We pretend to be united, but racism festers among the ethnic minorities

'Let us speak out about and against the prejudices that are found in the black and Asian communities'
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The Independent Online

An irate reader writes: "When are you going to talk about your racism? And the way Asians hate blacks and vice versa? Why so quiet about the racist killing of the Asian during Carnival?" Some weeks ago another reader had written an even more furious riposte to a piece about lingering imperial attitudes in this country. He had lived in Uganda. He knew Asians treated black people like dirt. So why did I never talk about this?

An irate reader writes: "When are you going to talk about your racism? And the way Asians hate blacks and vice versa? Why so quiet about the racist killing of the Asian during Carnival?" Some weeks ago another reader had written an even more furious riposte to a piece about lingering imperial attitudes in this country. He had lived in Uganda. He knew Asians treated black people like dirt. So why did I never talk about this?

As it happens, I have. In my autobiography, which was one of the most painful things I have ever written, I said that one reason why so many black Ugandans supported Idi Amin when he expelled Asians was that we were unforgivably racist.

However, both these readers have a point. There is an almost conspiratorial silence about inter-communal tensions in this country. Most black and Asian people know what is going on but feel bound to pretend to a false sense of unity in order not to appear weak and vulnerable to the white population. You feel this inner pressure that if you talk about these fissures, you are betraying something, although I no longer understand what this something is.

But the killing of the black 27-year-old Dexter Horace Coleman in Bradford by Asians earlier thissummer and the murder of 28-year-old Abdul Bhatti in Notting Hill by a gang of black men has broken through this cover, this mendacity.

And not before time. I suddenly feel able to tell a story which has been lying low in my head for a good three months. I was at a glitzy award ceremony full of pop stars, actors, politicians, mediawallahs and millionaires, at a Knightsbridge venue. It was a diverse crowd representing a new, emerging metropolitan élite, and I was feeling incredibly optimistic. Glittering prizes at last, I thought. We have arrived. The glow didn't last.

The table next to us was occupied wholly by black Britons. Most were big names, talented people who had made it. As the awards were being handed out, a couple of them (both men, a little worse for wear after too much champagne perhaps) started making offensive statements about Asians.

Every time an Asian went up on to the stage, we heard them shouting "bloody Paki, go back to the corner-shop" and worse, much worse. The striking thing was that nobody else on that table tried to stop what was going on. I started writing down the comments and the sharp-suited star of this obscene performance made some threatening noises and then left.

Meanwhile, the show went on celebrating "ethnic minority" achievements. What a sham. For once, we cannot blame white people for what is happening. Sure, the old trick of divide and rule can still be found within institutions, but this hatred between black and Asian people comes from within the two groups and is never addressed by community leaders.

For years now in schools, Asian children have been bullied, taunted, assaulted and mugged by black and white children ganging up. The fact that most Asian children are taught to value education is despised by those who attack them. I have seen this with my own eyes in school playgrounds.

I was in a school in Hackney once and I was forced to intervene as a young Iranian boy was first called names ("dirty Paki", even though he pleaded that he was "Persian") and then kicked savagely by four black boys and one white boy. Small Asian shopkeepers are deliberately marked out by young black thugs, and in some areas relationships between the two communities are as bad as those between young African-Americans and Koreans in the United States, and for the same reasons.

Asians are seen as moneybags and as weak - easy meat for predators. There is also an increasing amount of poisonous anti-Asian envy felt by some black Britons. If an Asian makes it in public life, some young black will make it their business to undermine them. When my last book was published, the most vicious review was not by one of the white, middle-class men (who were extraordinarily objective), but by a black female academic.

Asians have their own hideous stereotypes, and a different way of manifesting their prejudices against black people. A large number of Asian businessmen refuse to give jobs to black people and exclude them from rented properties that they own.

Members of my extended family, who owned a large number of houses in London and Birmingham, had a policy of never, ever letting anyone black even see the properties. One of the local Asian shopkeepers where I live used to say that he hated blacks coming into his shop because "they were dirty and thieves."

I am always horrified to see how older Asians recoil when they see a black man approaching them. The one area which raises the most violent reactions is inter-racial relationships. I am at present writing a book on mixed-race Britons, and have met Asian parents who have told me that they would never accept a black partner for their sons or daughters. Young Asians who break this taboo are rejected, beaten, and in one case even killed. A Mr Singh, one time police inspector in India, said without shame: "They are not quite human yet. They are nearer monkeys. Would you let your daughter marry a monkey?"

Two films, Mississippi Masala and Bhaji on the Beach, have dealt with this issue sensitively and with courage. Both were regarded with contempt by traditionalists, with reports of near riots in cinemas. Mississippi Masala was about a love affair between a Ugandan Asian girl, played by Sarita Choudhury, and a black American, played by Denzel Washington.

I wept buckets when I first saw the film, because it reminded me of one of the most formative experiences of my life. When I was 17, I played Juliet in a school production of Romeo and Juliet. A white teacher had decided to put on the production to illustrate the divisions between black and Asian Ugandans. Romeo was black, handsome and very bright. The play won some British Council awards and so got into the press. Both communities were shocked. This is something that never happened in that society, not even in people's dreams. My father never spoke to me again. He died a few years later.

This unhealed wound in my own heart is probably what makes me feel as strongly as I do that we must speak out about and against this inter-communal strife, and openly deal with the prejudices that fester in the black and Asian communities. With two young men dead - and nobody will convince me that race had nothing to do with what happened - it is criminal that so few of us are willing to do this.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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