I’ve lived in this country for 26 years. I was born to Indian parents in Ealing and raised in Hounslow, both multicultural West London areas, so my experiences with racism until now were limited to snide remarks and idiosyncrasies — the usual schoolyard “race banter.” My mother has lived here since she was 10, and she saw the type of racism they make movies on. My father came here in the ’80s, when tensions had lessened, but were still very overt. I’d always considered myself fortunate, though I’ve witnessed a few accounts of pretty abrasive racism over the years in London, and I always felt it was my obligation to stand up and confront the perpetrator, having done so on every occasion.
It’s amazing how quickly someone can take that desire to stand up for what you believe in away from you.
Around midday Tuesday, I was tripped and told to “f– off home” by two young white men. This happened in a neighborhood called Hayes and Harlington in the borough of Hillingdon, one of the few parts of London that voted on Thursday for Britain to leave the European Union. There was barely time to register what had happened, let alone respond. Although it was the middle of the day, it was very quiet and there wasn’t anyone around that I could see. Maybe that’s what indicated a perfect opportunity for these guys to make their move. A scrape on the knee will heal, and a broken volume button on my new cellphone — well, that can’t be fixed, but ultimately, it’s no big deal.
Let’s forget for a moment all of the political rhetoric that was being thrown before the referendum. The basis for this discussion has always been centered around immigration, which — especially since the referendum — has just become another word for racism. I’m not saying that every person who voted to leave is a racist; I know that isn’t a fact, and so should everyone else. But there were still plenty of people on that side only because they believed that “leave” meant “right now” and that it wasn’t just Britain that would be leaving Europe, it was anyone who they didn’t consider British leaving Britain. How can I be sure about that? Well, I was knocked on my backside and told to leave the country where I was born just yesterday morning, and I can see from looking across social media that I’m not alone.
Police in Manchester made three arrests after a group of teenagers told a man to “get off the f–ing tram now, get back to Africa” on Tuesday morning. Here in London, a Polish community center was vandalized. A #postrefracism hashtag on Twitter has been documenting similar incidents all week.
So while I’m not surprised that the trolls under the bridge have found confidence in the wake of the vote, I’m worried for my family who live nearby, the many ethnic minorities living locally and the general mentality of the public in areas where this attitude seems to be spiking. I’m not angry. I’m sad that this condition in the British polity has gone untreated for so long that it’s finally been given the opportunity to act.
The vote to leave has certainly given the far right a voice that they believe is supported by the majority of the country, and the sad truth is that people will act on what they believe. We are at a pivotal stage right now. While many are saying that the majority of “leave” voters belonged to the older generation, I have seen from watching videos and posts around the U.K. that young people are carrying out these attacks. So it’s not just that elderly voters are uncomfortable with a multicultural Britain; it’s that they’ve handed down their views to their children, and are ensuring that the sentiment lives on. With this organic form of racism in play with a nation that basically voted against immigration, we could be in for darker times if we aren’t able to counter it with proper education on our nation’s history and current state.
I’m not angry with those two guys who tripped me. I have no interest in trying to identify them or prosecute them. I don’t believe this is an issue that can be resolved by tightening the reins and giving people an excuse to say that their freedom of speech is being oppressed. Racists are fickle; their views can be shifted because they themselves don’t understand them, and they often only adopt them out of a sense of blind loyalty or frustration.
But I’m a firm believer that there is always a bright side, and here, that comes in the form of engaged audiences. For the first time in a long time, I have seen a vast interest in this issue from people of all ages and backgrounds. We need to keep that interest alive and leverage the current attention on racism in a way that helps the nation navigate toward tolerance, understanding and compassion.
I don’t believe that being passive and allowing these instances to occur without defending oneself is the solution; we all have to do what we have to to stay safe. But before anyone decides to retaliate with anger, remember that to act in violence is to express incapability, and to retaliate in violence is to accept incapability. Fear is what fuels hatred, and we must counter fear with a sense of purpose, duty and action. In order to move forward, we Brits still need to “keep calm and carry on.”