow from Louisiana. It was a couple of months after Hurricane Katrina had devastated large parts of the state. I attempted to commiserate with him about the damage and loss of life, especially in New Orleans. He looked at me as if I was mad. “Them people were told to get out!”
None of us are perfect; even I have been, correctly, brought to book recently for one of my comments that showed poor judgement and understanding. But President Obama and his staff still has much work to do. I support him in the struggle ahead and wish him luck, success and a very long life.