The reality of racism, and the curse of the echo chamber

At the start of the year I made a vow to myself to lose weight. Two months have passed and the failure to do so was as sad as it was predictable. But if I’m anything, I’m resilient. So earlier today I took a trip into Chatham’s high street and made to my way to Poundworld to rinse their supply of cherry Tango. You see cherry Tango has a surprisingly low calorie count for such a delicious carbonated drink at 33 calories for a 330ml can. Compare that to the 139 calories in a can of Coca Cola and the benefit of cherry Tango to my diet becomes clear. After all Coke Zero is a disaster in a can to any lover of sweetness. The cheapest way I found to buy cherry Tango is in Poundworld where I can get three cans for a pound. Needless to say every time I go I buy twenty-four and the cashiers instantly hate me.

Earlier today, after loading up my basket with twenty-two cans (it’s all they had), I was standing in the queue in Poundworld with my earphones in. In front of me was a gentleman and his young son and in front of them was an elderly woman being served. The woman in question began speaking in my direction whilst packing her bags. I took out one earphone, paused TV by Superfood (which was a shame because I am absolutely loving that song at the moment) and started listening. “Can you speak English please? This is Chatham.” Her eyes were full of absolute disgust. Now not only was I silent, but the only languages I can speak apart from English are French and German. Both of which I can just about ask where the cinema is and not much more. There was no one in the queue behind me, so the delightful remark was aimed at the gentlemen in front of me who was wearing a turban. The man spoke in his native tongue to his son who then hid behind him. Upon hearing yet more horrific language, the woman tutted, finished packing her bags, shook her head and went on her way.

Apart from being furious, I was taken aback. I’d honestly never experienced such direct racism in my life. Growing up in Basildon, an area with strong UKIP support and where the BNP have held marches through its High Street, I was familiar with racism and racist people airing their views. As recently as January, I was in a shop buying a bulb for my car’s headlights when a man next to me said to his friend: “Back in the day we called them wogs and it was fine. Of course you wouldn’t be able to say that now with the PC brigade.” But these were people in their little bubbles of friends saying what they thought. Never had I experienced someone being racist to someone’s face with such seriousness. The woman I saw today genuinely found the fact that someone was speaking a different language in her vicinity so offensive she had to speak up.

After the woman had left, the man in front of me happily paid for a bag of Jazzles for his son and left too, smiling and chatting away. The whole situation bewildered me so much that I hadn’t felt confident enough to intervene in case this was all some weird joke between friends or neighbours. And it wouldn’t be surprising to me if that wasn’t the case. A few weeks ago, a few fellow journalism students and I travelled to Rochester to do some voxpops for our degree. Whilst we were there, a boy no older than twelve rode past on a bike and shouted “Poppadum ding ding!” to my friend Jayesh (whose reaction to the situation can be seen in this video). We laughed at the whole situation and it’s something we still joke about on a regular basis.

But the event in Poundworld was different. The venom in this woman’s eyes and words were real. It wasn’t a joke. It was racism. It was in front of me. And it seemed not to be out of the ordinary. Now I’m not saying I didn’t realise racism existed, that would be silly. But the places where I saw evidence of it weren’t through my own eyes. I have the gift of being a straight-white-male so the peak prejudice I receive is limited to being a Southend United fan in Gillingham. The main way I hear the stories of those who have had people or systems be racist to them is through art. And although To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar is a masterpiece that conveys the black struggle in a way accessible to all, it was still a story told by a man I have never met that took place in a city I’ve never been to in a country I’ve never set foot in. All tightly wrapped up in a CD I can play in my prejudice-free bedroom.

The incident in Poundworld really made me realise how much of an echo chamber I was in. In my Guardian-reading, James O’Brien-listening, Owen Jones-following progressive bubble I spend most of my time, racism is talked about and criticised but rarely experienced first-hand. We see the videos of black teens being strangled for no reason and people on trams talking about how bad immigrants are and we say: “My god isn’t this terrible. We need to show that there are people out there who care.” And we perform deeds of love, we march in our numbers and we show the world how progressive we are. Then we carry on until the next event. But that doesn’t do much. We make ourselves feel better about how ‘great’ we are, and then those who aren’t carry on being racist or homophobic or transphobic etc.

It’s not enough to not be racist anymore. When that woman started berating the dad in front of me, I didn’t stand in. There was no opposition to that woman’s argument and she went on her merry way thinking that she was right. Maybe if I, the cashier or anyone else in that store stood up and said the moral truth, she would go away thinking something different. Of course she might still go off thinking “Ha ha silly lefties. I showed them.” But at least there would have been something said.

Last year, the rapper B Dolan started selling hats in the style of the famous Make America Great Again hats worn by Trump supporters with the slogan: Make Racists Afraid Again. In the times of Brexit and Trump, hate crimes have risen dramatically. I have seen someone be racist in a public place directly to someone else and said nothing. That will NOT happen again. If we believe in the morals of equality we need to start making racists (as well as other prejudiced people) afraid again. A twitter campaign is not enough. Call those out doing wrong to their faces. Or otherwise it might become the norm again.

After the man and his son left, I bought my Tango. The cashier didn't like me.

Some are in the fridge. I also stockpile strawberry water.