Experiences of Racism
Photo by Filip Mroz / Unsplash

Experiences of Racism

I experience myself as living in a racist society.

How do you know when someone is being racist?

You don’t, always.

In fact, in the comfortable circumstances of my life, you very rarely know for sure.

No one shouts explicitly racist insults at me. No one beats me up and tells me it’s because I’m Indian. No one explains that they are being rude to me because I’m a foreigner - the wrong kind, at that, the kind with skin that isn’t white, with food that “stinks”, the kind that may even, heaven forbid, be Muslim.

All of which makes it even more shocking when you absolutely do know that someone is being racist.

The woman in the bakery walked away when I reached the front of the counter. I stood there waiting, and she wouldn’t serve me. She didn’t even look at me. But finally, when I said something like, excuse me, do you think I might be able to get a croissant, she looked directly at me.

And in her look was contempt. In her look, I saw that I was inferior. I saw that I was unclean. I saw that I was not the same class of being as she was. I saw that I was either not human, or I was the worse kind of human, the less important kind.

The look overwhelmed me. I don’t remember what I said but I remember feeling scattered, pieces of myself splintering, I remember panic, I remember anger. I remember confusion. I said something passive-aggressive, I think, and left without being served.

In the street, a few minutes later, I am furious. Utterly, incandescently furious. I want to go back in and punch the woman in the face. I want to punch her repeatedly, over and over again, punch her till bones crunch under my first, punch her till her pale white flesh is painted with blood.

I am not exaggerating. I am not being poetic or metaphorical when I say I want to do this violence to her. I am being precise and literal.

I don’t want her to die. I want her to suffer.


I am staying in a hotel by the sea. It is a hotel for pensioners, it is a very old-fashioned and very white. I am the only brown face there.

In the evening, when I go down to dinner, my bona fides are repeatedly checked. They don’t believe I’m staying here. Eventually, I have to go to reception and get my key and I shake it in their face: look at this, alright?

The same thing happens the next morning at breakfast (the staff have changed, so no one recognises me from the previous night). This time I am prepared and have brought my key with me.


I am in the queue at a supermarket. In front of me is an old woman. The cashier laughs and jokes with her. When it’s my turn, this is instantly turned off. I am treated with coldness and hostility. I pay, and as I move off, I hear laughter again. The cashier is joking with the person behind me.


I enter a shop. It’s a really shitty shop. The proprietress looks at me with suspicion. What do you want, she says? Just to look around, I say. She follows me around, never letting me out of her sight. When I pick something up, she immediately comes closer.


Rahi loves books. So when we go to Berlin, I take him to a bookshop. It has a big English section for kids books, and I’d like him to learn English, so we go in there. We find a comfy chair. Rahi’s really excited, and instead of telling him what to read, I let him choose whatever he wants and he brings it to the chair..

Naturally, he doesn’t bring one book. He brings three, and then he goes back to bring three more. Soon, we have a little pile on the table in front of us. I suggest we read one, and he agrees. He wants the one with trains, he says. This doesn’t really narrow it down. All of them have trains.

Still, we manage to pick one, and I read it to him. As I’m reading, a woman who works there comes and says, you do know, dont you, that here, we put books back, so that other customers can find them.

I stare at her. I look around at other customers who also have piles in front of them. All white, all somehow not worthy recipients of this piece of information. I am the only one who is told this.



In 1962, V. S. Naipaul visited India for the first time. In 1964, he wrote about this year-long trip in An Area of Darkness.

“India,” he says, “is the poorest country in the world. Therefore, to see its poverty is to make an observation of no value; a thousand newcomers to the country before you have seen and said as you.”

I feel a bit like that in writing about racism. Yes, it exists. Yes, it’s bad. Yes, it makes me feel bad. So? I mean, sure, it matters to me. But it’s not exactly revelatory, is it? What is left to say about racism that’s interesting?

Nothing that I could say, most likely. But asking the question is useful because it forces me to ask: why am I writing this?

In part, there is no why. There is simply need. Jindy, a man I met on LinkedIn, who I would normally call an acquaintance but in this moment I can somehow only feel as a friend, wrote on his Substack about racism in Germany. I read it, reposted it and said it chimed with my experience, and a few people got in touch to either express support or swap stories or both.

I don’t know why but something got touched inside by all this, all churned up and turbulent. And there was this need that has been with me ever since to write about it.

Why else?

I realise that, even more than usual, I am writing for myself. I am writing to myself to describe my experience, to try to make some sense of it, and to try to figure out what I can and want to do about it.

I will make no proposals for political action, I will offer no grand underlying explanations.

I am writing in the very micro, because I am writing for the very micro: for myself, in my daily life, moment to moment.


This isn’t my first rodeo. I moved to England when I was 13. I have been a brown - yes, I say brown, and there is a certain anger in that, a certain fuck-you: I’m not even Asian or Indian, let alone a person: I’m brown - person in a white world for almost 30 years.

In that time, I have experienced racism. Of course I have.

Friends would make jokes about Abu from the Simpsons; a few called me Pranjay for a while, I think because it rhymed with Sanjay and Sanjay is a funny name because it’s Indian? I’m not sure. Something like that.

I’ve sat on buses with standing room only except for one seat, the one next to me.

I’ve had neighbours tell me that Austria is not what it was since the foreigners came.

I’ve been told by a prospective landlady that they didn’t like renting to foreigners because then the flat smells funny.

I applied for 27 flats in Switzerland and didn’t get one and the moment I got a white Swiss friend to put his name on the application instead, he got the first three he applied for.

So yeah, of course I’ve experienced racism. But I have also had the immense good fortune never to have experienced what I currently do, which is that I now experience myself as living in a racist society.

When a person is racist to me, I am no longer able to write it off as a singular arsehole being an arsehole. Even if I want to do it intellectually, I am currently unable to experience it like that.

Even more poisonously, when a person is "just" an arsehole to me, I am unable to experience it as them just being an arsehole. This isn’t surprising. Once you’ve experienced enough clear racism, every time someone is an arsehole, you wonder, would you be like that if I was white? And maybe quite often the answer is yes, but it’s not an answer that is easily available to me nowadays. My default is to think the worst.

I want to say it again, because it is new to me and it is shocking to me: I experience myself as living in a racist society.

But what does this actually mean?

It means that when I walk out the door, I am defensive and wary, on the alert for any kind of insult or aggression.

It means that sometimes, when I am already fragile, I put off going to the supermarket because I know there’s a chance of someone looking at me funny or being rude to me, and I really can’t be dealing with that in my state.

It means that I am reluctant to go to cafes and spend hours writing in them (anyone who knows me will likely find this cafe thing the most shocking detail so far).

It means that I withdraw deeper and deeper into myself, sullen, mistrusting, ready to find offence, ready to be attacked.

I have never described this to myself so systematically and I am shocked by it. It could be a description of being depressed.

Probably everyone likes to think of themselves as sociable, so I don’t know how much epistemic value there is in me saying that I’m a sociable person. But hey, what can I say? I think I am. I like people. I smile at people I don’t know. I strike up conversations in bus stops and train stations, in cafes and supermarkets … everywhere I go, really. I find people interesting and I care easily (I think).

Man, I love people.

And here I am, scared of contact, prickles out. Here I am, avoiding eye contact because I am scared of what I might find if I make it. I walk around hunched up, bundled up against more than the cold. I bite down anger - the consequences of expressing it may be unwelcome, and in any case it allows the racist to say, oh look, see how rude and angry they are - and allow it to slowly poison my insides instead of letting it land where it more justly belongs.


Some apparently unconnected ideas come to mind.

The American philosopher and psychologist (who is fantastic and well worth reading) William James talks of cases “where faith in a fact can help create the fact.”

A simple example of this is when you walk into a room filled with strangers. If you expect them to be hostile, you massively increase the chances of them actually being hostile, because you will act in ways that inspire hostile reactions. And if you expect them to be on your side, you will massively increase the chances of that happening, because you will be open and trusting and relaxed and all those things that help people like you.

As I just said, I experience the society I live in as racist. I expect it to be hostile to me.

Now, I don’t reproach myself at having this belief. Given my experiences over the last year (of which the examples above are the merest sliver, if slivers are allowed to be mere), it is a very well-justified belief. But if James is right, and I think he is, it is clear that the belief also itself makes my experience worse.

I thought also of Jesus - of the mad, fantastic idea of loving everyone. How do you love a racist? Is it even possible? What would it do - to you, to the racist, to the relationship between you?

That reminds me of an experience I had forgotten. It happened about a month ago. I was in a supermarket (I seem to hang out in supermarkets a lot). The woman behind me was incredibly rude to me; so rude that in addition to taking offence I also became interested.

Are you okay, I asked.

Yes, yes, fine, okay, okay, yes, she said.

No, I said, and I spoke slowly and I looked her in the eyes and I made my own as soft and open as I could. Are you okay?

Yes, she said again, but there was a little more confusion in her voice.

I let her answer hang in the air, so she knew I really was listening. And I really was, I wasn’t pretending. I kept looking at her. She could see I actually cared.

Really, I asked? Is something up? Did something happen today? Can I do something?

For a moment there was a flicker in her eyes of something alive, and then it went away again.

No, she said. All fine. Fine!

Okay, I said, and shrugged and turned around.


I am writing this for myself, I said, and part of that is trying to figure out how I want to be and what I want to do about living in a society full of something that rhymes with bunts.

I don’t have any kind of answer. I guess this is to be expected. But it’s also a little dissatisfying.

I do want to be clear about something, though. They are bunts.

All my self-examination, my attempts to figure out what I want to do, what would be good to do … all that should under no circumstances be interpreted as any of the following.

It should not be interpreted as denying the political. I am writing about the personal, but this is because that is what I want to write about, not because the problem can be reduced to that.

It should not be interpreted as advocating some wishy-washy bullshit about how we need to love everyone, even the racists. No. Fuck the racists. If I am wondering about loving them, I am wondering about this for my sake.

It should not be interpreted as putting the responsibility on people who suffer racism as opposed to people who inflict it.


It’s been snowing a lot in Hamburg recently. The pavements are packed with snow and ice. I spent a couple of hours yesterday hacking and shovelling, getting it off the bit in front of our house.

In the beginning, as I breathed in the cold air and hacked at the ice, as I scooped up the snow and piled it up the sides, I felt grand. This is the life, I thought.

Manual labour! God it feels good to be doing honest work.

We have lost touch with the dignity of work, with the meaning of labour!

After about 20 minutes, my hands were very cold (the Sanklecha-Böddeling household currently owns one adult-sized glove, and Annika and I both leave it to the other to use, so it lies on a window-sill, desolate and lonely). My arms were aching. I was sweating and freezing at the same time.

I looked at the pavement. I had not done even 10% of what I needed to do.

Fuck this, I thought. Fucking manual labour. What is the point of this? I understand why people wanted to stop working in the mines. It’s fucking shit.

But I kept going because … actually, I don’t know. I just did. When I was close to finishing, a black woman came walking down the street. She looked tired and a bit beaten down.

Hello! I said.

She looked up, surprised.

I smiled at her. Hello, I said, a little quieter.

Hello, she said, not smiling but without hostility, I think just a little bit wary, but open to being pleasantly surprised.

Hello, I said again, driving the point home.

She smiled, and walked on. I looked at the pavement and thought, fuck it, it’ll have to do, and went inside.