Friday was the end of a long, hard week that saw me stifling tears (unsucessfully) in the middle of Clapham Junction station after a racist encounter.
Meanwhile, on a train to Liverpool the poet, editor and activist Siana Bangura was racially abused and physically attacked while fellow commuters stood by.
A few months ago a female friend of mine was punched in the face in front of her young child in a racially motivated attack on the way home from church. Passers-by stood by.
I hear more and more from my (particularly black female) friends that they are having racist encounters, some more threatening than others, many for the first time though they have lived in this country for years. Siana and my friend (and so many others) were told to “Go Home”.
The blame for these behaviours lies squarely with the racist individuals concerned. But, context: When the government puts this phrase on vans and posters; when ministers make rhetorical riffs on the theme for political gain and the media uses dehumanising language about people of colour and migrants – it creates a context of permissiveness. It says that your racist feelings are legitimate even if your actions are illegal and possibly socially unacceptable. I say possibly because in too many incidents people stand by, which is what happened in Siana’s case and that of my friend. It makes me wonder.
What happened to me on Friday was not comparable but I will say this: I felt a sensation that was new to me.
Fear. Usually I feel like I can hold my own, but that day I felt isolated and unsure.
I was accused of trying to steal a woman’s handbag in Superdrug. I think she felt I stood too close to her in one of the aisles because as I selected my product she started to mutter under her breath. I didn’t think much of it, though I did hear her say something about “space invaders” and concluded that she felt uncomfortable. But she moved away.
Then she came back and pushed right past me, slamming her shoulder into me. I left it.
I overheard her loudly telling a shop assistant in the next aisle that they should watch me because I was up to something. She talked about how London is “full of these people”. I left it.
Then the shop assistant came over to look at me. I challenged him and he backed off, but she kept on talking to anyone who would listen about what I was supposedly up to. No one said anything but they came to look at me.
So I went over to her and confronted her. She had her back to me and when she spun around her expression was triumphant. As she ranted on about “black women like you” (me) she had supposedly encountered in her job working for a judge and I responded, she seemed exultant, as if she was proving her point. My anger was exactly what she wanted to see. When I realised this, I disengaged.
But it was more than that. I’m often teased by my friends for speaking Queen’s English. I’ve been called “proper” and even “posh”. Like most people of colour especially, I code switch depending on who I’m talking to. When the shop assistant came to talk to me I employed my most chippy, cut-glass accent. It worked and he widened his eyes and backed down, as if this was all a mistake. What if I had an African accent? What if my English was bad? I had already started to feel a hum of unease.
When I confronted the woman and she spun around with that triumphant look on her face I realised suddenly that I was in a double-bind. The hum became a drumming as I weighed up my choices.
If I let my rage fly she clearly wanted to manipulate the situation and might try to upgrade me from bag snatching to bag snatching plus abuse. But keeping a lid on my feelings was a capitulation in the face of her lies, lies which everyone apparently believed or at least were keeping an open mind about despite her very loud racist ranting. The shop assistants had already said that this was my word against hers and I felt that the only reason it was now a toss-up for them between me and the other lady was because my accent had thrown them off. I felt like I had started at minus one and was now on zero, but that she started at one. There wasn’t really a choice.
So I left. Mechanically, I paid for my products (?!) and left.
And when I got outside, I cried. I felt ashamed and humiliated and angry that I was feeling these emotions when I had done nothing wrong.
I felt angry that I had allowed this woman and her false allegation to get to me, that my accent functioned as some sort of patronus to prevent me from being directly accused by the shop staff. I was angry at their inaction, which implied that it was an objectively fair fight.
I was dismayed by the surge of emotion that had prevented me from doing anything sensible* (call the manager? and the police? ask for her to back her allegation or back down and ask for CCTV footage to prove my case? Take a photo and other details of the encounter for a complaint?)
But more than anything I was afraid because it felt like Superdrug was an alternative universe where this woman made the weather and I had to play defense and not get sucked in. Her words had an authority in that shop that mine did not. That’s what scared me. I realised that this situation could escalate and I was not on an equal footing.
This is nothing compared to what other women I know have gone though. It’s partly from knowing their stories that I felt afraid, unsure of where this would go, keenly aware that I had no one in my corner.
*and why did I just leave it when she started to kick off? Come on, woman.