CW: Racism, slurs, immigration
I'm worried about you. When you sent me those messages expressing a sense of despair and hopelessness, an almost finite sense of fatigue. I worried, because I feel the same way and I will not patronise you by telling you it’s going to be okay, that we will prevail, that the world will change so significantly that we’ll be part of a parade celebrating the decolonisation of our society, our books, our films, our media, our employers. I worried because change will come but you and I won’t be around to see it. And I want you to know that that’s okay. And it will only come if we give ourselves to the fact that change is a generation away, but only if you and I continue to do what we’re doing.
When I first moved to Bristol, I was in a club. It was a converted warehouse, and because of the low hanging scent of skunk and spray can fumes, all the shutters were open. The music throbbed. It was funk and hip-hop. K and I remarked to each other that Bristol was the only place left where such a massive club would give itself to the funk. It refused to be current. And that was okay. We watched as a locally famous graffiti crew did some live illustration on some plasterboard in The Tunnel room. I noticed that one of the tags looked like it said WOG. I felt that initial sting. The slap in the face of seeing the word. It feels outdated — a previous catch-all term for all people of colour, like coloured or darkie. But it still felt like a heavy club to my bones. Discussing it with K, we both realised that it should have said WOC, an acronym for the locally famous graffiti crew. Maybe the dim lights, throbbing music and can of Red Stripe the artist was swigging from had carelessly added a tail to a C, making it a G. I told K I was going to tell him. She asked me not to, not to make a fuss, what was the point, it was a mistake. All I knew at that time, was I had to tell him. Like the adage, if you see something, say something. I felt the heaviness of the word being levelled against me. I took it personally. The word was like one of those cartoon anvils you’d see in a Looney Tunes episode, but instead of saying ACME, it said WOG, and it had landed on my head, thumping me into the ground. I could understand what K was saying. This wasn’t the place for a corrective conversation about race. But I was sick of standing by. So I told the artist. He ignored me, then denied it said what I said it did then went back to ignoring me. Trying to articulate myself, and my knowledge of the etymology of the word, above the throb of Dam Funk was impossible. So I gave up. K was right. But not for the reasons she thought she was.
Days after 9/11, I was in Massachusetts, waiting for my then-girlfriend to finish a lecture. I was walking around the small town where her college was based. As I strolled past a bunch of white guys with dreadlocks, all wearing green army jackets, all playing hackie sack, they stopped and stared at me as I walked past. One of them pointed to an American flag sown on to his breast and he beat his fist against it, once, twice, thrice. I walked on, quietly, quick to avoid confrontation, and hid in a coffee shop till she was finished. Later, talking about the event with her group of friends, one asked why I didn’t just tell the guys I wasn’t Muslim. I didn’t have the energy at the time to tell her that this was the worst thing I could do in that situation. I couldn’t absolve myself of the persecution. I should have challenged it, sure. But I shouldn’t have tried to weasel out of it by saying that I was a non-practising Hindu. Where was the solidarity in that?
I should have spoken up.
Which is why I do every single time now.
When I saw that UKIP poster last week, Nigel Farage standing as the last line of defence against a sea of dirty brown immigrants and refugees, it felt like a racist attack. I’ve lived in flats that have been flyered by the BNP, I’ve seen Britain First protest signs and I’ve been in black cabs with people telling me that ‘you’re alright, but the problem with these immigrants is…’ and each of those iterations of racism has seemed more subtle, more inferred than this. Each of those times, these right wing people, who would voluntarily repatriate us and then have us shot as we ran to the cargo ship, have been clever to phrase and word such things as ‘my problem’. If I see race or racism or prejudice then I’m the one with the problem. This has always been the tool of the racist: to make me feel like I’m crazy or that I’m making a fuss. But this poster, there was no double meaning, this was not me being crazy, this was an attack. This was the mass demonisation of brown faces. This was a way of saying, fear these people and all those who look like them.
I felt beaten up. I felt worse than the time I was punched in the cheek and called a p*ki when an argument with a school friend escalated. We never recovered from that word. It was wedged between us like a wall of coconuts. I felt the wobble in my knees, the ache in my bones. I felt like how my dad must have felt when national front hooligans tried to murder him at a bus stop, breaking a bottle over his head and trying to stab him with the remnants.
Is this politics?
And I know you felt the same way too. I sensed from your messages that you too felt the violent assault to your person. You also felt the dehumanising demonisation of your skin colour. You, like me, wanted to hide, because this country was coming for us.
I won’t tell you that it’s going to be okay. I don’t know how this week will go. I don’t know how this year will go. I don’t know where this debate is going. And I don’t want to know. Because for me, the immigration debate isn’t a debate. I cannot debate what’s encoded in my DNA, my skin colour, my lived experience, my family, my heritage, my sense of being. I cannot debate it. White people can debate immigration all they fucking want. I will still wake up brown tomorrow.
So, I won’t tell you that it’s going to be okay.
But I need you to not lose faith. This battle for equality, for equal opportunity, for the normalisation of our lived experience isn’t a battle that can be fought and won on one skirmish alone. It’s a war of attrition on many fronts. Fought by many many people. We’ve started conversations about the fallacy of the word diversity, about how the celebration of otherness still others us. We’ve reintroduced the word decolonisation. We have platforms for people of colour to say what needs to be said, on a range of subjects, without being judged for their skin colour. This isn’t even the first time we’ve done this.
That’s the thing with attrition. It’s about wearing down. But while we try and wear the system down, we wear ourselves down. Almost in a ridiculously apt life metaphor, I spent this weekend, after talking to you, sanding floorboards, waging a war of attrition on the thick oily white paint that stuck to them. I was tired, sometimes I was bored, I got frustrated, my body ached, I felt sad and depressed, tired, I longed for water, to be doing something else, for someone else to do it for me, but ultimately, I won. The floorboards aren’t done. But I’ve worn them down. And there’s always tomorrow.
What we do now, who and what we wear down today, or in our life time, it’s not for us, it’s for the next generation. To make it easier for them. Because the generations who fought these battles for us before, they made it easier for us to have these conversations, to talk about micro aggressions in the same breath and with the same importance as macro aggressions. They went through a lot worse for us to be having the conversations we’re having now. And it may feel repetitive and it may feel circular and it may feel like nothing has changed from before, and nothing is changing now and nothing will ever change, but believe me — any change, we won’t see. And that’s okay. Because we have to make it easier for those who come after us, so they can make it easier for those who come after them. Because however long it takes, whether we just have to wait it out till statistically, we’re no longer minorities, then so be it. But remember those floorboards. Remember to wear them down. And it may feel sometimes like you’re tired, bored, frustrated, aching, sad and depressed, tired, dehydrated, like you’d rather be doing something else, like you’d like someone else to take over. And that’s okay. Remember to rest up, do small fun things, have silly conversations, stay hydrated.
Because we need you.
We really need you.