Being with someone who is white and British has led to some serious conversations, debates and even fights over the years. The conversations have often revolved around allyship – well-meaning white partners, friends and strangers who “don’t see colour”, who are “culturally sensitive”, who are “woke”, and yet somehow blind to their inbuilt subtle racism and prejudices, taught covertly by a white-majority society. No, they don’t go around using racially insensitive language, they don’t perpetuate hate crimes, they will defend you online against bullies, they will even join you on protest marches. But there are little things they do that stick in your mind for a long time, even though there was no intention of hurt. And that is where the cracks in allyship appear.
Here are a few examples of subtle-racism by allies that I shrug off because it’s not as serious as being lynched or discriminated against or being asked to go back to where I came from.
- Well-meaning friends and family who have no trouble saying Tchaikovsky, somehow have a problem pronouncing my two-syllable Indian name. I have had my name anglicised to Angela, Angie and when that doesn’t work, I’ve had people just go by my last name as it is a Roman word.
- No matter my history, my talent, my likes, and the depth of their knowledge of me, I continue to be only identified as Indian. That, somehow, is the only thing that stays in the mind of my colourblind allies. The most recent example was a team name created by a couple of close white friends while on a trip away together. We were the CraftIndianScientists. No points for guessing which one I was in that three-member group.
- When these allies have no problem with knowing what a baguette is, without needing the crutch of a descriptor, but can’t figure out what Naan is unless it is clearly labelled “Naan Bread” …. uhhh, it hurts! If I can educate myself (despite my third worldness) about the many names of the Yorky Pud without being confused about whether or not it is is a dessert item, surely a woke ally can figure it out too? It is one of the most minor offences and it still manages to rile me up. I just think that it is lazy to not educate yourself about how by ordering a chai tea latte, you’re just ordering a tea tea latte. Is that too much to ask?
- My friends go on a rant when they see teens wearing Nirvana shirts or just shirts with bands that they think you might not be a “real fan” of. And yet yoga classes and fashionable headdresses are part of their everyday! Why, my friends? Why?
- People who are normally with it, ask me to write their names in “Indian” or “Indish” or “Hindu”. My friends from China are asked to write words in “Chinese”. My Tanzanian, Tunisian and South African friends are all asked to write in “African”. It’s the 21st century, it would be nice if people could make more of an effort to learn about other countries. Ignorance is not cool, if you can do something about it but choose not to.
- I have a neutral accent and that throws new friendships into chaos because who are you if not for the country you originated from? As a person who has moved countries a lot (and not for tourism purposes), I find “home” in all those places where I have built a life from scratch. So my standard answer to the “where are you from” question is the city I am currently living. Somehow, this is not okay for allies. They will quiz you till you tell them what your nationality is, and if that nationality is not exotic enough, they will ask you where you were born, what your passport is, where your parents are from, anything to tie you to THEIR idea of you, rather than who you really are. The worst part is, none of this comes from a bad place. Does it still affect the people of colour you’re friends with? Yes.
Anyway, my point is, because there’s a lack of word for it, we use the word racism. But the racism allies display and the overt racism from MAGA hat wearing, Brexit loving people are not comparable. And so bringing this sort of racism with my white partner has created conflict many times, and has then led to much-needed honest and open conversations.
Currently, when someone means a lot to me, I make more of an effort to educate them about the things they could be more sensitive about, just as I aim to always be sensitive to things that are foreign to me and things that I need to learn more about. We will make mistakes, and probably make mistakes often. But as long as we are all making an active effort, isn’t that something?
My next question would be if Ishould extend that circle and broach these topics with people outside of my inner circle – to people who are allies but are not yet my friends? I am still trying to figure that one out!