The West Indian immigrants in The Lonely Londoners suffer not from overt racism, but rather from a more subtle type of bigotry which is quite harmful to their lives and wellbeing. Even as Londoners refrain from broadcasting their prejudices or expressing them directly, racism repeatedly shows itself to be deeply ingrained in their society. As a result, the bigotry facing black immigrants is essentially just as disempowering as the unconcealed racial hatred that runs rampant throughout the United States during the same period (the 1950s). By showcasing the ways in which his characters’ lives are complicated and inhibited by England’s subtle racism, Selvon demonstrates that it is perhaps even more difficult for people to thrive when the discrimination they face is understated.
Throughout The Lonely Londoners, white Britons are reluctant to come out and say they don’t truly accept black people. This is made overwhelmingly evident by the fact that black immigrants find it so hard to secure a good job. While instructing Galahad about how to navigate the ins and outs of finding employment in London, Moses explains, “They don’t tell you outright that they don’t want coloured fellars, they just say sorry the vacancy get filled.” Because of white Londoners’ reticence to fully admit their own racism, black immigrants have to figure out for themselves that they’re being held back by the color of their skin. When Galahad asks if the racism in London is worse than in America, Moses says, “The thing is, in America they don’t like you, and they tell you so straight, so that you know how you stand. Over here is the old English diplomacy: ‘thank you sir,’ and ‘how do you do’ and that sort of thing.” The fact that Moses refers to this kind of treatment as “the old English diplomacy” is worth considering. The word “diplomacy” can be defined as “the art of dealing with people in a sensitive and effective way,” but it can also be understood in more specific terms as the “skill of managing international relations” (Merriam Webster’s Dictionary). As such, when white Londoners couch their racism toward immigrants in “polite” words, they act as if they’re “managing international relations” in a “sensitive” manner. In reality, of course, they’re simply entrenching racial inequality. By employing “the old English diplomacy,” they’re able to oppress black people without ever stopping to feel guilty about it, which makes subtle forms of racism just as disempowering and pervasive as overt bigotry.
While most white Londoners hide their bigotry, some try to compensate for it by fetishizing blackness. As the narrator notes, some white Britons “feel they can’t get big thrills” at a party “unless they have a black man in the company.” Moses himself has experienced this dynamic, and when he leaves a party, white people often “push five pounds in his hand and pat him on the back and say that was a jolly good show.” Although this might seem like an acceptance of Moses’s blackness, such patronizing actions only further emphasize the unspoken rift between black and white people in London. By going out of their way to be extra polite to Moses, these white partygoers take the “old English diplomacy” to new heights, further undermining Moses, since their supposed kindness leads them to treat him not as an equal, but as a spectacle—an entertainer.
Unfortunately, the black immigrant community itself internalizes London’s muted but still prominent racial prejudice. Characters like Harris—whom the narrator describes as somebody who dresses and behaves like white Englishmen—try to erase their own blackness, investing themselves in colorism, a kind of discrimination that prizes lighter skin over darker skin (even among people of the same race). A very dark-skinned man nicknamed Five Past Midnight feels the brunt of this kind of discrimination when he tries to date a light-skinned Trinidadian woman; upset by this mixture of light and dark complexions, a group of Trinidadians chases him off and tries to set him on fire. By showcasing such incidents, Selvon illustrates just how deeply the black community has internalized England’s bigotry.
Not only do the West Indian immigrants in The Lonely Londoners apply colorist prejudices to one another, they also unfortunately turn similar detrimental judgments onto themselves. For example, Galahad looks at his hand and starts speaking to it, saying, “Colour, [it] is you that causing all this, you know. Why the hell you can’t be blue or green, if you can’t be white? You know [it] is you that cause a lot of misery in the world. [It] is not me, you know, [it] is you!” In this moment, Galahad marvels at the fact that skin color is capable of inviting so much discrimination despite the fact that it is, ultimately, completely arbitrary and has nothing to do with his personality or behavior. Indeed, his skin might as well be “blue or green,” since any color that isn’t white has been deemed inferior. Tracking these thoughts, Selvon proves that England’s subtle bigotry has forced Galahad into a struggle against his own racial identity, ultimately illustrating that even understated racism is corrosive to a person’s sense of self. Moreover, Selvon repeatedly shows that the guise of “diplomacy” under which British racism operates makes that racism all the more difficult to address—ultimately making it all the more powerful and corrosive of goodwill among white and black Londoners.
Racism Quotes in The Lonely Londoners
And this sort of thing was happening at a time when the English people starting to make rab about how too much West Indians coming to the country: this was a time, when any corner you turn, is ten to one you bound to bounce up a spade. In fact, the boys all over London, it ain’t have a place where you wouldn’t find them, and big discussion going on in Parliament about the situation, though the old Brit’n too diplomatic to clamp down on the boys or to do anything drastic like stop them from coming to the Mother Country. But big headlines in the papers every day, and whatever the newspaper and the radio say in this country, that is the people Bible. Like one time when newspapers say that the West Indians think that the streets of London paved with gold a Jamaican fellar went to the income tax office to find out something and first thing the clerk tell him is, “You people think the streets of London are paved with gold?”
When Bart leave the hostel he get a clerical job and he hold on to it like if is gold, for he frighten if he have to go and work in factory—that is not for him at all. Many nights he think about how so many West Indians coming, and it give him more fear than it give the Englishman, for Bart frighten if they make things hard in Brit’n. If a fellar too black, Bart not companying him much, and he don’t like to be found in the company of the boys, he always have an embarrass air when he with them in public, he does look around as much as to say: “I here with these boys, but I not one of them, look at the colour of my skin.”
But a few door slam in Bart face, a few English people give him the old diplomacy, and Bart boil down and come like one of the boys.
Though it used to have times when he lay down there on the bed in the basement room in the Water, and all the experiences like that come to him, and he say “Lord, what it is we people do in this world that we have to suffer so? What it is we want that the white people and them find it so hard to give? A little work, a little food, a little place to sleep. We not asking for the sun, or the moon. We only want to get by, we don’t even want to get on.” And Galahad would take his hand from under the blanket […]. And Galahad watch the colour of his hand, and talk to it, saying, “Colour, is you that causing all this, you know. Why the hell you can’t be blue, or red or green, if you can’t be white? You know is you that cause a lot of misery in the world. Is not me, you know, is you! I ain’t do anything to infuriate the people and them, is you! Look at you, you so black and innocent, and this time so you causing misery all over the world!”
The cruder you are the more the girls like you you can’t put on any English accent for them or play ladeda or tell them you studying medicine in Oxford or try to be polite and civilize they don’t want that sort of thing at all they want you to live up to the films and stories they hear about black people living primitive in the jungles of the world that is why you will see so many of them African fellars in the city with their hair high up on the head like they ain’t had a trim for years and with scar on their face and a ferocious expression going about with some real sharp chicks the cruder you are the more they like you[…].