Monday 8th June 2020
We moved to the UK when I was 5, coming from a nice middle class family, as is common with many immigrants who can afford the costs to emigrate. Dad told us that on the plane you could open the window and touch the clouds, which were like cotton wool. There’d be snow: I imagined digging myself out and tunneling my way to school. In retrospect he knew.
He’d studied here in London, law I hear, but blew it all, gave money to a friend in need, argued too much with the colonial professors. But left with a penchant to liberate his kids should he ever have any, to a more free life. Without the ethnic politics of Malaysia, where to this day we’d be barred from university choices and jobs due to our race. As ethnic Chinese, we were known as the ‘Jews of Asia’, for the way we monopolised wealth despite starting out as poor WWII refugees. In Indonesia, where affirmative action is non-existent Chinese made up only 7% of the population yet 90% of the wealth. When the Asian Financial Crisis hit in 1997, inflamed by multinational hedge funds, one of the side-effects was half a million children succumbing to malnutrition. Race riots took over by May of the next year, and almost 12,000 were killed, mostly ethnic Chinese, with 100,000 fleeing the country. In Malaysia the historic slanting of the Chinese after 600 years in business was balanced out when they introduced affirmative action for the varied ‘Bumiputra’ (sons of the soil) populations, mostly Malays, long indentured and an underclass in their own country. A rebalancing followed, opening up opportunity to many of the poor, whilst teaching racial harmony in the schools -but over the years the Chinese who made up nearly half the population at one stage, dwindled to 23%, as many moved abroad for better prospects.
Mum remembers the race riots during the Communist insurgency of the late 1960s, how as a young teacher they watched the fires crowd out the horizon, then had to try and shuttle the children home safely. Britain would be a better life.
Fast forward to 1980s Thatcherite Britain. I remember it cold, a sensation I’d never felt before, and grey. October. We moved from our tropical beach house into a little rent in Windsor, picked for the royal associations and guaranteeing a hallowed education just in name: Clewer Green, Trevelyan, The Windsor Boys’ School, The Windsor Girls’ School, The Berkshire School of Art. The flat was small but beautiful, opposite the library, where my sister R aged six, would sneak into the Adults section to get her books, and where I learned English stuttering over the long names in Asterix. They bought me a tiny desk, with little drawers -trumped up as a big reveal but remember thinking it a bit shit. There were no other kids, and the walk to school was crap, a mile and a half. Though in hindsight, we should’ve stayed there.
A few months later we bought a horrible house on a council estate -one of the few that were privately owned. Mum went from a departmental head at her high school to a cleaner, for which she gave up her pension. Dad, a landowner and academic but one without degrees, went straight into factory work and abject poverty for the rest of their lives. We were too poor to have furniture for a while. Unbeknownst the area was the most racially divided boroughs in the London area: Slough with the highest minority-majority wards in the country (97% Pakistani) to Windsor winningly White and native, an affluent tourist town surrounded by army estates. We’d landed right into one that later got notorious, including the odd riot.
On the first day at school, my sisters got straight into fights -a running meme for the rest of their tenure. R was a born tomboy, always loud, belligerent, brave, and climbing trees, building forts and taking anyone on. She’d tie her little anorak around her shoulders then zoom round the playground shouting ‘Supergirl!’ at the bullies, and generally doing Supergirl things, such as punching them in the face. They learned to stay away. But H, the eldest got it worst, where the kids were old enough to see the difference, and read into it. At first just as belligerent as R, as the years went on she started to quieten. I remember the first dark-skinned pupil joined by Class 3 -a Sri Lankan boy who’d moved house because the last place was too racist -subsequently the entire hundred+ school chasing him round the playground while the dinner ladies watched and the teachers pretended not to. It went on for days, at every break.
By middle school (Trevelyan) H was being badly bullied every day, not just the open insults -getting drinks poured down her, fights, punches, playgrounds throwing her into the air like giving the bumps, then letting her fall, and her name Chinky or Ching Chong day in day out. One gang of girls merciless. She used to stay behind class to avoid rec, much to the annoyance of the teachers just as complicit; when she finally told them she was being bullied, years later, they said ‘oh you’ll make friends soon’. One teacher, as a lesson, took her to the playground, and to demonstrate her small size, picked her up and stood her in a bin for the rest of the class to watch. By then H barely spoke. I think of these people now and want to rip their shitty little earrings out.
R continued to fight. Some of the boys in the neighbourhood wouldn’t believe she was a girl, so ready was she to take them all on and oblivious to any assault. Even when she was dragged out of a tree aged six, she stood up bleeding to the 14 year old skinheads. For it was a skinhead estate, we found out pretty soon. Every day for weeks the entire neighbourhood’s kids mobbing as a wall of flesh on the back gate to scream racist abuse, spit, throw projectiles, while their parents ushered them in every night and gave us evils from high windows. We couldn’t go out, and if we ever did we’d have to try and avoid Sean and his gang, and put up with everyone else, though one little girl, Dana, did start to play with us. They started calling her ‘nigger-lover’. Chrissakes folks, at least get it right.
Next door lived a teacher and her middle class family. A bit cold but civil, who would offer a lift to my sister occasionally (until she overheard the mother’s nickname for her). At some stage next door made their feelings more overt. One night their kids dancing idiotically in a ring and singing outside our house. Night after night we were getting new projectiles -no longer stones or sticks, but soggy clumps of tissue, that rarely made a noise but would dry like concrete; it didn’t take long to spot it was them, and know no one could be trusted.
Windsor, twee little Home Counties town full of tourist lace and Royal tradition, is the most odiously racist place I’ve ever been, permeating every level and class. It’s hard to forget even after so long the looks of sheer, screaming disgust, the hate, the friends that betray. Even when it’s not leaning out of cars to spit at you, or stare 180 as you walk by (to the point you think it normal behaviour for all pedestrians), or throwing bricks, spraying your walls and kicking you in the face in some carpark, it’s insidious even in the acceptably middle class assumptions. Little old ladies asking you to get your proximity away from their seat, tutting if you walked in front of them, always starting off: ‘in this country…’.
During A-Levels, my essays were held up as an example to other classes of a sign of plagiarism, too good was the writing. It happened again in art college, losing final marks because they concluded my lecture notes copied from books. My mate who’d done none and did in fact frantically copy some of mine on the last day, got a higher mark. I questioned the low score out of curiosity, my lecturer fumblingly embarrassed, admitted the accusation; and it would not be changed. This was the most left-wing, open environment you could think off, and an abrupt ending to the first illusion I’d ever entertained as being accepted. To this day if reminded I’m still pissed.
Growing up in Windsor one grows to hate everything that is different, such is the cultural norm, notably yourself. Everything about the way I looked, dressed, smelled was found wanting, even what I ate -after being mocked I would only wolf down my packed lunch after getting home, locked in the bathroom. Everywhere you looked, you read, you watched and listened you couldn’t but help but laugh, cry, fall in love with the White image, and that everything else was unworthy. Just watch any 80s flick of the era or older, involving anywhere abroad, from Indiana Jones to Casablanca to Breakfast At Tiffany’s to James Bond. We are the background: bestial, stupid, laughable as foil to White saviours. This on top of the domestic dramas and trauma behind closed doors. No teacher ever asked about the bruises, black on white.
Being proud would never happen for decades. By then R, so headstrong at the start, was a shy and quiet young woman, so ahead of the class yet dropped out of school and jobless. H had become the opposite, up for any fight, strong and persevering; it was as if they’d swapped roles.
It was one night I was home visiting from uni, when another great big stick or brick or something came into the window, can’t quite remember. But that I went berserk, just saw red and chased them over the wall and into the warren of the garage block. Rounding back onto the street empty-handed, then began yelling at the houses like a madman, like come-out-and-fucking-stab-me mad. That for 15 years we’d put up with that shit, that after one generation grew up, another would replace them. That it was the complicit parents to blame, that my father sat dying for years while barricaded, watching them throw their missiles from a bygone age. I think I was out there for half an hour screaming at darkened windows, where in the end Mum and R came out too. It all stopped after that night, the cowards.
To this day there is a part that is still bitter, that will always be bitter so long as I see it, and the world around duplicitous. Racism changes lives, it kills, it denies you jobs and promotions and money and lifeplans we endure, even in subconscious bias. You sweat like a dog year in year out, while watching those hired after and promoted within a year. Leaving in disgust after 5 years of blocked applications. After chatting in common rooms full of cooing colleagues, walking out then overhearing their racist jokes about you. I’ll never fully trust sweet sounding OAPs after that, or anyone who’s ever worked in ‘the forces’.
That it takes 7 years in the next job of more of the same, the very last to leave the bottom payscale by dint of always being peripheral and every word unimportant.
I find it hard to randomly watch, hear, or hear about racism any more, it just ignites too much inside. That I see it underlying so much of media portrayals while the rest just accept, and we face every day. It’s just so fucking draining. One of the first openers to Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race retains the scenario that the complainant understands the argument, fully. They are not simply one-sided, they understand inverse racism is still racism, they know what ‘playing the race card’ is and are wary of it, and that not all White people are to blame, should pay for the sins of their fathers, or to be lumped as one and the same in the exact way racism categorises others. That strawman arguments of not being able to ‘say anything’ anymore or suffering White Mans Burden, or accusations of such, of being over-sensitive or reading too much into things is alien to them. That ethnic minorities can be racist too, and are no angelic civilisations. But all too often our cries beach themselves against the same, listed barrage, imbedded by the sense of authority in these matters despite never having experienced it, and by that constant sense of The Other.
I remember insomnia after five days, waking up dazed and confused. Thinking I had insects in my bed; asking Mum to tell me about her nonexistent childhood in Germany, then looking into the mirror in the dark, and realising I wasn’t White and British, but East Asian. Imagine if you woke up Chinese one day. How fucking alien all that embodies.
The same way ethnic minorities navel-gaze, look upon themselves as lesser, question themselves constantly, and battle their own media-driven assumptions, is the same way they think White people regard them. Even if it is without hate, we fear it is with prejudice. From the news to Hollywood to Netflix to the internet to the voting booths, it takes a toll. Think of someone that got bullied for being different in your school, we can look back on and agree was unjust and cruel. Then think about a society subsequently forming political parties that wanted everyone who looked like that person booted out of the country, and millions voting for it. That for the last 25 years it’s been the main priority for the majority of voters that we stop more of them arriving, regardless of what they stand for, who they are or what they can offer. What message does that publicly announce?
It’s so easy to hate on the White world, to try and wash yourself from everyone you imagine judges you every time they look or interact. To not even come into contact with the possibility, and disregard a society constantly betraying you yet demanding allegiance at every turn and story. That daily life outside is a tiresome, constant minefield of expectation, judgment, acting and giving a damn. But ignoring that is impossible. You work, you have friends, you watch TV and fall in step with the characters, allegiant to sports teams and even proud of your nation when the flag flies exultant, or some other nation tries to trash it. You fall in love, you marry and live your life with them, and will have kids like them.
I remember a British drama on the box, about a British Pakistani brother and sister. The young woman recruited into terrorism, whilst her twin accepted into the anti-terrorism force. They question him for his allegiance -he a former soldier, thankful to Britain for taking him and his family in, thankful to Britain for giving him the freedom of society and speech, proud of his adopted nation and very off-the-cuff about it all too. He’s hired on the spot. We, as ethnic minorities scoff at that portrayal, no doubt written with White assumption. How many native White people thank Britain? Actually take the time out, pause and thank the country for bringing them up, for taking them on, for accepting them against all the odds. The answer is they don’t -they are that country they love, that they do not have to prove themselves to, and not in a job interview either. Walk down the street after that charming interaction at the supermarket, and thank Britain for not kicking you out.
So here’s the secret: we are British. We do not look at it through the lens of us and them, we do not look at it as some foreign country that accepted us and continues to do so. We are this country in the same way any native White Briton feels, and who doesn’t question why they are standing in it, or having to thank some abstract ideal or the general White populace for being there. I close my eyes and I am British, more British than anyone under the age of 37. I’ve had more experience of living in this country, eating the food, living the lifestyle, reading the news, going to the same schools, pubs, clubs, restaurants, cinemas, supermarkets, and everywhere else, seeing from the same eyes as an idiot abroad, and I’m sure I’d take anyone ‘native’ on in knowing more of the history, language, customs or geography. Just I don’t look like it and will never, ever fit into the narrative. One colleague once mentioned, with a knowing glint in her eye: ‘the question is would you die for this country?’. She of course assumed we wouldn’t, that the question needn’t even be answered. I asked her back, why would I, even if I wanted to?
If that BBC drama knew in any way what they were even talking about, the police would have asked what they felt about allegiance and merited him on honesty, not which side he was on and if he ticked sufficiently their prerequisite boxes.
When we look at ‘White’ people and culture, no matter how one could try and extract themselves from the immersion, or hate back, we cannot but help to have been formulated in it, to have laughed and cried alongside every media portrayal from Pretty Woman to Titanic to Avatar to the fucking Little Mermaid. The same cannot be said from the other side. Whenever China gets bad news, sure plenty of people say they hate the regime not the Chinese people, but just look how quickly that translated to open racism during the pandemic. How many people have cried for Gong Li in Farewell My Concubine, or laughed with Sing from Kung Fu Hustle, fallen in love with Teacher Luo in Under the Hawthorn? Or ever even watched a documentary where Chinese actually talk amongst themselves, thus displaying more than one personality type? And that’s for China, the most out-there country right now emblazoned on many a headline for years -what about any given ‘shithole’ country? They are not just indentured refugees, poverty-mired underclass or corruption-riddled nouveau riches. They are like you and me, and just as multitudinous, just as understanding and ignorant in equal measure.
In short we ask – no, we demand – the way one sees their own race, their own community or family or class as multitudinous, and not compatible with categorisation, has to extend that view to all others.
So what has become of Windsor? In the noughties people tried to convert part of the Windsor Dairy, which had been functioning as a makeshift mosque for the small, local community. Residents were so averse to ‘increasing the traffic’ they took up arms and assaulted anyone they deemed looked Muslim on their street, while worshippers barricaded the dairy. The mosque never did get consent due to ‘increasing the traffic’. The town’s since had a Black MP, though racist leaflets were distributed to every pub and local institution on the eve of his election, urging people that we couldn’t ever let this happen -the same betrayal across the river in Slough. Our street is now affably middle class, despite everything being ugly postwar terraces the property prices are legion. The town is staunchly Conservative and voted Brexit. I’m sure it’s nowhere as bad as it was before -notably a friend who was brought up after says there is little open hate anymore.
I always look back when I talk or write about racism with embarrassment, there’s always so much to say, too many incidents to recount from too bitter a well. I don’t think about race every day, as I’m sure most people don’t. But then reminded, and especially right now, when one sweeps it under a rug, and doesn’t learn from history, you’re doomed to repeat it. Our experiences, our histories need to stand testament, and publicly.
Sorry to have gone on for so much, but then again no, I’m not fucking sorry.