Arts column: Finding common ground can be awkward

I KNOW what it’s like to be an immigrant. I live in a city where, because I speak with a Formby accent, I am constantly reminded by taxi drivers and shop assistants, “You’re not from round here love, are you”.

“But I was born here,” I wail, sounding suspiciously like a BNP follower. “It’s not my fault my parents upped sticks to 25 minutes up the A565. I was only four.”

I’m joking of course. I have absolutely no idea what it’s like to be an immigrant – to leave the place of your birth and travel to a different country, probably a much colder one with more rain, where your hard earned qualifications count for nothing and you are suddenly a minority.

Or what it’s like to be the son or daughter of one of those people. To be born a minority, to be both from and not from Britain, to be judged by the colour of your skin.

But there does seem to be a well-meaning but misguided compulsion by people, usually white people from fortunate backgrounds, to grasp on to the slightest bit of adversity in their experience or even their ancestors’ experience during conversations about race.

A subconscious need to apologise for the chances they were given in life simply because of which family they were born into.

I was thinking about this because of an actor called David Gyasi. If you don’t already know him from White Heat, Doctor Who and Cloud Atlas (in cinemas later this month) then remember his name because he’s going places. On his way up to the dizzying bright lights of household fame, he stopped off at Edge Hill Station to host a lunch at arts centre Metal’s Cafe Valise.

Metal has been holding a series of these events as part of the Liverpool Biennial – taking the visual arts festival’s theme of “The Unexpected Guest” quite literally and inviting a series of artists, actors and musicians to choose a menu and a topic of conversation.

Gyasi, who served 14 of us fried plantain, bean stew, spicy chicken and jolloff rice (inspired by his Ghanaian-born mother’s cooking), talked about his own sense of identity, why he always wears a suit to public events (while he was growing up he never once saw a newspaper photograph of a black man in smart dress) and how his mother’s expression “You’re the head not the tail” has become a mantra – allowing him to feel secure and content even when being told his part in The Dark Knight Rises had been cut… by the director – while standing on a red carpet.

Which is when a Liverpool-based artist confessed his conflicted feelings about being from a relatively privileged background – and how a black friend at university would constantly be plagued by white students telling him about how their great-grandfather was forced to leave Ireland or their second-cousin had once spent a week homeless as if that would somehow suggested a shared experience.

Embarrassing yes, but I think it comes from a good place – from an innate need to fit in, empathise, create a community. We can’t help but look for common ground between ourselves and the people we meet – that’s one of the many things that makes us all the same.

Liverpool Post, October 4, 2012

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