The first time I was told “to go home” and “back to where I came from,” I was seven: old enough to know they were referring to my Pakistani ethnicity, but too young to know why it was being said.
It was the first time I realised that my skin colour was a target and felt the burden of what it was like to be seen as a brown person first and a human second. As an adult now, the fact that something as benign as my skin colour, which I was born with and have no control over, is offensive to some people still boggles my mind. It makes as much sense to me now than it did when I was seven. Like, I can see the outrage surrounding pizza on pineapple but over my melanin skin suit? Wild.
I’ve been told to “go home” countless times since. It still stings when it happens but I have to say, hearing the president of the United States casually invoke (to millions of people) the phrase used against me since childhood was on another level. Then, to add salt to the wound, the BBC took the decision to rebuke respected journalist Naga Munchetty for breaking impartiality rules, all because she chose to acknowledge those words and connotations for what they were – a clearly racist statement. What else could telling four congresswomen of colour to “go home” possibly mean?
The BBC is gaslighting us into doubting the meaning behind these potent words, as well as undermining the first hand experience of brown and black people to whom the phrase is all too painful and familiar. As Munchetty herself stated, she has been on the receiving end of this sentiment, hence why, unsurprisingly, she understands more than her co-hosts exactly why the phrase is so inflammatory. This should be a boon to the media, as far as I am concerned, as the reason we need diverse voices is to be able to parse moments like this one for universal understanding. We need to start taking seriously the merits in there being more than a single lens (read: white) in which things can be filtered through. One demographic can’t always speak to the nuances of another.
At age seven, I lived in a lively, working class, cul-de-sac in suburban Scotland. A place where my friends and I perfected many a dance routine and played football on the winding street in front of our semi-detached homes. Kids being kids, accidents happen and on this particular day the casualty was a neighbours window. In an effort to get the first goal of the game, one of the boys overzealously kicked the football a wee bit too hard and it veered dramatically off course of the make-shift goalposts made from our jackets, shattering the downstairs living room window of number 19.
Despite the broken window incident, we were an endearingly good group of kids and instead of everyone fleeing into their respective homes to hide from the consequences of our actions, we all gathered at the front door to apologise. The neighbour was quite rightly furious but we were sure that an apology and the guarantee that it would be fixed would be enough to absolve us. As the only non-white person in the group she quickly zeroed in on me after the boy who kicked the ball had finished apologising. Suddenly, according to her it was all my fault. If my “Paki” family hadn’t moved in to this street, we wouldn’t be playing like “savages” and I wouldn’t be here getting all these nice white kids in trouble like I was some prepubescent Scottish Pakistani Don Corleone, even if I did have the beginnings of a moustache for the role.
I was aghast and confused. The fact that no one said anything in my defence hurt just as much as the vile slurs thrown my way. Her parting shot before we dispersed was to tell me “to go back to where I came from,” because I most definitely wasn’t wanted here. I spent the next few weeks after school inside my house watching every repeat on Nickelodeon, rejoining the children outside only after my parents gave me a pep talk about how this was going to happen a lot in my life but I couldn’t let it stop me from having fun. A sermon I’ve had to deliver to my own siblings like the world’s saddest rite of passage – a gentle lecture, I naively once believed would be deemed unnecessary by the time it comes to my future children. If anything, it’s likely that if things continue this way, I’ll have to warn them that calling out racism might get them in more trouble than the occurring racism.
We have entered an era where being called a racist is a worse crime than actual racism. To be honest, I don’t know if we ever left it but things certainly feel more heightened with the advance of social media. Just like you can order a pizza or a taxi straight to your door with a click of a button, now a lazy racist can instantly fire off a few slurs and expletives into my inbox. The flip side of this is that social media is also my voice, since being a woman of colour means I have the superpower of invisibility in our world. So, I’m, like, stuck? I can log off but that doesn’t mean the abuse stops, which is something people who can delete these apps and return to a life relatively unchallenged should take into consideration.
I’ve seen this concept utilised in papers and in person where I’m asked to come on some show to discuss a news item only to end up having to defend my humanity against someone who thinks being racist is their constitutional right under the guise of free speech. And! I’m supposed to sit there and take it as some random guy who insists on putting the devil in “devil’s advocate” tries to tell me I’m playing the race card by asking people to not be racist. Love me some 4Chan logic.
Facts. They’re important and kind of the first rule of journalism, yet the British media is failing massively at upholding one simple tenant which is to tell the truth. Things are now racially tinged, racially adjacent but not racist. The goalposts of what is acceptable keeps shifting and minorities are the ones being punished because no one has the guts to challenge the narrative and call an orange spade a god damn spade.
Amna Saleem is a Scottish writer, broadcaster and author.