Writing on difficult subjects is always easier with a tea in hand. As I sit on the 12:04 train from Birmingham to Southampton Central, having just bought an overpriced English breakfast tea from the passing trolley, I am going to be tackling something which I’ve never written on before, but feel I can’t avoid any longer, especially given the current health crisis we find ourselves in… “casual” racism.
I have just seen 3 women, probably mid-to-late 30s, get up from a bench in Birmingham New Street Station where they were seated, lunch in laps and gossip in the air. Their abrupt rising from their seats occurred in perfect timing with the arrival of a young Chinese man, placing himself unassumingly at the end of their bench. Room was plentiful, and it was apparent he wouldn’t have been a trouble for noise or disruption. I wholeheartedly believe they stood up, in unison, and moved away to another seat, because of his race.
I was entirely ignorant to where he is from. Yet these women decided, that not only must he have a certain nationality, he must live there, or have lived there, have visited, or had visitors, and most importantly, must have Coronavirus. I see no other reason for why these women would have gotten up to move. They actually moved a bench with less space, and I rather enjoyed having to watch one of the perfectly pruned ladies have to put her Radley handbag on the floor as, alas, they didn’t have enough space for it! What a shame.
They were being racist. Unapologetically showing a dislike or prejudice towards someone because of their race. I worry this has become somewhat accepted. Normalised. Which is just not okay. I understand the fear and anxiety surrounding a virus that frankly, most of us don’t know a lot about. This “unknown” element makes it even more frightening. It’s like a ghost walking among us all. No one knows who might have it, or knows someone who might have it. Or who knows someone, who knows someone, who knows someone who might have it. But the fact of the matter is, it is no excuse to be racist. This man may never have visited the infected regions of China. He may never have visited China at all. He may not even identify as Chinese. The assumptions that must have been made in order for these women to decide that they know this man is infected are high in number and low in probability.
Oh how I wished I could have seen their faces and scorned, when the young man went to answer his phone and out came the most Liverpudlian accent I have ever heard. Imagine Steven Gerrard on steroids. That level of scouse. Therefore, I think I can now make the presumption that this guy was from Liverpool. His heritage to me is still unknown. Whether he has ever visited or has any connections with China are unknown. All I do know is that after witnessing it first hand, I will never treat someone based on their skin, their physical appearance, or their ethnicity.
He saw them move. His eyes followed their movements, from scrabbling up their belongings and moving to a different seat. His eye line then went down, and I could have sworn that I heard him sigh. Could just be me dramatizing in my head however, as this was like a piece of theatre: so excellently executed and brilliantly choreographed; they moved with synchronicity, gathering their M&S meal deal and barber coats.
I do not know these women. They could be lovely. There could have a completely plausible and logical reason for choosing to get up and move seats. But unfortunately, I think this is unlikely. What is even more unfortunate, is that I think if we are entirely honest, at one point in our lives we have all probably demonstrated casual racism at some level. Or casual homophobia. Something where we have passed judgement on someone, when it was not ours to give. Nor kind to do. We may have been aware of it or not. It may have been a look, an internal thought, a presumption or an action. I do not think this makes us all bad people, rather people who need, like most things, to think more about how our thoughts and actions affect others.