This was first published as a post on Facebook on 5 May 2021.
Yesterday, I was called a “Covid Gibbon” by a man on the street, as I ran past on my way to work.
Racist epithets and abuse have followed me around my whole life; insults like this aren’t new. Yet surely that, in itself, is the worst inkblot in the copybook of human progress. How is it possible that I can live in a world where man has walked on the moon, where the internet has made information hugely more accessible, and yet I still can’t travel from my home to the office without someone I don’t even know deciding it’s OK to launch into a foul-mouthed tirade because of the colour of my skin?
I ignored the guy yelling, kept my head down, and kept moving. Being insulted is nothing new, and my reaction is a learned reflex stretching back almost forty years; it is the same lesson learned by my parents.
My father was expelled from Uganda in 1972, he and his family victims of rampant Indophobia. Indians in Uganda were accused of making no effort to integrate into society, and of engaging in dubious manipulation of many sectors of the Ugandan economy; it was a repackaging of the same myths perpetuated against the Jews some forty years earlier in Nazi Germany. Persecution, it seems, is a cultural burden, passed from father to son as naturally as hair or eye colour, but devoid of any benefit. We - the victims - carry it, unblinking, because that is all we know. Our upbringing is a litany of maxims designed to anaesthetise us against the continual erosion of our spirit: “sticks and stones”; “keep your head down, work hard, make your own success”; “there is no point fighting back”.
They don’t work.
In my silence I am complicit: I allow the insults to go unsanctioned, emboldening the insulter. Worse still, if it looks like I’m not reacting, those of you who might otherwise have my back are free to ignore it too, because I’ve duped you into thinking, “it’s no big deal”, that, “he’s not bothered”. Uncomfortable truth: it’s a huge deal. I am bothered. I do hurt, I do suffer. But I do it on the inside, hidden from worldview: I’ve been taught that is what we’re supposed to do.
Is this really the stratagem that we deserve? Am I really expected to take these lessons, those of my parents, and of theirs before them, and repackage them ready to be delivered to my children? I refuse to believe that the best ideas of the best of us can do no better than this obsequious surrender. I am determined that my daughter and son inherit a place in the world where they have the confidence to push back against those who think it is OK to treat their background like some kind of ethnographic yoke used to hold them back, to keep them down.
So from now on, when someone is being racist, I intend to call it out. When someone yells at me in the street, I will meet their words with my own and challenge their authority to treat me this way. And to you, my friends: I beseech you to do the same, even if it is not you on the receiving end. I need your help; we all do.
PS: gibbons are awesome. So fuck you, you dickhead.