A Journey Into The Dark Heart Of British Racism, Past And Present
For an Indian growing up in the UK in the 1960s, racism was an everyday experience ranging from schoolyard taunts to threats of violence and persecution. And with the recent revelations of abuse suffered by Pakistan-born cricket star Azeem Rafiq, overt racism is still very much alive. in British society.
LONDON — Azeem Rafiq’s recent disclosures about the racist taunts endured during his years as a first class English cricketer are as revealing about how some deeply ingrained prejudices still prevail as they are instructive about changing national attitudes of recent times.
Off spinner Rafiq is 30 year old, so may not appreciate the deeper and wider context of racism that has flourished for the past half century and more. Apologists would certainly argue that racism has abated in recent years and that many in the white majority are less willing to tolerate the questionable standards of earlier times. Certainly, Blacks and Asians today are present and more welcome than ever before in advertising, entertainment, the media and even front rank politics where an ethnic Indian, Rishi Sunak, is routinely touted as a possible future prime minister.
Born in Pakistan, Rafiq, who once captained Yorkshire, has described how he came close to suicide after being being repeatedly subject to pejorative slurs as an "elephant washer" and "Paki". It took Yorkshire more than a year to acknowledge that Rafiq had been a “victim of racial harassment and bullying”. The club has since been suspended from hosting international cricket games “until it has clearly demonstrated that it can meet the standards expected”.
India during colonial rule
I was born in an independent India, a few years after the country’s former colonial masters had been sent back to their white homelands in Western Europe. So whatever remote comprehension of British racism I had as a young boy was drawn from stories told by my grandmother, Pooran Devi, who had two sons (one was my father) and a daughter.
Father joined the British army in 1941, rising to the rank of a Lieutenant Colonel and serving in Egypt, Iraq and Burma where his military supremo was Field Marshal Slim. Pooran Devi described Slim as a "good man" — because my father said so — but she had other less flattering comments about bigotry in the army.
One of her more bleak stories was about father’s experience at Calcutta railway station as he embarked on a two-week leave from the Burma front.
The train had barely started to move and he was not aware of travelling in a segregated carriage until a lower ranking white major entered, ignored Dad’s uniform and ordered him to leave. “Indians and British don’t travel together” was the justification for his peremptory command.
Granny had happier recollections about Edwina Mountbatten, the wife of the viceroy, to whom father was assigned as an aide-de-camp in 1946. On one occasion, he was assigned to accompany Lady Mountbatten to a function at the Royal Bengal Club.
Lady Mountbatten was duly welcomed upon arrival, but father was prevented from entering because “kaleh aadmi” (Black men) were banned. To her everlasting credit, an enraged Lady Mountbatten instantly cancelled her participation in the event by turning on her heels and taking my father out to a private lunch somewhere else in the city.
My chief tormentor was the son of a prominent British diplomat and ex-colonial administrator.
Pooran Devi summed it all up for herself by describing most white British colonials as “moyeh” (dead men) and “haraam zadeh” (children of sin). She was just as suspicious of the young English boy who was my best friend at primary school in New Delhi and carried a "golliwog" rag doll with him everywhere he went. This doll, so my ever sensitive granny insisted, was meant to be a caricature of all Indians.
By today’s standards, Pooran Devi’s expectations might be summed up as "eccentric", but in her time she was typical of a generation that never forgave and never forgot the racism and other humiliations indelibly linked with white colonial rule.
Overt racism at school
Some of granny’s warnings may have lurked in my sub-conscious when I arrived from India at my liberal English boarding school in Berkshire in the mid 1960s. But my own intrinsic stupidity delayed my understanding the insulting context of key words like "wog" so freely bandied at the school and beyond.
An obvious explanation suggested it was an abbreviation for golliwog. Fellow students laughingly translated it as “wily oriental gentleman”, a calculatedly offensive reference to those eager-to-please Blacks and Asians with thick colonial accents who tried so hard to integrate with the white majority.
Among the more progressive of those young friends was the school’s only Jew. One day, when he saw me fuming in response to a "wog" taunt, he tried to make things better by saying, “At least they don’t call you a "yid"." For the next half hour he then educated me in Biblical history, adding how "yid" was a deliberately humiliating abbreviation for Yiddish, the language spoken by some Jews of Eastern Europe.
During those school days in England, my chief tormentor was the son of a prominent British diplomat and ex-colonial administrator. He was the leader of the gang that spontaneously started singing Bing Crosby’s “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas” every time they came across me at classroom lessons and open sporting events.
Back home in Delhi one winter vacation, it was my mother who alerted me to the significance of that Bing Crosby song when I responded to her request about describing day-to-day life in Reading. “Stupid boy, don’t you realize they’re taunting you,” was her annoyed comment.
Overt racism was mercifully absent from the college rooms and lecture halls of my university years. But there were plenty of off-campus reminders, such as the "golli" logo associated with Robertson’s marmalade and jams. The jam is still available although the logo was axed in 2008.
As offensive was the Black and White Minstrel show projected on BBC television. This was a hugely popular programme where white male actors wearing white gloves and black make up performed American minstrel and country songs. Years of protesting by anti-racism campaigners finally resulted in the show being cancelled in 1978.
Robertson’s Jam jar circa 1970.
"Blacks, Chinks and Indians not welcome"
Face-to-face racism was a daily fact of life in 1976 Swansea where the Western Mail newspaper sent me for training as a district reporter. This was meant to be a three-month stint when the newspaper paid for the first two weeks of living in a local hotel. Everything went as planned and there was no shortage of stories to report.
Problems only started when those free two weeks of hotel life ended and l tried and failed to find a room to rent. As I didn’t drive in those days, the idea was to rent a room within walking distance of our office. Plenty of rooms were available but the signs on the big windows of letting houses had messages like “Blacks, dogs and Indians not welcome”. Some of those signs had cancelled and substituted the word “dogs” for “chinks”, an ethnic slur for Chinese or East Asian people. They read “Blacks, Chinks and Indians not welcome”.
I still persisted in looking for accommodation, even trying to mix attempted personal charm with newly acquired Welsh words like “Yaki Dah” (cheers) when I was turned away, but nothing worked. During those cold Swansea mornings spent searching for a room to rent, I remember thinking how little had changed in more than 30 years and how the rage and frustration I tasted was a match for my father’s Calcutta experience.
To this day, the memory of those months spent in Swansea still rankles. Not many horrors endured in later years ever matched the humiliation of trying and failing to rent a room in that Welsh city.
My calculation at the time was that contacting headquarters in Cardiff to explain this inability to rent a room amounted to an admission of professional failure. How would the news editor have reacted? “You call yourself a reporter and you can’t even rent a room?”
In the event, I was saved from last minute embarrassment by a kind hotel manager — white and Welsh — who heard my tale of woe and generously invited me to stay on in his hotel at the same lower rate as renting a room in the city centre.
Escaping a mob in Belfast
Yet Swansea was nothing compared to a later experience: covering the Orange Day marches of Belfast in 1983. Those marches commemorate the centuries-old tradition of celebrating the victory of Protestant forces against Britain’s last surviving Catholic monarch, James II. But the marches are also about how Protestant-dominated Northern Ireland is determined to remain part of the UK.
All this and more was explained to me before flying out of London to Belfast where the office checked me into a good-quality local hotel famous for its bar and breakfasts. Yet nothing prepared me for what happened the following day when I arrived at my vantage point on the main road to witness what was about to start. One other reporter, a Catholic from the Dublin-based Irish Times, was nearby.
How wrong I was.
The march organizers seemed never to have encountered a brown face before and when I took out my pen and notebook to jot down immediate impressions, the leader of one march pointed in my direction, shouting, “grab the N*****.”
My savior that day, to whom I remain forever indebted, was the reporter from the Irish Times. It was he who grabbed my arm and pushed us both under the counter of a nearby local grocery as the Orange Day mob outside paced the pavement baying for my blood.
We must have spent 20 minutes crouching there in fear until the leaders of the march got bored of trying to find us and went somewhere else.
Some of that panic was conveyed to my white English girlfriend, later my wife, who shared our flat in the London suburb of Islington. She still remembers the late-night telephone call from Belfast telling her what had happened earlier that day.
One possible benefit of those miserable times — or so my wife tells me 40 years later — was that it toughened me up for later experiences of reporting deadly foreign conflicts. To be tracked by the secret police of multiple countries in the Middle East and South Asia, to be taken hostage in Afghanistan, or survive a mine blast in Sudan was almost as deadly as the earlier humiliations of living in racist Swansea and surviving in equally racist Belfast.
A final memorable experience as a visiting Fleet Street staffer was reporting the Commonwealth summit from Edinburgh in 1997. A local reporter pestered me to go out with him for an early evening drink in a beautifully-decorated pub nearby while the summit was still in progress. He was in his 20s, born in Edinburgh, and a recent university graduate.
A reasonable assumption was that he wanted to absorb any available insights about the negotiations underway at the summit. After all, as a London-based journalist, I had easy access to briefings given by experts from the Foreign Office. Even better, visiting Indian Prime Minister Inder Gujral was a family friend and willing to share his thoughts about all topics under discussion.
How wrong I was. To start with, my host and colleague only wanted to talk about his expert knowledge of Scottish history. Then, when we had barely touched the first sip of the only pint that evening, he launched the question that would have earned him my granny’s "haram zada" abuse.
Looking me straight in the face, he asked with a look of contempt, “How did you of all people get such a great job as this?”
Much has changed since then, but judging from Rafiq’s experiences, the current crop of South Asian and Black cricketers in the UK have every reason to stay alert.
*Shyam Bhatia is an Indian-born British journalist, writer and war reporter based in London.