It’s not ok to be racist. Yes that includes you, world leaders and parliamentary hopefuls, but it’s also you non-racist people making what you think are light-hearted comments. If you’ve never been persecuted just for the colour of your skin or what, arguably imaginary, figure you believe in then you might not be aware just how painful and shocking it can be when it happens.
I’ve been very lucky; I can count on two hands the amount of times I’ve been subject to direct racist insults. But it’s always a terrible shock. It takes my breath away and stays with me forever. The sense of injustice, of prejudice, the realisation that people judge you as different. I then feel a great sense of shame for not wanting to be different. What is wrong with being brown, black, different? Why would I be ashamed? Then I’m ashamed of being ashamed. And on it goes. In my darkest moments I’ve felt relief that my very Caucasian-looking children, painful as this is to admit, won’t be subject to the same racism that I’ve experienced. It’s one less thing to worry about in an already worrying world.
Unexpectedly I found tears streaming down my face recently over a quip made more than 20 years ago. A Facebook comment reminded me of something I had found racist and deeply hurtful. The friend who made this comment, in his defense, had no idea I’d been upset by it. I realised in some ways this is my fault. I’ve never told anyone about the times racism has hurt me. I just want to cry on my own and outwardly pretend it never happened. I don’t want anyone to know how devastating it feels. But I am affected, deeply, long-lastingly. Maybe people need to know. So let me tell you a few stories.
The playground stuff
At primary school I was painfully shy and the youngest in class. I remember being told I was too ugly to play fairies because I was brown. For someone of that age that’s pretty heart-breaking. Brown was clearly thought of as ugly.
When I was about eight, now at an English school in Spain, my two best friends were the blonde, pretty girls. One playtime they were playing with some of the popular boys and I was told I could only join in if I would be chocolate cake and stay in an imaginary cupboard. Every time I asked to come out they told me to get back in. I can still see myself, eight years old, obediently locked in an imaginary cupboard for the whole of playtime, choking back the tears.
Aged ten or 11 my friends started ‘going out’ with boys for the first time. I was still more into climbing trees, my sporty clothes probably looking a bit unruly compared to their skirts and crop tops. The older of the boys regularly called me a pikey. I didn’t really know the word but suspected it wasn’t flattering. A couple of years later his brother became my first boyfriend, so I’m guessing by then I’d lost my ‘pikey’ look. Acceptance at last, hey.
Around the same time I began to be called ‘nigger lips’ in jest by some of the kids at school. In the days when a pout wasn’t coveted this was a real tear-jerker and obviously deeply racist. One art class classmate called me a nigger. I dug my nails into his arm as hard as I could, asking him through tears to take it back, but he just laughed. Another time when skateboarding with my close male school friends they made up this ‘hilarious’ song that included something about me having ‘black tits’. I tried to brush it off but inside I felt wretched. I can still remember the words.
One day by the swimming pool another school friend dismissed me as ‘just a nig nog’. It was a new insult to me but I had my suspicions it wasn’t nice. Later that day his parents came to see me to assure me it was ‘just what people say when someone has a tan’. Er, no.
The more grown up stuff
By secondary school I became a lot more confident, I began to get the lead parts in plays and loved performing. I guess my brown skin and full lips began to be seen more favourably. I moved back to England aged 16. One night in a busy bar in Brighton a group of men started singing and I was surprised when my boyfriend ushered me to the door in a hurry. Apparently they were National Front singing racist songs. As a 16-year-old in a new town it was a scary moment and I felt very vulnerable.
Not long after this my boyfriend was involved in some minor road rage argument. The people in the other car saw fit to shout ‘nigger lover’ really loudly out of the window. I cried for hours after that one. The humiliation, fear and sense of injustice were intense.
The incident that upset me recently happened when I was about 21. It was an especially rotten time as I’d been very ill with an undiagnosed thyroid problem, had gained weight and felt miserable. A group of us went camping for a friend’s party and I was shivering in the tent because I couldn’t get warm, an underactive thyroid tends to do that. I said something about feeling like a cocoon, tucked into our sleeping bags, and my friend next to me quipped ‘have you got a stutter?’ It took a moment for the rest of the tent to burst out laughing. Truly hysterical laughter, essentially at calling me a ‘coon’. Relationships were made that weekend and friendships formed for life. It therefore really hurt me to read on Facebook that one of the most memorable things about that weekend to someone was the word ‘cocoon’. My friends are not racist people. Back then they could maybe have been excused for laughing but it was beyond belief that one of them still thought it was funny to mention.
Among the oh-so-hilarious occasional jokes about ticket-collecting on buses and a long-ago boyfriend who would say ‘it’s because you’re black’ in a silly accent whenever he felt it was funny, there have been some pretty harsh ‘Paki’ comments. One that sticks out is when I was about 25 and driving on a busy motorway when I cut into a queue I hadn’t realised was there. Two white men in the car wound down the window, their faces contorted with aggression, and shouted Fucking Paki as loud as the could. I was too shaken to drive home safely and had to pull over.
Another time I had a meeting with a talent agent at London’s Groucho Club, a tall, white, well-spoken man in his 50s. When asked where I was ‘from’ I joked about not being very Indian as I had never lived there (or Fiji, where my Dad is actually from). He saw fit to joke in return ‘yes, people are always calling me a fucking Paki’. I laughed awkwardly as I had no idea what else to do.
Thankfully I haven’t been at the receiving end of any direct racist comments or ‘jokes’ at my expense for a long time. Older, wiser and more vocal about injustice I would be unlikely to accept such remarks about anyone. However after the whole Brexit vote, a couple of social media acquaintances thought it was amusing to ask when I would be going back. Going back to where? I was born in England. My mum’s side can be traced back for hundreds of bloody years.
I’m intensely proud of both sides of my heritage, the Fiji-Indian and the English and to have spent my formative years in Spain. I embrace my difference. However, whether casual comments or outright racist insults these memories, in my mind, are all connected. I can’t separate them. They are all there in one big painful memory box that I rarely even peak into. I’m bringing them up now because I realise it might be better to speak out and to caution us all, me included, that those taunts, whether at school or into adulthood, whether you’re just making a silly joke about a friend or whether you’re a politician making sweeping judgements about entire racial groups, your words can strike at the heart. They will be remembered. Choose them carefully.