I’ve Been Racially Abused In The Run-Up To This Election. Here’s Why It Matters

As the UK prepares for an election, I urge you to vote for a government that won’t tolerate discrimination against people like me, writes Ayesha Aleem.
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Though I was born in London, my family and I moved to India when I was two. India’s where I grew up, went to school and made friends, but I’ve been coming to London every few years, staying weeks at a time to go to Oxford Street, ride the buses, take photos and be a tourist.

That changed a few months ago. I was accepted onto Year Here, a year-long fellowship in the capital, at the end of which I hope to start a social enterprise here. In August I moved to live, for the very first time, in the country in which I was born – albeit with mixed feelings. I was leaving behind family, friends and a comfortable, familiar life that I loved for the other side of the world, in pursuit of promise, possibility and challenge.

That same pursuit led to me being one of three people waiting for a 5am train in Ashford, Surrey, one recent winter morning. The sun wouldn’t yet be up for a little longer, bringing morning rush hour with it. It was so quiet I could hear myself breathe.

Apart from me, there was a man who had walked further down the platform, and another man sat on a bench, perhaps homeless. As a 5’2” woman for whom being somewhere so quiet means I don’t get to relax, I half-turned in his direction. As I turned back, he started to speak, softly. He started asking questions and answering them on his own but what he said was audible in that clear morning air.

“Until that day, I had only heard that word in movies”

He called me a “Paki”. A “filthy, ugly Paki”. Again. And again. And again.

Until that day, I had only heard that word in movies. It felt so removed from my reality. And yet, when it was used against me, it hit somewhere new and untouched, as if the weight of the word and all the history that comes with it hit me too. I started to walk in the direction of the other man standing at the far end of the platform, hoping that if anything more happened, he might be close enough to help.

Nothing did, thankfully. I don’t feel fear often. But on that morning, I did, my whole body tensed and ready to protect myself, if necessary. When the train arrived (late, of course), I made sure to board a separate carriage from my abuser. He got off at the next station – I checked. Only then could I relax in my seat.

I will probably avoid really early morning or late night trains in the future, but discrimination can take place anywhere, at any time, but rarely is it so overt. More often, it’s subtle, an interaction where you’re left wondering whether you imagined the insult. Did the woman at the check-out counter snap at me because she thought I couldn’t speak English? Did she think I couldn’t afford to pay for what I bought? Does she think ‘people like me’ don’t need to be spoken to politely? Prejudice thrives on secrecy and silence – a lesson I was forced to relearn again just a few weeks later.

One evening, a friend from Year Here took a few of us to a posh private members’ club in East London, complete with a fancy, heated rooftop pool and the glittering city scattered around it.

After oohing and aahing at the views, we left, still wearing our thick jackets and carrying heavy rucksacks from a day of classes. On our way out, a guest standing with friends on the balcony made eye contact with us. He said he hoped we had a good evening, and smiled. “How polite,” I remember thinking. I smiled back, said thank you and walked past.

As I did, and while still within earshot, I heard him say, “The bus is waiting outside.” He wanted my friends and I to hear that. He wanted us to hear that we, with our un-airbrushed faces and lack of designer clothes, fancy cars or wealth, were not welcome where the likes of him and his upmarket friends socialised.

My younger self might have cried after, embarrassed. In the moment, though, I was annoyed, divided between staying quiet and walking away or saying something. If I stopped to confront him, I didn’t know how that would turn out – all my friends had already left.

I felt a similar feeling of shame that I had felt on that cold morning at the train station. But this time I stopped, turned around and said, “I heard that. And there was no need for that.” To which he said, “Yes, there was.” I wish now I had said more. But at the time, I just didn’t want to engage for a second longer.

After telling my friends what happened, one confronted the man, who then dismissed him as being “aggressive”. My friend, born and bred in London, is black, so to call him aggressive is to label him with the most basic stereotype of his race.

“Every vote is powerful in the fight to create an environment where the kind of abuse I endured will not be tolerated.”

“Paki”. “Aggressive”. The undeniably classist comment about the bus. Such abusive language has been used throughout history to control marginalised people, to make us feel shame about where we come from or for the colour of our skin.

This month the UK approaches yet another political crossroads in our third general election in four years. And the communities that call this multicultural place home are anxious. Immigrants are worried about visas: will they be asked to leave a country they have adopted as home? Ethnic minorities are concerned: will they be represented in places of power? Will they be heard? Will their perspective be considered? Both groups are worried they will be told by voters, directly or discretely, that they don’t ‘belong’ here.

Every vote is powerful in the fight to create an environment where the kind of abuse I endured will not be tolerated. Anything less compromises the future of British society, and risks undoing the hard work of so many people who have a vision for a UK built on modern values.

The best response to anyone who tries to shame us for who we are – for being Asian, being Black, for being from a working class background – is to take ownership of our narrative. No one else gets to tell us whether or not we belong in a country, let alone a club.

And so to the guy who told me to take the bus, I tell you this: I’ve been coming from India for years to ride the buses in London, and once I vote in this election, I’ll be taking the bus home to where I live in London. Because that’s where I belong, and no one gets to tell me otherwise.

Ayesha Aleem is a journalist and founder of The Ilm podcast. Follow her on Twitter at @ayeshaaleem

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