Updated: Apr 8, 2020
Four names in the news this week, Dr Alfa Saadu, Amged el-Hawrani, Adil El Tayar, and GP Dr Habib Zaidi, who had ancestry in regions including Asia, the Middle East and Africa and the first frontline NHS workers to die from Covid-19 found me re-questioning the core of my identity quite dramatically and brought back some very dark and difficult memories that I thought had been put in their proper place. I’m once again reminded that racism, even for a brown Brit is never far away.
“We just can’t have you lot taking over our country, can we? It’s not personal, but we just can’t”, says a middle-aged man to me as I pick my way through the crowds milling about Parliament Square in London on Brexit night (was it only a couple of months ago?). I was looking for those who were opposed to the decision to leave the EU. He was clutching the flag, the Union Flag - slightly the worse for drink - and his smile did nothing to temper the underlying threat and simmering aggression. As I stood in Westminster, I watched a crowd blowing whistles, kissing the flag and hoarse with jubilation.
They felt they had won a fight, a war even. Denied a proper war, denied a chance to ‘Bash a Paki’, this was their time. The fight was won against those ethnics taking over ‘their’ country. I’m a journalist but every non-professional instinct made me want to shout “No, this is my country”.
I’m one of the 13% of British ethnic minorities – British born and bred – just not white. It was frightening. Like walking back in time to what I thought was a bygone era, but it was 31st January 2020. Watching the night unfold were two ladies who had travelled all the way from Scotland that day, two lonesome anti-Brexiteers who were upset and had witnessed the racist exchange between myself and the man, trying to reassure me that he was a minority and that ‘the rest of us’ don’t think like this, but inside that feeling of shame and humiliation was building again. Once more fear had reared its ugly head. That feeling I had so many times as a child and a young adult when racist comments were the norm, establishing an abiding and impossible yearning to have been born into white privilege. I didn’t have to be reminded that no matter how hard I tried to blend, this was never going to be possible. Ever. I struggled that night to find more than 4 people who were anti-Brexit and work recalled me saying it was too dangerous for me to be out there trying to deliver live television reports after seeing how events were unfolding. That was the first time I was told to leave an event in the whole of my career – not whilst covering riots in Berlin – not after having been nearly decapitated by a military helicopter – not even when I had to bivouac in the middle of pride of lions in Kenya. This was in sight of my parliament. Most of London was empty and those that remained were ecstatic that they had managed to ‘get their country back’. Brexit is Brexit and this is our new reality. “Get over it”. “Get over it” – how often have I heard that and how often has my only recourse been to get over it?
Just two months later, as I watch the events of the coronavirus unfold, carefully monitoring social media, scrutinising any breaking news, obsessing about how the government deal with this catastrophe, I wonder if this is the right time to speak out. Usually I like to keep my opinions to myself and not reveal my true feelings about issues, as after all I’m usually the one asking the questions. But maybe this is exactly the right time. What does it really mean when someone says “We just can’t have you lot taking over our country, can we?”
“Stop”, I say to myself. “Get over it”.
But I can’t as I watch the first doctors die, all of whom were ethnic minorities, just some of the disproportionately high number of BAME NHS workers. 20% of the organisation consists of those very people that the Brexiteers I met wanted out. And then I ask myself what would happen now if those workers ‘went back to their own country’?
Maybe that’s what my father should have done. A retired Gynaecology & Obstetrics specialist and later a General Practitioner who devoted nearly 50 years of his life to the NHS. He knew each one of the 3000 patients he was looking after by name, where they lived, family set-ups, what their health problems were off by heart, and I know this because I used to test him when I worked for him during school holidays in my teens. In fact, within my family – that’s one British Asian family - 6 children and partners and their kids - the majority are considered to be key workers. My brother-in-law is a consultant surgeon (former NHS) of 30 years standing and he travelled back from Bangladesh where he runs a hospital in conjunction with the UK, to save lives in his country; my nephew is a nurse (former NHS) and he travelled back from Bulgaria to save lives in his country – both have been reinstated during the crisis; my eldest sister devoted 30 years of her career nursing to the NHS and if she was not on the vulnerable list, she would also be on the frontline saving lives, as would my father who is now in his eighties.
I have two sisters who work in education. Key workers. And at the bottom of the list, I am considered to be a key worker too. One BAME family contributing to OUR country. Or is it truly our country? There’s no doubt that as the death toll mounts - more ethic minorities giving up their lives to save others - those questions of identity come to the surface once again. A common conversation with my BAME friends is about how our parents taught us to cope with racism. My father was very clear on this. He told me to keep my head down, stay silent, work harder than everyone else and that I should accept that I would never fully be accepted. Just work work work. That was the message and that’s what I’ve done.
As I spoke to my mother on the phone two days ago, in isolation with my father, she gets upset. Like many I will not be able to see her for weeks and weeks. She worries about where would she go, as she is British and can’t understand why anyone would suggest anything else. I can only console her.
This triggered another memory, a conversation I had with a very intelligent, experienced TV correspondent a few years ago (white and very middle class). We were working abroad so we had many days with little to do except talk about the meaning of life. He said to me “Nadira, isn’t Britain great as racism really doesn’t exist anymore”, and then he asked me if I had experienced racism. I had (of course I had – how could he think otherwise) - taking my baby brother out in his pram with my sister, kids throwing stones at us and the pram, screaming “Go back to your own country”. I told him about all the times on nights out when I was made to feel frightened and confused. Like when I was waiting alone for a bus and a group of men came into my brown face shouting the same phrase “Go back to your own country”. They did not beat me up and I felt perversely grateful. And I recalled another incident after a night out, queuing with my friends in a kebab shop and again a man walked in, spotted me and screamed those same words at me. My friends were shocked and we left without our kebab. I explained to my colleague that these were just a few examples and he said, “But maybe you just need to accept it and get over it, Nadira?”. My reply was, “But I do”. What else can I do?
Rupia (not her real name) is a frontline NHS doctor, 37 years old and of Pakistani origin. Her parents owned a corner shop when she was growing up and she used to help out. She said that the community that she lived in was strange. Most of them loved her mum and dad because they were good to their customers, but they would refer to their shop as the “Paki” shop. The customers didn’t think this term was overtly racist. Her mother and father tolerated the term, but as Rupia grew older she found herself banning customers who used that term because she would lose her temper. She couldn’t tolerate the racism. I think there’s a clue in this as to what often goes on with the collective psyche when it comes to colour and difference, largely speaking: “Of course you’re ok – we don’t mean you – you’re OUR brown person”.
Despite telling me this, Rupia insists that she feels ‘lucky’ that she hasn’t experienced much racism. I ask her why she used the word ‘lucky’. She’s not sure.
However, Rupia does question what the implications of Brexit will be for those who have used it as an immigration tool. What exactly is at stake here? “How much of a better place these migrants have made Britain, have made Britain Great?”, she says.
“When I go into work and see how many ethnic minorities there are, it’s just crazy how many work in healthcare. It couldn’t run without them. This country couldn’t cope now with coronavirus without their contribution.”
Then we talk about the new appreciation towards those ethnic minorities and all who are working in the NHS due to the crisis. Will the colour-blindness last? Is the shift solely towards healthcare workers or will it extend to the wider BAME communities? Rupia thinks this is a temporary state, “With corona, everything is null and void. It’s completely changed life as we know it. But maybe I’m a pessimist. Whatever is happening now and when we come out of it, I don’t think it will make a lasting difference and people will revert back, which is a shame.” She then highlights the point with an example of unconscious bias. Two of her colleagues are female and Indian. Rupia insists that they look nothing like each other and have no similar mannerisms, yet a number of her white colleagues get them confused on a regular basis.
I very easily connect with Rupia, share her confusion of ‘luckiness’ despite uncountable numbers of racist encounters. Optimism. Determination. Hope. Being dumped into a middle-class private boarding school at 11 years old I know changed my perceptions as one of less than a handful of ethnic minorities in a school full of around 300 posh, white girls. Colour became invisible, my bubble was fantastic, I was just me. I used to go home in the holidays and argue with my parents about how racism didn’t exist. At the same time accepting some of my friends calling me a ‘Paki’, shrugging off any humiliation or hurt I felt and laughing along with the crowd. After all, they meant no harm and how could they be racist coming from such good families? Highly educated, successful parents? I needed to take it on the chin. Which I did and still do.
I keep following my dad’s advice and find myself in a position where I’m interviewing numerous right-wing leaders, politicians, commentators about the state of Europe, the legitimate rise of the far right, the migrant crisis and as we must do, with objectivity and an understanding of how an increase in migrant numbers might be detrimental to European countries including the UK. As reported in the media, these countries are literally being overrun by these foreigners, or perceive that they are being overrrun and they can’t cope. It’s my job to consider both sides of the argument of course. And then we look at the real figures. For example Hungary has argued that the impact of the 1,294 refugees it is supposed to accept under the EU burden sharing scheme will destroy its Christian identity and culture, a belief repeated to me when I interviewed their Minister of Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó. Really? First of all, at the last census, only 54.3% of the population identified as Christians and secondly are 1,294 largely desperate men, women and children going to make a difference? And the U.K. doesn’t have any of the geographical and historical particularities which whilst still odious at least begin to explain Hungary’s xenophobia.
I repeat, I am British. Brown but British – nothing else.
“Get your head down and stay silent. Work work work”. That’s what I do. But another memory triggered. I was working as a researcher for the BBC and I recall a very-high profile presenter and Editor slagging-off a very well-known ethnic minority interviewee in an open plan office, before she was due to arrive for a live broadcast. Both parties were very middle-class white British and were talking about how the interviewee should not be so vocal about her views on racism. “I can’t understand it”, says the presenter, “I’m as ethnic as her as I have Eastern European ancestry”, she says in her Oxbridge educated voice. In that moment, I look around the office. There is no reaction from anyone else. There’s one black worker with her head down and myself in terms of diversity in the room. We both stay silent. That feeling of embarrassment, humiliation and a touch of anger rise again and I wish I was born into white privilege. I calm myself down and continue to work, work, work.
I’m not sure this silence has served me well (Old guilt slowly being replaced with new guilt) which is why I really do admire Sonia Sodha (Observer chief leader writer and columnist for Guardian and Observer) for just mentioning that the first NHS front liners who died were of an ethnic origin.
I was however shocked (sadly not surprised) at some of the ignorant reactions towards her acknowledgment, especially from broadcaster Julia Hartley-Brewer:
"What has that got to do with BAME NHS workers? And why wouldn’t we expect immigrants in any job working in the UK to have to pay to use public services just as we would have to do if we lived abroad? What’s skin colour got to do with any of that?"
“You try living in this skin” I felt like shouting when I saw Julia Hartley-Brewer’s glib contribution.
And so the exchange went on between a double-barrelled white person and someone who never could be. One of Sonia Sodha’s very reasonable responses rang home to me with striking clarity:
"Take it from me as a person of colour that lazyanti-immigrant rhetoric impacts on people of colour in Britain. It legitimises racism. BAME NHS workers face racism in their working lives, so surely not too much to acknowledge when they make the ultimate sacrifice to save lives."
One thing I know without any shadow of a doubt – one thing I know with every fibre of my brown being is that if you’re white if and you’ve been spat at on the street, rejected from a job, been hit on by a man, not been hit on by a man, failed a driving test, put on the table next to the toilets in a restaurant, had to explain to your kids why other kids don’t invite them to tea – in other words had to deal with the shittier ends of life’s stick – you’ve never, ever had to ask yourself if it’s just ‘you’ or if it’s because you’re not the same colour as the majority. So don’t tell me that racism doesn’t exist because it does and I think Corona Colour Blindness will pass. So I suppose I will just have to deal with it.
It’s not really about needing recognition about how much harder you need to work to get somewhere, it’s not really about shouting about how hard-done by you feel because dealing with conscious or unconscious racism on a regular basis can be tedious and isn’t it wonderful for those of us who have dealt with this all our lives to see “Rishi Sunak for next PM” circulated over the social media waves? Absolutely brilliant. I certainly felt at the beginning of my career that I didn’t want to be labelled as an ‘Asian’ presenter, even turning down opportunities if they were race-specific programmes. I just wanted to be a broadcaster who happened to be Asian; Employed because I was good at my job and for no other reason and I still feel the same. It’s about equality, the feeling of equality, commended for your achievements both personally and professionally equal to your white counterparts and berated for your cock-ups and bad behaviour in an equal manner too. I still can’t understand why this is still such a growing issue in a country that is meant to be one of the most advanced in the world. A country that believes in freedom in every way. A country that now needs all of us to pull together as one and I’m sure we will. I see evidence of that.
And when I question why I’m willing to revisit these painful memories and long-held certainties now? In my one British Asian family, as my parents and eldest sister lie in the vulnerable category, my brother-in-law and nephew put their lives on the line, my sisters who work with vulnerable children, I feel the need to tell stories of ALL through this unprecedented time in history, I want to keep my optimism, determination and hope. I need to do this for the sake of my pale, mixed-race children, for their future and I would like to think that we won’t revert back as Rupia thinks. I need them to at least try and understand why they’re asked on a regular basis why their mum is brown. Why not? I ask.
For those non-blenders at the fore, standing side-by-side, shoulder to shoulder, mask to mask, with their blender colleagues to save lives. A mere acknowledgment that we are all human, in this together, a celebration for those like my dad who would run to the frontline health permitting to save ALL no matter what their colour or creed for a country he adores. A country that I adore. Let’s clap until this crisis is over.