I’ve just finished the book that is the image for this post. It’s a book I read in one sitting today, sat on a plane that hasn’t gone anywhere because of unidentified baggage that needs to be removed…the sweet ironic serendipity of that occurrence is not lost on me.
It’s a book that’s given me some language for feelings and experiences I’ve had throughout my entire life – stuff that I’ve not been able to articulate properly, scenarios that I’ve entered into time and again and thought were perhaps unique to me. Turns out they and the feelings they provoke are not unique to me at all.
A little then on what’s going on from reading this book.
I grew up in a school where I was the only boy of colour. There was a Hindu girl called Aneeka. Later on there were a couple of other people of colour four/five years below me. When they arrived, the four of us were dragged into a new lunchtime club whose only participants were those of us who weren’t white. The person running it told me they’d written to my parents but hadn’t heard back. When I asked my mother about this she angrily responded that she didn’t want me going to it. I didn’t understand why then although I already thought it wasn’t relevant to me and didn’t go back for my own reasons. I experienced a lot of racial hostility growing up – not least from the kid next to me writing NF on everything I owned whenever he got the chance (I was clueless what it stood for and found it hilarious that he was so insistent on writing such nonsense on my pencil case, my skin, my books). I managed to avoid getting beaten up for being brown more than I got beaten up – most often I’d just start talking about how beating me up wouldn’t make them feel better and they often just walked away. Having said that it didn’t always work.
I didn’t know any other brown people, didn’t know anything about Indian culture – didn’t eat curry at home until I was 15 because my white father didn’t like it (except he did and ate it on the sly for years until my mother caught him…you can imagine the row that provoked, and the liberation afterwards. It’s almost comic now). I remember finding a book of racist jokes in the glove compartment of the car – not that the jokes were ‘racist’ the title of the sheets of paper with literally hundreds of racist one liners was ‘racist jokes’.
I remember the normal fights I had, the ones that are about growing up, about nothing more than being a boy, in school with lots of other people with hormones. But I also remember the calls of paki, nigger, twix, that I smelled of shit, of curry, that I should wash better because i was dirty.
I could go on.
I remember the people who were racist because of ignorance rather than hatred – those who thought my ‘eyes shined’, that my teeth were whiter because i was brown, that I must be able dance well or have a bigger penis. That they didn’t see me as brown or black, that they didn’t like blacks but I was ok, ‘not like them’. That I must know ‘XYZ because they’re one of your lot’ or that I’d be good at this subject because my lot are.
More recently I’ve also experienced the opposite – the people who wonder why I don’t speak Urdu or Hindi, who realise I’m a ‘coconut’ and stop talking to me. I’m not trying to virtue top-trump here, but I’m stuck in the middle. Belonging to neither side properly. Heck, I’ve got six different nationalities in me – the largest two being Jewish and Italian…not that racists realise they’ve got more than one reason to despise my very flesh for the crime of existing. Miscegenation is something most racists don’t realise I’m also the guilty product of. Quite where I’d be sent to if ‘sent home’ I don’t know…Poland maybe?
I also remember being friends with people, with having good times where it didn’t matter that I was brown. (I shudder to write that). Kids have a keen sense of difference but not context, so in many cases although they’re aware of the differences, they have no measure of significance – you’re different to me because you’ve got blue eyes, you’re smart, you’re rich and you’re brown – they’re all true and all unremarkable. I remember being punched out of nowhere in a pub and a dozen people standing up and surrounding me – letting the aggressor and their three mates know in no uncertain terms they’d better leave or end up in the ground. All while I stood there wondering what the hell had happened.
I was brought up in a home where race wasn’t talked about. It still isn’t. I think I’m probably fine with that at the moment.
Taking a look at myself in the light of this book I see how I’ve grown up trying to be safe – and I mean that literally – to build a life where I, Stewart, was unassailable. Where I could weather the hostility of public places like trains – such as people asking if I was sure I meant to enter first class.
I come at life therefore with the scars of not belonging, of having been rejected simply for existing. I think these lead to a certain set of triggers that I’m generally aware or and I believe that, most of the time, I’ve turned to strengths.
- I find it hard to accept people lying to me. Maybe not uncommon and it’s something I can forgive but it’s also liable to induce blind rage in me because I experienced so many friends at school be friendly only to then use that friendship as a way of getting in with others by racially abusing me.
- I expect not to be listened to – now, you might think I’m very well listened too, but I’m not talking about actuality here, I’m talking about what’s in my head. This is a subtle one – it’s the ‘why would we listen to you’ point. Now, I have a generally too high opinion of myself – but I think that desire to be smart, to know stuff, to be in control (oh so much control) comes directly from the desire to be safe from those who’d harm me.
- I find it hard to be open about my insecurities – I find that I’m ready to read teasing as a personal attack more than others. I look at some of my best friends a observe how much they tease one another and I know people don’t tease me the same way and I wonder just how prickly I am because my default is to assume people want to hurt.
- I find it hard to take sides. I am indifferent to conflict – at ease with it because I’ve experienced so much of it. This marks me out on its own. However I’m also an inveterate refuser to take sides and to hide the truth. I have experienced this only confirming my fears about being rejected because I have a tendency to test whether people want me for myself or because they want me on their ‘side’.
- I have a sleeping anger (see above) – although part of that is a Hotston thing I see in all the members of my family. It’s a flash bang kind of anger and it really rarely shows itself. I’ve never, ever, entered into violence on the back of it, but it’s there and its horrible. I’ve used it to very positive effect throughout my life – whether negotiating big deals or dealing with bullies. Anger, on its own, isn’t a bad thing.
- I’ve gotten used to caring about stuff most of my friends don’t care about (in the same visceral way). I have friends who care more if I swear than about the subject I’m swearing about – if you see what I mean? Their cares come from a place of such mundanity that they have literally no way of accessing the more primal, existential issues I find myself dealing with.
The above are the big, obvious ones. I find that the stuff Eddo-Lodge is writing about is so much more sub-surface. It’s the everyday micro-aggressions of white men and women who think they are the norm, that my colour is an exception, that I’m probably muslim, that I’m probably unsafe if I’m angry, and why am I angry anyway, why can’t I speak about my outrage in a calm, rational way? And if I can do that, it can’t be that serious after all can it? It’s the fact that racism is structural. That I always have to justify why it exists, to prove that people are being racist not just in themselves but also within their organisations. There are the times where because I’m so primed to see it that I’ve called it completely wrong (as my good friend Ned will testify over a specific event in Denmark many years ago). That moderates are the worst. That moderates think we should obey the law and everything will be ok…as if Stephen Lawrence was just an unfortunate event and not a sign of deeply rooted state sanctioned racism. That somehow there can be reverse racism…there can only be racism if power is involved, otherwise its simple, individual prejudice. Racism, in my mind at least, involved power, involves groups of people impacting others’ lives purely on the basis that they don’t like their appearance.
I am also aware of how few people respond to me when I bring these issues up. Of particular disappointment to me is how few Christians (and I am one, so not singling them out except that I am a part of that community) seem to have any awareness of the issues and, worse yet for me, any apparent care for them. This isn’t a post designed to have you come up to me and say any of the following by the way:
- I’ve been meaning to talk to you
- I’m supportive
Mainly because a lot of people in my life are supportive and do talk to me about these things and humbly and humblingly try to work out how to walk this path with me – they’re just not Christians – which, as I say, is a particular disappointment.
I’m suddenly at 1700 words and realise I could write and write on this subject but I’m not sure I could shed any light. Eddo-Lodge’s book has made me realise that so many of the things that make me angry are about those tiny little actions that confirm you’re being judged on how you look. That these triggers can flip me over a table. They help explain why I’ve spent so much of my life driven to succeed – because I want to have enough to be safe. How sad is that – that I can’t be happy except that I think I’ve got enough buffers to be safe. I’ve read books on the holocaust and on slavery and how racism, fascism and the like grow from minor actions to ways of oppressing millions because ordinary people didn’t object. I look at those paths and see my own self sitting precariously exposed, the first in the line for if the majority decided those who weren’t white needed to suffer.
It’s why I mourned the brexit vote because it was driven by fear of the other for so many people, because it was a siren call to people who were closet racists to be more open about their hatred, to embolden them.
Britain is racist. Beyond the normal facts that we all harbour prejudices. It is structurally racist. Now – it’s so much better than almost every other country on earth – don’t get me wrong. BUT. I see in Eddo-Lodge’s book a reflection of myself that made me weep on the train home today, because I suddenly see that when I was angry because I was being singled out for being a trouble maker, or for refusing to conform to a white idea of normality, it was just that – because somehow I was resisting being turned into something I’m not. That it’s ok to be me.
I’ve been joking for some years with white friends of mine about my colour, openly talking about the skews against me and in their favour simply because they’re white. Many of them can now talk back to me about it – we’ve all been on a journey to where that’s possible. They’ve been respectful to me in that journey because none of us had the vocabulary to talk about it meaningfully when I first realised I needed to talk about the subject. It’s a difficult balance. I joke about it often because to challenge each and every instance in which I see those prejudices expressed would be exhausting beyond belief. Humour is a much easier and communal response even when I’m actually deprecating my own position. Fortunately, I’m a successful bruiser of a man who’s also pretty confident in who he is – so I can roll with it and be provocative and see fumbled attempts at entering that debate without losing my shit.
Ok, this is now officially too long for a blog post. You want to talk about this? Talk to me in person because this is important to me and I will make time for you 🙂
July 11, 2018 at 9:20 pm
I don’t know. I don’t know how you manage this. I recently found out that my best friends think telling racist jokes is ok. They got defensive when i insisted it is not. I just don’t want to be their friends anymore.
July 12, 2018 at 6:22 am
This is massively challenging. I think you’ve done the right thing but perhaps you need to explain how it makes you feel – how it hurts even when it’s not directly about you. If they don’t come around – then you’re right, there’s no point being their friend. Have you asked them why they thought the joke was funny? Why they felt they should tell it?