All a parent ever wants is a better world for their children, safe and full of opportunity. Over generations, my family has gradually bettered themselves financially and academically. On my dad's side, he was the first to attend a university, juggling school work with weekend shifts at his parents' fish shop. On my mum's side, daughter of a Punjabi Civil Servant, her grandfather travelled on a dhow across the Indian Ocean to find new opportunities in British East Africa; her parents had emigrated on British Passports to escape Idi Amin's racial purification programme in 1972. My childhood was happy and comfortable in England's bucolic charm, with a colour television and piano lessons.
I was twelve before I really understood racism. Growing up in Tory Lincolnshire, the current hotbed for Farage's Brexit fans, I was aware of being a little different: I had a Granny and a Naniji; I worshipped in a Church and in a Gurudwara and my mum sent me to my friend's pyjama party in a salwar kameez- an etymological master move ("pajama" is Hindi for loose trousers). At age seven, I heard the school bully, eleven-year-old Walker, call my brother a "brownie". Misunderstanding his meaning, I proudly interfered, stressing that I was a Brownie and my friends are Brownies, too. My gang of Girl Guides then chased the offender around the school field, rudely chanting "Walkers Crisps". Later in detention with my shamed face against the wall, the racial slur swept under the carpet, the Headmaster simply concluded, "Well, Walker, you're hardly a Golden Wonder".
My plucky confidence was undone by one single incident at high school. I remember walking alone down the corridor at lunchtime. Up ahead were a group of boys, but it was fine because some were from my primary school and I'd even been at one boy's tenth birthday party, joked with his mum and eaten pizza in their kitchen. That same boy gestured at me and as I smiled, he sputtered, "Paki".
Wounded, I gave no rebuttal and quickly walked along the corridor that seemed to go on forever, bursting into tears as I finally turned the corner. It'd never occurred to me that I was so different to him. I felt humiliated by this loaded word; my ego was shattered. I felt unwanted, exiled from my hometown, my place of birth. A friendly face found me at the end of the corridor and ushered me off to the Head's office. Later, I silently accepted a muttered apology, but I couldn't meet his eyes. The matter was closed, but I have never forgotten that moment.
If the Head had been a known favourite of the KKK and Neo-Nazi party, would there have been an apology, a consequence, or would I have had to accept the abusive language of fear and division. Would we have studied race, abuse and identity in Literature? Would the History syllabus include Apartheid, American Civil Rights and the evils of European Fascism? Would we have been so sure that the future could be free from prejudice?
Twenty years later, we are a generation on and we feel lucky to be able to build on our ancestors' hopes of raising children in a better world: freedom of religion, LGBT rights and instant global communication. Our two little boys have a mixed heritage from England, Kenya, Tanzania and India; Sikhism, Christianity and Islam, but what defines them more is their delight in the moon and the stars, swings, trains and dinosaurs. To have openly xenophobic leaders is an uncomfortable truth and our path forward is suddenly unclear and frightening. For the sake of our children, all children, we have to speak up against hatred, smile at strangers and perform random acts of kindness. Little by little, we can dismantle the walls (or fences) of fear and make the world a welcoming place.
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