One of the longest standing arguments I’ve had with my dad is about what racism looks like. In the 1970s, he was attacked by members of the National Front and nearly died. Decades later, when I complained about various micro-aggressions at school about the colour of my skin, he’d laugh and call it “Mickey Mouse racism”. He couldn’t understand how I could let words hurt me in the same way a glass bottle once did to him.
The thing is, it’s a spectrum and the onus isn’t on the person who feels like they have been racially abused to prove it is racism. We should just believe them. For months now, people have been debating whether the president of the United States telling four congresswomen of colour to “go home” if they don’t like it here is a racist statement. Because for them, racism looks like the attack on my father. It doesn’t look like the insidious impact that insults, abuse, gaslighting and slurs can have on a person.
When I was a child, people used to say “sticks and stones will break your bones but words will never harm me”, which was a stupid thing to say at the time. To think it now, in 2019, when people are dying, people are being forcibly deported, people are feeling more and more disenfranchised in society, is just stupid.
When I was a teenager, a driver called me a Paki. They had just accidentally bumped me with their car as I made my way across a zebra crossing. In their rage at my being where their car wanted to drive through, the driver called me a blind Paki. Friends told me the driver was an idiot, it was an isolated incident, no big deal, sticks and stones…
But that word stayed with me. It was the first time in a long time that I had been called a Paki. With such vitriol. And it was a formative time of mine. I was a teenager. I was pushing out at the world trying to find where its edges were. But one of those edges snagged my fingers, and stayed with me. I was haunted by that incident. I was sleepless. Unable to shut my brain off. I stopped going out with friends. I spent hours on the phone with them but would have full on panic attacks about actually meeting. It resulted in me not staying at university halls, instead commuting from my parents’ house on the other side of the city. It resulted in me missing out on bonding with friends. I lost a sense of who I was. To that driver, to the world, I was a Paki.
And that word, that incident, provided a spine to my teenage years, and filtered on through into my twenties.
I think about that driver. They probably did not give that moment a second thought. But me? No way. So who exactly was it an isolated incident for? Me, who was haunted by it? Or them, who lashed out in a moment of anger? Might they do it again?
The trauma of racism, both verbalised and physical, is what led me to
write my latest young adult novel The Boxer, so that teenagers can have these conversations about what racism looks like.
I told my dad this story, and he was amazed to see the effect it had on me. He told me of how the incident with the National Front affected him. We came to a middle ground. We both set the parameters, jointly, of what racism looked like, and it brought us together.
What the President said was racist. And it is not up to people who aren’t the victims of racist abuse to decide what counts. In fact, that’s how we have arrived here, at the resurgence of the far right. Because people of colour, people who are the victims of racism, aren’t given the space to set the parameters of what it looks like, or how it feels. Why don’t we have that space, now? Or these “isolated incidents” by a “bunch of idiots” will keep happening, and an angry word might lead to a stick, or a stone.
Nikesh Shukla’s young adult novel The Boxer is published by Machete (£7.99)