London

In Defense of Self Defense: Why The MacDonalds Workers Who Beat Up The Racist Are Heroes

Published by Media Diversified.

In 2001 I was sent to my first day of secondary school with the instruction that I am clever and beautiful and that if anyone hits me I am to hit them back ten times harder. Survival knowledge. But I still close my eyes during battle scenes. You know. I don’t like violence, I don’t choose it. It makes me feel sick. In fact, I still haven’t watched the video of the MacDonald’s employees beating a man who called them “fucking pakis” while they were at work last Saturday night. I haven’t watched it because I do not want to expose myself to the physical attack, nor have to endure the psychic violence of witnessing racial abuse…again. I haven’t watched it, because I don’t need to see it to know they are heroes.

When I first heard this had happened, streets away from where I had gone to school in Bow, a heavily South Asian part of London, I felt simultaneously exhilarated by the bravery of these men, and guilty for feeling that way. I forced myself to mask my happiness that a racist has had his comeuppance by making excuses for him. He was drunk. Maybe his wife had just left him. Maybe his dog had just died.

I instinctively put myself in the white man’s shoes because that is what people of colour, particularly women, are taught to do. We are taught to make sure the whiteness around us is always comfortable, even when it makes us uncomfortable, even when we are in danger, even when it comes into our place of work, baying for our blood, screeching so loudly our ancestors are woken. I feel guilty for my joy, and then I remember that there is nothing scarier than an angry white man.

It seems that for the most part we can all agree that racism, explicit or not, is “bad” and “sad” and tut, tut, “very unsavory”. However, there is a reluctance in discourse to see it as violence, indeed, a type of violence that wounds and tears and leaves scars buried so deep you cannot see them, so complex that when they do burrow to the surface, no-one has any idea where to fucking start. But it’s OK, because sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me, right?

The reluctance to acknowledge non-physical forms of violence makes sense. To do so would force all of us, who think we are pretty good people because we haven’t punched anyone in a while, to dig a little deeper. To accept all racism as violence would also categorize the actions of the staff in MacDonald’s that night as self defense. But those men are not allowed that dignity.

There is a racialised mental health crisis in the UK, whereby people of colour have acutely increased challenges to their mental health, and less access to support. Yet somehow in “detained populations”, people of colour are massively over-represented, with compulsory admission rates, specifically of Black people, to inpatient psychiatric units, almost three times greater than those of white patients. In other words, we must deal with our pain respectfully, or get locked up.

To me those men are heroes because they didn’t suffer in silence, or “do the right thing”. In every news report I have read, the white man’s violent behaviour has been “alleged”, his ‘racism’ in air quotes. This is part of the centuries-old project of colonial disbelief and denial of race-based oppression that keeps people of colour stifled, doubtful, behaving. Just last week two Muslim women in London had their hijabs pulled off by men in public, with no-one stepping in to help. The men in MacDonald’s are heroes for drawing a line in the sand. They are heroes for providing catharsis for all the black and brown people who can’t fight back. They are heroes because they will suffer for this, and they are heroes because that white man will not try that shit again.

Welcome to the front line of racism in 2016. Talking is really nice, conflict resolution is really cute, but it is not our job, as the receptacles of racist violence, whether physical, verbal or silent, to make the redemption process creative or fun for you. It is the white person’s job to simply not do it in the first place. Until then, people of colour have a right to self-defense in a world where no one else is going to stand up for us.

Staying Alive Through Brexit: Racism, Mental Health & Emotional Labour

On Brexit, for Black Girl Dangerous.

It’s the night of the EU referendum. I am three thousand, four hundred and fifty-nine miles from London, my home town, and I am scrolling. The UK is sleeping but New York is five hours behind and I am here, trying to pet the dog and have a nice time at a BBQ, while watching the votes get counted. I report the result of each area to my American friends like one of those text message services you didn’t sign up for, and we talk about it even though none of us know what it means. I text my mum to tell her what has happened while she was sleeping and in the morning she replies, “whatever happens, happens” which I momentarily mistake for apathy.

A few days later I am at New York PRIDE’s Dyke March celebration. The music is good, the weather is good, I look good in the photos, my friends are nice and I am the most comfortably gay I have ever been. This should be a good or at least average day but I realize I am uncomfortable. My eyes are darting, focusing on everything and nothing and my chest is getting tighter with every step, until it almost feels solid. I recognize this as the beginning of a panic attack and excuse myself. As I leave, an intuitive friend asks me how I feel about Brexit. On a quiet corner I cry and gasp and try not to piss myself. Brexit. I have never felt so far from Home.

I am still awake at 5am, the tightness in my chest now a watermelon. It is hard to breathe. A dear friend from London has called and I struggle to speak loud enough for her to hear me. I am searching for hope like lost keys, it’s here somewhere, I just had it. She tells me a story to try and cheer me up, a story in which all is not lost and London, in all its super-diverse glory, in all its tolerance, prospers. In this story, my friend witnesses a drunk English man in London tell a group of Eastern European women he does not know that he is so glad they are there. I tell her that is not a happy story.

And the unhappy stories keep coming.

“Haven’t you gone home yet?”

“Paki”

“Would you like a banana with that?”

I think about my mother as a child in 70s Britain, quiet, skinny, hairy, brilliant. The oldest of four, she was tasked with protecting both her immigrant parents and her younger siblings from the constant threat of physical and psychic white violence. I think about my grandmother who kept a bucket of water underneath her letter-box just in case a burning rag or a firework visited in the night. I think about my sister, my cousins, their brown skin, their Muslim names. I try to stop thinking. Eventually I fall asleep with my fists clenched.

The leave voters are not the problem. They are the product of hundreds of years of colonial divide and rule, most recently implemented via a vicious austerity program that has nothing to do with migration, and everything to do with keeping the elite rich. I am most fearful of the white middle class liberals who voted to stay, who think they are Good White People but are actually People With Power Who Never Listen Because They Don’t Have To. These are the people who see themselves as separate from the leave voters and the black and brown people being attacked on the street; distinct, commentators with so much to say. I have spent hours, days and years in conversation with people like this, discussing structural inequality in the UK, isolation, fetishization, why I had to escape—and still they seem to think racism started a week ago.

They are the people who really scare me, because after this recent spike of hate crime normalizes, and we are left with the constant, low-key, micro-aggressive, soul-destroying racism that has always characterized life in the UK for people of colour, they will forget. They will continue to talk over us, to tell us we are “moderate Muslims”, to get paid to write and speak about things they know absolutely nothing about and to doubt us every time we try to talk about racism. To truly consider what life as a black or brown person of colour might feel like takes work – hard work, a rupture in a free existence and then inevitably, culpability. I have yet to meet a white person prepared to do that work, to step into that vulnerability. There are cheese and crackers that need to be eaten after all.

We can talk to the leave voters all we want, and we can blame old people if it makes us feel good, but they are not the people in charge now or in the future. They did not create this and this does not serve them. I am lucky enough to have experienced higher education among the elite, the artistic and political leaders of tomorrow. They are scary. They think their white liberalism is ***Flawless, they pretend to listen but they do not hear a thing, they use our bodies and our stories, they put our faces on their websites and they pretend they can’t see us when we finally collapse, just like their daddies did. They put our heads on sticks and call it multiculturalism.

As the days continue, well-meaning Americans make conversation with me about Brexit. Every time, I feel a wave of sickness, pain in my chest and a scramble of thoughts, flashbacks, half-words, reveries. I hold my stomach and speak through long, measured breaths. Despite moving to New York on a scholarship to study the mental health effects of oppression, I am finding it so, so hard to admit to myself that a news story is making me feel like I’m dying so many times a day. I wish the white people telling me that I need to be gentle, that I should talk to those who are different from me, had any idea what it feels like to be this tired.

We will talk. Right after we have dragged the UK’s legacy of violence from under its ugly, expensive carpet, after we have learned it, taught it, remembered it, accepted it as an explanation for everything we see. We can talk after we have taught our children mental and physical self defense. We can talk after we have spoken to each other, about mental health, survival, and the anti-blackness we perpetuate within our own communities of colour, oppressing black people in a space they should be safe. We have lots to talk about. If only middle class white people would stop talking.

In 1980 my mum, a first generation Pakistani living in North London, won a writing competition aged 16, using the prompt, An Event of Importance to my Community. In it she writes:

Today it is unsafe for any Asian person to walk down the street without his colour, speech, or dress being made fun of. You, the readers, may think that I am exaggerating, but the truth of the matter is, that no-one has yet realized the seriousness of racial prejudice… I fear that by the time we grow up, we will be too full of bitterness simply to sit down and talk things over. If anything isn’t done, we are going to explode and you will explode with us.

We explode every day and we piece ourselves together again. We explode for our ancestors, when we don’t expect it, and then again when we remember. We explode every time our trust is abused, every time it becomes obvious no-one heard us, every time we have to retreat, thicken our walls that keep us locked in, angry, safe. We explode.

WHITE PPL. IF YOU WANT TO LEAVE LONDON, JUST GO

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.

My friend Rick takes nice photos of England

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.