by Adele A Wilby
Although we know bias and racism exists in most societies, when put into coherent terms in the form of research the impact is stark and exposes just how much a part of life racism is for so many people. Booth and Mohdin’s (The Guardian 2018) article ‘Revealed: the stark evidence of everyday bias in Britain’ setting out the findings of a poll on the levels of negative experience, more often associated with racism, by Black, Asian and minority and ethnic groups in the United Kingdom(UK) does just that. Thus, for example, from amongst its many findings the survey revealed that 43% of those from a minority background had been overlooked for work promotion in the last five years in comparison with only 18% of white people who reported the same experience. Likewise, 38% of people from ethnic minorities said they had been wrongly suspected of shop lifting in the last five years, in comparison with 14% of white people. Significantly, 53% of people from a minority background believed they had been treated differently because of their hair, clothes and appearance, in comparison with 29% of white people. In the work-place also 57% of minorities said they felt they had to work harder to succeed in Britain because of their ethnicity, and 40% said they earned less.
That racism, and indeed anti-Semitism, should be relegated to the dustbin of history is an aspiration shared by many. Of course, it is doubtful that there has ever been a society where racism has not been present. Nevertheless, that is not an excuse for it to become an acceptable phenomenon; it is a scourge on humanity, and has been the source of barbarity and brutality, cruelty and humiliation amongst fellow human beings. Its perpetual presence also serves to remind us of just how little we have learned from its devastating and harmful impact on peoples and societies throughout history. Thus, the recent research and reports of racism in the UK evoked reflection, and reminded me of my personal experience of racism in the United Kingdom, and how I realised the full weight of the phenomenon after the death of my husband.
The reader might wonder why I felt the full impact of racism when my husband, an Asian man, a brown man, is no longer physically present in my life? Ironically, it was my experience of functioning in society as a white woman alone, and engaging more deeply with the local population that the weight and impact of racism became apparent to me in all its fullness. I hadn’t realised just how accustomed I had become and how much I had internalised the briefest of conversations or meagre gestures of acknowledgement as ‘normal’ when my husband and I moved around in English society.
After progressively widening my circle of activity following my husband’s death, I became aware that the local population was talking to me in a way previously unfamiliar to me, but I attributed this cordial social interaction to my age. However, the frequency of pleasantness in day to day relations with the people never failed to surprise me, and to continuously perplex me: shop assistants are polite, even helpful; on visits to restaurants and pubs the staff is friendly. The pint of lager is no longer plonked on the bar and the bar attendant brusquely marching off to the next customer: banter and humour now accompany the pint being put down gently in front of me. Food is ‘placed’ in front of me with a gesture to genteelness: it is not literally dumped down on the table. How could this pleasant social interaction be happening to me? I pondered.
Totally perplexed by this experience of unfamiliar sociability, I got on with living amidst the local population, and then one morning a flash of insight struck me.
With time to spare between catching trains to the destination I was aiming for, I took the liberty of wandering the streets of a small, pleasant suburban town. It was a Sunday, and one of those early autumn morning’s when even gloves fail to protect the fingers from the chilly frost, and the fingers begin to freeze. I held out little hope of finding a café where I could languish the time away and warm up over a macchiato while waiting for my next train. But then, from amongst the bolted shops, I spotted a door ajar a little distance ahead. Emboldened by the promise of a hot macchiato, I drifted closer to that potential source of sustenance, and I noticed a waiter wiping tables. A polite nod from the waiter gave me permission to enter the café, and an invitation to sit down affirmed my optimism that the café was indeed open for business. Spoiled for choice of a table from the many available to me at that time of day, I eventually decided that being seated near the window would be ideal for watching the world go by while I supped on the coffee. I placed my rucksack at my feet as the waiter sauntered over and politely took my order. I pulled out my IPhone and started the usual scrolling to fill in time while I waited for the cup of warmth to be delivered to me, until that is I heard the sound of a cheerful young male voice. I looked up from my phone screen and glanced around for the source of the conversation, only to realise that the voice was indeed addressing me: it was the young waiter. That he should bother to talk to me surprised me, in fact I was taken aback once again by this latest expression of sociability. My grey hair and not yet fully wizened face, a quick scan of my heavy bulky walking boots, my baggy shapeless ideal-for-walking trousers, my cosy ‘fleece’ and my snug jacket dispelled any wishful thinking I might have momentarily entertained that the young waiter could be hitting on me. Why then was he talking to me? why indeed were people, the host community, being sociable to me? I willingly responded to the social interaction, and enjoyed the pleasant exchange with the young man, and when the conversation had run its course I returned to my IPhone and scrolled for the latest news and WhatsApp communication, and that is when it struck me. I lifted my head and stared into a void, stunned in response to a sudden realisation: I was not with my brown husband; I was no longer flouting the social norms of marriage; I had returned to the fold of the local white population; I was one of them again, or so they assumed. What other explanations could account for people’s responses to me? There was no difference between my behaviour now, and when I was with my husband. The realisation disturbed me greatly, awakened memories I thought were dead, and sent my mind spiralling back to the late 1970s and early 1980s in London when racism was part of our life together. Akala (2018) in his book Natives, Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire,also highlights the depth of racism that he was subjected to as a black child growing up in the Britain in the 1980s, and refers to that decade as ‘perhaps the most tumultuous decade of Britain’s domestic racial history’ (pg.2).
That being married to a brown man from a different culture would impact on my life in any way did not even enter my mind in the heady days of early love, and I got on with the happiness of being married, oblivious to the forces of racism around us. But then those forces gathered, steadily increasing in pace, beginning with our Asian visitors arriving at our flat door, beaten and bloodied by gangs of white youths who attacked them on their way to visit us, and too frightened to leave without us escorting them to the station. And then there were the thugs banging at our door, abusing us and trying to break into our flat. The disapproving looks towards a white woman being escorted by a brown man were part of our lives, and I shrugged them off as just the way people were. And then there was the silence of the police: it was a belief among the immigrant community during that period that there was no point in calling the police; they rarely investigated racist incidents.
Racism was less of an issue at the college where I studied as an undergraduate and my husband for his doctoral thesis, or so I thought. Despite the strong left-wing dominance of the student union and its anti-racist policies, racism was able to sneak in and rear its ugly head and exercise its hatefulness. Racists persistently stalked my husband and elbowed him out of the way on the dance floor at a student’s union function one evening, until his usual patience snapped, and he was about to thump the thugs. Appeals to my husband’s rationality ended with us making our way home, and an ugly altercation avoided.
Experiences of racism ultimately come to influence how people see and experience the world, and perhaps cloud judgements on particular behaviour. I would like to think that was the case in Britain of the late 1970s and early 1980s when my husband’s health deteriorated, and he spent many periods of time in hospital. Yet I wondered why the medical professionals in the Accident and Emergency Department his doctor had referred him to were slow to respond to the agonising pain he expressed, wanted to send him home with some Panadol and asked him to return in two days if the pain had not abated. It was only when he refused to leave the hospital until something more concrete was done to relieve his pain, they found a bed for him, and he was admitted. The doctors discovered the source of his pain when they drained an ischio-rectal abscess in emergency surgery the following morning. Why did he have to wait until the rotation of doctors before anyone took seriously his complaints of pus literally dripping from his wound? I was angry when I learned nurses had ignored his request for a sip of water hours after his surgery, and I was furious that he had been given a spinal anaesthesia when he thought he had signed up for a general anaesthetic. I was in fact concerned for his well- being during his stay in hospital, and rushed from my place of night work to be with him for as long as was possible, particularly before and after his surgery. Would these things have happened had he not been an Asian man? Were they expressions of racism, of unconscious racism, or was he the unfortunate victim of over worked staff? I like to think it was the latter, but the prevalence and our experience of racism in British society during that period made me sceptical.
As Booth and Mohdin’s report reveals, racism continues to creep around in society asserting its ugly head. When socialising I have heard reference to ‘coloureds’ and immigrants, the two frequently conflated. Determined not to allow or engage in conversation with racist innuendo the likes of which I no longer have any wish to hear, I let it be known that my husband had been Asian. The ‘ohs’ and ‘reallys’ that met such a declaration shut down the scope for racist comments, but set up barriers in conversation. Likewise, I am familiar with the disapproving looks that are sometimes shot at me when they see a white woman travelling with an Asian family and their small children happily chattering away about the world around them.
But there is room for optimism: there is evidence of change in social attitudes, at least superficially. Booth and Mohdin’s article reveals one positive aspect: just over half of the respondents in the poll had either never experienced direct racist language at them, or had not done so in the last five years. Likewise, I was greatly relieved that my husband was extended the utmost kindness by all those in the medical profession who cared for him as he progressed to the final stages of his illness. Still, much remains to be done to combat any form of racism, and it is my fervent hope that by the time the children of my husband’s relatives reach my years, experiences of racism will not be part of the memories they have to reflect on.
Booth, R. and Mohdin, A. (2018) ‘Revealed: the stark evidence of everyday racial bias Britain’. The Guardian. 2 December [accessed 2 December 2018] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/dec/02/revealed-the-stark-evidence-of-everyday-racial-bias-in-britain)