Learning about racism as an adult
[For my early Eastern-European experiences of racism check my previous post here.]
I arrived in the U.K. in April 2006 with a two-year-old son in my lap, a baby pram and a suitcase. I was joining my husband at the time in his hometown, Plymouth, with the prospect of moving to Oxfordshire shortly afterwards. We moved to a small, picturesque village. We were the second mixed family in this small and quiet place. It was known as the residence of the Blackwell family and run by an active community of local residents. My first impressions of the country confirmed what I knew – political correctness was a practised right. I was so relieved!
However, there was another divide, reasonably new one to me: the class system. I quickly realised that my husband’s Plymouth family lived in council housing and had a different version of reality than most people I was accustomed to. I could literary see the difference between my husband’s worldview and that of our well educated, wealthy neighbours. He and they lived in two different worlds, sharing the same village.
I could also see that racism lurked in both worlds; it was just very subtle and hidden behind the closed doors. Some people were kinder than others, and everyone was polite, but I sensed there was more under the respectful tone of everyday interactions. I was busy with my own challenges, though. My marriage started falling apart due to increased control, but also severe racism towards my son and me. If was, of course, a harrowing experience, one I have learned from on many levels of tolerance and the lack of it. In my very own home once again, I could see the hate and the fear of others – notably the different, the foreign elements of their identity. (All of this originating from a volatile, weak personality). I saw racism in lack of respect for my national traditions and blindfolded love for the British (not Comic Relief, mind you – feeding children in Africa was mocked).
Which British though, I wondered. The Plymouth or the Oxford one? Because having studied the Oxford English, the commonly accepted British history and culture, I found it interesting to now discovering different layers to the country:
- defined by the class you are born into, not the group you choose to belong to,
- determined by the type of paper read over breakfast,
- determined by the type of food placed on the table,
- defined by a different language and daily habits,
- characterised by self-victimisation and lack of courage to move beyond one’s own established view of the world.
I started noticing a lot of systemic challenges to the idea of tolerance and unconditional positive regard. I also noticed that lack of tolerance was present in all classes due to this strange categorisation, an invisible divide.
Busy raising my son, I observed the layers of society and made friends in all of them. I volunteered locally and learned even more about the local economy, career building, public services and other aspects of life. I discovered more and more kind people in the village and at work.
When an abused woman becomes financially independent, things escalate quickly. Within a few months, I was so unsafe that I decided to leave my husband. I was pleased to see racism taken ever so seriously by police. I was proud to see that my identity, my humanity mattered to them. I was safe and protected. That day when the policeman’s hand was shaking writing down the racist comments of my ex was the day I realised I want my son to grow up in this country.
I realised something significant: I was not a racist myself, but I became an accomplice yet again. When witnessing some offensive comments about other people, other cultures and that of my nation, I was silent. I was helpless. I was quiet because I could not believe those words. I was so liberal and tolerant myself; I could not comprehend the validity of racist remarks in my own home.
Once again, I was part of the problem.
So I learned to walk away, but resist the abuse and stand up to racism. I learned that remaining silent when others (or ourselves) are violated, is only feeding the hate even more. I spent the following decade raising my son in the spirit of tolerance but also aware of my own and his limitations. We practised the healthy conflict of views and opinions, instead of tiptoeing around each other.
In the meantime, I was also noticing the shift in the general perception of E.U. citizens. Way before 2016. Living in a small town, things become a bit more visible if you are sensitive to trends. Surrounded by very wealthy Daily Mail readers, I was often lost for words. My pronunciation was corrected (please don’t, it’s awfully awkward while the first thought is: would you be able to say the same thing in all the languages I speak?). My accent was “cute”. The fact that I rented and not owned a house was…well, probably temporary? The fact I did not listen to BBC radio was merely outrageous.
I was busy, though. Raising a small boy and managing a job at the first social media agency in the country was so hectic and so exciting that I did not have time to really ponder my place in society. Once again, I was a part of a new revolution. I faced a new industry emerge and quickly became quite established in it. The reality was global, connected around my passions, so I lived in a very comfortable bubble of ultra-tolerant people open to experimentation, to the new, to change.
I left the agency and helped kick off a new one. I learned a lot about leadership and started taking part in in-depth philosophical discussions about truth and sentiment of social media before the mainstream media even dared to pick it up. I reactivated the Polish Lingua site of Global Voices Online and travelled the world with a fantastic group of people. Again, left in a big of a utopian bubble of tolerance. I met my new husband, the rock of a man, who became a better dad my boy could ever wish for and a fantastic husband to me. Again, I was so busy with my own happiness that I did not notice the shift happening in our country.
Gradually, our G.P. practices became more crowded. Our schools had to join up forced and shift to academy model to survive. News of cuts, increasing homelessness and child poverty popped up here and there and disappeared fact in the whirlpool of news about celebrities.
In 2015 things started drastically changing online. Those of us who work in social media noticed new trends coming up. Politicians promoting racist views used the war in Syria and news about the immigrants from Asia to incite hate here in the U.K. I wasn’t proud of my local Conservative MP. I was noticing an increased level of racist comments in my old town. I was even told once to live “the British way” in my own house by a prominent council member in front of all others. More importantly, not a single person intervened.
I was experiencing a shift. But on the surface, it presented itself in silence.
Of course, I was a bit of an odd one out. I did not work on a farm or in a pub as some locals implied in my playground conversations. I was actively participating in the voluntary causes in my town and finally ended up running a few too. I was on the front cover of our local paper multiple times holding festival banners. When a group of young digital journalists coached by me was appointed to a town council award, I was accused of building my own reputation and had to remind the counsellors that we are talking about young people and their achievements, not mine. That’s how upsetting was my visibility. So I was a bit odd one out. And I did not feel the hostility as much as some of my friends because I refused to. I was living the words of Eleanor Roosevelt:
“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
But I was also a part of the problem because I was also quiet and complacent.
In early 2016 I was worried sick. Working in social media became a mental health hazard: I was seeing the work of the leading party and some other, more racist groups. Since early 2016 I could not pick up my virtual pen and write. I lost my voice, and I stopped blogging. I pretty much did not sleep for six months in advance of the Referendum watching many friends of mine from the industry blindly re-sharing racism with liberal views of criticising it, but also allowing it a platform to spread.
The day of the vote, at 7 am, I have received a vile racist message from a woman who visited my house almost daily and who claimed to be my friend (despite actually being a mum-school-acquaintance). Her attempt to threaten me only made me sad. She was misunderstanding our history and suddenly feeling that her racist views were allowed. Another, much kinder woman stopped me that day, explained she was hesitant to text me that morning and apologised for the behaviour of her nation. Even though this country is not hers or mine. It is ours. We hugged. We comforted her daughter, who could not vote just yet.
A racist person had no problem, no limitations and no shame to text and abuse me. A tolerant, kind person hesitated to text and could not find the right words. That state of our reality scared me. But it also made me curious. What was going on?
I went back to sit with this new experience all on my own for months. I was still alone in a hostile town. I gained 25% of my body mass in that time and acquired severe anxieties. But I grew wiser. I learned something new about racism.
We were all part of the problem.
30% of this country voted out. We have all spent a few years watching our leaders not representing us in the political process, and we have done hardly anything about it. We stayed at home. We fed on truths we wanted to hear. We stopped talking about politics but continued to travel for holidays pretending that one day soon we might not need that visa at all.
We did not want to be a nuisance. We did not want to be awkward. We did do not want to stick our head out and speak up.
We have been played. Our silence is being used against us daily.
Since 2016 the wave of racism was growing day by day. We have watched new terms emerge – alternative truths, fake media, misremembering of facts. We have listened and stayed silent. Those of us who are from E.U. have suffered a bit more because due to the Brexit narrative, we were tactically placed in a category of people who suddenly have no right to an opinion. Trust me, I feel it each time before another Brexit deadline when even more tolerant of people see me as the walking Brexit.
I learn daily about the less proud heritage of my new country, of this “fantastic” ability of our leaders to divide us and place us on opposite sides of the same discourse. Like in the days when the Black and Asian minorities suffered immediate hate and racism, I am now experiencing the same due to my own heritage, but I cannot say a word. We are, in the end, working towards fair representation. Just not a representation of all of us…
On the one hand, I feel closer at heart to centuries of people who suffered due to their inconvenient heritage, on the other I have no words to describe how lonely it leaves me with my own. Especially when talking about “going back to my country” reminds me of the sheer scale of racism prominent in my homeland…I feel a bit stuck between two worlds and I do not really fit in. I was hoping for a kinder reality here. And so I feel really sad.
I watch the fantastic exhibitions about the history of slavery, female emancipation, LQBTQ rights movement, and I cannot help but wonder: how long do I have to wait to be represented? Is that even possible?
But then I remember. I take my local bus and admire all anti-Brexit street art and I can relax again. Because that is precisely how they want us to feel. We are being played thinking this is just about race or national identity. We cope with nationality checks at school and passport checks at work. We ignore and accept the silence around everyday immigrant heroes…
But we are getting distracted with the racist narrative and don’t look at another area of silent suffering. We cope and accept the increased pressure on our public services. We pretend not to see the increasing amount of poor people, homeless people and the lack of support for the vulnerable of any kind. In our very own city, 30% of children live under the poverty line – every third one – and we are silent about it.
Unless like me, you work in a charity sector and see first hand the level of our struggle. Daily.
Yet, we are still part of the problem. We have arrived at the point where a simple conversation about politics over dinner or lunch is so painful and so sad that we prefer to avoid it. In a brilliant way, the discussion about politics became dirty, unfashionable, and thus not a “thing to do”. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people who were kind enough to tell me that I am welcome here (and who listened to me saying the same words to them). In the times of terrible media and government narrative, speaking kindness became too tricky even for the tolerant. We are simply all very, very tired. And quite scared about our future too.
Today our M.P. stated openly that E.U. citizens should not call this country theirs. I sense that maybe, just maybe, he has crossed that invisible line of silence and woke a few of us up.
Today I am coming back to my blog aware that my recent business relaunch is my response to the years of politics trying to cut down our rights to free access to information. So I feel that I am not just talking, but actively doing something about it. And now that I am doing something about it, I am also going back to speaking up.
Because as long as we all keep quiet, those in power will benefit from the silence we allow them. It is time to resist our fears and speak out about the impact the current politics has on us.
I am still learning a lot about racism. I am peeling off the layers of my own assumptions. Daily. I hope that through open conversations, I can learn even more. Join me here or offline, over a coffee.
I wrote this and the previous post to start the conversation about the impact of racism (and other forms of inequality) on me. I would like to hear about your experiences. How do you feel about Brexit and the politics of racism and divide? How are you keeping yourself safe and kind?
UPDATE: When I wrote this post I was so emotional that I lost a decade. Thanks to my kind and honest friends it was flagged up to me so dates in this post are now hopefully correct – my apologies. I have tweaked a few points too, but not too much. Thank you for all kind words of support and solidarity from people who experience the same challenge with silence from all sides of the new divide. I treasure your kindness and your honesty.
Photo by Manuel Reinhard on Unsplash