ON RACISTS AND BIGOTS
By Kei Miller
Thursday, October 07, 2010.
My Aunt – bless her – is occasionally racist. I imagine she sees little wrong with the recent Islamophobic policies sweeping through Europe. The last time I visited her, it was the matter of burkas that had her upset. She told me that a Muslim woman on the bus the other day had been staring at her. She couldn’t be sure. She was annoyed that she couldn’t stare back. ‘I couldn’t even see her eyes!’ She complained. It was the ultimate insult. Exasperated she finished off with, ‘I mean really, they can carry on with that foolishness where they’re from, but don’t bring it here.’
I’ve heard many variations of that sentiment. It was said to me at Heathrow airport. Only now, more than a month after, am I calm enough to write about it. I was returning to Glasgow from Jamaica. This journey is always time-consuming and complicated, filled with buses and planes and trains and transfers. This particular one had been even more so. I had flown first to Miami where I was held by immigration in a little room for four hours.
I missed my flight with Virgin Atlantic but got put on another one (British Airways) just a half hour behind it. Finally at Heathrow -- I had been polite enough, gone through all the check points, got everything stamped, collected my luggage and was heading out when a woman who seemed to have been dozing off at the door looked up and saw me. I know that she perked up because there were a few people in front also walking out and she stretched and tilted her head to get a good look at me. I decided it would be useless to avoid eye contact. She motioned me to come over as she put on latex gloves.
Call me stupid, but in order to survive these kinds of insults I’ve actually taught myself not to think of them as racialized. I've told myself - these kinds of things happen to everyone and so don't feel precious or victimized. But it was very difficult not to consider this one a targeting. Her first question to me was, ‘So are you coming in from the Caribbean?’ I looked back on the flight boards and there was in fact no flight that had just come in from the West Indies. You see it was she who had racialized me; it was she who had located me and brought me to stand before her cold metal table, me toting my luggage, she toting a clear idea of where I was coming from and what I might be bringing. I told her yes, I was coming from the Caribbean. Her second question – ‘I don’t mean to be funny or anything, but were you doing drugs on the island?’
You see, call me stupid again, but in order to survive this question – this every evening question posed by some drunk dude (or should I say chap?) who is always giggling and who wants to know if I might have some weed, or some skunk or some hash to sell, is that I smile it away and I do not get annoyed. And in order to survive the many winks of ‘oh you’re from Jamaica – you must have had some good weed there’ is that I do not bother to tell them the truth, that I haven’t really.
I’ve decided that this whole interaction isn’t really racial stereotyping at all but a way in which a kind of person tries to make an inroad – is looking for an area of commonality, is looking for a thing that we could both talk and laugh about. And I think I should be grateful for these attempts. The person will not know that it is such a terrible shock for those of us who grew up in the prude strictures of Jamaica to arrive in a country where people do coke responsibly for crying out loud (only once every 3 months a woman once told me); this is a mind boggling thing to us, and we have to reconfigure our minds and think oh-ho!
So, it is possible to have a wild weekend of uppers and poppers and liquor and weed and then go to work on Monday and be productive, and it won’t lead to some ultimate and catastrophic ruin. But you see, that is exactly the kind of thing I had once believed. And even though I don’t really believe all that any more, and I can sit more easily in rooms where one person is doing a line of coke, and others are just smoking weed, and others are just popping ecstasy tablets, it still will never really be my scene, and I realize that everyone will always know more about drugs than I do.
And so I’ve decided this question of ‘you must have had some great weed in Jamaica’ is mostly an attempt to get a story going – to get a friendship going. So I’ve decided that when this question comes in its many variations –– that maybe, maybe, maybe it isn’t racial at all, but an attempt at friendliness, and I often feel disappointed that I have no stories to give back.
But at the airport, the woman wasn’t offering friendship, and it really was racialized in the worst way, and I only felt my fists clenching. Maybe she saw my hands, but she wasn’t deterred. She told me, ‘Be sure of your answer now, because I’m going to take a swab of your hands and if you’ve handled any substance in the past two weeks it will pick it up.’ I tried to give her my best glare. Still, she wasn’t deterred, and she proceeded to take the swabs. She told me reassuringly now, ‘You see, it’s all well and good if you do that kind of thing there, so long as you don’t bring it here.’
And there it was again – the image of the pristine British Isles, and these immigrants coming in with a traffic of pollutants – headdresses, burkas, bombs, diseases, ganja – all these things that is ok to keep and to indulge in when we are doing our primitive, foolish things in our primitive foolish lands, but which we should not bring here.
In the end, the woman at the airport seemed surprised that my hand swab came back negative, and that the machine that probed my suitcase carefully came up with no sign of exotic and illegal island fauna. But how could I walk away from that feeling victorious? It was a game she had already won from the beginning - she who would never have to apologize, who was simply doing her job, and I who had to stand still and wait, humiliated a little, and suffer all the unsubtleties of her racism. I might have told her, if she had bothered to ask, that all I have ever trafficked into this country were words and stories.
But then again, my aunt is confused about this as well. She doesn’t understand why an English publisher publishes my novels or my poems. She keeps asking me incredulously, ‘but who reads your books?’ as if I’ve been to the bookstore and interrogated each unlucky customer who left with a copy of anything I had ever written. Maybe I should assure her that it is not so many people as all that. I think she is just surprised that there are some British readers who do not mind all the supposed foolishness of our lives, and are not upset that we bring it here.
Kei Miller is a Jamaican writer and poet. He is also an academic at the University of Glasgow where he teaches creative writing. His first collection of short fiction, The Fear of Stones, was short-listed in 2007 for a Commonwealth Writers First Book Prize. He has written two poetry collections and is also editor of Carcanet's New Caribbean Poetry Anthology. Kei has just released his second novel The Last Warner Woman (2010), and a new a new collection of poems A Light Song of Light (2010). He divides his time between Jamaica and Britain.