by Aisha Mirza
In 2001 I was sent to my first day of secondary school with the instruction that I am clever and beautiful and that if anyone hits me I am to hit them back ten times harder. Survival knowledge. But I still close my eyes during battle scenes. You know. I don’t like violence, I don’t choose it. It makes me feel sick. In fact, I still haven’t watched the video of the McDonald’s employees beating a man who called them “fucking pakis” while they were at work last Saturday night. I haven’t watched it because I do not want to expose myself to the physical attack, nor have to endure the psychic violence of witnessing racial abuse…again. I haven’t watched it, because I don’t need to see it to know they are heroes.
When I first heard this had happened, streets away from where I had gone to school in Bow, a heavily South Asian part of London, I felt simultaneously exhilarated by the bravery of these men, and guilty for feeling that way. I forced myself to mask my happiness that a racist has had his comeuppance by making excuses for him. He was drunk. Maybe his wife had just left him. Maybe his dog had just died.
I instinctively put myself in the white man’s shoes because that is what people of colour, particularly women, are taught to do. We are taught to make sure the whiteness around us is always comfortable, even when it makes us uncomfortable, even when we are in danger, even when it comes into our place of work, baying for our blood, screeching so loudly our ancestors are woken. I feel guilty for my joy, and then I remember that there is nothing scarier than an angry white man.
It seems that for the most part we can all agree that racism, explicit or not, is “bad” and “sad” and tut, tut, “very unsavory”. However, there is a reluctance in discourse to see it as violence, indeed, a type of violence that wounds and tears and leaves scars buried so deep you cannot see them, so complex that when they do burrow to the surface, no-one has any idea where to fucking start. But it’s OK, because sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me, right?
The reluctance to acknowledge non-physical forms of violence makes sense. To do so would force all of us, who think we are pretty good people because we haven’t punched anyone in a while, to dig a little deeper. To accept all racism as violence would also categorize the actions of the staff in McDonald’s that night as self defense. But those men are not allowed that dignity.
There is a racialised mental health crisis in the UK, whereby people of colour have acutely increased challenges to their mental health, and less access to support. Yet somehow in “detained populations”, people of colour are massively over-represented, with compulsory admission rates, specifically of Black people, to inpatient psychiatric units, almost three times greater than those of white patients. In other words, we must deal with our pain respectfully, or get locked up.
To me those men are heroes because they didn’t suffer in silence, or “do the right thing”. In every news report I have read, the white man’s violent behaviour has been “alleged”, his “racism” in air quotes. This is part of the centuries-old project of colonial disbelief and denial of race-based oppression that keeps people of colour stifled, doubtful, behaving. Just last week two Muslim women in London had their hijabs pulled off by men in public, with no-one stepping in to help. The men in McDonald’s are heroes for drawing a line in the sand. They are heroes for providing catharsis for all the black and brown people who can’t fight back. They are heroes because they will suffer for this, and they are heroes because that white man will not try that shit again.
Welcome to the front line of racism in 2016. Talking is really nice, conflict resolution is really cute, but it is not our job, as the receptacles of racist violence, whether physical, verbal or silent, to make the redemption process creative or fun for you. It is the white person’s job to simply not do it in the first place. Until then, people of colour have a right to self-defense in a world where no one else is going to stand up for us.
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Aisha Mirza is a writer and counselor from London living in New York. You can see more of her work at www.aishamirza.net