The racist torrent of abuse that spewed out of the mouth of a woman travelling on a London tram has left many Brits horrified. Documented and uploaded to Youtube as 'My tram experience', the video has received over 4 million views so far. The woman, later named Emma West, was subsequently arrested and charged with Racial Harassment, after the video came to the attention of the British Transport Police. On Monday, Twitter saw the hashtag #mytramexperience trending with the majority of people shocked that such racism could still exist.
Taking into consideration the ongoing Stephen Lawrence trial; a racially motivated killing unresolved 18 years later, I question whether the video represents a mentally ill woman, or a serious level of racism in the UK?
Growing up as a British Pakistani, I have always been aware of my race. Break times at my predominately white Primary school saw playground taunts about smelling of curry and laughter at my mum's "funny Paki outfit". I never mentioned it at home as I felt ashamed and believed that somehow I was to blame. I came to understand that I was expected to grin and bear it. As I grew older, I learned to defend both my ethnicity and my right to be deemed British. Despite these devastatingly negative experiences, they faded in my overall experience of being a British Asian, I felt the UK was my home.
However, in the months that followed the terrorist attacks of 9/11, things began to change. Fear of the 'other' was exploited and racist discourse was not only accepted, it was also promoted by particular arms of the popular media. People I considered friends began making unknowingly offensive remarks about my faith. I have also been the victim of verbal racism from strangers on several occasions in the past 10 years. Highlights of 2011 include being called a "F****ing Paki" in South End, whilst out filming for work and being threatened at a Kilburn Cafe, for simply looking in the direction of someone who clearly did not like the colour of my skin.
Worryingly, the Far Right have begun to re-emerge and the growing problem of extremist groups such as the EDL is seemingly ignored. In November 2010 the first ever hate crime figures for England, Northern Ireland and Wales were published. The statistics showed that in 2009 there were 43,426 reported cases of race-related hate crimes, with an additional 2083 cases of faith related hate crimes.
Despite the shocking number of racially motivated hate crimes, the figures only provide a limited insight into the real level of racism. Hate crimes do not always go reported and it would be utterly naïve to assume that racism only exists in the form of violent attacks. Whether it be verbal, online, indirect or direct, at the work place, in our hospitals, within our education system, or on public transport, racism exists in many forms. If asked "Do you hold racist views?", I doubt that many would tick the yes box.
Sunday's incident also highlights the fact that racism is not targeted at any specific community. Following the UK riots, the age-old racist rhetoric of 'Black culture as aggressive and violent' once again re-surfaced. On 12 August David Starkey appeared on Newsnight, speaking to Owen Jones, author of Chavs: The demonization of the working classes, he stated:
'What has happened is that the substantial section of the 'chavs' that you wrote about have become black. The whites have become black'
Specifically, Starkey was referring to West Indian culture with his remark directed at the use of Patois by British youth. Starkey was clearly blaming what he phrased as a 'dominant' West Indian culture for the riots. Following the incident there were over 700 complaints to the BBC, demanding a public apology from Starkey. Despite receiving harsh criticism from Ed Miliband, no apology was ever made and the issue was seemingly swept under the carpet. Ofcom decided to take no action.
Starkey was not alone in his attitude. On 17 August John Bird, co- founder of The Big Issue wrote a piece for The Independent, titled 'Fashion has become a weapon on the streets of London'. A rather uncomfortable read, Bird echoes Starkey's sentiments and blames the riots on a loss of White culture, to a dominant threatening Black, specifically West Indian culture.
"For me one of the most significant (images) is the shorter, weaker, white boy being made to strip while a bigger black boy, or man, watches. The uniform that the white boy, and many white boys wear, is being taken from him. He is no more a human being. He is no more one of the boys who run with the riot."
Taken aback that the founder of a magazine like the Big Issue wrote with such a Victorian hand, I expected backlash or at least some sort of reaction to the piece. If there has been any, I have yet to hear about it.
Following the flurry of #mytramexperience tweets, I tweeted asking followers if they had ever experienced similar situations. I was overwhelmed with the level of responses ranging from cases of a few insulting words, to aggressive and sometime violent attacks. Most shocking were the tweets from Myriam Francois-Cerrah @MFrancoisCerrah, a writer, activist and a convert to Islam. She explained :
"Spat at, verbal abuse, swearing, one bald-headed man rolled up his paper, shoved it under my chin & told me to rethink my beliefs"
"Have had glass bottles and beer cans thrown at me and my daughter on tube, threats online, etc"
Other tweets included:
"I remember two male Sikh members of staff getting pics drawn/images made of them with the Twin Towers..."
"Have been spat at in Oxford and called 'Paki' by a bunch of chaps passing me in the street (when I used to wear a hscarf)"
"I was on the bus and this lady said 'This is my country and I can't even get a seat on the bus. Go back to your own country'"
describes the racial abuse he suffered as a door to door salesman:
"I was called a P*ki or a Talibani. There was one particular house where the guy came out of the house, threatening me too..."
Despite receiving over 40 tweets and emails regarding experiences of racial abuse, declaring that the abhorrent words of one woman represents the views of a majority would simply be sensationalist. The UK has not yet reached a level where Far Right groups represent any type of significant majority, but they are rising in popularity. The increase in racist discourse as well as the acceptance of it fuels xenophobic sentiment. Terms such as Islamists and Islamification are bandied around, confusing people, leading them into believing that anything associated with the term Islam is violent, oppressive, and threatening. The likes of Starkey and Bird remain free to demonise minorities, in a biased view of freedom of expression.
Granted, the 'My tram experience' incident may be an extreme form of racism that may not necessarily represent the day to day experiences of Britain's minority groups. It does however highlight the fact that we are yet to overcome racism and thus, the core issues of what creates such intolerance must be readdressed. There has never been a time when a racial utopia has existed and I doubt such a thing could ever exist, but we are losing sight of what makes the UK a racially tolerant and welcoming society. It is time for us to bring the discussion of race relations back to the forefront.
Follow Nabeela Zahir on Twitter: www.twitter.com/nabeelazahir