My eyes scan the lines of another news story of racism and abuse with exhausted familiarity. The same details resurface like the refrain of a bad song. Racial epithets. Rowdy white boys. The alcohol excuse. Straw men in the comments sections, refusing to acknowledge an issue they’ve never faced.
I arrived at Warwick surprised by the commitment of the university to social justice and equality. “The most Liberal University in the Country”, for better and for worse. Posters lining the walls assure me of the university’s commitment to equality and inclusiveness. “Diversity! Liberality!” And indeed, many of my worst fears of racial abuse have never been realised. Nobody has called me a chink or made fun of my slanted eyes. Campaigns abound telling me that the university cares about my experience and voice. “We want to hear from you! We want to know how we can make your experience better!” They should make me feel better, and indeed do, sometimes. But not always.
It is the way glances are shot and heads are turned when I speak Mandarin or Malay to my friends
I am told of an unwavering commitment to equality, but still fear festers in my chest. Sometimes I feel the weight of race and the expectations of it descend upon my shoulders like – I reach for a simile. Chains would be hyperbolic and inaccurate besides. A fog perhaps that makes it not impossible, but harder to see, as it condenses on my glasses.
It is the way a girl asked me on my first day of class “how long have you been speaking English?” when I can barely remember speaking any other tongue, as though disbelieving the credentials of my speech. It is the way glances are shot and heads are turned when I speak Mandarin or Malay to my friends – in surprise? In acknowledgement? Or in veiled disgust? Perhaps all three? It is the way cashiers feel the need to explain everything to me at half speed, the snail’s pace of conversation making me foreign in the swirl of the supermarket checkout. It’s the way the lady rolls her eyes when taking my order, wanting to get to the next customer quickly. I smile, take the omelette, and thank her. She ignores me. I hear her joke and laugh with the Frenchman next in line.
I say nothing and can’t get a word in, and feel mute even as I make jokes in class
I don’t exactly know how to talk to people. Sure, I speak the language. But the subtler points of parry and riposte, interruption and banter? The way Westerners talk at a hundred miles an hour, cutting in between words like a rude Chinese tourist cutting lines? They slip past my tongue, the rapid pace of conversation leaving me stranded. I say nothing and can’t get a word in, and feel mute even as I make jokes in class. Alone and alienated, I wonder if it’s to do with the colour of my skin.
Perhaps the slights are imagined and the offence unintended. Half of racism is the imagined construction of race itself in the mind, after all. Perhaps if I stopped imagining myself wrapped in the ethereal chains of my race it would fade away into the air. Perhaps none of it is even a problem at all. Perhaps it’s all in my head. Deal with it. Why are you taking things so seriously? It’s just banter. They mean nothing by it.
It is easy to condemn racism
And yet in another way, the discordant crescendo in my mind is driving me insane. I fly back to Malaysia for Easter, and revel in the monsoon humidity. The weather here is too hot, the city air too damp, and the haze too thick. But it’s home.
It is easy to condemn racism. To speak in soaring rhetoric about the evils of hate and the foulness of discrimination. Nothing is simpler than fighting a foe that has been out of vogue for decades, an easy position atop a hill of established societal norms.
It is harder to grapple with the miasma of racism – the poison in the air which seeps into the bones and stops you from feeling at home. The university is doing its best, I think. But it’s not enough for me. Does this make me greedy? Or am I right? I cannot say. I go to sleep in the tropical heat. It is good to be home.