Laid Low By A Word

I remember seeing a stand-up routine years ago. I think it was Richard Pryor and he was talking about how he could be perfectly happy, going about his business when he’d get hit by the word ‘nigger.’ And, no matter how logically he tried to see things, it’d affect him.

This happens to me still. Not was much as before I reached 6’1″, admittedly. But it does happen and I know how he feels. I don’t really know if any white person could say the same. Sympathy ? empathy.

On Friday night, I stopped at the Shell Station on the way home to fill up. I always talk to the bloke in there, he’s one of the cheeriest people I’ve met. Even at the start of a shift that won’t finish till 6am, he’s friendly and smiley.

This Friday, he didn’t seem his usual self. He seemed a bit stressed so I asked him what was wrong.

‘These two lads were trying to buy some fags, through the window opening. They gave me the wrong money. So I told them to give me the right money. They pretended they had but I checked again. When I said, “Come on, lads, this isn’t right,” they just started calling me a fucking Paki. Just shouting it again and again. Wouldn’t stop. Why did they call me that? I’ve always been alright with them. Always. Why call me that?’

I knew exactly how he felt. Unless you’ve been a victim of racial prejudice, you cannot understand how it cuts at you. Some people react by becoming invisible, hoping to evade any attention from potential tormentors. Others become a caricature of the ethnic group they find themselves lumped in. Their pantomime Asian or black or Jew serves, in exaggeration, as a shield. But it is also, of course, a cage.

It made me so sad to see this bloke who’s always so chirpy so unsettled and unhappy. Really, I wanted to give him a hug but I don’t know him that well. I told him I understood and he understood that I understood. We shared a look based on a common pain. I don’t think I helped much but at least he felt a bit less alone. We both know that some people will never, ever see past the colour of our skin.

And people ask me why my band is called White Town.