An abridged personal history of racism (regularly updated)

2015-12-01 - 1699 words, approximate reading time: 8 minutes

I was walking home from cub scouts one day with my mother in the dark.

About two hundred meters away from our front door, an extremely tall, skinny white man appeared from the shadows and shouted “Fucking Pakis!”

He smelled an alien fruity smell. The “P” in “Paki” was so hard that he sprayed saliva all over us. My mother told me to run home, so I ran. To this day I’m still ashamed that I didn’t look back for her, but she was close behind.

One of the nice things about this sort of racism is that it’s up front and in your face. It’s easy to take the fear and anger it instills and convert it to compassion. I couldn’t do it at the time, but now it’s easy to reason. A lot of things have to go wrong in your life before you find yourself drunk and in the dark shouting abuse at pedestrians, Pakistani or otherwise.

It was different in Saudi Arabia, where it was more akin to an ominous background layer to everything we did. There’s a clear racial hierarchy in the Kingdom. The house of Saud rules the country, they can do anything they like. Then came white people, the exalted foreign experts. After that came everyone else. We didn’t know when the religious police would visit and decide to flog us in the street for having a satellite dish. We avoided accidents, not just for safety, because we knew that the police would side with anyone but us and detention in a Saudi jail cell usually means having your passport confiscated.

As a foreigner in Japan you experience a wide spectrum of unsolicited attention. This ranges from children running away in tears at the sight of you, to old men practicing their English at you to women offering to sleep with you. All of this for no reason other than your foreignness. Sometimes you’ll be denied a place to stay in hotels, especially in the countryside. Other times people will be unbelievably welcoming, so it’s easy to take the good with the bad. By far the foreigners in Japan who deal with this worst are white, this is the first time they’ve dealt with any form of racism directed at them.

Towards the end of my stay in Japan, my future wife and I were walking through Ueno station when two men in casual clothing approached from the front and shoved badges in our faces. They asked me to remove my backpack and empty it for them. I looked behind me and noticed two other men in casual clothes hovering behind me. This wasn’t particularly embarrassing but it smelt like a scam.

Mamiko felt the same. She got them to let us see their identification slowly. On checking their documentation, I gave them my alien registration card, showed them the inside of my backpack and they left us alone, apologising for the trouble. I’ve heard my share of crazy Gaijin stories in Japan, and experience has shown that they’re usually true, no matter how crazy they sound, but never one involving being searched by plain-clothes police.

I had never visited the United States until my first conference there, MicroConf in 2013. A few of my industry heroes were attending and finally visiting America was a big adventure for me, so to say I was excited would have been putting it lightly. I booked airline tickets for a few days before the conference. I bought tickets for a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon. But the Boston bombings had just happened, and I fit a certain demographic, so I mentally and emotionally prepared myself for detention at the airport.

A special escort was waiting for me at immigration. They picked me out of the line and took me to an interrogation room. I spotted a few other people waiting there, a family with a few ladies in hijab. A short, squat lady that I presumed was of Mexican origin asked me a series of questions. I had all my documentation in place for my accommodation, the conference and my helicopter tickets.

She then asked me about my travel history for the past five years and suddenly I was terrified. I had visited Pakistan just within that window for one of my wedding ceremonies, so now I had to justify that. I listed everywhere I had been, in as much detail as I could remember.

She asked me if I had any military training. This was before the the revelations about NSA surveillance but it was obvious to me that someone would have a file on me somewhere, so I strived to be as honest as possible. The theory being that they would let me go if my story matched up with the information they had on me.

I told them that my dad would occasionally take me shooting on our land in Pakistan when I was young, so I had probably fired a double-barrelled shotgun a few times. I told her that as a teenager, I was a lance corporal in Sussex Army Cadet Force in the signals platoon, so was trained in the basics of fieldcraft, map and compass, first aid, radio procedures and the care and operation of an L98 Cadet GP rifle.

She asked me about my family, so I produced my phone and showed her a few pictures of Ryu. I had just become a father and didn’t need much of an excuse to show anyone baby pictures in any context at all.

A few moments later, my escort led me out of the interrogation room and let me go without so much as searching the inside of my carry-on luggage.

I was on the way to a sales meeting on the Northern Line in an almost empty car. I saw a few other passengers at the other end of the car. A few stops later they stood up and seemed to be getting off, but started running towards me. They were carrying placards for some sort of rally, I couldn’t see what.

In the next few split-seconds stills from youtube videos of homosexuals being beaten to a pulp in Russia flashed in my head. Then a thought: Ryu growing up without a father is not an option. I shook myself awake and backed towards the door.

And there it was again. “Fucking Paki!” one of them shouted. He spat on the floor in front of me. I did everything not to make eye contact. I could tell they were young, and the ringleader was probably trying to impress his two followers. Just then the tube doors opened and they scurried away. I looked down and noticed my hands were shaking. I managed to put the incident out of my mind long enough to secure a contract at the meeting.

Technically, my first ever death threat was when a man phoned my father and threatened to kill me unless he left Pakistan. I wasn’t old enough to remember this, so I’m going to skip to the next one which I received after openly admitting to leaving Islam. It went into detail about tying me up, forcing me to watch Ryu having his throat slit and Mamiko being gang-raped. I get emails like this of various flavours every four or five months, so they aren’t quite as jarring as that first one any more.

My wife took a while to adjust to life in the UK. Her English wasn’t as good as it is now, and this contributed to mental health issues that made life for her extremely difficult for the first few years.

Her first experience of racism was in a Tesco Express. She told me about it afterwards. A woman got right in her face, shouted “Fucking Chinese!” and stormed away. (I hadn’t noticed before writing it all down in one place, but it seems that shouting“Fucking {derogatory slur}” seems to be a common theme among drive-by racists.)

The second time was walking home from teaching a Piano lesson, where a group of schoolgirls ran up to her, pushed her, shouted what (it seemed to them) were a series of Chinese sounding syllables and ran away. She was visibly pregnant with Ryu at the time.

The third time was in a McDonalds. She heard whispers like “Chinese people are push-overs” behind her before the two people behind her started blowing on her hair. This escalated to pushing and jostling her before outright cutting in front of her. She was visibly pregnant with Kei, hand in hand with Ryu who was at around eighteen months at the time. I don’t have adequate words to express the raw, unbridled rage I feel just at recounting this, and at my impotence in the face of it.

This is a catalogue of what I can remember. There was probably more but these are the only ones I could identify as special treatment for me or people I care about based on race or religious non-belief. Based on conversations I’ve had with people of colour, these are fairly representative set of race-related experiences.

Unsurprisingly, I’ve never felt particularly British, or Japanese or Pakistani for that matter. I think the appropriate term for someone like me is “third culture”, which is a typically non-white child of expatriates who’ve moved around a little. The only time I’ve really felt as though I was with “my own people” has been with other ex-muslims at high-security pub meet-ups, where mostly we just got drunk and made impossibly dark jokes about our childhoods full of physical, sexual and psychological abuse.

What I’ve described above just isn’t that bad. The previous generation of South-Asian immigrants in particular had a much rougher deal in the UK. I’ve experienced mercifully little real race-related violence in my life.

But that doesn't mean I have to like it. It becomes a continuous reminder that you are not the default type of human being, the master race had to make a special box for you and that’s the box you have to tick. In one form or another, that’s the world I live in, and it’s the world my children will grow up in.