About six months after Stephen Lawrence was murdered, my flatmates and I moved from Earlsfield (boring) to Brixton (edgy!). Basing ourselves in a deeply unpleasant unfurnished house with an outdoor toilet, we did what middle-class white kids did back in the early 1990s: took recreational drugs, made half-arsed attempts to get into jobs in the media, pretended that we liked football. We read the Guardian with devoted intensity (it was, after all, where the media jobs ads were to be found), but led utterly apolitical lives as the Major government fell apart like a clown’s car. I remember reading about the Lawrence case, and being aware of the accusatory swirl around the Met’s investigation; but when we staggered back from the Landor or the Eagle late on a Friday night, police patrol cars were reassuring, not sinister.
In my entire time living in Brixton (five years, during which I saw things at the Fridge nightclub that I really don’t think a hetero girl was supposed to see), I don’t think I spoke on a purely social basis to a single non-Caucasian local. After living in white areas all my life I was no longer part of an overwhelmingly dominant ethnic group, and I was utterly disconcerted by it. I was amazed to discover that the non-white population in Brixton was a substantial minority, but not a majority: this fact simply didn’t tally with my perception. An inchoate sense of alienation was compounded by my realisation that my responses were, at the very best, irrational and distasteful; at worst… even in my head, I rarely allowed myself to finish the sentence. The discovery that I had racist kneejerk impulses made me, frankly, a bit miserable. I rationalised it to myself as a primordial response, and never missed an opportunity to be inappropriately over-familiar with the guy who sold the Big Issue outside the tube.
And yet, for all that I was a bit of a tit in those days, it was instructive. In the Acre Lane Tesco, I stepped over a basket left in the middle of an aisle by two Caribbean women; they sucked their teeth noisily at me, and remarked that they’d have to put their goods back, because white women don’t wash properly and their veg would now be contaminated some sort of infernal genital spray (these weren’t their precise words, but the meaning was clear. And, although I do have very short legs, and may well have been stoned, I feel I should make it completely clear that I really, really hadn’t absent-mindedly squatted on their basket.) For about ten minutes I enjoyed the sensation of being discriminated against, before being struck, as I so often am, by the thunderingly obvious: experiencing a social response based entirely on my ethnicity, rather than my Rowan-ness, was thrillingly novel. For the women with a morbid fear of white fanny, it was (I assume) as dreary as the Number 2 bus, if more predictable. And I couldn’t claim that I wasn’t guilty of it.
And so, as Diane Abbott wanders into what we used to call a ‘race row’ the day after Norris and Dobson were finally convicted, what it comes down to is this: white people in majority white societies may occasionally be on the sharp end of racist assumptions, but unless the offence is grievous, whining about it just makes you a jerk. Hugh Muir wrote yesterday that immigrants in the UK need to accept the British framework, and I think he’s right. But when it comes to racism in the UK, non-white people get to set the framework. White Britons can (and should) contribute to the debate, but to assert an equivalence of gravity is bullheaded nonsense.
Some time in 1995, on a beautiful summer’s day, I spotted a black woman standing outside Brixton town hall, filming a well-attended protest outside the Ritzy cinema. I asked her what was going on, and she answered sharply that it was nothing to do with me. Piqued, I crossed the road to see for myself; it was a march calling on the Home Office to set up an inquiry into the Met’s handling of the Stephen Lawrence case. The woman with the camera was wrong; it was something to do with me. I fully supported the marchers. But it wasn’t my march.