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
Tuesday 03 January 2012
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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
And why are 'southern' ways of speaking spreading north?
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