"We are all humans after all."
I spent a year at the University of Kent pursuing a Master’s in Conservation Project Management.
The University is located in Canterbury, a quaint little town in Southeast England famous for its cathedral, a UNESCO world heritage site and the headquarters of the Church of England. It has three other universities and hence the town is bustling with students from all over the world.
I have some of the most amazing memories of my days in Kent. While in the course we traveled to a lot of places to learn techniques in natural and social sciences. The class was a mix of students from different parts of the world with a mixed age group ranging from 21 to 60 years. Most of them had worked in various countries and brought together experiences and stories adding a worldly perspective to other classmates’ understanding.
I took up a rural development module as a part of the course which was conducted in Malta, an island country in the Mediterranean sea located between the Middle East, Europe, and Africa. The Maltese economy is heavily dependent on foreign trade and tourism. Changing fishing practices and motorised boats have had a major setback to the traditional fisherman community of the country. Hence, we were exploring the possibilities of ecotourism as a livelihood opportunity for traditional fishermen with ‘Luzzu’ boats. As a part of this course work we were split into pairs and asked to conduct 20 semi-structured interviews each with tourists to get an idea of what their viewpoint of ecotourism looked like. We had a target of 3 days and each pair would spread across the island and conduct as many interviews as we could as the latter part of the study set us upon learning a different method of collecting information from different types of audiences. Each day we would come back with results and discuss it before supper. All the teams were doing fine except one. It was the team of one of my very good friends from Congo and England. People were refusing to talk to them and it was obvious why. My friend felt unhappy that he could not get his interviews while conceding that he had expected this to happen. As a team, we all sat down and discussed various strategies through which they could collect quality data, and subsequently, they managed to collect 5 interviews but that was about it.
It was during these discussions that I recalled that I too had faced the heat of racism but I had conveniently kept this hidden away in some corner of my mind.
One day I was waiting for a friend on the side gates of Wilkos, a popular home goods store in the UK. She was visiting me for the first time and was going to deliver a talk later at the University. A bunch of old ladies who wanted to get into the store stopped by, one of them approached me asked me to get my ‘brown face off the gates’. I was shocked and wondered if I had done something wrong. Speechless, I just changed my position to the other side of the gate. My friend arrived in about five minutes and the incident just boxed up somewhere in the corner of the brain until that day when we all discussed racism. It was the first time in seven months of being there that someone had behaved with me in that despicable manner.
Days flew by, we finished our dissertations and it was time to say goodbyes. I had 2 suitcases and a massive backpack to carry back with me and was jostling through trains and stations to get to the airport. Many really nice people offered to help on the way. I arrived at the check-in counter and dropped the luggage on the weighing scale. It weighed 5 kg more than the permissible standard baggage weight. The airlines executive at the desk yelled at me to remove stuff from the bags pointing at the weighing scale and asked me to come back with correctly weighing luggage for check-in. While I did all that it had started to get hot and I removed my jacket and stuffed it in the bag pack and re-approached the check-in desk. I was at the same desk as before and this time he yelled at me put my coat back on as my bag pack looked bigger than the size that I could carry on board with the coat stuffed in. Then came the words ‘these bloody Indians, have no clue how to behave’. I didn’t know what to say, too tired to think of a response I took my boarding pass and proceeded towards the security.
These incidents trouble me till date and sometimes I wonder what would’ve happened if I had argued with the ladies at the store or the executive at the check-in counters back then. What does a vulnerable student do when faced with racism? While I agree that in many cases it could be prudent to keep quiet at the time of the incident, keeping quiet about it only encourages the racists. In any case, the mechanisms to address and call out such racism should be strengthened, and universities and governments that actually take steps to do it are great allies. We are all humans after all.