Now – imagine – We meet up. Thanks to a mutual friend, let’s call him… TED.
For the next 10 minutes I’m going to transport us to a lovely cafe in London,
and an afternoon I spent there, not long ago.
Now, I’m not sure if this is a friend-thing. Or a business-thing.
Or even a date! TED hasn’t told me much about you.
But your smile puts me at ease.
We grab a table, order some coffee.
And small-talk about the news.
Which turns out to be a mistake.
The news is horrific.
And you agree!
So we do that beautiful thing that’s possible in conversation and side-step the frightening reality of ‘now’ with a related topic. You tell me about an irrational fear you had as a child…
And you’re so good at anecdotes. It had everything. Humor, insight.
Now, it’s my turn.
When I was eight, I went on my first ever camping trip with the local Cub Scout group in Wolverhampton. In my family, we do a lot of reading so it wasn’t unusual for me to go to the library for a big pile of books to read in preparation for the trip.
Unaware that the county of Shropshire is not covered with venomous snakes, I got a book on coral and corn snakes and learnt a rhyme to help me tell which were poisonous.
I still know the rhyme:
‘Red before black is safe for Jack. Red touching yellow will kill a fellow.’
So, venom is my answer.
All snakes bite, but venom kills.
But the UK doesn’t have coral snakes, so [shrug]. You laugh politely…
You’re so kind! This person is so nice.
“Talking about fear,” you say, then you hesitate.
“Thinking about the things we see on the news..”
Then you ask your question:
“Were you ever afraid of racist people?”
YES. Is the short answer. But I want to keep this light and for us to have fun on our cafe meeting/date/whatever.
So I decided to tell a story where I think I come out looking pretty good!
In my twenties. In London. On a night out and and I’ve met this beautiful brunette-
Now thinking this maybe isn’t the best story but I’ve started so I’ll keep going –
She said “There’s a 24 hour pub around the corner from mine, let’s go!”
I walked into this pub, her local, in one of the most diverse cities in the world. All white people. And I thought, okay. We walk in and she’s there talking to her friends because it’s her local. I overhear someone saying, “What are you doing? Have you lost your mind?” And me, thinking, “Strange, anyway…”
As they runs off to the toilet they says, “Can you get me a glass of wine?” And I was like yeah.
Over to the bar. “Can I get a medium glass of wine and a pint of Guinness.”
The person behind the bar serves a glass of wine. I ask about the Guinness and she says:
“We don’t really serve people like you, in here.”
10 years ago, I was witty. I was arrogant. I had long beautiful hair as well. So I looked around, looked down the bar. Looked at her squarely. Looked down the bar. Looked at her again and said, “What, beautiful people? I see what you mean.
I’ll have a pint of Guinness please.”
She pulled my pint. I finished my drink, and then we left.
You seemed to like that story. And I do too. I remember walking away thinking:
“That’s an absolute win.” But it wasn’t really because nothing changed.
I wonder if I can tell a story that maybe makes you feel a bit angry about racism, but obviously still makes me look good.
We get talking about home, and you don’t assume I’m from anywhere other than the UK.
We talk about home cooking!
When I go back home to visit my dad, I’ll always go back to London with stacks of food.
My dad does this for me, just because I’m his boy. And I adore him for it.
I remember once going to school with a tin box full of lentils, and spices, and eating with my hands. I remember the teacher looking at me and saying:
“I think it’s unhygienic to eat with your hands.”
“So you know, most of the world eats with their hands.”
And she was like, “Yeah, it’s unhygienic.”
“What are you eating?”
And she said “I’ve got sandwiches.”
“Yeah. Isn’t that interesting?”
Here we go. A flicker of anger. You want that story to not be true. But it is. I promise you it is.
Now you’re quiet. You’re thinking.
“What happened, when you were younger and not so able to speak for yourself?”
Okay. I’ll tell you what happened.
I remember walking with my old man, it was shortly after the camping trip. We were in town and there was narrow pavement. A mother was stood talking to someone else on the pavement.
I remember the mother, the mother and the young boy, we’re about the same age.
I remember saying something really polite, “Good afternoon. Excuse me.” Super polite. Me and my dad both chipped in. And the child just jumped out of the way, happy as Larry, beautiful eye contact. You know, when you have those moments between children, where there’s: “Oh it’s another kid!” That sort of that absolute joyful innocence.
I remember the mother looking scornfully at us. But worse is that she looked at the child with real venom. Word for word what dripped from her mouth was:
“Don’t ever move out of the way for these people.
They’ve taken enough already.”
Now I’ve made you look horrified.
And you’re so lovely I don’t want you to feel bad.
And it’s my fault…
So I complete the story…
The friend, the friend the mother was talking to…
She said to the mother: “What? What do you mean?”
Then to us: “I’m sorry on behalf of her. Have a wonderful day.”
The friend holds the difficult conversation with the mother while we walk away.
My dad looks at me aavu thai chhe ane thatu rahese.
(These things happen – Racist people are racist.But we are not on our own.)
You like the ending of that story. So I keep going. I could tell loads of stories like that!
Like when I was in year 8 at school, I remember sitting in science, being a bit of a geek, showing off and the teacher puts a hand on my shoulder in a position of caring for me, and this is someone in a position of authority that I respect. He says, loud enough for others to hear:
“It’s a shame you’re not white, you can really have got yourself a good job and made something yourself!”
I don’t like being the cause of your discomfort.
So I complete the story…
Do you know what happened the week after that? Another member of the science team announced a new science club. One where we were going to learn about and understand the achievements of scientists of colour, who aren’t normally mentioned in the mainstream syllabus.
At this revelation, you’re delighted! You tell me “that’s brilliant” and “you’re so glad the other teacher was there.”
You ask for one more…
So I think of the times I’ve been most afraid. Between the ages of 11 and 16 how many times was I running away from adults who had chosen to turn their racial slurs into physical assault?
There’s a scar on my head.
There’s scars across my body and they didn’t come from adventure holidays.
I’d be walking home from school, walking down the street, and a vehicle would pull up.
Words and spit came from the window. What you learn to do as a person of colour is to ignore.
And try to just keep walking. Any act of resistance at that age is an act that can cause you physical pain. When you get big enough to defend yourself, you don’t get this as much from everyday people. That’s when you start getting hassled more by police.
What I’ve learnt recently is that as soon as you start getting white in your beard, the police hassle you less! And then our issues are with success in the system and structures.
I remember times the van actually pulled up, people jumping out holding poles and bats as makeshift weapons, and having to run away. I remember running past people.
I wasn’t running home, I was just running. Running away from them.
Anywhere but on the street.
I’ll complete the story…
A person helped once. They saw me running and unhatched their gate pointing into their garden. “Jump in there!” I did. I knew I could bold a fence if needed.
And I caught my breath.
And my breath catches again. Now. In this moment. In the cafe we are in.
I can spot a racist. It’s not hard for me or for most people of colour who grew up in the UK. People say, “how do you know?” Almost four decades worth of experience.
“You don’t know, you can’t prove it.” I don’t need to prove it.
Turn on the news. Listen to the stories. As an activist, I want you to know every single racist incident that happens. I want white people to be aware of every single act of racially motivated violence against black and brown people moment to moment in the UK.
But it would be too uncomfortable.
Watching the snakes bite.
Why would you look when you can turn away?
What about if I asked you to just notice the moments of fear and tension?
In the pub, the beautiful people joke? I was drunk. It was only because I was drunk, I was that brash. As soon as I said it, there was serious fear. Serious fear of what might happen next.
The teacher with the sandwich? I was angry. I was an angry teen who had just been told I was dirty for doing the same thing white people do. As soon as I’d been cheeky, there was fear. My education was the most important thing. I didn’t want to get kicked out of school, but it happens – disproportionately – for young people of colour.
When people say “Black Lives Matter” other people say “well, no, all lives matter” and I think…
Okay. I’ve got four wheels on a car. Do all four of the wheels matter? Absolutely!
My back left one, it’s got a slow puncture maybe.
I’m not going to say “all my wheels matter” so that one can slowly deflate and that’s fine.
I’m telling you this now because there’s trouble in here. In this cafe.
A guy has walked in, not to get a coffee. He walks past us. And by the grace of God, he walks past us, picks a chair up, flips it around, and sits on it as he starts abusing a woman of colour. She’s not on her own and someone goes to the bar to say we’re been hassled.
I’m sitting bolt upright. Not from choice. This is just, boom. I empty my pockets, my phone, my wallet, my keys, everything is now on the table, without even thinking. Hyper-alert. Hyper- tension. Fear.
And you, you’re saying: “Are you alright, Pran? Are you okay?”
I’m not thinking. I can hear the words, but I’m not listening.
The racist, pumped up and enraged heads for the street and physically assaults the next man of colour he sees. There’s blood.
I’m lost. In fear. Trauma. Tension.
Not just because of this incident, this sharp bite. But because of all the others. I’m the 8 year old, the teenager, the 20 year old, I’m the grown man who anglesises his own name because Pranav is hard to say, “Can we just call you P?”
And you say you’d like to learn how to say my name.
And you say, what about the people who were there as you grew up who protected you and defended you and taught you your potential?
The woman that the mother was talking to did not say a word.
I learnt about scientists of colour on my own when in the library I was at university after another student challenged me: “What have Indians ever done for the advancement of human knowledge?”
No one ever gave me a way out when I was being chased by adults with weapons as a child.
Those were the parts I made up to protect your feelings.
But by protecting your feelings I’m causing your inaction.
Inaction is what enables a sweet little white boy to take on his mother’s message about them taking too much. Again when he overhears a school teacher speak to a child of colour with disgust and another underlining the fact they won’t achieve because they’re not white.
This child grows into an adult who thinks it’s okay to spit at children of colour or not serve customers in a pub or beat people in the street.
I can’t help but think that if even 10% of the time someone would have stepped in at any of those points, with that person along the whole of his lifetime, would he have been that same person challenging people of colour? Would that have happened?
I’m not sure it would.
And maybe I wouldn’t be so triggered by the trauma that’s flowing through me.
It took me three day to come down.
For my heart to stop racing.
For my mind to clear.
To breathe again.
My father and my grandfather, they did say: “These things happen.” They were talking about racism. And they said, “And these things will continue to happen.”
I don’t know if you’ll want to see me again after this.
We’re always taught to keep people wanting more. To hold a little bit back. But I haven’t really done that today. I may have frightened you. Or hurt you. Or offended you.
Maybe that means we’ll never see eachother again.
But if we do meet again, will you tell me some stories of when you have witnessed and taken action? When you’ve corrected a friend, or family member. Or just shared some knowledge.
If even 10% of the time someone would have stepped in…
Maybe next time we can talk about what we love rather than what we fear.
I hope we meet again.