Friday, 2 August 2013

Racism

A few years ago, coming back from a holiday with my family, I was stopped at the UK border. When I handed my passport over to the UKBA official, he looked me up and down, studied my ID, and then looked at me again, with an air of quizzical superiority. He then looked at my mother, who was standing next to me, and who is white. I am half-Chinese; my father, who was not with us (my parents are divorced) is from Hong Kong.

"Can you tell me how you know this boy?" the official said over my head, to my mother.

"I'm sorry?" was my mother's rather shocked reply.

"What is your relation to him?"

"He's my son," my mum said.

"Can you prove that?"

To put it mildly, it is deeply unpleasant to stand in a busy public space, with other people staring at you and the people behind you in the queue listening in, while an intimidating man in uniform questions your mother in an officious and sceptical tone and refers to you as nothing more than "this boy". I'm used to odd glances. My mum is white, my step-father is, so are my two little (half) sisters. I see people looking over, slightly bemused, when we're out as a family, no doubt a question along the lines of "why is that Asian boy with that white family?" floating about in their heads. I've grown accustomed to it. Now, in this moment, it was amplified. And my little sisters, too little to understand divorce and remarriage, and too little to have ever questioned or wondered why my skin and my surname were different to theirs, were now, for the very first time, being alerted to the fact that I was Other.

"What do you mean can I prove it?" my mother said, becoming increasingly ticked off.

"Do you have his birth certificate?" the official asked plainly.

This may shock you, but it hadn't occurred to us to pack my birth certificate. The official was told as much, and I was then informed that I may have to be detained (yes, detained) until such a time as my relation to these white people could be verified and my right to be in the United Kingdom established. At this point my parents were quite angry, and I was quite upset. Eventually, after liaising with his colleagues and asking us a few more questions, it was agreed that my family and I would be allowed to pass through the border this time, but next time we "should really carry all the necessary papers".

The UK is fast becoming a very scary place to be a person of colour. This happened to me, as I've said, a few years ago. A few years ago also, @SandiaElectrica experienced another despicable instance of racial profiling, this time on public transport, and this time carried out by the police (on the behalf, lest we forget, of the government), which you can and should read about here. The situation is getting worse. There have been many more reports of similar cases of racial profiling and interrogation. Then there is the furore surrounding what have been rightly dubbed the "racist vans", which inform "illegal immigrants" they should "GO HOME OR FACE ARREST". And yesterday on Twitter, there was an angry backlash against @ukhomeoffice's latest vulgar, xenophobic and disturbing use of the social media platform, as they told their followers how many "#immigrationoffenders" had been arrested today, even providing a few pixelated photographs to really put the tasteful cherry on the sickeningly bigoted cake. This is all happening, of course, against a backdrop of rising popularity for UKIP, a surge in EDL activities, an increasingly divisive and insidious public discourse and the political elite's shameful acceptance and propagation of racist terms of debate.

On a personal level, the number of instances of everyday racism which I've experienced have grown rapidly. It used not to happen that much (let me stress, that much). Nowadays, I know that if I go on a night out, at least one stranger will at some point throw a racist comment in my face ("Look it's Gok Wan!", "Look it's Psy!" "Look it's Jackie Chan!", "Can you do Kung Fu?", "Do you like sushi?", all of these things have been said to me at some point). One of the worst experiences occurred when I was walking alone late at night through suburban Liverpool, on my way to a friend's house. As I passed a bus stop a teenager started loudly and obnoxiously doing his idea of an "impression" of a Chinese/generically Southeast Asian person. His mates laughed. I wanted to say something but I was alone, it was dark, and quite honestly, I was scared. So I put my head down and carried on walking.

The experience of being racially profiled, of being targeted because of the colour of your skin and your funny-sounding name, be it by an immigration official, a person in a club, or a teenager at a bus stop, is awful. When it happens to me, I immediately feel ashamed, small and worthless. I am reduced to physical appearance, and I know the person who is doing the reducing is also attaching a plethora of cultural and social stereotypes to me, they are assuming they know who I am and they are judging me. Sometimes - often - ridiculing and attacking me on that basis.

The point is, casual racism in day-to-day life, the spread of insular, xenophobic right-wing political groups and the activities of the Home Office, the police, the government and the political establishment at large, are all inextricably linked. The growth of one facilitates the growth of the other, in a poisonous downward spiral hurtling towards - and I do not use this word lightly - fascism.

We absolutely must not accept the current environment, and we must challenge it whenever and wherever possible. That's easier said than done, but it's essential that we try. For the first time in my life I am wondering whether I still want to call the United Kingdom my home, and I will admit I am more conscious now than I have ever been about my race. I shouldn't have to feel that way, and nor should anybody else.

On the way back home from the airport that day I was reeling after what had just happened to me. An official, a responsible man in uniform, the kind of person I had been brought up to respect and trust, had spoken about me like I was an object, an alien. He'd interrogated my mother about how she knew me, and in the process made me feel further away and more cut off from her and my family than the different shades of our skin had ever done. Was I, from now on, always going to be looked upon suspiciously, on account of my race? Was that the country we lived in?

The next time we went on holiday, we took my birth certificate.