Returning home from abroad recently, the airline temporarily lost my luggage and promised to deliver it to my house a little later. It did indeed try to do so, but it was at eight in the evening and I was out in a restaurant having dinner with my neighbours. The delivery man left my case at my next door neighbour but two, a very old lady living on her own. When I went the next day to collect it from her, she told me that the delivery man, who was black, had been very upset because the occupants of neither of the two houses next to mine answered his knock on the door.
‘Is it because I’m black?’ he asked.
He asked this, apparently, not in an aggressive or aggrieved manner, but sorrowfully, as an enquiry as to truth; and I must say that when I heard this I was myself sorrowful. For what must it be like to go through life in the fear of rejection because of the colour of one’s skin, whether that fear be justified or not?
And whether justified or not, it seems to me likely that at some time in his life this man must at least once have experienced what he now feared, rejection because of his colour. One such rejection would be enough to sensitise him for life. That is why an explanation such as the real one, that the occupants of one of the neighbouring houses were out to dinner with me, and that those of the other never answered the front door to anyone whomever after six in the evening, did not occur to him. He jumped straight to the worst possible conclusion.
That he asked his question of the old lady suggests, however, that he knew rejection not to be universal, and perhaps not even common. But the possibility nonetheless weighed heavily upon him. Where others might have shrugged it off, he let it etch itself on his mind. People are different, and react differently to sleights, real or imagined.
But people’s attitudes depend not just upon their temperament but upon the climate of ideas in which they are raised and in which they live. Few could doubt, I suppose, that we now live, where race is concerned, in an atmosphere of universal suspicion; and that the bureaucrats of racial equality would be not sorrowful, but delighted at the delivery man’s reaction. It meant that their job would be assured for many a year.