What's the most racist thing that's ever happened to you?

When a US writer asked noted Americans this question, the answers showed that prejudice, if not always overt, is ever-present. Putting the same one to black Britons produces disturbing results

Back in 2005, Oprah Winfrey, one of the world's best-known celebrities, travelled to Paris. Like many well-to-do tourists, she made for Fauborg Saint-Honoré, a street famed for its exclusive stores. Winfrey stopped at a designer store just after it had closed its doors at 6.30pm. The star is reported to have asked the door staff whether she could pop in to make a purchase. The answer was a resounding no.

End of story... or not. Staff insisted they were busy preparing for an after-hours event in-store. But an unnamed "friend" of Winfrey's was subsequently quoted in a New York newspaper, saying the term racism hadn't been used but they suggested if Céline Dion or Barbra Streisand had made a similar request that there may not have been a problem.

Racism. It's no longer as simple as black and white. There was a time when it was. "No blacks allowed" was pasted on the doors that greeted my parents when they arrived in Britain as part of the Windrush generation. They were spat on in the streets, attacked on the way home and refused service in certain shops. Back then, racism ran through society in a direct and easy-to-read way.

Times have changed; the racism faced by my parents and their generation has gone, in its place is a "fog of racism". The Oprah moment is a classic example of this fog. Was the decision not to open up motivated by racism? Would the store have opened up for Céline? We know it's there, we feel it, smell it, but we just can't just pin it down. The phrase "fog of racism" was coined by the American journalist, Touré, and speaking from New York he explains it: "With this form of racism there is no smoking gun. There is no one calling you a nigger to your face. There's no sign saying you can't enter this building. It's subtle, it's blurred, but more often than not, it's there." It has "become difficult for all sides to pinpoint, discuss and deal with", he says.

A writer for Rolling Stone magazine, Touré tackles the subject in his thought-provoking book, Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness? It has caused a furore in America when it was released towards the end of last year. In the book, Touré attempts to unpick modern-day racism and define what it is to be black today. In doing so, he asks 105 celebrated African-American figures from the world of politics, sport, business and entertainment the simple, yet powerful, question: "What is the most racist thing that has ever happened to you?" For the older generation, experiences were shaped by the naked racism of the past. For the younger generation it was often a more nuanced form.

But the question made me think. What is the most racist thing that has ever happened to me? And how would other figures in Britain's black community answer such a potent question? Intrigued, I set about seeking their answers. Many said they found it difficult to pinpoint their worst single incident and that their answer would vary according to their mood. On this, I agree.

There are many contenders vying for the No 1 spot in my racism hall of shame. The overt racism of being surrounded by a gang of Leeds football fans and having them chant, "Nigger, nigger, nigger, you're a long way from London now, boy," springs to mind. (Current footballers, of course, have been tainted by accusations of making racist comments themselves – Suarez and Terry, for example.)

Giving that moment a run for its money would be the incident 20 years ago when I made a pub in Stockton-on-Tees go tumbleweed quiet as I walked through its doors. I know it's petty and I should be bigger than this, but I've had a dislike for Yorkshire and the north-east since.

That's the thing with racism. It leaves its mark. The name of a town, an airport lounge, a nightclub, a shop: to white people these are just names and places. To black people, these are the locations of, and monuments to, ugly incidents that have blighted our lives. Moments that, no matter how hard you try, you simply can't forget.

Lemn Sissay

Award-winning poet, associate artist at the Southbank Centre and the first commissioned poet for the London 2012 Olympic Games

I used to wipe the phlegm off the back of my coat each night when I returned from school. I was nicknamed Chalky White (after the infamous Jim Davidson character) in my teens. I was stopped and searched by the police and pulled over in my car weekly in my 20s. Taxis in Manchester wouldn't stop for me at night. I was called a black bastard in a London hotel, I was asked if I was a taxi driver twice in one night at a members club and I've been beaten up by skinheads – frankly the list is endless. Take your pick.

Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones

Owner of The Black Farmer food company

Even though I am now in my early 50s, one single incident of racism is etched deeply on my soul. I was brought up in a very deprived area of inner-city Birmingham. My local secondary modern school was devoid of hope, opportunity and ambition. The teachers treated us with disdain and as intellectual inferiors, a position some masters took to extremes. At the time I didn't fully understand the significance of what happened, it was only in later life that I recognised what a terrible thing this was. One of my masters, having reached the end of his tether, grabbed me by the throat, threw me against the wall and said: "I have shot better men than you. That's all you wogs are good for."

Gary Beadle

Actor (former EastEnder now appearing in Hustle)

Racism of the heart. Me and this girl I really liked were into Grease. I was John Travolta to her Olivia Newton-John. I got on really well with her family and I'd go round to her house and we'd act out the scenes and sing the songs. Our budding romance was cut short when her mum found out that we were more than just friends. Her goodbye line was: "I really like you and you'd be really beautiful if you were white. And I can't go out with you."

Jessica Huie

Founder of the UK's leading multicultural greeting card company, Colorblind Cards and head of JH Public Relations

Thankfully my experience of racism has been limited. I've ploughed on through life as "Jessica", not "mixed-race Jessica", because that's how my father taught me to view myself. All the more shocking then, when one day as I attempted to park my car (albeit badly), a taxi driver yelled at me: "Black bitch, get off the road!"

Stephen K Amos


About eight years ago in Portsmouth I was doing a gig that was going really well. The whole club was laughing, apart from this one guy I saw out of the corner of my eye. I made it my mission to make him laugh and directed my set in his direction. But no matter how I tried he wouldn't laugh. So I said: "Here mate, what have I got to do to make you laugh?" He sat straight-faced and his friend replied on his behalf: "He doesn't talk to niggers."

Dr Lynette Goddard

Senior lecturer in Drama and Theatre at Royal Holloway, University of London. Writing a book about mainstream black British playwrights 2000-10

I used to work as a stage manager with a touring theatre company called Black Mime Theatre Women's Troop. In 1992 we were touring a show about women and alcoholism to a youth centre in Carlisle. On this night I was understudying for one of the actresses. About halfway through the show, a young lad ran toward the stage spraying a fire extinguisher and shouting: "Get off, you black bastards." This was the first time I had experienced such explicit racism and I remember it to this day, especially when I go back to Carlisle.

Danny John-Jules

Actor, Cat in Red Dwarf

One day I woke up and realised I was black, that I was always going to be black and that racism will always be there.

Earl Barrett

Former Aston Villa, Manchester City and England Footballer, Kick It Out ambassador

I grew up in Rochdale and I must have been 11 or 12. One day, after a kick around with my mates, I was walking home, when 100 yards from my front door, a complete stranger, proper grown-up like, just came up to me and said "You black bastard" and then just casually continued walking on. Because I was so young, the impact of that moment has stayed with me for life.

Norman Jay MBE

Good Times DJ

Two years ago, I was coming back from a gig in the Alps with a fellow DJ, named Tayo (who is black) and my partner Jane (who is white). At the changeover in Frankfurt we headed to passport control. One glance at Jane and she was waved through. Tayo and I were told to stand to one side while our passports were checked over and over again. We were then informed that our passports were false. More talking, giggling and shaking of heads from the two inspectors as the clock ticked and we silently fumed. Then minutes before our flight was due to leave, they simply said "Your passports are fine" and waved us through. All three of us just looked at each other in astonishment. It was that unspoken, subtle racism. Nothing needed to be said. We all got what had just happened.

Touré's 'Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness?' (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2011) is out now

Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the Apple Watch for you? Well, it depends if you want for the fitness tech, or the style
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

    £18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

    £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

    Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

    £28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own