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.

24 comments:

john b said...

Just to confirm (I'm pretty sure I know the answer and want to punch some walls and/or UKBA agents), your passport clearly states that you a British citizen born in the UK, right?

Sam Liu said...

It does. I am UK citizen, I was born and have always lived here, don't have dual nationality, and my passport clearly states as much.

john b said...

Thanks. Sorry for even asking. I just... aagh.

Unknown said...

The airport example you give - I understand that must have been unpleasant. But questioning adults and children like that is how child traffickers get stopped. How else would they do it? Border officials work on gut, mainly and it works. They also work on experience. Lots of kids being trafficked from Nigeria = they are extra vigilant with Nigerian flights. Do you think they should stop questioning people for fear of being branded racists? And if you think they should stop questioning people like you or your mother, how are they to tell the difference between you and a trafficker? I don't doubt that people being racist is utterly shitty and completely inexcusable. But I thought it was worth pointing out the trafficking stuff as that is what immediately sprung to mind with your story.

Sam Liu said...

You raise a good & valuable point, but the manner in which we were interrogated was horrible and that I was told I could be detained, as you can imagine, made me feel terrible. There is surely a better way to deal with this issue than quizzing every mixed-race family in such an unpleasant manner. We've been to other airports & not had this trouble.

Aoife.Troxel said...

The nest time you travelled did you get questioned and have to show your birth certificate?
I hadn't realised that this stuff was going on in the UK, so thank you for sharing.

Unknown said...

Well, no, there isn't a better way of dealing with it. Trafficking is an international problem that sadly not everyone internationally does enough about. Officers work on gut and instinct and like I said with the Nigeria example, a bit of 'profiling'. A few years ago there were lots of Chinese children being trafficked. More recently, Vietnam. I obviously don't know the manner in which you were spoken to, but in my experience lots of these officers are very pleasant, good people. I'm sorry you had a bad experience.

john b said...

Unknown: no, you're absolutely gaslighting here. Border workers work on bigotry, and it doesn't work. Trafficking is run by people of the same race as the person being trafficked, in much the same way that drug smugglers tend not to wear smiley-face t-shirts and LEGALISE THE HERB necklaces.

Sam: I'm impressed you're being so polite to someone who's raising known vile racist tropes with absolutely no justification.

Unknown said...

Not all trafficking works like that, no. I'm not excusing racism or gaslighting, just giving a bit of context to this one example, set at the airport. Out of interest, do you think border officials shouldn't question anyone? What could they do instead?

Sam Liu said...

John b: Thanks, I try my best to keep things as civil as poss. I've heard things like you said, Unknown, in the past many times but I think john B is right. I refuse to accept there isn't a better way. The temptation is to use the 'one bad apple' defence, but I think recent controversies surrounding the police & the press show just how shallow that argument is.

Aoife.Troxel: It hasn't happened again yet, but we've only been on holiday together twice since this incident. Thanks for reading & for your comment.

john b said...

Unknown: I think that if a white lady with a UK passport brings a mixed-race child with a UK passport through customs, they should be treated exactly the same as a white lady bringing a white child, and that treating those two situations as any different is vile racism.

The reason I think this is because I'm not a racist. The reason you and your colleagues disagree is because you are. It is unfortunate that you are the people making the decisions.

john b said...

For posterity, I should note that 'unknown' is actually a (now former) friend who doesn't work at UKBA; I apologise for jumping to the obvious conclusion.

Paul Perrin (@pperrin) said...

Don't blame UKIP - UKIP's main objection is open borders with the EU - admitting the good, the bad and the very bad.

It is LibLabCon's commitment to these open borders (to these mainly white EU people) that leads them to crack down on non-whites - regardless of value to the UK.

Sam Liu said...

Paul: I *will* blame UKIP, they are a party who actively encourage the sort of bigotry & small-mindedness I'm against and they are manifestation of the increasingly hostile and xenophobic climate in the UK.

I'll be honest, I don't quite know where to start with this: "It is LibLabCon's commitment to these open borders (to these mainly white EU people) that leads them to crack down on non-whites - regardless of value to the UK."

If you actually believe this I can but admire the gigantic leaps of logic you must be capable of. I will ask you though to please not use the term "non-whites" in this comments section. I am not a "non-white". Please do not define me and others as little more than a negation of your skin colour. Thanks.

Paul Perrin (@pperrin) said...

Sam - you want to watch that prejudice streak of yours - thats the root or racsism.

Mat said...

Sometimes people who feel they are victims of racism tend to be very intolerant, suspecting everyone who have a different opinions than theirs of racism. No matter the color or the language, we all deserves to be treated equally.

sandythesquirr said...

Was it at Heathrow Airport, Sam?

sandythesquirr said...

UKIP... Conservatives...EDL.. BNP.. all the same. I will not vote for any of them next election that's for sure. Labour isn't great but I will vote them next if there aren't any better alternatives.

I don't find Sam's words biased at all. He is not at all being intolerant of people with different opinions. I think what he says echoes what I've heard from many of my contacts - a very true representation of what many ethnic minorities feel these days.

In London police have been unlawfully stopping people who look non-white on the streets and demanding they produce passports or the like. Three years ago, a friend who is a legit resident here, married to a Swede, got stopped this way when she was on the way to work. She is East Asian in appearance. Lucky she was savvy enough to challenge the policeman on the spot. See, if you have not committed any crime and if the policeman did not see you commit any crime, they have no legal right to stop you from going about your business. They have no right to detain you basically. The policeman let her go after being challenged.

sandythesquirr said...

Racial profiling is ILLEGAL in this country under the Equalities Act. Challenge it if it happens to you.

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Gary Tse said...

Thanks for sharing. I don't quite understand - when passing through immigration - did you and your mum not go to the desk one by one? Plenty of Chinese people go through daily without much problem. Your mother was behind you, rather than next to you?

You should complain...

John said...

I am sorry about your experience but racism is more complex - see Modern Racism.

Alissa Meredith Jill Osborn Schapiro said...

stay cool.

Life@Cee said...

There is no shortage of stupidity in the world. I'm saddened that you are experiencing so much of it first hand.