If you’re a man or woman of colour, you’ve almost certainly been racially abused/profiled in your lifetime. At the very least you’ve known someone who has. It’s happened to me and it’s not a pleasant experience, no matter how thick-skinned you are.
Living in London has a lot of benefits and one of those for me has been being exposed to so many different cultures. Indians, West Indians, Africans, Pakistanis, Bengalis, English, Irish, Russian, Kosovan, Turkish the list goes on. My core friendship groups now consist of a variety of these. Growing up though, I had black friends predominantly and this made me always question “Why don’t I have many Indian friends? I swear I’m meant to have Indian friends as an Indian kid?”.
As I grew further I became engrossed with hip-hop culture which is derived from the black community. That occurred mainly when I was exposed to Tupac Shakur- a rapper, poet and activist ruthlessly gunned down in 1996. He was the first person I saw on TV taking on higher establishments, police brutality and racism issues. Though he had many flaws to his character, his charismatic persona coupled with the harsh reality of his music made me change from a kid who just listened to hip-hop music, to really following something and slowly immersing himself into a culture.
Throughout my life I’ve never felt uncomfortable around black people, when I’m in unfamiliar surroundings in parties or work events I always try to look for an asian or black person. That’s not a knock on white people, but I generally feel much more at ease with asian or black people. There are things you both understand on a subliminal level about each other without having to say it. You feel safe when you know someone else who is a minority is there too. So as a person who actively aligns himself with the black, hip-hop community and culture on a daily basis, I feel a responsibility to speak up on the issues they face right now and have for their entire lives. As a brown Indian man, we don’t get it as bad as black people do, in reality it’s nowhere near. However, it does make certain environments hard especially at work. Some white people’s knowledge (or lack of) on racism is basic and comes from carefully selected education by either parents or in the school curriculum, and it shows with their oblivious nature to racism.
An example of this that is close to me personally, was when I started a role at a company. The CEO of the company heard I liked cricket. He asked if I was watching the England vs India series and I told him I was. He then asked me who I was supporting, “Erm India” I retorted. The man couldn’t fathom my response, “But you’re English aren’t you? Shouldn’t you be supporting England?”. Fair question to ask me for someone who has white privilege, but considering I had joined the company within that week I didn’t want to get into a dialogue with a white, middle-class, middle-aged English man about the history of Great Britain and India. My relationship with my nation of birth is still to this day love/hate and conflicted. When I was a teenager at the park I got told to take off my England football shirt because I’m apparently ‘not English’ by a group of white kids. That effected me more than I thought. As an avid football fan I don’t support England in sporting tournaments anymore, I realised some time ago it was because of that. It’s quite sad that as a grown man I still hold some resentment towards my own country based on that one isolated incident.
Speaking of football, I ran into an old teammate of mine at a bar in central London one Friday evening around 3 years ago. He’s Nigerian, and he had an African name which I called him by. He was with work colleagues and after greeting him he asked me to join him as I waited for another friend. His work colleagues were all white British males and females and they kept addressing him as ‘Michael’. I whispered “Femi, who the fuck is Michael?”, “Oh that’s me bro” he replied. I looked at him confused, “Why these white man calling you Michael?”. “I changed my name on my CV to Michael in order to get interviews for jobs”. I was baffled, then a terrible realisation ran through my mind about black and other ethnic minorities having to work twice as hard to get half as far in their careers than others. Femi revealed he was struggling for a long time to get interviews/job offers at firms and he deduced it may have been from his name. Once he changed it he saw an increase in callbacks and interviews. We had a laugh about it after because we’re cool like that but I felt bad for him. So when his colleague asked me “So where do you know Michael from?”, I replied “Oh I know FEMI from football”. “Ah yes, Oluwafemi is your birth name isn’t it Michael, from Africa?”. Immediately I saw a fake smile and laugh which responded “Yes, the name is from Nigeria”. “Ohh that’s a mouthful! Thank God we don’t have to call you that everyday eh! Hahaha”. That kind of ignorance and lack of understanding is what I mean. Please adjust your customs and culture so it’s easier for me as a white person.
My female black friend speaks of being labelled the “angry black girl” or being complimented with “you’re quite pretty for a black girl”. Being gawked at and being presumed for a prostitute on holidays in Europe. Having people take pictures and gaze at her as if she were an endangered species. Being told by black men that they’d rather have “mixed race kids”. Yet she still manages to persevere in her life and career, but the worst thing was she was being told it by people from her own race. This obsession with being lighter has to stop. It’s psychologically damaging and has been hard coded into us via advertisements and marketing our entire lives. I wont lie I’ve been guilty of that too.
I was also intrigued to listen to what my mixed-race friends had to say about this issue. For a mixed-race person it must be awkward ground at times as you represent both races. A mixed-race friend spoke of her pride to see so many people coming together in the London BLM protests. Though my friend feels she’s mixed race, she believes “in the eyes of a racist she will always be black”. She’s felt it from both sides, too dark for the white side and too light skin for the black side. What she’s always found amusing is the presumed allegiance to one race over the other. Is it really as black and white as that? We all have that primal feeling of tribalism and always feel the need to choose sides. I always use the hypothetical analogy of- imagining it’s freezing cold outside, and two people come to your door, you can only let one in to save them. One person is Eastern European, let us say Bulgarian. The other is of your own race and even hails from the same country as you. Who are you letting in? The person from an unknown country and culture, or the person from your own country and culture that you can presumptuously vouch for? Let’s be honest, when it comes down to a decision like that or a survival situation, we’re hardwired to choose the one who we most identify with. That doesn’t mean it’s the correct choice because that person could have bad intentions and you wouldn’t know.
The point of that particular analogy was to show you can’t judge an individual’s merit or character from their skin colour. You don’t know either of them, yet your unconscious bias will trigger in your brain and force you to go with the least threatening option. The least threatening option is your own kind. Is that considered racism also?
The last month has seen a rise in a lot of racist and fascist activity in the USA and also in the UK. The video of Amy Cooper in Central Park was the most eye opening for me. She knew how to manipulate her white privilege to her advantage. It was calculated, she used all the buzz words that can make a police officer jump straight to the conclusion “African American guy. White woman in danger. Shoot to kill”. Even to the point where she changed the tone of her voice during the call to make it sound more distressing as if she was in mortal danger (like her dog was). Many people have always suspected some white people do this but to see it caught on video was alarming. On that same day the video of George Floyd came out. That video was a metaphorical symbol of oppression that’s plagued black people in the USA for decades, Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful knee during his NFL days providing an ironic juxtaposition. A policeman held his knee on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, until he eventually passed out and died, on the street, just like countless other souls before him at the hands of the police. The disregard for human life like that was unsettling. The raw emotion of the man pleading for them to stop, and the calling out for his dead mother in his final moments were heartbreaking. We’ve been in a situation currently where people aren’t as distracted by external factors due to being in a lockdown. That’s why these cases stand out, we’re seeing it put straight in our faces with nowhere else to hide and divert our attention like our jobs, social events or sport and entertainment. On the flip side, one of my friends told me black people should also take some more responsibility because they’ve let one too many racist joke and stereotypes go unchecked. The ones that fuel preconceived notions about them to the point where a man puts his knee on man’s neck in 2020 and people just get our phones and watch. I fully get the fear though, everyone talks a big talk online on social media but getting involved in something like this, in the heat of the moment, against trigger happy police who seem totally unfit to control these kinds of situations. I refuse to believe that in a police training manual it says you need 4 people to keep one man down. In fact it says a knee on neck situation should only be used when an assailant is resisting arrest. I’ve watched the video, he’s not resisting arrest, he’s face down and he’s even handcuffed. You’d think if one man is adequately trained he shouldn’t need the help of the other 3 to control a handcuffed man who’s face down. So you’ve got racist, poorly trained and inept cops running around not being fit to even do their job in the first place. Majority of them haven’t even studied Law or Criminology.
It sucks for a lot of them who are genuine good policemen and women. Unfortunately they now have to live with the fact that their reputations as humans and community members in their neighbourhoods will be under scrutiny. Black people in particular have been oppressed so deeply by the government and law enforcement that they are incapable of trusting them at all. The problem is systematic and structured far into the roots of our society. It’s reported that 1 in 3 young black males (US) is expected to go to jail in his lifetime (Race & Justice shadow report, 2013) compared to 1 in 6 Hispanics and 1 in 17 Caucasians. The prison make up of the USA is staggeringly bias to black people, they make up 40.2% of it. What the BLM movement has done is begun to get black people together for the same cause, they haven’t been allowed to unite together as one like this for decades. The few people who have attempted to lead these kinds of movements have been assassinated, discredited or thrown in prison. I wonder if it’s this unity that white supremacists in the USA see as a threat. The fear of retaliation from the black community for all the sins of their forefathers. In reality, most black people just want the same rights and opportunities as them nothing more, nothing less. If black communities found a way to mobilise in the USA as one, that’s around 13.4% (approx) of the population. That’s 43.6 million. Imagine the possibilities of having that many people on the same page, not trying to kill each other, not in prisons, not being divided by political beliefs. The US government seems to have been suppressing this for a long time, they’d rather you to be out there in the streets looting, destroying your communities to justify the next barbaric act which I can guarantee is coming. Add a global pandemic and approx 30 million people unemployed into this mix and all the signs point to a total breakdown of society.
I’ve always felt hesitant to comment on US matters because I don’t know what’s going on there every day on the ground and don’t have much knowledge about their infamous constitution. It’s becoming near impossible to keep up now with the mass amount of information we’re exposed to social media. A lot of my family live in the US and I always envisaged myself living there at some point in my life. Nowadays that idea just seems more and more farfetched as each year passes. We all seem so lost and divided as a society right now and I’m not clever enough to come out up with solutions or anything intelligent at this point. I have no idea, and that seems to be one of the hardest things for people to say and admit now because we’re all so fixated in looking smart online.
I’m from the UK which has it’s own issues, the only thing I will give the US is that, at least majority of their racism is outright in your face and you know where people stand on the issue. The UK has a somewhat milder form of racism which is more passive, lowkey and cunning than the US. I also live in the Netherlands now, which has a national holiday around Christmas time called ‘Sinterklaas’. To put it plainly- Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) involves white people wearing blackface as “helpers” of him (picture below). Research ‘Zwarte Piet’ and ‘Prinsjesdag Carriage’ if you don’t know. It’s quite bizarre to experience from the sidelines as an expat within a country that many believed (including me), to be more socially advanced with their principles. A lot of the white Dutch response to this is that ‘it’s not racist it’s just showing our history, etc.’ It seems some Dutch people value their colonial history more than the possibility of forming a respectful future towards everyone. No different to those confederate flags you see in the US or morons in the UK gatecrashing BLM protests by defending statues.
Hopefully the horrific last few weeks and the murders of George Floyd/Ahmaud Arbery/Breonna Taylor (amongst many others) aren’t in vain. You’d hope they will spark a change and shed light to our global population about progressive thinking as well as, the institutionalised racism and prejudice that black people and many others have been suffering for decades. The hardest thing for me is getting people to understand this cause because many will be thinking it doesn’t concern them. The toughest conversations are with friends and family members who don’t have access to good quality sources and real life examples like I do. Key thing is to be patient and teach them through real life stories and anecdotes like I’ve mentioned above.
I’m probably the only person in my family who has black friends (not work colleagues). Which means people I actually talk to and spend time with outside of work and family. Indians tend to stick within their own communities for the most part (which isn’t a crime). However, it does lead to the question of why we don’t tend to integrate with other cultures? My family, along with thousands of other asians were exiled from Uganda in the 70’s as part of Idi Amin’s dictatorship. Many fled to the UK, Canada and the US during this time. The UK in those days was rife with racism and many family members speak of being called “darkies” and being told they’re not welcome in this country. In essence, they were basically kicked out of Uganda by a black man and then told to they are not wanted in the UK by the white man. On some level I believe this is potentially one of the reasons why some Indian people don’t trust other cultures, ethnicities and integrate. Let me make this clear too, I’m not speaking for everyone in this community, I’m not trying to put anyone on blast like that, it’s just a theory. In addition, this isn’t a moral condemnation on Indian people who don’t have black friends to start having them. Nor for people to start having more diverse relationships with other ethnic groups. What I will say, is that it has helped me immensely as a person to relate to other cultures and their plights (especially black folk). From my personal experience it’s from having black friends and being in black homes I came to realise they’re not too different from my own. Ask them how their family is doing, ask them where their family comes from, What do they do on religious and cultural holidays. You can only do that if you’re willing to listen, put your ego aside, and actively educate yourself. The number of times I’ve had people say to me “You think you’re black or I bet you wish you were black” just because I listen to hip-hop music or dress a certain way. Not at all, I’m proud of my heritage, I know full well who I am, where I come from, what I represent and will never forget that. However, that doesn’t mean I should limit myself to adopting a traditional Indian lifestyle and necessarily take on all the same views as generations before me. Don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zones, how else can you possibly learn to have empathy for another person or race without integrating on a foundational level and connecting on a human one? If black people weren’t around and disappeared who do you think racists will channel their hatred towards next? Chicken Tikka Masala’s won’t save you.
Huge thanks to all my black friends from the UK, in Amsterdam and wherever else for their contributions to this piece (names below). Your thoughts were incredibly insightful and profound. I learnt a lot from them and I know some of you are frustrated, angry, and fed up with having to speak about this time and time again. To any others who I didn’t get round to asking or speaking to, my apologies, but I’m always open for a chat, critique and debate as many of you know so just holler at me. Here’s hoping the rest of the world can start to appreciate and respect you as I do.
Oluwafemi, Jamal, Kenna, Daniel, Rodney, Jamie Ayeshia, Chris, Denzel, Jake, Omari, Craig, William, Kandi, Timi.
“Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today” (Malcom X)
Finally, let’s drum it in and educate people now. We probably won’t even be around to see the changes but future generations will. Our generation is leading the biggest civil rights moment in history. It’s remarkable to watch so many people of different ethnicities, race and religion standing up for the same cause. Keep the momentum up and don’t let it slip. Can’t change the world unless we change ourselves. Happy Juneteenth.
Peace and love to all.
P.S. — I’ve dropped some links below of organisations that you can donate to for BLM and others.
BLM donations link:
What petitions can I sign to support Black Lives Matter in the UK?