I wrote this article for The Guardian in response to all of the annoying articles about people leaving London and New York for a better life because they can. They changed the headline to something that doesn't make sense because they got complaints about the original one from a whole lot of racists.
London and I are doing fine, thanks for asking. North-east London, where I was born, is pretty much the love of my life – surprising and constant, quiet and loud, dirty and home. I understand why people want to leave London because I have eyes and ears and I read the news sometimes. I have survived an attempted mugging here and I have been unemployed for way too long here. I have had panic attacks on the tube and I have watched the glass houses sprout from my childhood playgrounds in Hackney and Tower Hamlets, up towards the sky, towards nothingness. I, too, have felt the loss of this city. I have tasted the bitterness of realising who will be untouched by these changes and who will suffer, who will have houses bought for them, and who will never have houses.
I understand there is a psychic toll of living in a place where you have to fight, for space, time, money. But what these Why I am Leaving London articles are missing is that, while the psychic burden of living in the city with the highest living costs in the developed world is very real for a brown person, in my experience the cost of living surrounded only by white people is worse.
London is super-diverse. Steven Vertovec coined that term in 2005 to describe a kind of rare and messy diversity that I have never seen anywhere else – a space where so many different cultures and so many different experiences of those cultures exist in such close proximity. I like the idea of super-diversity, but it is still only another term made up by a white man to describe brown people in London. For me, London is the smell of Pakistani cooking through the window of a Haringey council house, it’s the reggae coming from my neighbour’s garden and it’s a primary school newsletter translated into 11 languages. By 15, I could cornrow hair, paint henna on hands, play most Red Hot Chili Peppers riffs on electric guitar, and had embarked on a lifelong love affair with dancehall music. You can call that diversity, or even super-diversity, or just life. So many of my cultural and personal reference points were brown people, and I absorbed the knowledge that, while we may not run the world and while the girls on TV do not look like us, we exist, and we are rich in our own way. This is a great gift.
I definitely do not wish to push the idea that London is some sort of racial safe haven. We have got so, so far to go, and so much racism and abuse to drag from underneath the carpet, and that is why I need to be here. The smells and the songs are familiar here, and I am in close contact with people who look a little bit like me and are angry about the same things. I can exist, for the vast majority of the time, without being looked at and without reacting to that look, without questioning myself, and without being the only brown person in the room.
I feel the comfort of London peel away whenever my train pulls out of King’s Cross and the threat of overt racism is increased. A few years ago, I walked into a pub in Cornwall with my then boyfriend, who was white. A man at the bar asked him “What’dya bring that in here for?” referring to me (and before you go into overdrive searching for an alternative meaning to his statement, let me save you time: it’s because of the colour of my skin). Outside London, I am put immediately into a position of defence. This is something my white counterpart will never understand. That is why when I read the headline: Live in London? No thanks, I’m happier in Bath, I couldn’t help but laugh. Good luck to you, and the majority white population that will greet you there.
If you want to leave London, or you feel you have to, then go my sweet friend. But please, not another smug, reductive article about fleeing this capitalistic nightmare for somewhere you can work three days a week and grow your own vegetables. Not another article that ignores so much about what a place like London, a place where black and brown people live and have claimed spaces, brings to some of us and that is not attainable elsewhere.
Go back to the home counties. Go, and here’s what will happen. A few months into your new life you will realise that you haven’t seen a black person in a while, but you will still describe your new city or village as diverse to anyone you speak to because there is a Chinese restaurant and a cluster of guest workers. Sometimes you and your friends will discuss diversity while you’re drinking wine together in the garden but most of the time you will forget about it. Your beautiful white children will go to schools full of beautiful white children and the rest of the world will validate you and them forever. That is not the way I experience the world and it is not the way I want to. That is not the way my body moves through it.
I’m staying behind with the women who are fighting this government for accessible social housing in the places they grew up and know the taste of. We need to fight for better realities in London. Fleeing the only place we can call home is not the answer.