by Davina Vencatasamy
I went on a walk with my 9-year-old daughter the other day. We had walked from Leicester City Centre (where we live) to Bradgate Park. In lockdown, it has been particularly difficult to get out and go on longer walks, especially in lockdown 3.0 which seems much stricter and motivation is low. A nice long walk seemed as if it would be just the tonic from the stresses of home schooling, online meetings, working from home, and dealing with 3 kids getting cabin fever. My daughter has been on long walks with me before and is a bit of a champion when it comes to stamina but on this occasion, she had clearly found the whole event a bit too much given she had not done that amount of physical activity for a while. We’d managed to get all the way to Bradgate Park and walked around a bit to get to the Old John landmark and we were on our way back. She was slowing down and needed more breaks and as everyone was walking in a socially distanced way, we stepped aside to let others pass.
A fit, elderly couple who were clearly used to walking their route marched past us and said “thanks” and then the gentleman said a word I didn’t understand. It sounded like “shukriya”. There was a time where I would have simply thought I had misheard and ignored the incident, taking the blame for any misunderstanding. But this time I had a sinking feeling that he had said something in a different language that I didn’t understand because he made an assumption of my background due to my skin colour. I didn’t for a moment think he was being rude; in fact I was sure it was the opposite. I thought he may have said ‘hello’, ‘good afternoon’ or ‘thanks’ but in a foreign language. Although this may seem like a civility as opposed to an incivility, it immediately put me in a place of defensiveness. I was once again, given a culture. I was handed a label and placed in a place of being ‘different’ or ‘the other’ with no provocation or reason. I had not been speaking a different language to my child and I was not wearing anything that may indicate I was from a different country. In fact, I was kitted out for a walk in the snowy weather; waterproofs, walking boots and rucksack; more white middle class attire you could not find anywhere!. He’d made an assumption I spoke a different language from the colour of my skin. He’d assumed that from the hundreds of languages that brown people spoke around the world, he’d got the one I would know. He didn’t wait for a response and he and his walking partner marched on at an admirable pace. But he left me thinking about how I am perceived. This is the ‘civil’ version of micro-incivilities. Assumptions made about me and my background by a mere word. Putting me in my place. Obviously from his perspective, he was being inclusive, showing he could relate to a different culture and all that malarky. Perhaps I should have responded to him in my ‘homeland’ language and told him to “leave it out!” (dropping my t’s in the West London posse stylee). I was not given an opportunity to pull him up on this and I understand that he was trying to show his acceptance of a different culture or show inclusivity. There was and is simply nothing I can do. If I had my wits about me and was able to pull him up on his indiscretion in the moment, maybe I would come across as the rude, angry Asian person who called him a racist. So I am left with the paper cut of a microaggression; a micro-incivility that I place on top of the last one from yesterday and the other one from a few days ago and the other one from last week. I am sure that this gentleman would recoil at the pain his word bestowed and the fact that it happened in front of my daughter. I now must educate her in the ways she is going to have to face the world as it is clear she will not escape from these assumptions being made about her too; it simply causes my heart to break the more I think on it. I researched the word when I got home and found out that it meant ‘thanks’ in Urdu. No one in my family going back generations has ever spoken Urdu (just saying).
A little advice if you are reading this story and perhaps can see my viewpoint but are thinking that you may have done the same thing in his shoes; don’t assume. Even if he was that astute in differentiating my browness to be able to identify my ancestry, connected it to the right country and was able to speak my mother’s mother tongue fluently… don’t. Not only is your action making the assumption that I am a foreigner in your country, but that I have a healthy connection to my past. That may not be the case. Perhaps strike up a conversation first and share how you came to know a different language. If you don’t have time for that conversation, then simply say ‘thanks’ and walk on by. I only have so much capacity to be ‘othered’ and smile through it and that may be the same for other people of colour too; I don’t know, I can’t speak for them. All I know is, a little throwaway word uttered in a moment of passing, was taken, received and processed as a way of cementing my difference when all I want to feel, is like I belong.