“Why is she pushing me? Why does she push me?”
“Excuse me, what did you just say? What did you say to me?”
A mother and her daughter are on their feet in Pizza Express. I’m behind a mirrored column, and I crane my neck around it to see what the commotion is about. A man is seated, swearing at the woman in an improvised, loose hijab.
“You’re a fucking militant!’ he spits at her.
“Hey!” I’m out of my seat, around the column and up to the steps that they are on. Yelling. Staff rushing in to separate the man from the women, who he is pointing at angrily and threatening with his size. My boyfriend is between me and him, but I can see I’m taller than he is.
“Did you hear what he just said to us?” The daughter asks me.
“Yes, I did. I heard it.”
“Why do they tell me to fuck off back to my own country?” the mother is asking me.
Me: “You fucking arsehole! You shouldn’t be saying things like that!”
He looks at me, angry. A police officer steps in and flashes his badge.
All of the above happened at Pizza Express, on 18 January 2014. I was enjoying dinner after working on my Syntax exam for about seven hours, just talking with my boyfriend and making some boring remark about how good the gorgonzola was with bacon. I found out how I react to racism in my immediate vicinity. By yelling, apparently.
I’m a new arrival to London. The city is everything a city should be: powerful, influential, populous, multicultural. London manages to be simultaneously modern and ancient, to reach back into the times so long ago that we can’t even truly pin down where it’s name comes from. The river Thames breathes the ancient into the city, even as a Waterloo Sunset slips below the horizon and casts its rosy glow on all the newness of the skyline. I pretend that I am a red blood cell in the rush hour crush at Holborn station, surging along arterially with my million closest friends.
I often say that if aliens come, London should be humanity’s representative city.
I wasn’t born into city life. I grew up in a town of fewer than 20,000 people on the plains of the Front Range in Colorado. The only traffic jam to speak of was the daily rush of teenagers (inexplicably in their own private cars….such waste!) on the single road into my high school. We have Rush Minute, not Rush Hour. There is very little racial, religious, or linguistic variation in my hometown. Put it this way: at my high school they teach a ‘diversity’ class to make sure that we aren’t closeted in our cocoon of white, middle-class suburbia too thoroughly. Limited success.
London is all that my hometown is not. There are more than 100 languages spoken in almost every borough of the city, with more than 1.7 of its residents being non-native English speakers. It is an international economic powerhouse. It drives migration both into and out of the country. It draws hundreds of thousands of new residents like me each year. Most religions of the world are represented in large numbers. The immigrant communities of London are huge and powerful, and the process of post-colonial integration is ongoing.
Some have reacted badly to this. Papers run sensationalist headlines about immigrants, migrants, Muslims, and the NHS almost daily. A survey last summer showed that this media pressure is not harmless; people in the UK mis-estimate numbers of immigrants by orders of magnitude. The English Defence League and British National Party continue to push their anti-immigrant agendas, despite recent losses and reorganisations. People use racist slurs a lot more commonly than I’ve ever experienced in my tiny hometown in the US.
Now, I had overheard the odd wrong-headed comment in London before. Some lady ran a red light and the older women said, “Those immigrants just don’t know how to drive.” I walked out of the station to go to a West Ham match and heard some drunk jerks yelling slurs at no one in particular. I’ve heard people on the Tube complaining about a woman in a niqaab, albeit quietly. I got asked by my boyfriend’s grandfather if I am “colour prejudiced.” All that is problematic, but it’s less in-your-face than my Pizza Express Racist.
He was a middle-aged, white, balding man. His wife was fairly tiny, and if I hadn’t been so angry with her actions I’d have been impressed that she dared take on a much larger woman. The woman and her daughter were at the table next to them, and I had seen them asking a couple questions about the menu to the waitstaff. As the mirrored column was in my way I couldn’t see or hear everything until voices were raised. I assume that the close quarters made it possible for the racist couple to overhear a discussion about which pizzas were Halal (permitted under Islamic traditions…a concern in a restaurant with so much bacon-y goodness).
I always hope that I’m not a pushover or a coward when it comes to my beliefs. I am acutely aware of how my own background (ethnically, financially, culturally) is a distinct advantage as an immigrant in the UK. The kinds of remarks that couple levelled at those two women, one of whom was born and raised here, are unlikely to be aimed at me. Even though I’ve lived here fewer than six months. I worried that if I ran into the rare situation of real racism, I would be too afraid to speak up. Racists are scary people, and I’m on unfamiliar ground. In the US, confronting someone about something as stupid as texting in a movie can result in weapons being drawn and death or injury. Would I let fear keep me from speaking out if I saw something truly wrong happening right in front of me?
When the time came, I didn’t have time to think about all of that. I was out of my seat and calling a perfect stranger an arsehole before my rational brain could even catch up. It was all over so fast that I was back in my seat with fork and knife in hand before I processed what had just happened. The police officer talked to the couple and texted his on-duty colleagues just in case. The mother and daughter left. I finished my pizza (with bacon). A guy came up to congratulate (?) the racist for his actions. We left.
I love London. I love being an immigrant to the UK. I know that this incident is very rare, and not at all representative of the attitudes of most people in the city. I feel badly that the mother and her daughter left, not the racist couple. I just wanted them to see they had a witness on their side. I found out that when I witness something that doesn’t sit well with me, I’m not one to sit on my hands and hope that the offender shuts up. I may regret my choice of words later, but I am not a quiet bystander.
I yelled at a racist in Pizza Express, and I’d do it again.