[From the editor: Thanks to Dr. Krishnan Venkatesh’s courtesy for allowing us to republish this article. We highly recommend this article to everyone who cares about the well-being of Malaysian lives and the racism issue in our tanah air. Feel free to leave your comments below.]
If you are from Malaysia, chances are you will experience racism of some form or another — whether you emigrate or stay at home. You will be “different” wherever you are. This year we have been seeing a resurgence of race hatred in the wake of Trump and Brexit: bigotry is being permitted and even empowered, and its virulence is being fuelled by immigration and economic insecurity, among other things. Things are going to be bad for a while. I decided to gather my thoughts and memories of some of the racism I have encountered into two essays. The first is a simple account of what I have experienced and what it felt like; the second is a reflection on how not to become embittered by racism and even to gain strength from it.
Whether I like it or not, I have been shaped by my encounters with racists. In this essay, I’m going to be writing down for the first time an account of some of my experiences with racism, of which I have had more than most people I know. The essay was stirred up by a video I saw this week of a young black woman being jostled and abused at a Donald Trump rally; watching the rage-contorted faces of the men shoving her and shouting at her I remembered that I have known the same faces and shouts in my own life. Earlier this year, watching Tom Hardy’s Mad Max being chased down tunnels by a mob of albino skinheads, I had a flashback of having experienced something very much like this twice in my life. I haven’t talked about this much; it must be a symptom of some kind of PTSD that I can calmly talk about it only now, and usually only when some event like a film or video triggers it. In the next few pages I’m going to set down some memories, thoughts, and feelings,hoping that they might be consoling to those of you who have experienced similar things, and instructive to those lucky enough to have been spared.
My ancestry is Chindian — Indian father, Chinese mother — and I was born in Malaysia, a country with a dominant Malay population. By birth already I am a minority, and a minority that would not have been accepted in both of my parents’ traditional ethnic groups. Their marriage was an act of courage in those days, and fortunate to have been protected by British colonial law — which served the ideal of equality but also the practical end of maintaining civil stability among the multiracial subjects of the empire. Only after we left Malaysia were Chinese and Indians put through an aggressive affirmative action program aimed to make ethnic Malays dominant in all areas of life. All those Chinese and Indians who could afford it sent their children abroad to study, knowing that if they stayed in Malaysia there would be no chance for them to succeed in school.
We were lucky, having moved to Taunton, Somerset, by the time that started. For four years, from age seven to eleven, I remember on the whole sunny, friendly days — but then we moved to the industrial Midlands, the national center of coal, steel, and ceramics, and also of low wages and a growing unemployed underclass. This was in the 1970s, a period of general strikes that brought the country to its knees; the xenophobic, fascist National Front party was prominent, and supported by the growing population of uneducated young people with no hope. Even now the place has not recovered from the devastation of Thatcher’s government, which has left the area with three generations of unemployment. Before I relate some specific experiences, I want to stress here that I have never met people who are warmer hearted, kinder, and gentler than the people of the Potteries, but this was only one layer. The other layers were perhaps only visible to the handful of brown teenagers when they tried to navigate the public spaces of this world of vanishing hope.
We lived in a small town that was part of a close cluster of industrial towns. In the 1970s there were tiny Asian communities in a few of the other towns — indicated by the existence of a couple of Pakistani groceries that sold rare essentials such as rice and spices — but in our town, on a busy Saturday afternoon, the only brown faces on the street would be ours. At our school there were two other Asian students, but they must have lived farther afield. When walking home from school, or just idling in town, it was a weekly occurrence to be called “Paki” (generic term of abuse for any south Asian) or “Chink,” often accompanied by an expletive and aggressive facial expression. It became fascinating to me how they decided whether we were Pakis or Chinks, but they were usually absolutely certain. “Go home” or “Get back where you came from” were exhortations we would regularly hear — these from young adults or adults. Kids would follow us yelling “Chink” or “Ching-chong Chinaman” or just “Paki,” not doing anything more than jeering — but there were times I would just hunker down and quicken my steps for fear of the abuse turning physical. It was not uncommon to be standing in a bookshop looking at a book, and then raising one’s eyes to see a face a few yards away glaring with loathing as the mouth spat out “fucking Paki.” My recollection is that these verbal assaults took place a few times every week and were felt as a daily reality.
This was a period before Political Correctness, and there was no training in “cultural sensitivity” or respect for “diversity.” At our school there was an uneducated man who maintained the swimming pool boiler. Joe was a sweetheart and loved to talk with me, and would say things like, “Gimme a smile! You darkies always have such white teeth.” I never felt anything he said to be racist: while the words he used might have come from systemic racism, the man himself was unfailingly kind and respectful to me, and there was never a jot of hatred in anything he said.
The Hare Krishnas had just made to to the West; on TV and in Middle England they were a symbol of ridiculous exoticism. Sometimes, without knowing what my actual name was, kids would follow me around chanting “Hare Krishna.” Of course, I got this a few times at school from kids who did know my name. One result was that it made me dislike my own name immensely and hate to be even remotely associated with Hindu devotional cults.
These regular tauntings would have been sufficient to make any sensitive person dread to venture out; there was no question of a harmonious relationship with our surroundings, and there was always fear of physical attack. The first assault I remember was when I was eleven, and my brothers and I, together with an English friend, went to play soccer a few blocks away from home at a public field adjacent to my brothers’ primary school. We were kicking around when, seemingly from out of nowhere, about eight older boys turned up, encircled us, started pushing us around, and then made us sit on the grass while they yelled at us, kicked our ball at us, and hit us. “What the fuck are you doing here? Fucking stay over your side of fucking town. This is our field, do you hear? Fucking Pakis. You come to our country and take all the fucking jobs. Go back where you fucking came from. We don’t fucking need you here…” And so on for about thirty minutes. We sat there frightened and crying. They made us get up and leave, and we trudged home in silence. I knew that what they were saying were things they had heard from other people, and we never encountered this particular group again — but after that we could never go out and just play. There was no movement of Asians resisting this kind of thing, and in those days no wider social movement standing strong against racism, so we didn’t really have the tools to think about this or to help us figure out what to do about it. No one talked about it at home or at school; there was never an invitation to talk about such things, and no developed vocabulary for doing so.
It always started with pushing and verbal abuse. About once every two months there would be an incident on the walk back from school, when a bigger boy or — more commonly — two or three boys would crowd me and start the abuse. On one occasion two boys started to hit me lightly and I flew into a rage, grabbing one by the collar and swinging him round and round, keeping him between me and his friend. I hurled him to the ground and started to kick him. Meanwhile, cars were going by. One car pulled up, and a moustached old man popped his head out of the window and told me sternly, “Don’t kick a man when he’s down, boy! I saw the whole thing, and you could easily handle both of them without doing that.” The two louts took this opportunity to escape. After this, I did not feel triumphant or pleased — just physically sick. I sat on the kerb and tried not to throw up; this is how sensitive people actually feel even after winning a fight.
When I was 13, my class went on a field trip to Chester Zoo. There was another school there at the same time. We were free to roam, but once out of sight of the teachers I was hounded by a group of crewcut thugs from the other school who called me every racial name they could think of and, brandishing empty bottles, started to chase me around the zoo until eventually I found my teachers again. This was my first Mad Max chase. Another one involved a crowd of drunk soccer fans at a motorway restaurant where I worked; they were determined to beat the little Paki up, and I hid in the toilets till I knew they were gone. Both these incidents I had successfully repressed until I was about 45; the sudden resurgence of these memories at this later age took me aback, because I had never stopped to reflect just how bad it had been. In those days, dread of the streets was normal, the imminence of physical assault was normal. Compared to similarly motivated assaults in the U.S. the level of violence was relatively mild because there were no guns involved, but the intensity of aggressive emotion was what shook a person more than physical violence: we saw for ourselves that we were intensely not wanted there. Of course, the physical expression of this hatred was only the most obvious face of it; there were countless more subtle expressions of racism every day, many of which we wouldn’t have even noticed because we were more focused on the more physical expressions.
All of this had a deep and pervasive effect on me. I became less social, and consequently read more, listened to music, and learned to love solitude. I have a permanent dislike of large crowds, loud groups of people, and abusive obscenities. When at 14 I overheard a pretty girl saying that she’d never go out with a Paki, it was another blow to any hopes I might have had for a normal social life. Altogether, my relation to communities after this upbringing has been an anxious one, and I have become content with staying at the periphery of community. Fundamentally I do not know how to trust a community and unselfconsciously inhabit one. If I were either a Paki or a Chink, I might not have developed this unease because there would besomewhere where I’d fit in — but being Chindian, born in Malaysia and brought up in England, there can be no place where I would simply be at home. Without the childhood experience of racism, I might never have become a reader and writer, and might never have discovered the delights of solitary activities. And I would not have studied martial arts without this special incentive. In addition, the permanent Alien status has brought with it a thoroughgoing skepticism about traditions and cultures, because I know how manufactured those things can be in the effort to establish groups against other groups.
After the Midlands I studied in Cambridge — more educated, more cosmopolitan, more tolerant, although often too more subtly racist — and then lived in Germany, where the hated minorities were Turks and Greeks, but Asians got some too. It was nothing as bad as in my teenage years though. In China I was treated very well, but was aware of the severe abuse of African students in some of the larger universities.
Occasionally something will happen that stirs up again the dread of racist violence. In India five years ago I tried to visit my great-grandfather’s temple in Trivandrum, the ultra-rich Padmanabhaswamy Temple (whose vaults hold over $24 billion of treasures). I had entered a few months before in the company of my venerable uncle, but now, going in by myself and without an elder as shield, I was stopped at the gate and told to show my ID. Non-Indians are not allowed in, but as an official “Person Of Indian Origin” my status was ambiguous, so I tried to reason with the guys and appealed to my ancestral connection to the temple. They would have none of it. To them, I was an apostate Indian, a traitor, and within a few minutes they were shouting at me and about to start pushing. When more men started arriving, I left — calmly, because I had seen this before. The body language and facial expressions were entirely familiar to me; these boorish Hindu nationalists were no different from the English louts on that soccer field.
For almost three decades now I have lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, about as far removed from any of the nationalisms I have known, and a town that prides itself on its difference and its hospitality to difference. Even so…during the first Gulf War six young men cornered me near the railroad tracks at the center of town, started pushing me around, and accused me of looking like Saddam Hussein. They had been drinking, and I wasn’t scared because I knew I could outrun them — but the questions (“Where do you come from?” “England.” “Yeah right, you wish!”) and assertions (“You people don’t belong in the U.S.A.”) told the old story. I broke out of the circle and ran before things got bad. There have been occasions when my credit card and driver’s license received longer than usual scrutiny because of the suspicious name — from people who cannot be expected to know that no Islamic terrorist would go by the name Krishnan Venkatesh. On the other hand, in my years of long hair, after a particularly disheveling session of fencing at the gym, I have had my credit card refused at a gas station because I must have looked to the Hispanic clerk like a drunk Indian who could not possibly have a Mastercard; only when the white friend who was with me vouched for me was my card accepted. This has happened twice. And as in England, incidents of subtle racism are more numerous.
I realize from the episodes in Santa Fe that the minorities for whom I am mistaken get treated like this regularly, and my treatment was just a glimpse of what life is like for these groups of people: they are experiencing daily the same unease and fear that I experienced as a teenager. Women generally experience subtle and not so subtle abuse daily. I am fairly sure that in a Republican America all of this will get worse, and even if the Republicans lose the national elections a sufficiently large number of bigots now feel empowered to express their loathings. I already know their faces.
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Make sure you do not miss out on his sequel to this essay, “After Racism: A Heartfelt Thanks To All“
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Born in Malaysia in 1960 to a South Indian Brahmin father and a Hakka Chinese mother, Venkatesh was brought up in England and studied English literature at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he obtained First Class honors. He subsequently did postdoctoral work for over four years on Shakespeare at the University of Muenster, Germany, as a wissenschaftlicher mitarbeiter for the great Shakespeare scholar Marvin Spevack. From 1986-89 he taught literature and philosophy at Shanxi University, People’s Republic of China. Both his personal and academic background make him well suited to being a “bridge” between various traditions. Since 1989 he has taught at St. John’s College, Santa Fe, both in the two Western Great Books programs (for which the college is most famous) and was one of the founders of the unique Eastern Classics Master’s program, in which he has taught for 20 years. The program involves close study of the classics of China, India and Japan, as well as rigorous immersion in Classical Chinese or Sanskrit for the sake of greater intimacy with the texts. Venkatesh has taught in all areas of the program, including Chinese and Sanskrit. From 2003-2008 he was the dean of graduate studies at the college. With Socrates in the Phaedrus, he is skeptical of the value of writing and therefore of publication and believes strongly in conversation as the most powerful mode of learning – the “writing in the heart.” St. John’s College has been an ideal academic home for him because of the shared belief in the power of discussion within a sincere community of learning. In the last decade he has spent a total of about two years in India. His recent areas of work have included the Pali Canon of the Buddha, the Japanese philosopher Dogen, and the mathematical books of Johannes Kepler. The lifelong companions at his bedside include Montaigne, Chaucer, Thomas Hardy the poet, Blake, Wordsworth, Zhuangzi, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Austen, Balzac, and Laxness — a beautiful fellowship.