One afternoon last month I boarded a train in Liverpool en route to Newcastle to take part in some writing events. I was sitting in a pre-booked seat. Nearby a man was blaring out loud music. A train conductor walked by and told the man to switch his music off, but shortly afterwards he turned his music up again. I then asked if he could turn the volume down as it was giving me a migraine.
The man responded with a torrent of racist abuse: “Do you have a British passport? Get back on the banana boat. Paki cunt! Fuck off!” He continued to racially abuse me throughout the journey, berating “strange people” who “come over here on banana boats”. There was a whole carriage of witnesses.
I was born and raised in Manchester. Both of my parents were born in British colonies and came to England following de-colonisation. I am no less British for having brown skin, and this country is no less my home than any white person’s. And even if I had not been British, no one should have to tolerate such abusive behaviour.
I walked up the carriage past the man, who shouted after me: “Are you getting off the train? Good, fuck off Paki cunt!” I wasn’t leaving, I was looking for help. I found a member of train staff, Steven, and reported the abuser. He was supportive and accompanied me back to the carriage, sat with me a few rows behind the man, discreetly took witness statements from fellow passengers and left the carriage. He soon returned to say police would be meeting us at a later stop.
Steven asked me if I wanted to move carriages for my own safety – but why should I have been the one who had to move? I was inspired by Rosa Parks in those moments. I held my ground. Another passenger, John, approached me and asked if I was alright, said he had overheard what happened and offered to stay with me and to give evidence to the police. John said he empathised with the situation as he had experienced homophobia.
The train stopped in Darlington, and through the window I saw police. On the platform, I gave them a recorded statement. They also entered the train and took statements from witnesses who verified that they heard the racist abuse. They said there was evidence to arrest the man. I later learned he had said “I’ll fucking burn her hair off” as I left the carriage to get help.
The night before the incident I had been at a festival in Liverpool talking on a panel about Brexit. I spoke about how my experiences of racism have increased since the EU referendum – but there are those who refuse to believe such experiences. Gaslighting is one of the worst aspects of racism. This is partly why I was instinctively prompted to record what happened on the train. – I don’t always have recorded evidence or six witnesses.
The man was arrested and charged. He pleaded guilty and has now been convicted of a racially aggravated public order offence.
Two weeks earlier I had arrived in Nottingham to speak at an event at a bookshop. On my way there, two white people walked past and hurled racial slurs at me in a mock Indian accent. Later I told someone what had happened and their first reaction was: “Are you sure?” This made me burn with rage – the instinct to deny the experiences of the victim exacerbates the trauma. But I did not report that incident. I just let it pass.
I’ll be silent no more. It is illegal to racially abuse someone. Anyone who experiences abuse or is a witness should report it to authorities. Language matters and can be a weapon for inflicting emotional violence, causing invisible wounds. The law acknowledges the distress, alarm and damage that words as well as behaviour can cause. We’re living in an era in which politicians are getting away with racially abusive language: it must be condemned to prevent it from becoming normalised. The Institute of Race Relations says that racial violence is largely under-reported to the police. It is also under-reported in the media. This weekend, Liberal Democrat councillor Julia Ogiehor told of how she was racially abused by two men as she travelled on the tube, and also urged people to speak up.
It is important to acknowledge the effects of experiencing a race hate crime. An incidents of racial abuse might happen on one day, but the full force of the trauma often hits after the event. I was left feeling violated and emotionally distressed by my abuse. There was rage and disgust. In my victim impact statement I told of how I had experienced sleep disturbance, nightmares, flashbacks and panic attacks. Thankfully, through the police, I was offered help from the Victim Support charity.
When I heard my abuser had pleaded guilty I felt the oxygen return to my lungs and a weight lift from my shoulders. I’ve since taken a train and won’t let this race hate crime stop me living my fullest life. I’m hoping that by telling my story others will feel emboldened to take action against racial abuse. The law is on our side. This racism needs to stop.