The other night I stood up in front of a room full of strangers to deliver a speech (thank you to Tim Huckle for letting me share the above photo). The event was for World Speech Day and each speaker was given just 5 minutes to leave their mark on the audience. As I only had 5 minutes I decided to not just speak about being zero waste but instead used the time as a call to action, asking the audience to join me in reducing their environmental impact. The theme of the event was ‘Ideas For World Citizens’ which I thought was rather apt as it coincided with the second round of youth climate strikes – children from 123 countries putting us adults to shame, it was truly beautiful!
I listened intently to the other speakers and while I felt moved on the night I find I’m still reflecting on everyone else’s words even now. I’ll provide a link to the video when it’s available but for now you’ll just have to take my word for how powerful each speakers’ words were – I know I should do the humble thing here and say how I wish I was even half as good as everyone else, and normally I totally would, but the following morning I awoke to find an email from one of the audience members explaining how my speech had moved him to change his shopping habits that very morning; so I’m celebrating the win!
A little while after arriving home from the event I logged in to my social feeds to check coverage of the strikes. On one of my feeds I was saddened to see someone I know reposting far-right rhetoric, and she’s not the only one… Recently I have seen more and more of my friends sharing posts that make me feel very nervous as a minority.
My Grandad came to England back in the 1950’s. It wasn’t easy for him. He would be spat at and called names as he walked down the street. He would line up outside a factory with all the other workers only for the foreman to walk straight up to him and tell him there was no work for him, they “only hire whites”. He was refused service in most shops and pubs that he tried to enter. It didn’t stop him from pursuing his dream of raising a family away from the farm he had grown up on though. Through sheer perseverance he managed to get permanent work and was able to provide his wife and 4 children with a comfortable life. As time went on he would be more accepted and would start hearing “I’m not racist, but…”
As a child my mother would occasionally tell me stories from her own past – the name-calling and things were a given, it was the other stories that really stuck in the mind: having to watch a neighbour being forced to walk barefoot over broken glass, having bricks thrown at her; a colleague deliberately tripping her up whilst pregnant. Throughout her adult life my mother would be told “I’m not racist but…”
As I was growing up, I still got called names, was regularly told to “go home” and was spat at – nothing had changed there, but things were definitely better than the 2 generations before me had experienced. Still, my entire life I’ve heard the words “I’m not racist, but…”
After 911 I knew strangers would start looking at me differently due to the colour of my skin; the fact I come from a Hindu family, not Muslim, was irrelevant to them, “I’m not racist, but…” continued to be the start to so many conversations that always made me feel uncomfortable. As I got older I discovered people REALLY take offence when you point out “if you have to begin a sentence with ‘I’m not racist, but…’ then you are in fact being racist”.
A little over a decade ago we started seeing the rise in popularity of the BNP (British National Party for those of you not familiar with that particular brand of fascism), whose unofficial party slogan seemed to be “we’re not racist, but…”; and so Paul and I came up with a plan – we were going to set up home in another country if things ever got too bad (read: racist) here in England. We had a vague search for potential countries, the cost of living, house prices, etc. but thankfully the BNP imploded before we ever felt the need to move.
Recently, I have been seeing more and more friends post and repost strong anti-immigration sentiments over all social media platforms. A lot of the reposts are actually hoaxes, or something that has been willfully misinterpreted to fit a far right agenda, but there’s something about the anti-immigration/anti-Islamic stance of the pieces that seems to resonate with more and more people.
I’ve seen people I know saying Shamima Begum (who ran away to join IS as a teenager) should never be allowed back into the country. I’ve seen people I know saying her entire family should be sent to join her. How long before I start seeing people I know saying all Muslims should leave the country? How long before before people I know say it’s all brown people who need to leave? How long before Paul and I need to review our previous plans? Of course, none of these people are racist, but…
In 1968 Enoch Powell made his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. In 1977 he reflected on his speech and insisted he was right and, shockingly, I agree with the first part:
…evils are not demonstrable until they have occurred: at each stage in their onset there is room for doubt and for dispute whether they be real or imaginary. By the same token, they attract little attention in comparison with current troubles, which are both indisputable and pressing: whence the besetting temptation of all politics to concern itself with the immediate present at the expense of the future.
Later in the speech Enoch Powell went on to suggest that white men would one day be oppressed by black men – a fear borne of ignorance, as is all the far-right rhetoric I’m seeing being shared over and over again at the moment. The fact is most people don’t want to oppress or even take advantage of anyone else, they just want the same opportunities to go about their own lives.
There is a minority of people, from all walks of life, who believe so vehemently that they are superior to others, or that others are a threat to their way of life, that they are willing to kill for that belief – these people are not the majority, they are the mentally unstable minority, but they need validation for their beliefs. In order to gain that validation they appeal directly to, and feed into, peoples’ fears; they take nuggets of truth and twist it into plausible sounding hatred; and they spread all-out lies (knowing others are unlikely to fact-check). Eventually kind-hearted, intelligent, truly non-racist people start believing the rhetoric and before you know it they’re sharing posts saying we should deport our citizens for being related to a child who was groomed… would they also advocate the relatives of criminals serving prison time I wonder?
My whole life I’ve heard “I’m not racist, but…” and it’s time to stop! If you’re one of the apparently growing number of people who think that immigrants are ruining your country then I challenge you to befriend one – help them learn the language and local customs instead of sitting back and berating them for daring to dream of a brighter future for their families. I can’t help but wonder what my Grandad may have achieved if someone, anyone, had helped him out when he first came here – rather than his life story being one of perseverance and eventual contentment, would it instead have been one of ambition and attainment? It’s time to realise that we are all people just trying to make our way in the world… a world that we are killing.
The youth climate strikes are showing us that the kids aren’t concerned about the caveman tribalism of their parents/grandparents. Children in 123 countries have united on a single common cause so why are the older generations having such a hard time getting on board?
The other day I was reminded that we have just one life, so lets not waste it on hatred; we have one planet so lets not destroy it. I want to stop hearing “I’m not racist, but…”, instead I want to hear “I’m doing my part for the environment by…”. We need to finally come together and cooperate if we want to save ourselves from the effects of global warming.
From attending a World Speech Day event to seeing the youth climate strikes and hearing about mass shootings, I have been made aware of the epic power our words can have, for good or for evil; with a word we can change the world!