When I was a teenager I got a job one summer working in a pub not far from where we lived in Yorkshire.
After a week or so, an old man came up to me with a conspiratorial look.
“You know, lad,” he said, “When I first saw you standing behind the bar, I thought, bloody hell, is this place under new management?
“But now that I’ve got to know you, I actually think you’re all right.”
It was one of those moments that’s simultaneously funny and insulting at the same time. The pensioner was essentially telling me that because of the colour of my skin he was shocked to find me in his pub — but in the end, he’d got used to it.
Anyone who’s grown up in Britain as a member of an ethnic minority will have similar stories — and some will be able to tell tales of much more serious discrimination, abuse or violence.
No one in the UK has explored this territory better than the BBC’s economics editor, Kamal Ahmed , in his excellent new book, The Life and Times of a Very British Man.
Ahmed grew up as a mixed-race kid in west London in the Seventies, and his book charts the progress (sometimes slow and not without a few setbacks along the way) that our country has made on race issues since then.
As Ahmed puts it: “It would be nice if Britain was post-racial.”
We’re clearly some way off — but what explains why things are broadly better today than they were 40 years ago?
A big part of the reason can be explained by something called contact theory, which shows how prejudice can often be reduced when people start spending time with others from different ethnicities or backgrounds.
In Ahmed’s words: “Contact can lead to better understanding. It can lead to better opportunities. Better economies. It can lead to better schools and better police forces, better public services and better businesses.”
This is one of those areas where government policy can actually make a big difference — whether it’s by ensuring social housing communities are mixed, or by setting up important new initiatives such as the National Citizen Service or Tessa Jowell’s wonderful Sure Start centres.
After all, it’s still all too easy for people to end up living separately from different communities around them, and an active role by the state, charities and business is needed to bring people together.
At its best, London is a city where people of diverse backgrounds and skin colours can come together in the most amazing way. Of course, there is still a long road ahead when it comes to racial equality, and it’s something that needs to be fought for inch by inch. But as Ahmed’s brilliant book shows, things have undoubtedly got better since he was young.
Let’s hope that children growing up in London right now get to say the same thing one day.