The truth about racism in London
The capital is full of micro-populations that love to loathe one another.
Last December, I bought a seven-foot Christmas tree from a local grocery store in North London. I asked the owner if one of his staff could help me load it into my car. He volunteered one of his strong-looking relatives. As he hoisted the tree over his shoulder and strode off, I asked where he was from. ‘From Turkey’, he said. Given that many of the groceries nearby are owned by hardworking Kurdish families, I asked, smiling, ‘Are you Kurdish?’. ‘Not Kurdish!’, he said. ‘Kurdish very bad people. We don’t like Kurdish people. Very bad, bad people.’
Suddenly he looked at me directly and, noting my dark olive skin, demanded to know if I was Kurdish. ‘I’m not Kurdish’, I told him, choosing not to mention that my maternal grandfather was indeed Kurdish.
My attempt at rapport-building with the young Turkish man had clearly gone badly. Still, I wasn’t shocked at his sentiments, but I was a bit surprised at him voicing them in the pleasant and enlightened environs of Crouch End in late 2019.
I don’t know for certain if it ever will be thus. But I do know that it was ever so – or at least it has been during my half-century lifespan living in a London full of micro-populations that often tolerate each other at best, and, at worst, engage in actual gang warfare.
I grew up on a council estate in Hackney. We were a Jewish family (yes, a very poor Jewish family – my folks never got the memo), and our estate was mostly white English and Irish, with a mix of many other minority groups. Racism was rife. I was spat at and called a ‘dirty Jew’. My brother got beaten up a few times, and we had to endure swastikas painted on our front door.
A couple of streets away was a large Orthodox Jewish community. The hatred I often saw meted out to them was blatant. ‘Dirty rich Jews’ was heard so regularly that I began to wonder if my parents were hiding money somewhere. It’s also where I learned to be selective in revealing too much when strangers asked me where I was from, or if I was Greek or Turkish. ‘I’m English’, I would sometimes reply. ‘You don’t look English’, my interlocutor would say. The more he or she insisted I wasn’t English, the more stubborn I became. If I said my dad was from Aden, my questioner would say he’d never heard of it, and if I said it was now part of Yemen, he would say he’d never heard of there either. But I would always be asked if I wanted to go back there, with the implication that I didn’t belong here.
What is interesting is that – with the exception of the swastikas – much of the spitting, beating up and vicious name-calling was not from white English people. Some of it was, of course. But, increasingly, it would come from people who could, like me, be categorised as ‘BAME’.
Categorisation is something I have always railed against. All my life I’ve absolutely hated having assumptions made about me, and being pigeonholed on the mere basis of some idiot knowing one single characteristic about my ‘identity’. And now, unsurprisingly perhaps, I equally hate identity politics and identitarianism. Ever since I can remember, when asked to tick the box on forms to specify my ethnicity, I’ve added ‘human’ to the list, drawn my own little box next to it, and ticked that.
As I entered my teenage years, I hung around mainly with black teenagers. My first boyfriend was black. The only overt criticism I ever received was from black girls. A few times I was told I was the wrong colour to be going out with a black boy.
One time, a Jamaican girl, who was a few years older than me, and known to be very angry and violent, marched up to me and threatened to beat me up. I was terrified. A few months later, while walking along the street, I was suddenly shoved hard from behind and fell to the floor. It was the Jamaican girl. Although I had been terrified ever since she first threatened me, the suddenness of her attack provoked something within me and I really went for her. Suffice to say, she never bothered me again.
So I’ve experienced a lot of racism in my life from people of all hues. I’ve been hissed at by black girls when I’ve tried to sit next to them on a bus. I’ve been refused service by a black man in Ridley Road market in Dalston – he actually said to me, ‘I don’t serve white people’. I’ve been spat at by white neo-Nazis. I’ve even been told to ‘fuck off back to Malta’ by a policeman – which I thought was impressively random. And I’ve heard people, mostly BAME, slagging off ‘them Jews’ to me, not knowing I myself am Jewish.
My father, who is very dark-skinned, has been called a ‘fucking Paki’, mugged, ‘steamed’ and attacked by an impressive variety of different-looking assailants. Violence, ignorance and hatred seem to be admirably multicultural. My dad, whoever he was assaulted or abused by, would just shrug his shoulders philosophically and, in his heavily accented English, say: ‘These bloody stupid ones.’
‘Bloody foreigner’ was such a common thing to hear some white people mutter at the slightest perceived provocation that it became a funny cliche. It was funnier still when uttered by immigrants themselves of other immigrants, without any trace of irony.
What I learned during my teenage years was this: Turkish people didn’t like Greek people; black Caribbean people didn’t like black African people; Northerners didn’t like Southerners; people from North London didn’t like people from South London; and, of course, in the words of Tom Lehrer’s song ‘National Brotherhood Week’, ‘everyone hates the Jews’.
What I am struggling to understand at the moment is why white people are getting all the blame for racism. One thing all of us estate kids had in common was that we were at the bottom of the heap. We were the kids who got kicked out of school (I was expelled three times); the kids who got pregnant in our teens (my sister did at 17); the kids who left school with nothing. The white kids on the estate were no more privileged than us BAME kids. They had no more or no less power. Money and social class have always been the key determinants of success, not ethnicity.
My parents each left school when they were 13. They married when my mother was 17, and emigrated to London to be housed in a refuge when she was 18 and pregnant. And, like virtually all other cultural groups, including the white working classes, they gravitated to areas where there were people like them. People just like them. And that is why London is full of cultural ghettos. People gravitate towards their own. The food, the language, the religion, the music, the culture, the look, the prejudices, the mutual understanding. For all these reasons and more, immigrants flock to build their new nests where others from their native lands have already built theirs.
This is not news. Anyone who’s grown up in London will know which ethnicities dominate which neighbourhoods and areas. What we don’t talk about much – or confront – is the enmity, bitterness, racism and hatred that many minority ethnic groups have for one another.
It isn’t just white British people who are hostile, suspicious and resentful of people ‘not like them’. Those people ‘not like them’ are ‘just like them’ in exactly the same ‘racist’ way, venting their spleen against other minority groups for trying to muscle in on more than their share of the British cake.
As someone from an ethnic minority, Britain does not seem to me to be a ‘systemically racist country’. On the whole, it is a bloody brilliant place for us bloody foreigners. Of course, there are white British racists. Loads of them, in fact. But I’ve received just as much racist abuse from non-whites. And I’ve also suffered racism on my travels, from Egypt to Italy. Racism is a worldwide problem. There are ‘bloody stupid ones’ everywhere, and they come in every colour, hue and shade.
Class, not race, is the issue we still try to avoid. Elitism, nepotism, money – and the confidence that goes with them – form the real privileges. We children of poor, uneducated immigrants are at a disadvantage. We haven’t had the luxury of parents who are well-connected, or of families who have established themselves and who can show us the way. I’m not sure either of my parents ever knew what a university was. Nobody carved out a path or network for us. We haven’t landed or been handed properties or titles. We were working class and poor, and nobody likes you when you’re poor, whatever your colour. Of course there is racism in Britain, but trust me, as an olive-skinned, born-and-bred Londoner, when I say that it emanates from ‘bloody stupid ones’ of all colours and creeds.
People in my neighbourhood are now congregating en masse to bend their knees and display their lack of prejudice and their solidarity with BAME people. I wonder what they would say about the young Turkish man who vehemently expressed his hatred of Kurdish people to me? And I wonder if they would tell me off for culturally appropriating a Christmas tree?
Misha Mansoor is a writer based in London.