Another MemoryPosted: October 6, 2007
I’m sitting in the kitchen with Mum. I’m in Year 5, which makes me nine or ten years old. And we’re having “The Conversation”.
Except it’s not about sex, because I’ve got a book for that, and both my sister and I were told years ago that while it was fine to play with our own bodies as much as we liked, it was a pasttime best kept in the privacy of our own bedrooms.
It’s about racism. I don’t know to this day why Mum chose that time to talk to me about it. Maybe she’d had a bad day of it. Maybe she’d had a bad day a couple of days beforehand, and wanted to talk to me about it as soon as she could deal with having that conversation. Maybe I’d told her something about school that she’d identified as racism. Maybe she just thought that I was old enough to hear it. For whatever reason, she told me.
She tells me that some people have strange ideas about other people. She tells me that sometimes people use words that they shouldn’t. She tells me that sometimes they would use those words because they didn’t know any better, and sometimes they would use them because they wanted to upset me. She tells me that it was important to be able to recognise it.
Mum had great timing. Later that week, a boy in my class called me “Paki” as a term of abuse. It was the first time I’d ever had it directed at me. It was the first time I recognised it as racism. And it stayed with me. I’d heard of some forms of racism, of course. My headmaster was a wonderful man, who routinely did assemblies based on stories like that of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. As well as the Titanic and various Greek legends. But they were stories. I knew they’d happened, but Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks lived years and years ago in America – which was practically the moon as far as I was concerned. And they were fighting against slavery and segregation and White people being racist to Black people, which wasn’t the same thing as what had happened to me, not even a little bit. The boy that called me “Paki” that day was a black boy.
Since then, many other people of many different colours and races have used that word against me, or in my hearing. I’m lucky, in a way. If only one group of people had ever done that to me, perhaps I too would have become racist, shunning every person from that group. As it is, I would have to shun everybody who didn’t hail from my ethnic background. Since my ethnicity is a confusing thing, which encompasses Anglo-Indian (Indian, Portuguese, Dutch etc.), English and Irish, it would be something of a Herculean task to find anybody remotely similar. Except my siblings, of course!
This incident, the first that sticks in my mind, goes a long way to explaining why I am the way I am, in certain situations. That boy was probably acting on something he’d heard his parents say. He said it, very likely, because nobody had taught him that he couldn’t. And so I don’t feel I have the luxury of letting comments slide. Because a society that doesn’t act on comments like that, even throwaway comments, is a society that condones them. And a society that condones them is not a society that I wish to be a part of.
People need to speak out about these things. Because if you don’t say anything, you’re just like that kid at school, that watched the bully put someone down, without doing anything to help.
And it could be a remark as simple as
“I’m off to get my dinner from the Chinky”, or
“that Paki guy in the corner shop said…” or
“that’s gay” [to mean “stupid”] or
“don’t be such a girl” [to mean “weak, feeble, silly”] or
“urgh, you spaz/ retard” [to mean “idiot, silly person”]
but whatever it is, it’s still wrong. Somewhere, somehow, it will affect somebody, and they will be offended, hurt, upset, fucking furious.
To quote my father: “It’s not big, and it’s not clever.”