I’ve been thinking about this old boss I once had. He had a habit of asking me if I knew different people of South Asian descent. Once, in a staff meeting, he told us all a story about how in the 70s, he had been in court for a minor offence. There had been two Indian women on the jury. He looked at me. “You probably knew them,” he said.
“No,” I replied. “I don’t know every single South Asian person in the world, I’m afraid.”
I left that meeting shaking. This was the latest in a long line of questions about different brown people. The week before he had asked if I was related to a Bengali work acquaintance. “No,” I had replied. “I’m not.”
Back in the office, I was fuming. My colleagues filtered back into our little room and raised their eyebrows at me. One of them sniggered. “Wow,” they said. “That was… er, interesting.”
“It was way worse than that,” I replied. “It was racist.”
“Oh no,” they said, their tone changing, their shoulders stiffening. “Oh, definitely not. He’s just old fashioned and harmless. Don’t worry about him.”
I was shaken by that comment. Just so we’re clear: I was the only person of colour in the organisation. And while everyone in the staff meeting was a bit embarrassed for me, no one seemed to understand how humiliating it was to be othered in that way. To imply you’re related to every South Asian also comes with the implicit assumption you speak for your entire community, that you are all one unit. It has the effect of stripping away individuality. Because it does sound harmless and old-fashioned. But at the same time, it sounds ridiculous and othering and shines a spotlight on you as the only person of colour in the room.
I was more disappointed in my colleague who wanted to downplay the comment; that it doesn’t matter; that my feelings were irrelevant because it was totally OK for our boss to be old fashioned and out of touch. And no attempt should be made to educate him.
I left the job not long afterwards.
I’ve been thinking about that boss recently because at events, time and again, I’m asked: “What can I do? How can I be a better ally? How can I combat ignorance and racism?”
I always say, you could ensure you’re not being dismissive of said ignorance and racism when it’s close to home. We all have a duty to call these things out when we see them. Especially when the people are those in our circles, who we see, eat with, give presents to, hang out with and visit. Start there. Of course, we’re all entitled to our different beliefs, but if you think what’s being said is ignorant and harmful, then say so and say it in a way that you feel you would be receptive to if someone were to pull you up on something similar.
I get things wrong all the time. We all do. Before sitting down to write this, I made a joke about my uncle’s outfit that he took offence to even though I meant it lovingly. He explained to me, calmly, the way in which I had made him feel bad – and I apologised.
How we choose to bring these things up is important to bear in mind. Because I think about that boss and how easy it was for my colleague to dismiss him as old fashioned. Saying that strips what he has to say of threat and harm, regardless of whether I felt it.
And I was the one the comments were directed to. I think about him because we’ve all come across someone like him, who continues to say these things because no one corrects him, his words go unchecked and his opinion is dismissed as irrelevant. It does him harm, too. To not be corrected. And it does me a disservice, to assume that, sitting there, being asked repeatedly whether I know every single person of South Asian descent on the planet. It’s not enough to smile and shake my head and think: “Oh, how old fashioned.”