Another Memory

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.”

8 Comments on “Another Memory”

  1. Jane Know says:

    “The boy that called me “Paki” that day was a black boy”

    that is why racism is so dangerous. while the boy was certainly at fault for his comments, i feel like a lot of the time it is like a “rebound racism” or a butterfly effect of racism… someone had probably made fun of the boy for being black once, and that made him feel inferior, and he wanted to feel superior to someone. it’s a horrible cycle.

  2. Rachel says:

    Yes, it could have been that.

    But it could also have been that, for whatever reason, his parents didn’t like Indians. It happens. Not all racism, as I have learned, is whites-against-blacks racism, or a byproduct of it.

    My mother has been abused by white people because she looks Indian, by black people because she isn’t black, by Israelis who thought she was Palestinian…..
    The list is endless!

  3. tcupnewt says:

    And then there is xenophobia which is similar but not quite the same. I had a campaign of bullying led against me when I first came to England because I spoke with a strong “american” accent and came from france. I’m white but that didn’t spare me… The difference with what I faced is that now I’ve shed the accent no one would guess I’m a foreigner. But it’s impossible to shed your skin…

    I wonder sometimes if That Talk can be harmful. The first time I saw racism was in an episode of “Little House in the Prairie”. The snobby stupid woman is all excited that a posh friend is coming other, only to find out it’s someone else of the same name and is *gasp* black! Much hilarity ensues as stupid, snobby woman must hide her disgust whilst being in black woman’s company!

    I realised that an inside joke was going on that I didn’t understand. When my mum said “some people used to think black people aren’t as good” I couldn’t understand why, so I started imagining what could possibly be wrong with black people. Not exactly productive.

    Beyond that a lot of racism is pure ignorance of not understand why certain things are offensive, of not being able to see the wider picture of our social and historical lives.

    Aaah! Sorry for hijacking with that novel!

  4. Rachel says:

    Ok, I can see how that didn’t really help!

    But for me, I feel that I did have to know those things. Because it has affected me, and will probably continue to affect me. But I think it would have affected me more if Mum hadn’t told me about it. I’ve never doubted my own worth (in a “what could possibly be wrong with Indian people” kind of a way) and I think that was because of her.
    Each to their own, I suppose 🙂
    And I’m glad you stopped by. Thank you.

  5. tcupnewt says:

    Yes, knowledge is the best defence. I don’t think the talk itself is bad- it’s definitely vital- but it’s how, when and your own maturity level at the time. But then that’s my privilege showing…; “Because it has affected me, and will probably continue to affect me.” That says it all, doesn’t it?

  6. blue milk says:

    Terrific story, thanks for sharing it.

  7. Rachel says:

    Cheers, blue milk 🙂

  8. Gravey Dice says:

    And again. Sorry for being so late in reading it (you can thank BlueMilk that I saw it at all).

    I have often wondered how I ever got to have the views I did. I grew up in an extremely racist and sexist environment. One of my brothers was a skinhead at one point, and would proudly boast about going out gay-bashing.

    Through all of this, I **knew** something was wrong – even as a young child – just never understood what it was until I was older. Being a hetero, white middle-class male, I am pretty much at the peak of privilege.

    But what I feel most privileged of all – is to realise this. To have become aware of the impact of our actions on others. And to have learned that “insignificant” things like name-calling are far from insignificant.

    A phrase I have used lately that I rather like: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can destroy my very soul.

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