Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his momentous, stirring speech “I have a dream”. But do we listen, feel elevated and inspired, but then ignore it like a dream forgotten as soon as we wake up? And in the process, is racism just getting smarter at subsisting?
I remember being around eight years old, walking to school, and a driver shouting “Paki!” out of his van window as he drove past me.
And I vividly recall going on a family trip to Bournemouth, getting into a taxi and a group of passers-by instructing the driver: “Take them home, mate.” I knew they didn’t mean here in the UK.
It doesn’t feel so long ago that I was asked by my schoolmates: “Which skin colour are you closest to: black or white?” Because brown was clearly insignificant, or a sub-race at the most.
But it wasn’t just the children that held these views. My school teacher would always ask the three Indian origin girls in the class – including me – to clear up everyone’s mess after an art lesson.
I could go on: my dad being spat at whilst driving and eggs being thrown as mum and I walked down the street.
Fashionable to be Indian
Then all of a sudden, Naomi Campbell wore a sari for her seductive single, ‘Love and Tears.’ Out of the blue, I started being told my skin colour is “beautiful” because I have an all-season tan. White women started donning bindis and saris and everyone was talking about yoga, meditation and their lifelong wish to see the Taj Mahal or Goa.
Suddenly, it became fashionable to be Indian.
Were people becoming more open-minded and accepting, I wondered. Was racism becoming, dare I say it, obsolete? Well, it was easy to be fooled by this surface of hope. But I’ve always been dubious about how meaningful that apparent change was.
Racism still exists, and quite strongly too. Not only that, it’s getting smarter so that it can continue to exist. Racists have learnt it’s not enough to shout derogatory terms to non-whites, but that they should manipulate their views to make them sound convincing, or emulate the language or perceived intentions of politicians.
You only need to read the comments on Twitter made by the so-called English Defence League and learn about the manifesto of the British National Party. Even higher-ranked politicians are quick to make immigrants scapegoats in an economic blunder actually caused by the well-to-do.
Racism isn’t smart
The murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in London took almost 20 years to reach some sort of resolution; Italy’s first black minister, Cecile Kyenge, had bananas thrown at her during a rally; the slaughter of a soldier in London by an Islamist provoked hate attacks on innocent Muslims.
And it’s even an inherent part of the leisurely sphere of sport, with black and Asian footballers playing their game to the tune of racist chants and monkey noises. Again, I could go on.
But racism itself isn’t smart; in fact, it couldn’t lack less knowledge if it tried. Some perpetrators try to disguise such shallow views with a thin veil of acceptable language and demeanour.
The truth of the matter is, people are not born racists and we certainly do not come in to this world seething with hate. It is society and culture that define our thinking.
It sounds simple, but instead of letting these attitudes live and breed in darkness, we should be opening up frank discussions, peacefully and rationally.
Of course, there isn’t always that opportunity for dialogue. But sometimes I wish I asked my school mates why they saw the colour brown as insignificant. Maybe they wouldn’t have understood. But what if they did? How did their views of Asians formulate as they grew older and if I had questioned them, how may these have changed?
Another schoolteacher of mine used to ask myself and another Indian girl to tidy up after class. I couldn’t hold back any longer and asked him why he only expected us to clean, and others free to go home? He didn’t know what to say, made excuses but then never asked us again. Maybe, his views didn’t change. But, perhaps they did.
The least effective debate is one where each party holds steadfast to their opinions, refusing to see the reason in an opposing view. It’s a challenge reasoning with racism, but reason does more than restraint.
In the words of King himself: “”Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”