It’s no secret that I hated school. Whenever someone asks me about school my body autopilots an eye roll. I thrived academically, and don’t get me wrong I am privileged to have had access to school, albeit in an incredibly flawed education system. There is a huge privilege in having access to free education which I’d like to clarify before it’s ever used to invalidate my experiences and the experiences of many BAME groups during their school lives. Going to school in the UK meant tolerating racism for many of us. Whether it was passed off as “Banter” or brushed under the carpet by senior staff, it was prevalent throughout my entire school life, and damaged a lot of childhood experiences.
I’m doing this piece a little differently, more of a timeline of events than a narrative.
Although my timeline of events won’t mirror everybody’s individual experiences, I hope it sheds light on the larger issue of systematic racism being upheld through British schooling.
My earliest memory of feeling like my skin and culture was a problem was in year 1, I can still remember every detail. I left my P.E kit at home, and we all know that means you’re either sent home with a note about how useless you are or forced to wear from the lost property pile. The supply teacher – who I’ll refer to as Mrs March, dug out a pair of dutty shorts and a vest from the piss pile of “spares” and told me to change. I told her, in the best way a 6-year-old can, that I can’t wear shorts and vests, I’m not comfortable wearing them and my parents don’t let me. She scoffed, and said, “I haven’t got time for this, you’re not special, you’re Indian, put it on and go to the hall.” I complied, against everything I had been taught by my parents and by the personal boundaries that I had been raised with. Everyone else wore shorts, so I should too, right?
That was the first time I remember Mrs. March saying something that didn’t feel right. When I was in year 4, she was my reading tutor and our class assistant. It was then that her microaggressive comment became more frequent and more apparent. In the summertime, the girls were allowed to wear the summer dress uniform. Of course, to adhere to religious and cultural rules I wore mine with a Salwar so I wasn’t bare legged. Mrs. March approached me at break time and said: “it’s dress or normal uniform, you can’t wear trousers with your dress that looks daft.”
Salwar, not trousers.
Then, a boy who I sat next to in my class decided to announce one day that I was I gorilla because he could see my hairy arms when I took my cardigan off. I remember feeling like my face was burning with embarrassment. I went home that day, at the tender age of 8, and shaved my arms with my grandad’s razor. I didn’t know how to use it properly so you can imagine the grazes and burns. I wished a teacher had intervened, I knew they heard him making me into a joke, but they turned a blind eye to it.
I remember perpetually being referred to as “Paki shop” which had been abbreviated from the previous “ain’t your dad own the Paki shop? Can you get us free stuff?”This wasn’t a secret nickname, it was playground ready – in earshot of playground duty teachers who would tell you off for using the word “idiot” but turn a blind eye to racial slurs.
I never changed clothes in front of my mates in the changing room, unless I had leggings and a vest on underneath my uniform. Mrs. March still haunted me, I hated P.E., the mere thought of it made me want to cry and throw up so I wouldn’t have to take part.
I made a group of friends in high school, white girls who had grown up in a much nicer village. I was their friend, so I let off their racist behaviour to feel accepted and liked. They would stage outrage if someone said something to me or if I was upset, but simultaneously describe me and the only other South Asian girl in our circle as “having Asian time” when we hung out. It was micro-aggression after microaggression. When they got boyfriends, it was significantly worse. One of them insisted on making terrorist jokes as “banter” any time he was around, another once initiated a game of truths just so he could say with his chest that I reeked of curry. Another time, I entrusted two of those friends by telling them about a traumatic incident, but it became gossip within minutes because it pandered to a racial stereotype. A source of humour for them, 2 years of CBT for me.
In year 10, a boy called Ashley followed me down an alley way after school chanting “paki shop” with his friends, he threw a lump of ice at my head and laughed.
I felt like shit for weeks over a 5 minute ordeal, had panic attacks for days and forced my dad to drop me off because I didn’t want to walk on my own.
High school a breeding ground for casual racism, especially when I shifted to wearing my hijab all the time.
I got a lot of Bin Laden jokes, a lot of token Asian jokes where you’re expected to laugh along ,sometimes I’d laugh along to seem sociable – other times I’d just stop talking to people who were so calm about active racism and islamophobia (terms which I didn’t use so frequently back then.)
Another time, a girl in my PE class announced to her friends that she wouldn’t have any mates if she was a Paki, making sure I was in earshot. I cried in the pastoral office until lunch. Her parents were regulars at the shop. Locals. Beer and cigs type.
One thing that kept me slightly grounded was a Graphics Teacher who had spent some time travelling in South Asia. He didn’t have a prickish attitude like a lot of the teachers did. I like to think that he saw that I was struggling without me having to say, he spoke up when racial slurs or inappropriate banter was used in the classroom. He even allowed me to use the classroom to pray, to go when I was overwhelmed at break times, and to have a safe space from everything that was breaking me inside.
I made a habit of using the classroom at lunchtime on days when I had PE. I went there, ready to cry into my sandwiches and saw a carrom board and counters to play. It was a gesture I couldn’t forget. I felt cared about when I was at my lowest. This was in year 11, the final year of school. It had been the first time in my entire school life that my identity was granted a safe space. It was the first time in my entire school life that a teacher had shown compassion and kindness without having to iron through all the details of what had been said or done to me that week. He just cared, he gave a shit.
In all of those incidents, there needed to be more Mr. W’s. There always should have been safe spaces and teachers who called out racism when they saw it. There always should have been a duty of care to minorities.
We have to have safe spaces for minorities in schools, multi-faith spaces, places where our identities can breathe. There have to be places where BAME students can talk about issues facing their communities without judgment. There should be strictly upheld no-tolerance policies on racism, not second and third chances. Racist students should be held accountable for their actions, not able to get away with hate-crimes because they took place in the four walls of a classroom.
In my whole school life, I only felt once that a member of staff truly cared. That didn’t make him a hero, it made him a person who cared for the wellbeing of his students – shouldn’t that have been the case with each and every one of these incidents?
Something has to change. I just don’t know when, but I hope the fragments of year 11 Shazmeen in me will champion that change somehow.
Written By Shazmeen Khalid