When it happens, I’m always astounded. Mentally I am looking around to see if anyone else has heard, if anyone else is reeling as much as me from this full-on verbal assault. Well, if the others have heard, their jaws are not on the floor, they aren’t struck dumb with horror, to them one moment has moved on naturally to the next. The conversation has passed to another subject, all is well and no-one has noticed how I am crushed like piece of rubbish destined for the wastepaper basket. So perhaps I have misheard. Or even if that person did aim that grossly offensive word at me, goading me to say something, to flounce out of the conversation, to be politically correct, my dumbstruck state must surely be an overreaction. Because I’m clearly over-sensitive.
I was talking to a woman who breeds and shows dark dogs. One of the dogs is named after a famous TV chef, so it it would seem. This dog goes up and down the country fully ensconced with his owners in the cosy, rather incestuous (literally) world of dog fancy. I was commenting on his name and the owner casually mentioned about the dog’s son, “Well we wanted to call him Nigger but you can’t really do that these days.”
I’ve encountered these jaw-dropping moments countless times before. Casual bus queue conversations suddenly turn to “bloody foreigners,” as I join the queue; in a Knightsbridge hair salon, that caters to an aristocratic clientele, Lady Someone Or Other suddenly, at the back wash, prompted by the latest hateful article in the Daily Mail starts pointedly complaining about immigrants. In a Bond Street boutique people suddenly start disparaging “Paki shops,” as soon as they know I’m in the changing room. A colleague in a famous and now defunct recruitment advertising agency taunts me using expressions like “Nigger in the woodpile.”
There is nothing I can do about the colour of my skin, I can’t change it, wouldn’t want to, so I always prefer to think that it’s something that I have done that has made people express these disgusting, horrible emotions at me. That I deserve it. That somehow, by having the temerity to be born with a brown face and a different culture, it is my fault that I have been wounded by insults ranging from “Chocolate face,” to “Paki,” to “Nigger,” to, well I don’t want to remember all the other things that followed me for the whole of my school life. I must have been doing something very wrong to have been the object of such hatred. I shouldn’t have picked up that brush in Boots. It must be my fault that a woman said to her husband, “You wouldn’t want that after THEY had got their hands all over it.” And clearly the shouting and racist insults hurled by drunks in the street must be because I provoked them by being there. I am clearly to blame.
In my youth it was called teasing. These days it would be racial harassment. Either way, I was told to ignore it. After I complained about the ex-colleague, our boss even encouraged me to take him out for lunch to explain to him nicely why what he said wasn’t on. It was clearly me just being touchy, over-sensitive. It is hardly any wonder that any self-confidence I ever had was slowly sapped away and replaced by the tyranny of second-guessing other people’s motives. Even now, I am reluctant to attend school reunions because I still cannot face the perpetrators of these horrors. They might have moved on. I am still stuck back there.
What is it with these people? Does the sight of a brown face, the Other in their midst, suddenly bring all their doubts and fears and suspicions to the surface? Do these people feel suddenly empowered that they can try out these loathsome expressions on a small, brown person who they know is not going to retaliate and perpetuate uncivilisedness? Who will try to keep smiling no matter how rude and loathsome her interlocutor. Because, you know, I don’t get up every morning, see my brown face looking back at me in the mirror and put on my anti-racist armour.
I am lucky that in my cosy, middle-class world I can largely avoid such overt racism. The later racism that I encountered largely took the form of passing me over for jobs because my name wasn’t Jane Smith, or holding fast to the stereotype that Asian women are meek and don’t have the confidence to manage teams. Not working means I don’t have to encounter that sort of rubbish anymore. But my nice, middle class friends are truly shocked and horrified when I describe some of the casual, everyday racism that I have encountered and I can see even them thinking that it must be my imagination, that I must have done something to provoke people into acting like that. Well no. It’s not me, it’s them. And yes, it still happens a lot. And, just like today, I don’t make a fuss. I carry on, trying my best to ignore the stink in the room, excusing the ignorance that sees nothing wrong with using hate speech to taunt someone who has been its subject for so long. My husband says I should have walked out of this morning’s interview. I know he’s right. But what would have been the point in making a scene? I would have let my friend down and that wouldn’t have been right would it?