I feel that I need to share this story, especially given that I’ve shared stories of being in the UK and being ignored, or brushed off, by white folks. I’ve been brushed off so often in the past, that generally speaking, I’d stopped asking white people for directions at nighttime. However, the University term is just about over, and my views of Cambridge, England, and indeed ‘white people’, have undergone quite a notable shift. Throughout the entire term it’s been difficult for me to ignore that, generally speaking, white strangers have been treating me differently… and it has lead me to wonder: Have I changed? Is there something different about how I carry myself, or how I approach people, that has caused me to elicit many more positive encounters than I did before? There have been many examples over these past 2 months that have caused me to wonder what, if anything, has changed, but the following might just be the best example.
At around 10.30pm, one winter night last month, I got lost on my way to a function. I’d walked alongside a river, and then made a wrong turn up some stairs to the street, trying to find St. Edmund’s College. I approached nine white people on the street for directions that night, and they all stopped to help me. The first were two women with English accents. They seemed very happy to help. I’d asked if they knew where Magdelene College was, and St. Edmunds too, but they had no clue. However, wanting to help me out, they asked me if I knew what street it was close to. I said that it’s somewhere off Huntington Road, and they lit up. They began explaining how to get there and wished me all the best in finding the college. I told them thanks, and continued on my way. I was pleasantly surprised that they didn’t at all hesitate in helping me when I stopped them. I don’t think that I’ve ever had such a warm reception from white strangers when I asked for help at nighttime.
I was late for the function, and I was afraid of taking a wrong turn, but confident from my last encounter, I decided to stop someone else to ask for help. This next person I stopped was a white man (also with an English accent). He directed me as well, and I continued walking. By this point, I was thinking that perhaps I shouldn’t be so afraid to ask for help, and so I went along with that thought in mind. The walk was about 40 minutes, and there was ample opportunity for me to go off track. I next stopped a couple. They had foreign accents (perhaps Italian or Spanish) and although they didn’t know exactly where I was looking for, they stood for a little while trying to help. The most interesting encounter came next though. I stopped a middle-aged white man. He had an Eastern European accent. He also didn’t know how to find the college I was looking for, and I was about to say thanks and bid him farewell, but then he said ‘Wait!’ He pulled his phone out, smiled, and said ‘We’ll find it. I think it should be around somewhere.’ He started looking on Goggle Maps, but typed in the wrong search word. He didn’t seem to understand my accent very well, but he was very determined to help me figure out the directions to the college. We ended up searching on Google and getting directions for somewhere in Oxford. I felt like I was being a real hassle, and I said ‘It’s okay, thanks!’. He refused to give up though and I realized that he didn’t at all seem to mind going the extra mile to help me find the place. I honestly was very touched by how much he wanted to help. I stood there with him for minutes whilst I spelt things out and he searched on his phone. We eventually did find the directions and he happily exclaimed and smiled at me, “Yes!” It felt as though we had achieved something great together. His happiness and excitement at finding the directions to help me out was infectious. He then turned and started explaining the directions to me, said that he’s sure that I’ll find it and won’t get lost again, and wished me the best. He was so happy about it that I felt like I was the one helping him out. I thanked him, wished him the best too, and carried on. The last group I stopped on the street was a group of young women (English accents, teens/early 20s). They stood for a while, speaking to me and amongst themselves, trying to help me figure out where to go. They said that they knew I was close to the college, but they weren’t sure where exactly the building was, and so they directed me to a porter’s lodge a few minutes away where they were certain I’d be able to get help. Shortly after meeting them, actually, within about two minutes, I found St. Edmund’s college.
I know this might sound cheesy, but my eyes are actually watering writing this. I was just so happy. It was such a beautiful night. I’d met such amazingly helpful people during the walk that the journey to the function was as much a ‘main event’. It’s so easy to give up hope after a few negative experiences, but that night I became fully convinced that it’s worth it to not give up too soon when forming an opinion about entire groups of people.