Despite London’s multicultural image, racist attacks are still a reality

We are fortunate that we have the social, emotional, and legal resources to help us speak up, but there are many who can’t.

We are fortunate that we have the social, emotional, and legal resources to help us speak up, but there are many who can’t

On May 17, my brother, a female friend and I were racially abused and attacked as we walked home in north London. Our abuser’s rage was triggered by our not speaking in English and his abuse initially began with shouts of “this is England, speak in English”.

He followed us, threatening in graphic detail what ought to be done to “Pakis bitches”. Worried, we called 999 for assistance. Before the police could arrive, the abuser called my brother a “Paki c*nt,” hit out and ran away, still shouting racist abuse. The police, when they arrived, compounded our shock, disappointment and sadness with condescending, rude and intimidating behaviour.

Since then, hundreds have reached out to tell their own story, both of experiencing racist attacks in London as well as of the difficulties in reporting them. The sheer number of lived experiences suggests that despite the city’s ‘multicultural’ PR image, racist attacks continue to be a part of our lived experience, and the emotional, cultural, and structural difficulties in reporting help keep these invisible.

The attack demonstrated to me that reporting a hate crime requires immense mental stamina and extensive cultural, emotional and linguistic skills. Moreover, few second and third generation non-white Britons report hate crimes, accepting that these will not be taken seriously. This adds to the informal knowledge base amongst recent arrivals that law enforcement bodies do not take racial hate crimes seriously.

At the same time, many who are visiting or have recently moved to the country may not be familiar with the processes of reporting. Even I instinctively dialled 911 before remembering the correct number. The curt ‘ambulance or police’ initial response further threw me, and still makes me wonder how someone without requisite language skills or in a more vulnerable state would cope.

The police responded quickly to our call but their attitude flags up a second layer of difficulties in reporting a hate crime. The officers seemed to lack sensitivity training and understanding of the difficulties of reporting a hate crime and appeared resistant to acknowledging it as such. It was only our insistence on explaining our experience of racial abuse in detail that eventually led to registering our complaint.

Since then, it is only our persistence that seems to be pushing action on the case. Few victims, either non-white Britons or recent arrivals, and even fewer tourists, would be willing or able to continue against such structural resistance.

Amongst many who are in the UK on student, tourist, or even highly skilled visas, there is an additional fear that insisting on reporting a hate crime, and flagging up the institutional resistance to these, may result in being penalised by immigration authorities who may refuse to extend work visas, or reject a future application for such a ‘troublemaker’.

Furthermore, increasingly I see similarities between suffering racist abuse/attacks and sexual violence as both engender a deep sense of shame in the victim. The humiliation, shame, and agony of being reduced to one’s biology and then attacked for it, is often overwhelming for many victims.

Many of us who didn’t grow up in the West have an intellectual knowledge of racism but no personal experience. It can take us years to even begin articulating that we may be victims, or to even accept it can happen to us, that all our education, hard work, achievements can be rendered meaningless by biology. Often it is easier to not report a racist hate attack, if only to maintain the semblance of a human self.

Experience of racism also comes with a sense of victim-blaming, even by the victims themselves. Since the attack, many non-white Britons have told us that ‘this is normal’, and that they accept it as a part of their lives. They tell us the ‘precautions’ they take, including living in minority dominated areas, curtailing quotidian activities, and most importantly, ‘not making a fuss’.

In the past week, we have been negotiating this minefield of emotional trauma and institutional resistance. We are fortunate that we have the social, emotional, and legal resources to help us speak up but there are many who can’t. And that knowledge is the worst part of our recent ordeal.

Sunny Singh is a novelist and academic. Her new novel, Hotel Arcadia, will be published by Arcadia Books in 2015

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