Sela Musa | Student Writer
Questions asked by friends, friend’s parents, store owners, strangers, teachers, bartenders, airport security, and random people on trains.
I had my first – and, luckily, only – notable experience of racism when I was seventeen, learning to drive, when I forgot to indicate before I turned left. A man driving in the opposite lane rolled down his window and shouted ‘p*ki’ out of it. Since then, it has always been less, should we say, explicit.
For me, airports are like these abstract, transitional chasms, riddled with so much embarrassment, anxiety, and the potential for so much to go wrong. From the moment of entrance, it becomes a countdown until when you get to not act five times more careful than usual, or say thank you, excuse me, sorry, thank you, a frustrating number of times. I have never known what it feels like to not have to worry about going through security and getting stopped for absolutely no reason, or getting my passport glared at for a few more excruciatingly long seconds than the person before me. Or, more generally, when I plan to go away, I don’t know what it’s like to not have to consider the chance, that slight chance, that I might not even make it there to begin with.
This one year, I was going away with my family and we were having lunch in one of those cafes in the airport where there’s about ten seats which are painfully close together. We finished eating our sandwiches, and my sister said, “I’m so full I could explode,” attracting a scrutinising, bullet of a stare from the security officers eating lunch on the next table. It was the kind of glare where it seems that someone has made it their purpose to let you know that they’ve stripped you down in their head and left you at your most vulnerable. She was talking about a sandwich. Then again, it might have been a weird thing to say that she was going to “explode”. In fact, I can appreciate that airports generally are likely to be targets for crime so, fair enough, maybe it was an odd choice of words from my sister. After all, the same thing happens in an episode of Miranda when she says, out of annoyance, “I swear, I will blow!” and the security officers tackle her to the floor of the airport. So, yes, maybe someone will be inclined to say that I made this a race issue when it isn’t because there’s a middle-aged, white comedian who triggered an even more dramatic response in her show.
But the point is, how will I ever know? How will I know that the security officers looked over at us just because my sister chose to make a strange statement in an airport, of all places. How will I know that the reason I got stopped in security was because the metal detector picked up my belly button piercing, and not because I’m darker than some of the people around me. This is the point. Racism is not just isolated events of directed hatred and discrimination, like when I was learning to drive; it is eternal, unbearable, fatiguing self-questioning. Yes, I made a small incident in the airport a race issue, of course I made it a race issue, because as a woman in the BAME community I have grown up my whole life not knowing how to not consider that most interactions are a race issue. This is not melodrama or hysteria; it is the reality of growing up not white.
This uncertainty and everlasting self-scrutinising fuels itself in so many other areas of daily life. It was there when I won a poetry competition a few years ago and I couldn’t quite silence that slight nagging in my head, that whisper of a wonder as to whether my non-English, uncommon name was selected to win to help the company meet a diversity criteria. It’s being put on the frontpage of a school prospectus, it’s having my school photo plastered on the back of a bus, and obviously considering the possibility that my main relevance there is the boosting of diversity. Growing up as a non-white person is a spinning cycle of questioning your own achievements, asking did I actually deserve that? Underneath the almost comical joke of being used for diversity, the bitterness is still there and, again, how could it not be when my sixth form really did saturate school photos to make me look darker, and my friends lighter? Say I made it a race issue for no reason, but I will never know if it isn’t one.
Nevertheless, I can live with all of this. I can deal with a few hours of heightened anxiety whenever I go on holiday and I can ignore that little voice which questions whether I’m only important to let someone meet a criterion. I can even base my holidays around my sister’s experiences with racism, like when a club in Germany let all of her white friends in and not her, and I can start checking TripAdvisor reviews, just like she does, to make sure that I can get in to places. The unbearable, agonising part I can’t handle is the realisation of the choices I make as an impressionable young woman who still fears racism. It’s the moment of guilt that floods me when I realise that I prefer the photos I look less saturated in. It’s admitting that I used to constantly dye my already-black hair even darker because, yes, I did love jet black hair, but I also knew it made my face look lighter in contrast. It was when I was in hospital the other week and the doctors told me that the anaemia would make me look paler, and I remember my first thought being that this definitely isn’t a bad thing. These are the kind of decisions I made which racked me with guilt because I knew that, in changing myself to meet the ‘standards’, I helped set them.
The point is, I would be lying if I said that my skin colour is always one of the most prominent things on my mind. It isn’t. In fact, something rarely happens which makes me think oh, that’s because I’m brown. Instead, there is just a distant nagging, so quiet I sometimes don’t even know it’s there, which blends in with the background noise of daily life, and that is always on my mind. I mentioned that I am lucky to have only had one experience of explicit racism in my life, but there is nothing lucky about that. On the contrary, how unlucky that BAME people consider themselves lucky to not experience direct attacks of racism in their day-to-day life.