Everyone is, in my experience, racist. This does, of course, depend on your definition of racism-mine being that everyone harbours assumptions and stereotypes, both consciously and subconsciously, about people from different ethnic backgrounds. Many of these assumptions and prejudices are often true. If they are true, is having them no longer racist? No. Absolutely not. Presuming to know something about a person based purely in their ethnicity without actually knowing it as a fact is racist, whether the thing you purport to know is true or not. Sorry folks, that’s just the way it is.
I have no doubt this applies to most, if not all, POCs, but from my experience, being a South Asian in the UK is to be subjected to a thousand cuts of micro-racism every time you go anywhere or do anything. Some of those snicks come from other South Asians. Some come from your own family. Some you might not even notice. Some you may well commit yourself. The nasty stabs of envy I feel when I see a successful South Asian in the media, the idea that space for us is so limited that they are in a place that might have been mine, the will to know how they circumnavigated the white stranglehold on our cultural industries, those are all racist responses. Successful white writers are so ubiquitous I don’t even notice them.
Once you start to analyse your actions and reactions and those of people around you, having racist feelings, thinking racist thoughts, making racist assumptions can feel overwhelmingly ingrained into the fabric of our lives. That’s because it is. When you try to challenge and unpick every thought or comment that could be considered racist, you may well find you don’t have time for much else. Just think about it. For a minute. Bet your head hurts. Mine certainly does.
Right-wing commentators don’t like their heads hurting, so they coined the phrase ‘playing the race card’ to describe the attempts of POCs to call out instances where prejudice and racism have negatively affected our lives, claiming that we’re nothing but snivelling, whining and inept, held back by nothing more sinister than our own personal inadequacies. Sometimes, even among our own, the same thing is said – particularly among the older generation. Ah, if so-and-so can make it, then obviously you didn’t fail because society is prejudiced, obviously you failed because you weren’t good enough, because you did something wrong. When those closest to you are disbelieving you, questioning your competence and telling you that you have a chip on your shoulder, well, that’s going to give you a bloody chip on your shoulder if there wasn’t one there already, which, let’s face it, there probably was. And who do you believe – the voice in your head that tells you you’ve been wronged or the voices around you telling you you’re over-sensitive or unlucky? Always being told that you’re wrong when you know that you’re right, being told the facts staring you in the face are a figment of your imagination, that black is, quite literally, white – well, it can make you feel like you’re losing your fucking mind.
Society is racist. We are all racist. But we refuse to call a spade a spade because it’s too messy, too inconvenient, too much bloody work, and because those at the top, those who perpetuate the system because they win from it, do not want to give up their advantage, and we are too busy hating ourselves, turning in on ourselves to fight them. As a South Asian, I was always told to keep my head down, not rock the boat, tolerate the slights, the digs, the unfair disadvantages. To prove my worth by working twice as hard to achieve half as much, to lean into the system and break down prejudice by wowing white folks with my general brilliance, dazzling them with my talent, and, to re-use a phrase I have used before, to be the proverbial dog playing the piano. You don’t want to be the whinger, you don’t want to be the one who ‘cries racism’, because if you were really good enough you wouldn’t need to, would you?
But what if you’re not brilliant, as I certainly am not. Then what? What if you’re good enough but not exceptional, hard-working but not lucky. What if you have a name white people can’t pronounce and your CV gets chucked in the bin before it’s even been read. What if you did everything right, tried your best, worked your hardest but just had the wrong bloody face? What if, after all of that pain and disappointment, no one even believes that it wasn’t your fault. Carrying around the enormous burden of this constant external and internal denial of the fundamental biases in our culture feels like Promethean curse. At times, I don’t know how much more I can take. Plenty of white people succeed at life who are far from exceptional (just look at our current political elite), but there’s only room at the top for the best and the brightest brown folks. It’s a cruel, brutal catch-22 that inevitably ends in a swirling avalanche of self-hate.
Because of course, over time, those external voices become internalised. Because if everyone else is saying it, it must be true. And then, not only are you a failure, you’re a delusional failure with a chip on your shoulder. You hate yourself for failing. You hate yourself for being delusional. You hate yourself because part of you knows you’re not delusional. You hate yourself because no one will take you seriously. You hate yourself because you sound self-pitying and whiny. You hate yourself if you call prejudice out, you hate yourself if you don’t. You hate yourself because you cannot change the world, you cannot break the system and you cannot change your sad brown little self, so you hate yourself instead, because what else is there left to do?