Can we talk about the R word?

I was asked recently whether I thought racism had increased post Brexit. That’s a difficult one to answer. You see, one person’s experience cannot comprehensively cover every person’s experience. Yet one person’s experience can provide valuable insight into uncovering a wider, more insidious problem.

Racism is a troublesome word to associate oneself with, whether as a victim or as a perpetrator. I am not talking about the in-your-face skinhead trolls that wear their bigotry like a badge. I am talking about the more common, run-of-the-mill, ordinary, everyday, pedestrian racism that a foreigner is likely to encounter. The one that is impossible to articulate without sounding as though you have a chip the size of a boulder, on your shoulder. Yes, that one.

Let’s begin with the more virulent kind. The kind where hijabs are ripped off women’s heads, where men are beaten up for being the wrong colour, where a child is bullied for his accent… Has that increased? I cannot say for sure, but someone added me to a Facebook group called ‘Worrying signs’ and a skim through its page revealed enough racial hatred to get my stomach heaving.

I guess the question then needs rephrasing to- did it ever go away?

For someone like myself, who grew up in India, I had only known of racism in an academic way, as something that happened to other people in other countries. When I moved to the UK, and lived in an Asian area, I didn’t encounter it for obvious reasons. In my job, there was such a mix of backgrounds, ethnicities, religions and colours, that discrimination really had zero chance of flourishing.

My first encounter with racism came when I moved to a predominantly white area. At that time, I would have been hard pressed to describe it exactly so. One time, I was sat in a pew in the church, waiting for an Easter performance featuring the school my daughter attended. Not a single person came and sat next to me, despite it getting quite busy in there. Not one person. All sorts of thoughts went through my head. Did I smell? Was I difficult to converse with? Was there something wrong with me?

Over time, it became apparent that this was not an isolated incident. I was often treated as a pariah in the school playground. If I made any attempt at socialising, I was tolerated but rarely welcomed. People were polite, but nearly always, I stayed on the peripheries. Marginalised and largely ignored.

Was this racism I asked myself? After all, no one was being abusive or horrid. No one had mentioned colour, or asked me to go back to where I came from. So, what was it then? Was it me?  Was there something fundamentally wrong with me?

When one is educated, fluent in the language and reasonably assimilated into the culture, it is doubly shocking to discover that none of that matters. All that matters is your colour.

I have heard it said that India is amongst the worst countries when it comes to discrimination. After all, we have the caste system. We have the huge inequities that exist between the rich and the poor. We also have the multiple languages, regions and religions and divisiveness is rife, in one way or another. I have heard this being used as a defence anytime racism emerges as a topic of conversation. Yet, can two wrongs really make a right?

‘Using the race card’ has become yet another weapon to subvert an honest discussion. Yes, the ‘race card’ has been misused and overused, but it is a legitimate concern, and dismissing it as the fall back position of the disgruntled is, once again, disservicing those who are unable to vocalise the sheer helplessness of being on the receiving end of discrimination.

Have you ever been treated like dirt? Have you ever been looked at as though you are something that’s crawled out from under a rock? Have you ever had your pronunciation or your accent mocked? Have your abilities ever been doubted because of your provenance? No? It’s quite illuminating, I can assure you. It makes you look at yourself in a completely different light.

Call it a chip, call it a boulder, call it being hyper-sensitive, the fact of the matter is that most foreigners will attest to feeling disliked and unwanted at some point in Britain. This, in a country, that is known the world over for its tolerance and inclusion. I shudder to think of what it maybe like elsewhere.

I get it. It’s nice to stay in your comfort zone. Surround yourself with people that look like you, speak like you, have the same norms and customs as you. It is so much harder to step out of that zone and extend a bit of kindness to those who don’t. So often I have wondered at those who go completely glassy eyed in my presence, if it would kill them to acknowledge me as another homosapien that shares this planet with them?

I have become quite adept at hiding the hurt. There are times that I react, there are times that I step back and re assess, but every single time, I smart from the unfairness and unkindness of it all.

I have been lucky enough to not have to face the overt discrimination and bigotry that my black friends tell me is their lot. A long conversation with my colleague left me reeling. This is something he has lived with from day dot! Yet, he is polite and gracious at every given turn. What right do I have to complain if a bunch of bored housewives close ranks on me? I have seen nowhere near the level of abuse or segregation that so many others have.

At this point it is important to clarify that I am talking about a small percentage of people who indulge in this kind of behaviour consciously. We have all been guilty of inadvertently ignoring or snubbing someone when in a rush or preoccupied. But to do it, fully aware of one’s own actions and the damage it may inflict, is quite simply unforgivable.

You see, because it is so very subtle, it is also extremely difficult to pinpoint or address. How can any reasonable person say “You were just smiling at the people in front of me. Why the dead pan expression with me?” It sounds churlish and unreasonable and slightly silly. Yet, both the perpetrator and the victim are well aware of what has just passed between them. A snide little put down that whispers- you are not one of us, you don’t belong, I don’t like you, I wish to have no interaction with you. All that subtext in a single exchange.

Now, multiply this exchange several times over, in several different versions and tell me that I am imagining things. Can you?

They say, to feel another man’s pain, you need to walk a mile in his shoes. A white person may face all other kinds of prejudice based on their gender, their class, their education, even their accents but no white person will ever understand what it’s like to be discriminated against on the basis of colour.

So, coming back to the question my friend asked me. Has racism increased post Brexit? No, I can’t say that it has, purely because I don’t think it ever decreased. It just hid behind the veils of politics, laws and economic requirements.

Now, what has changed is that the people in Britain feel freer to express their opinions against foreigners. They have had enough of ‘bending over backwards’ and ‘political correctness’. Now they have the carte blanche to tell an innocent check out girl that she should trip and break her head open. (A true exchange between an old lady and the Asian girl serving her). They have the carte blanche to vilify, demonise, insult, disparage and dehumanise. Brexit has given them permission to.

Why? Because it feels good to air all the ugliness that had been building up inside, in all those years of political correctness. It feels good to tell these foreigners to ‘eff off’, it feels good not to have to put on a mask of politeness because one has to, it feels good to dispense with the token multiculturalism, it feels good to indulge in the casual cruelties of mocking and insulting, it feels good not to have to make room at the table for someone else regardless of how much food may go to waste. It feels good and it feels liberating. Doesn’t it?

Tell me, how else will Britain become great again?

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