Dealing with racism
The only strangers we are taught to trust from childhood are policemen – a normal thing in most households. But for people of colour, particularly black people, that trust is whittled down to almost nothing as we get older.
The dwindling of trust in authority figures starts young, in school.
It’s not unheard of for people of colour, perhaps the only student of colour in the class, to experience being under a teacher who has a particular distaste for you, despite having done nothing wrong. Marking you down, denying you proper support… the list is long. I’ve had that experience myself. To counter that, we often work harder, thinking and hoping that as long as we make it big in life we never have to experience the indignity of racism in any of its forms. By that logic, a black woman, an NHS doctor with 20 years of experience of care, should be exempt, right?
Not Nia*, a close family friend of mine. Middle aged and retired due to illness, she lives in Tayside. She certainly wasn’t expecting to be physically hauled out of her home by police with no warning. Apparently, there was an outstanding warrant for her arrest, but they refused to tell her what for. She managed to call her daughter before the officers snatched the phone from her. They never explained why she had been taken from her home in such a humiliating manner and was forced to spend a night in a cell with just the thin clothing she had on. I won’t even spend time elaborating on the abusive medical staff member and other indignities Nia was forced to endure throughout the night.
The next morning, she was put in the care of the private security firm hired to transport ‘prisoners’ and taken to Edinburgh and to court. She had no idea where she was going until she was actually in the vehicle. The case – a minor traffic violation, as it transpired – was summarily dismissed with a clear ‘not guilty’ verdict.
So, surely the story ends there?
But, no. Because the person at the court who was responsible for processing the paperwork and allowing Nia to leave, was, she believes, a racist, things got much worse.
The scary thing about racist authority figures is that when you, as a person of colour, try to assert yourself, they actually have the power to make everything much worse for you. That is always in the back of your mind. And black women, especially, learn from experience that we’re firmly on our own and ‘misogynoir’ is a major issue.
Nia’s case was finished before the court broke up for lunch. She should have been processed and released within the hour. Her frantic daughter was told the wrong court room and missed the case without realising and it was hours later that one of the court security officers made the effort to look for Nia. No one in the courts knew where she was. Nia’s daughter was told conflicting stories by three different people as she watched them literally run around trying to find this missing woman with serious and complex health conditions. She was eventually found, and the operative who was still holding her claimed he was investigating what he thought was a warrant number for another apparent crime Nia had committed. Even more odd, the court staff member who found her said another warrant with someone else’s name had been mixed up in her paperwork, which is why she hadn’t been processed out earlier.
Whatever the real story is, there’s no reason not to think that the man in charge of her release meant harm – he was incredibly rude to the only black person in his custody and ignored her pleas for her medication. It was bad enough that the other people in custody noticed. An Asian member of staff snuck her medicine to her when the manager wasn’t looking. White people who had their cases heard later than her were processed before her and allowed to leave first, and even they asked questions.
And when racism is obvious to white people, it’s basically undeniable.
As a black woman, dealing with racism is constant and incredibly exhausting. You always have to anticipate it in order to protect yourself. It’s not always shouted slurs and police brutality. It’s the subtle flexing of power, designed to put black people and people of colour ‘in their place’. And the fact that we have a UK government and a ‘hostile environment’ approach to immigration that doesn’t care to make it right or make the system work fairly and humanely for everyone is always at the back of our minds. Nia is an educated, middle-class woman who has worked at a senior level in the NHS, and if even she felt that she couldn’t assert herself for fear of reprisal – real or imagined – then what hope is there for other ethnically marginalised folk to live free of that burden of fear that the colour of their skin puts them at risk?