Day 5: "Go back to your own country..."
I guess in a sense this is weirdly relevant for someone who is trying to migrate, but in truth today's post doesn't have much to do with my 100 day challenge. Those of you who read my old blog know I've written about #everydayracism situations before. Today's, as I flew back to London From Paris was a reminder of the difference between people in disposition, culture and just plain levels of arsehole.
Let me paint a picture. We're all stuffed on a loading bus because this is Charles De Gaulle and the planes never actually board at the sodding Terminals. These buses are always cold, cramped and miserable. They sit for 20 mins or more with all their doors open, even in today's close to freezing temperatures. I was sat on the second one, thinking I'd avoided the worst of the cram when a bit further down the bus, voices were suddenly raised.
A British Asian woman had become incensed and was shouting at two tall, stone faced white guys at the back of the bus. The mousy, middle class girl between them was trying to climb into her mobile phone and avoid any form of confrontation or involvement. The Asian girl's boyfriend, Muslim, 5'7 tall, 5'7 wide and with an Orthodox beard was enraged and close to physically attacking the two silent men who were the source of his girlfriend's ire. Why? Because the tall guys had told her to 'go back to her own country.'
Our flight was to Gatwick, and by the girl's accent, I would have said she was from Newham - clearly a Londoner. The two white guys, I later figured out, were Australian. At the risk of generalisation, Australia is a country that seems to have a greater level of comfort with verbally expressing its racism, certainly more so than Britain. The Aussie in question didn't seem to realise he had just uttered something so deeply written into the xenophobe's playbook that it almost bordered on racist cliche.
It was the usual situation - similar to almost every similar instance I've encountered in the UK. The girl was yelling the place down, the guy was now face to shoulder with the much taller Aussie who had stood up to meet the challenge. One or two onlookers had tried to break up the confrontation. Most, were looking elsewhere doggedly pretending that nothing was happening. I was trapped somewhere in the middle, unable to get to the end of the bus and guilty of knowing the trouble that comes with intervention as another peacemaker was shoved across the bus out of the way.
The story was beginning to be pieced together as a member of the ground crew tried to make her way through the crowded bus to break up the trouble, herself, Indonesian, headscarved and all of 5'3. It went like this. The British Asian guy hadn't liked the way the Aussie had looked at him. Eyeballing had ensued. When neither had looked away, the racial utterance was the first dialogue to enter the scene and things had gone downhill from there. The ground crew lady listened to all this, before turning to the Aussie, her eyes rolling in a deliciously French way.
"Why did you say that?"
The Aussie almost looked surprised.
"I'm allowed to say whatever I want."
This sent the British Asian girl into a new rage, saying she didn't want to fly with a racist. The mood on the loading bus became more frosty as people started to worry that this inconvenience might impact the flight leaving on time. The ground crew lady, acting on the suggestions of onlookers, pulled the Aussie's out and boarded each group at opposite ends of the plane.
And that would have been all there was to write about, but for the part that, to be honest, frustrated me the most. Midway into the flight, sat towards the rear in an empty row, a middle aged, middle class lady came down the plane to find an older gentlemen who had to be her husband. Both had been steadfastly unengaged onlookers in the bus incident. The lady then began explaining to her husband exactly what had happened, acknowledging what had been said but then adding.
"And the Asian girl just wouldn't stop going on about it... I don't understand why she didn't just... not rise to it. I know I wouldn't if someone said something like that to me."
Her husband grunted his approval. As if the whole thing was an inconvenience that could have been avoided with more stiff upper lip. This completely fascinated me. My country is in the grip of a national act of self harm in Brexit and this is why. Clearly educated, clearly well off people who can't understand how a person who has probably been tormented by similar words at different points through their lives would be offended at being told where to go. A minority, racially abused in the most telegraphed of ways. They were more annoyed that there had been a scene and it had delayed the flight. My fascination only increased when, by chance, I found myself behind them walking through the tunnel to arrivals and they were chatting to the two Australians, merrily associating with "go back" and his friend, laughing off the incident, rolling their eyes at how out of proportion it had become.
Mine is a country of bubbles. Societies that work hard not to intersect. I was actually more annoyed by the older couple, who knowingly sided with calm racism over emotive protestation. We have to do better. I for one am glad that the British Asian couple not only got angry, but let everyone know it. I hope it shows they were confident enough to know that they had the majority of us on their side. I hope that the majority of us stay on their side in the new era of Trump and Brexit.