The Inevitable Trauma of Not Being White
Updated: Jan 6
As a brown woman, I would like to share my experience of racism and white supremacy with the white community. But firstly, I would like to make three things clear:
1) Compared to the experience of black people, many of whom are still losing their lives because of the colour of their skin, I am privileged. My brown skin colour and the country I live in means I have access to basic human rights which most black people are often not afforded.
2) I share my story and power of privilege to shed further light on the impact of systemic racism and white supremacy. And to clearly state that if even I have experienced this as a privileged Indian woman, black and Indigenous people have experienced, and still are experiencing, even worse.
3) This is my experience and I do not speak for all people of colour. However, to not share this would make my silence deafening in a world which desperately needs more support for those who are suffering.
I am a woman of Indian Gujarati descent who was born in the UK, and have deeply assimilated to fit in with the white majority, so many white people who have known me for years may still be surprised to hear my experience. This is because I couldn't bear to be racially exposed or re-traumatised by their attack, denial or complacency. Plus, I haven't ever been asked to share my experience.
But make no mistake. I suffer with racialized trauma, formed by the injustices that I, my family and my ancestors have endured.
I am the daughter of a refugee who, at the age of 15, was given 90 days to leave Uganda where he was born and brought up.
He came here to England, to an army camp in Yeovil. This is because his mother had a British passport; a legacy from the British colonisation of India. We are here because Britain was there.
For me and my brother, fear of discrimination started at birth. We were given shorter first names than the usual Gujarati ones, and instead of our parents' surname Patel, we were given our ancestral surname Kalaria. This was so people here wouldn't immediately know we were Indian and be racist towards us. It was the first declaration that we were not welcome here and that we did not belong. From then on, it was a given that we must fit in, get a good education, work hard and keep our heads down to distract from the fact that we were different.
And although there was much kindness here, the inevitable soon began. As a child of 7 in the northern, very white town of Barnsley where I grew up, I watched as a man casually greeted my father with 'Alright, paki bastard?' as he walked with my brother and I down the street. We had bricks through our windows while we slept. At age 8, I was shouted at from across the street by a man calling me a 'paki', as I stood there in my school uniform. As a teenager, three white boys in my class drew a caricature of my face and distinctly Indian features on the whiteboard in front of everyone, and no-one said a thing. Coming out of a supermarket with my white step-sister, two boys on bikes shouted 'paki' at me. I did not say anything in the face of these injustices, because I was powerless and overpowered. And no onlookers around me said anything to these people, either.
From age 11 to 18, I stood in front of the mirror daily, wondering why I looked so wrong compared to everyone around me. I wanted a nose job to eradicate this Indian feature from my face. I had blonde highlights and looked into how to get fairer skin so I could be seen as more beautiful. I didn't see any women who looked like me in adverts, TV or the magazines I consumed. I hated my body hair and felt disgusting for even having it. Only last year, aged 32, did I stop pulling it out of my arms and learn to uncondition the self-hatred. And to be honest, it's still not completely gone. I see now that this was body dysmorphia caused directly by racism and misogyny.
Feeling unwanted is in my blood. Feeling 'lesser than' is in my bones. I dehumanised myself because I was dehumanised.
Here are just a few things that have been said to me by well-intentioned white people over the years. If, at first glance, you don't see how these are racist, try turning them around and imagine people of colour saying them to you as a white person:
'My priest is Indian! I know another Indian priest too, but he's very different to the other one' (my partner's mother).
'I thought you'd be ordering samosas from the Bombay Duck!' (man ordering food next to me).
'Namaste' (same man).
'You can't be racist' (schoolfriend).
'I thought you'd have an arranged marriage' (man on my hypnotherapy course).
'Wow, you're beautiful. It must be so nice to have your heritage' (man trying to date me).
'Oh, you're Indian? I thought you were just a very tanned white person' (ie, don't worry, you're one of us. Former colleague).
'Where are you from? No, but really from?' (a lot of people).
'Oh, such beautiful children!' (my partner's mum when I showed her a photo of my nephew).
'Oh, you have a lovely tan/skin colour' (a lot of women).
'I don't see colour' (a lot of people).
'My dad asked if you knew how to belly dance' (my ex-partner).
'They're lovely, but they're asian/black. I don't know why I'm saying 'but'!' (a white friend).
'Oh, I'm sure they didn't mean it like that' (most white people if I ever mention any of the previous comments).
'I feel like you're attacking me' (my partner when I ever brought up the issue of race).
And of course, there is the most popular response too, which is no response at all.
A few months ago in a pub in my partner's hometown, a group of white men were very loudly talking about Indian people, while not even bothering to look around to see who was sitting there. And even if they did see me, they didn't stop. They knew they didn't have to. I was so hurt, angry, and humiliated and I couldn't do a thing. What was so heartbreaking was that this feeling of powerlessness was so familiar to me, that I had to explain to my partner what the problem was, and that he did not understand or get angry.
In history lessons in our predominantly white school, no-one was taught that Britain had brutally colonised India from 1757 to 1947. No-one was told that under this rule, my ancestors suffered from massacres, malnutrition, poverty, disease, economic exploitation, political disadvantage, and systematic programmes aimed at making them feel inferior, (in short, colonising their minds). No-one was taught that under this rule, 35 million Indians died in totally unnecessary famines, caused by British policy. During one such famine, the Orissa Famine of 1866, where over a million people died, it was found that 200 million pounds of rice had been exported to Britain instead of feeding the Indians. This was part of the 'drain of wealth' from India to Britain, which contributed to improving the economy and lives of British people at the expense of the lives of the Indians. And I, who I'm sad to say had internalised so much shame around India's poverty, had no idea that it was one of the most successful countries in the world before the British rule began.
To give you some context of how many died in India during this one famine in Orissa, it was over double the current total world deaths from Coronavirus, of which everyone is so saddened about. So to know that the totality of 35 million Indian deaths from famine under British rule weren't even mentioned in our history books, and yet the world is so preoccupied with the relatively small amount of Coronavirus deaths, what does this tell you about which lives have value, and are worth mentioning? The difference is in WHO is dying, and WHY. Let's make this clearer; if white people are dying, this is very important news. Yet the biggest irony of this is that the groups most disproportionately affected by Coronavirus are people of colour because of their many social disadvantages due to racism. So we are rigged to lose again and again and again.
In history class, we were not told that under the British rule, three and a half million Indian soldiers were sent to fight under British command during World Wars 1 and 2, of which over 161,000 Indians gave their lives supporting British victory. We were only told, very proudly, about how great Britain was and how it had succeeded in winning the wars, saving its people from being colonised themselves.
I understand that this will be difficult to hear as a white person. But imagine how hard it is to share this as an Indian person in the UK whose partner, step-family and friends are white, some of whom had parents or grandparents stationed in India with the British Army.
And imagine, then, that I am one of the privileged ones. For the black community, the traumatic experience I have just shared is multiplied one hundredfold and comes with the added terror of losing your life as you go about your daily business. Of hundreds of daily microaggressions, of less access to decent healthcare, education, job opportunities, more chances of being sectioned or incarcerated and less access to basic human rights, justice and police protection as you move through this world. And by whom? The descendants of the very ones who colonised them and traded them as slaves. Were you taught in school that Britain was responsible for the transportation of 3.5 million African slaves to the Americas? I certainly wasn't. So if you thought that the UK has nothing to do with what's happening in America, think again. It has everything to do with it. The white people causing so much harm to the black community? Most of them are direct descendants of settlers from Britain and Europe, who brutally stole the land from the First Nation people in the first place. And the city I live in, Bristol, a place with street names such as 'Blackboy Hill' and 'Whiteladies Road' was one of the biggest beneficiaries of the slave trade. So where's that money now? Whose economy did it boost? Is the money we trade now completely separate from that money?
If you're still sitting there wondering how this has anything to do with you because you've never done any of this, imagine two people in a relationship. One of them feels a lot of pain and starts physically attacking the other to try to make themselves feel better and in more control. It causes an enormous amount of terror and pain to accumulate within the partner being attacked. Then, one day, without a word, the physical behaviour reduces slightly and it turns more verbal. The obvious bruises are gone, but every time the abused partner brings it up, their experience is repeatedly denied, or the subject is changed. From the outside looking in, everything on the outside looks 'fine'. Does this mean that the pain has miraculously gone between them? Are their children also happy, completely unaware of what happened to their parents? You know the answer to this already.
Racism is the fact that I am sharing this and you don't have to. Racism is the fact that your wealth, even if you 'rightfully' earned it, still comes from an economy built on the control, slavery, famines, economy and the deaths of millions of people of colour. Racism is the fact that your job was most likely given to you over a person of colour and you wouldn't even, and didn't need to, know it. Racism is your freedom to walk down the street. Racism is the fact you can loudly talk about me but I can't loudly talk about you. Racism is why I was scared to share this. Racism is your previous ignorance to these things. Racism is why you have been ignorant and why you believe you can still choose to be.
If you personally know me and are thinking, 'why did I not know any of this?' then that only serves as further proof that this rigged system is working perfectly. You deliberately weren't taught it, plus you never asked, because you never believed it had anything to do with you. Maybe you assumed it was my responsibility to bring up the issue. Either way, there was a comfortable benefit to your learned ignorance and lack of responsibility.
So I'm telling you now, so that you can't say you don't know anymore. Yes, this is uncomfortable. You may be scared because you believe that you benefit from having this perceived 'power' over us, and that your world will crumble if you give that away. But I don't see many of you that 'free' or 'happy' anyway, because the pain of our shared past also lives silently in you too. How could it not?
So if you feel that further ignoring the problem or being complicit in your silence is the easy response to all of this, I ask you to look around you, look at the current world events and think, how's that going for us all? Is it going well?