I still remember the exact moment, over ten years ago, when I was called a ‘chinky bitch’. I remember the toxicity snaking through the smile of the perpetrator, not much older than me, as he cycled around me, my apologetic face truly sorry for crossing the road without seeing him. I remember the moment he looked back to make sure he’d delivered the fatal blow and I’d received it.
I pretended not to have heard, but he could probably see it in the way my wavy face began to panic, all affected. I don’t know if it upset me as much as punctured an innocent, wide-eyed part of me. After that, it was hard to fill it back up, keep the air in.
From that moment on, I started to notice that race was often pointedly used as a prefix, just the thing to twist the knife into an insult already sharp enough. Of course, there are plenty of incidences where the focal point is the race, and the secondary word – think ‘asshole’, or any other pejorative term – acts just as an after thought, something to hold the insult together. That’s racism in its purist form, an attack about race. But in lots of circumstances, when you’ve done something that’s affected someone, whether intentionally or not, they seem to believe that calling upon your race will double the power of their already-decided unkind words. It seems the racial slur aims to punch even harder than the punch line itself.
We have a lot of questions to both ask and answer when it comes to race in Britain. One is, why do we still see minorities in a negative light? Perhaps we already know the answer. After all, it was back in 2004 when those words hit me square in the air, and I’m certain that this kind of taunt isn’t something of the past. Thanks to history and misconceptions, maybe there’s a small dose of this intolerance ingrained in all of us, in the generations before us and perhaps, terrifyingly, in the ones to come.
You can take away the searing word wounds, and racial prefixes are still a major factor in negative-based, every day conversation. ‘A Japanese woman clipped the side of my car’, or ‘That German bloke was complaining’.
When race bears no relevance to the situation, it’s painfully obvious why people choose to include it. Like the racial slur prefixing the insult, they believe that making a nod to the race, ‘so different’ to their own, is necessary to convey how ‘bad’ the situation really was. If the woman who clipped their car wasn’t Japanese, they would probably still be angry, but the different-looking, perhaps culturally-different opponent gives them ‘ammo’, the right to think that they were in the right, that this supposedly non-British person must’ve made a mistake. As if the situation is automatically worse because she’s a different race.
I believe this kind of inclusion is commonplace now. I’ve heard adults I respect give similar examples in the throes of storytelling. But it’s colour, quite literally, that isn’t needed or welcome within the perimetres of a tale that doesn’t link to race or culture itself.
I don’t know the subcategory within which this ‘type’ of racism falls, or it’s place within the bigger conversation. But one thing we all know is that stereotypes are one of the fuels keeping racism running. Does one simple statement or story make a child believe that the Japanese are clumsy or the German, miserable? Do we still sum up entire races and cultures with simplistic traits someone talked about once, fifty years ago? Are racial slurs locked into our culture, unlikely to ever expire, or find themselves obsolete?
I often think about that incident with the bike, his loaded words flying at me with control and malice. Maybe they cut me deeper then because there were lots of things I was beginning to unravel, including what my cultural identity meant. I’m certain if it happened today, I’d be stronger, have a response. Perhaps the saddest part is that today, I’d be ready.