First Class Racism

I have been asked by various news outlets to write about my experience on Thursday, and i’ve decided to write it here instead. If you haven't seen my tweets, let me first explain what happened;

On Thursday my daughter and I boarded a Train at London’s Euston station after I took part in a photoshoot. We’d had such a fun day together, and looked forward to our journey home. Tiani, my daughter, wanted the window seat, she scooted in and looked for the book she was currently reading as I readied myself to be seated too. As I took my place, a woman in her early 40’s approached me and in quite an accusatory tone asked me “Do you have a first class ticket?” I was genuinely confused at her question, why would I be sat in the 1st class carriage without one? I look at her, she isn’t dressed as if she works for the company, I glance around and it clicks…My daughter and I are the only black people in the carriage. I feel it’s necessary to give her the benefit of the doubt, and for clarity, I ask “why did you ask me that?” she leans in, and in a hushed tone, as if helping me out says “well i’ve just seen the conductor, and he wont let you travel in this carriage” again, I ask “why?” she replies “you need a 1st class ticket” At this point I feel her assumptions are crystal clear, i’m offended and my daughter’s face shows she has understood the rhetoric too. I feel this is a teachable moment, for both the woman in question and my daughter.

“Why have you assumed I don't have a first class ticket?”

“Well have you got one?”

“Have you?”

“Yes I have”

“What made you ask me that question, and no one else in this carriage?”

“It’s because I wanted to sit with you”

“I don’t need a ticket for you to sit opposite me, there’s no need to lie, my 11 year old could explain why you asked, why not just be honest? The least you could do is admit you were wrong to do so”

“No, I wasn’t wrong. What are you implying?”

At this point I find the exchange humorous, I really would have respected this woman if she could admit that she acted out of prejudice and this was an error, but she chose to remain wrong and strong. I reply with; 

“Let’s be honest, you’ve seen a young, black girl and assumed she doesn't have a 1st class ticket. You’ve allowed your prejudice to speak for you”

“No, that’s not it, I would ask anyone I intend to sit with if they had a first class ticket”

“Really? So if I was an older white man, you would ask him?  Let this be a lesson to you, don't you ever make this kind of assumption out loud again. I hope you feel ashamed”

I then instruct my daughter that we’re going to move to another table, I tell her I don't want to sit opposite this woman for the duration of our journey. 

My daughter and I sit down at an adjacent table. I then began to apologise to my daughter for any embarrassment i’d caused her, I began to explain that sometimes you have to call people out for their wrongs, she stops me and draws my attention to the gentleman who has taken the seat in which I was sat. Serendipity at it’s finest. An older white man. Tiani stared over at the woman for a good minute, and her face took on every emotion as she saw confirmation of the woman’s point of view. Heartbreaking. In a level that would’ve been audible to the entire carriage, Tiani says “Are you not going to ask him for his credentials then?” The woman didn’t turn her head to acknowledge my daughter’s question, but the beetroot hue on her face was proof enough that she’d heard every word. For me, the perfect ending to our unfortunate exchange.

Now, I decided to tweet about it, as I am a tweeter. As millions of us are. What struck me, were the wave of comments I received…first of all those in response to my tweets, the shock and horror that this could happen. I need to say at this point, this situation is far from unique. Most of my train travel is first class, and I would estimate that at least 60% of the time, I experience this exchange with either another passenger or someone working for the train company. It’s irritating, embarrassing, but I, like many affluent, black women accept it as an annoying part of the space I occupy in society. I have multiple replies to my tweets from people who have had similar exchanges, and rarely are they isolated incidents. 

There was also then the support and celebration of my daughter and her response. Just a week earlier, my daughters and I were talking about people making offensive remarks/actions without being aware of it. I explained the nuances behind institutionalised racism, and we all came to the conclusion that we don't help the problem if we let people offend and upset us and not let them know they’re doing so. We decided, that from now on, we’re going to help people out, we are going to be brave and tell them “I don't like that you did/said that”. I was and am so proud of the bravery my daughter displayed. Yes, she is being taught to respect her elders, but she is also being taught to effectively communicate her genuine feelings, no matter who it may be.

The following day, yesterday, the story was picked up by most of our national newspapers & media outlets. Firstly, this surprised me, it surprised me that this was news. Again, I have to reiterate, this situation is not unique. It's institutionalised racism -

“a form of racism expressed in the practice of social and political institutions. Whether implicitly or explicitly expressed, institutionalised racism occurs when a certain group is targeted and discriminated against based upon race.”

- Black people experience this daily, in social & professional environments, wether it’s being greeted with “Wha Gwarn”, having our hair touched  without permission, being told we are “so well-spoken”, being repeatedly stopped in our luxury cars or being asked if we have a ticket to travel in first class. This kind of thing happens every. single. day.  

I also received tweets asking why I felt the need to tweet about it, why didn’t i just keep it to myself, I have a chip on my shoulder, I'm attention seeking and “always playing the ‘race card’” If i was to tweet every single racist incident that happened to me as it happened, you would be on the floor. If i and every other person of ethnic minority i know were to do it, i guarantee you it would affect twitter’s algorithms and become a trending topic. I have no doubt about that. The insistence that I don't affect the status quo with my uncomfortable truth is quite telling, and indicative of the issues we face today as a society. The problem is that we don't tell you, we speak about it amongst ourselves, and you get to carry on about your day not realising you've ruined ours. I tweeted because i wanted you to read it. I wanted you to be aware of this happening. I wanted you to know that even if you have these thoughts in your head, it’s not ok to say it aloud.

I do not want to keep quiet about it anymore. We serve no-one by remaining quiet, if anything this renders us complicit in the continuation and validation of this behaviour. It is not ok with me, and it shouldn't be ok with you. Most importantly, i'm teaching my girls not to be ok with it either. I absolutely refuse to send my daughters out into a world that tells them NOT to speak up when someone hurts them. The only way that will happen is if we are all brave enough to put these important conversations on the table now. 

Love Always xx