I’ve been tailed in supermarkets, pelted with snowballs and called a beggar
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know what racism was. Maybe that’s because as the daughter of South Indian immigrants, I grew up on stories about it. The ways in which my parents had been snubbed for not knowing German when they first came to Austria and how they had been mistreated by official authorities like the medical services or the police were my bread and butter growing up.
‘Make something of yourself’ was the mantra to follow in our household. Work twice as hard, study well and get into University in order to score a good job. The typical Asian success story. It was the only way to succeed in a society that valued titles and pedigree, even more so if they came with a name like Franz or Anna.
I may have chafed at the strict rigour of this upbringing but I never doubted the veracity of its claims.
Because I’d already experienced the truth in my every day life as a teenager.
You never forget the first time you choose to mind your own business while witnessing an injustice in public. Later on in life, you take action either directly or indirectly, but that first confrontation can still be a punch to the gut. For me, it still is.
A young woman in a headscarf was standing near the doors of a bus, rummaging in her bag. Suddenly, an older man started accosting her, telling her she had no right to be where she was whereas he did. When she politely asked him to explain his reasoning, he said: “Because I have the Austrian citizenship”. And she said: “So do I”. The tension fizzled out after that but when I got out at my station, I still felt ashamed. Where was my hard-won courage? I was more than ready to debate issues of race in the classroom but in real life, I’d lost my voice.
In taking a step to recover it, I discovered journalism for myself for the first time. It’s not a novel impulse, whatever the diatribe is against activism journalism and the need for absolute objectivity. At the very least since black journalists across US newsrooms have talked of their struggle of being stifled by the muzzle of objectivity and moral clarity has become the buzzword of the times, we know something is wrong with the idea of pure hard-facts journalism. At the time, I was far from being aware of the contentious nature of this debate when spear-heading a publication on the immigrant experience as Editor-in-Chief of a Journalism elective-for me, the only thing that mattered was debating an issue that had only grown more pertinent for me as the years passed.
“A friend forgot her key at my place so I rushed out to catch up with her. As I was riding the tube at night, an elderly couple commented that I must be out prostituting myself if I was out that late”
This is only one story I heard in the course of making my online magazine, there were too many to recount. Even my own, subsequent brushes with racism have become blurred because recalling every instance of microaggression would require a photographic memory.
But throughout the years of my schooling, my days at University and later on in my working life, there would always be that common thread that was racial prejudice, serving as reminder that not everything was picture perfect in my world.
Whether that meant being automatically herded into a remedial English class after asking for directions to my first journalism class, being tailed by security while doing my grocery shopping with a friend or being offered money on the street because ‘I looked like I needed it’, it’s been something I’ve come to expect over the years.
With police brutality now being the main focus of the Black Lives Matter movement, I’m once again reminded of my own deep-seated fear of the men and women tasked in keeping our cities safe.
Last year was the 20th anniversary of the death of Marcus Omofuma, a Nigerian refugee who, in the process of being deported from Austria, died due to excessive use of police force-his airways and chest having been taped to such an extent that he died of suffocation on a plane. A right-wing media campaign slandering the ‘violent refugee’ and ‘police men doing their duty’ still makes me shudder, even after the victim/perpetrator debate has come to a truthful and satisfying conclusion.
Because some things have remained the same- a black man on a tube station wearing a hoodie is still considered a drug dealer by law enforcement and he may very well be brought to the police station.
My own father was once in danger of getting in trouble with the law.
As a bystander, he had witnessed a woman shouting for help after her purse had been stolen- a policeman on the spot asked her if my father was the perpetrator. I’ve interviewed the priest of our local Indian church community here in Vienna, who told me after notifying police authorities about a break-in,it took a while for the officers when they met him to realize that he was in fact the person who made the call and not the burglar himself. From fellow journalists, I know that the police force in Austria can be a catch-all for the drifting-housing everyone from the academic to the illiterate.As such, you never know when you are at risk of drawing a wild card-I’ve always felt the best approach was to quietly move out of the way or change streets if I happened to run into people in blue uniform.
Living in the UK exposed me to a life where I didn’t have to be that careful. I learned that a police officer was someone who could be trusted and who I could have a friendly chat with. Of course, I realise that is a simplified way of looking at things, considering the UK’s own fraught relationship with race but as someone hailing from what is commonly considered the most unfriendly country for foreigners in the world, it seemed like somewhat of a respite.
I don’t regret making any of these experiences, though. They led me to produce incredible work, both in the form of a magazine publication as well as an interactive podcast on the nature of racism.My personal encounters with racial prejudice have made my story rich and in its telling, I have been able to connect better with the world I try to portray as a media practitioner. It’s helped me discover the race beat for myself, one I wish to explore further given the choice. But most of all, it’s allowed me to grow into a more open-minded and well-informed person who is not only willing to fight for her convictions but also always ready to give others the benefit of the doubt.
I hope everyone reading this can attempt to do the same.