We are in a strange time right now. The lines between free speech and hate speech – like racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, bullying and anti-religious rhetoric – are becoming blurred. As someone who has recently been on the receiving end of racism and sexism, I have wanted to say something for sometime. But it’s never that easy. Especially when sharing experiences you would rather forget happened.
It’s not ‘just life’
Until a few years ago, I hadn’t experienced full-blown racism. A handful of casual prejudice comments had been thrown around – the first being in the school playground when I was four years old – but I had let them wash over me, probably because I didn’t find them threatening. However, I knew for a lot of people, of all backgrounds, regular prejudice was a part of life.
Then four years ago, that changed. I was staying in South Australia with my partner, who was from the region. We were in an area that wasn’t very multicultural and didn’t experience much tourism. And so, there I was, standing out with my darker skin. I thought I could handle it. It wasn’t uncommon to feel that way and I had done several times before. I’m sure we all have.
But this time it was different. The looks and double-takes were tough to brush off. They weren’t looks of curiosity. They were deep, uncomfortable eyeing-off looks. It seemed I always I stood out everywhere I went – in the supermarket, in cafes, at BBQs, pub nights. There was an easy feeling that accompanied those looks and I didn’t feel entirely safe. As a result, I felt nervous about going anywhere on my own.
I know it’s hard to imagine how this must feel when you haven’t experienced it. Until recently, I hadn’t experienced it either and I had no idea of the effect it could – and would – have on me. When you walk into a busy pub and the entire room of people turn to stare at you, it certainly leaves you a bit shaken but perhaps it can be brushed off as something other than prejudice or racism. When you’re the only person being watched the whole night, it’s hard to ignore. Even going to the restroom feels uneasy.
Rumours without fact
As the drinks flowed at social events, so did the inappropriate jokes. These ‘jokes’ often focused in on certain nationalities or religions or women. While various people around me roared with laughter, I had to walk away. I wanted to say something, anything, but I knew causing a dispute in those situations would never have ended well. Again, I didn’t feel entirely safe voicing my thoughts. Sometimes ‘jokes’ went way too far, with comments condoning violence, or about how certain groups should be wiped out or removed. It was pure racism. I couldn’t believe so many people could genuinely think this way, let alone openly voice thoughts like this without even a thought of the literal human lives they were talking about.
More directly, I was questioned about my right to call myself British. My identity was coming into question. Apparently ‘it is my birth right’ was not a good enough answer. According to some, being born and raised in London doesn’t give me a right to call this city my home as my skin colour is brown. If I asked where, in their opinion, I should call my home, there wasn’t an answer.
Sometimes people we knew would look at my partner and I together and it was clear they were uncomfortable with our mixed-race relationship. Some didn’t want to greet me, shake my hand or even saying ‘hello’. A couple rolled their eyes when I would walk in with my partner or gave me such a dirty look, I wanted to turn around and walk straight back out. I guess that was their aim, so I forced myself to stay.
I spent many conversations silently standing next to my partner, while the other person spoke directly to him – with not even a flick of an eye to acknowledge my presence. “You’ll have curly black kids!” one person laughingly informed us early on, referring to my partner’s hair and my skin. Barely any of these people asked about my family, my career, my education – or tried to get to know me. My personality seemed to have no bearing on their impression of me. While no one ever said it directly, the disapproval was palatable.
The reality of racism
You know, even though those comments absolutely shattered my head and heart, I still tried to believe ignorance was the issue here. That if these folks just knew more about other cultures and races, they would realise we were really no different to them and certainly no harm to anyone. We are human, too. We should have the same rights. Then the day came where a drunk man stood opposite me and asked a friend, in reference to me, if “it was aboriginal?” It.
I can’t put into words how that made me feel. Somewhere between absolute blind fury and wanting to curl up and die right then and there. How can anyone look at another human being and see them as so much less than them?
The culmination of everything that was happening started to take its toll. I hurt. My head hurt, my body hurt, my eyes hurt from a few too many tears. I started seeing my glaringly brown skin colour every time I looked in the mirror. At my worst times, I wanted to tear it off. I felt disgusting and ugly, angry, and just incredibly sad constantly. I dreaded going out and being around anyone who wasn’t our close family. Most times we ventured out, there was at least one person who felt they had the right to question me or make underhand remarks about people who had similar colour skin to me, the danger they were to Australia, to society. How they ‘didn’t want what has happened in England to happen to Australia’.
Thank heavens for my partner’s immediate family and a few of our close friends. At a time where I had been smacked in the face with the shock of what was now apparently an unavoidable part of my life – there was a handful of people who always made me feel welcome. In all honesty, if it wasn’t for their kindness, I probably wouldn’t have lasted very long.
The physical effect
The dread turned into full-blown anxiety. I hated the way I looked. My skin disgusted me in the same way I felt it disgusted them. I wasn’t sleeping. I saw so much ‘wrong’ in myself. My skin, my hair, how much darker my skin went in the sun, how I bloated when I ate out because I have IBS, how my body hurt constantly, the dark circles that were expanding under my eyes – and how much uglier these things made me. And did I mention my skin?
I felt overwhelmingly sad that so many of the people seemed to be looking at my partner, someone they knew and loved, and couldn’t see his happiness. It felt like they couldn’t understand why this gorgeous blond-haired lad from their community had ‘settled’ for someone like me.
What my head couldn’t handle, my body couldn’t cope with either. My already-chronic IBS got worse. Everything I ate or drank made me sick almost immediately, which meant social occasions were not only traumatic in terms of facing people, but also because I was being physically sick near-constantly. That added to the anxiety of going out and socialising. Since talking to experts about it, I now understand how heavily linked my anxiety was entwined with my IBS.
In the end, I got to the point where I felt like I couldn’t cope with one more conversation that asked me where I was ‘really from’ or one more surprised approval of, ‘you’re actually okay’.
After nearly three years of juggling time between Australia, home and our jobs that involve constant travel, we returned to London having decided to spend more time being based here. That’s when I realised just how much my time away had affected me.
I got into my bed at home and knew I never wanted to leave. It took a while to feel comfortable with being out in social situations, even with my own friends. I realised for nearly two years, I had been in constant ‘fight or flight’ mode. For nearly three years, I had been subject to frequent racism. In the next few months I felt my anxiety slowly easing, which led to the severity of my IBS reducing, fewer and less intense headaches and less backache. But there were also the little things; my fists uncurled, my jaw relaxed, I stopped grinding my teeth, my stomach stopped constantly hurting, my heart stopped racing. I started sleeping through the night again.
What struck me most, however, was how I could walk down the street, go to the shop or buy a coffee and not be glared at. How I could have a few drinks in a pub and feel like I wasn’t been watched, discussed or stereotyped. No one felt the need to comment on how I ‘don’t look like’ I’m from London or how I actually ‘speak really good English’.
When I first returned, I would stay well away of people on the pavement – desperate not to give them another reason to be annoyed at me. One day, as I tip-toed slowly behind a group of strollers, a lady noticed and stopped, smiled, and let me pass ahead of her. “Have a lovely day, dear,” she called after me – and I felt an overwhelming desire to hug her tightly. I wanted to thank her for just seeing me as any normal person, and for treating me as such. Even more so, she was nice to me!
Sometimes, when you’re in a situation where the majority of people, in this case most of a community, are doing or saying something you feel isn’t right, you do question your own mind. Maybe I was over-reacting? Was I imagining it? Perhaps I am too sensitive? Maybe they don’t mean it.
But they did mean it and what I do know is experiencing racism in this way absolutely tore me apart. I’ll forever be grateful for my parents and friends who were still here when I came home and who gathered me up and reminded me I was still the person I always was. And that what I had experienced was abhorrent and wrong. I’m thankful to Brad for standing by me, even when he was forced to learn how to address such prejudice and sometimes a volatile atmosphere, while also facing the possibility of losing people close to him, who may never realise the devastating impact of their words and ‘jokes’. Their racism.
As I say, it does feel like we are in a strange time right now. The lines between free speech and hate speech are becoming blurred. Despite all we have hoped and fought for, racism still happens in 2019.
As someone who has recently been on the receiving end of racism and sexism, I just want to ask those who feel they have the right to say whatever they want, when they want, to just stop and think for a moment. Think how you would feel if someone you loved was on the receiving end of similar words. Are you intending to make that person feel like I did? Do you really think they deserve that?
If the answer is ‘no’, then please change your discourse. The colour of someone’s skin, their country of origin or cultural traditions tell us nothing about the kind heart or decency of an individual. There are far better ways to campaign for our freedoms, welfare, rights and dreams than by attacking people, cultures, races and religions different to our own.
If the answer is ‘yes’, then, there is no place for you at our table.