Not all racism is malicious – but it's still devastating

Prejudice that leads to murder does not start with overt violence, says Shakil Butt, but with microaggressions that become macroaggressions

Anyone who has worked with me over the last 30 years knows I have my own personal kryptonite. I have always suffered in the heat and would go through various stages of undress (within reason) at the office. At the risk of sounding like a cheap romance novel, first the jacket would come off, then my tie would be loosened and the top button of my shirt would get undone, followed by my shirt sleeves being rolled up and finally – begrudgingly – my waistcoat would come off.

So perhaps I should have got used to the response I would get year in, year out from some colleagues suggesting that surely I was used to the heat because of where I came from. This was always frustrating to hear. 

I was not accustomed to hot weather because the place I am from, to be precise, is Birmingham. Until the age of 25, I had not really travelled anywhere outside of Britain other than a school day trip to France. It was not until I was 42 that I finally travelled to Pakistan, my mother’s birth country, for the first and only time. I didn't regard it as the motherland or home; rather, I have always defined myself as a Brummie, born and bred – with English, the language I dream in, my mother tongue. 

While not the intention, the message I got when it was suggested I should be able to cope with the heat was that I was not really from here. My response, which became a trained response, was to not to react and to simply explain that I was born and raised in the UK. 

The most common variation of this is the classic “where are you from?”. When you do not give the answer that’s expected, this is followed by “but where are you really from?”. If you’ve still not identified yourself as the ‘other’ then finally comes the killer question, “where are your parents from?”. Is it strange that I get some form of satisfaction knowing that when my children are asked these questions, they will be able to answer “the UK” for all three questions, forcing the questioner to ask about their grandparents. Though I draw less satisfaction from knowing that, unless we see a real change in mindsets, they will have already faced those questions and will in future face those questions again. 

This low-level racism – or microaggression – is still exactly that: racism. Not all racism is overt or malicious, but it can still have the same impact over time as it chips away at a person’s self worth. There are many types of microaggression. If you are a person of colour then you have most likely experienced them, reminding you that you are different and do not belong from someone else’s perspective. 

Microaggressions include:

  • Statements that start with “I’m not a racist, but”,  which normally have a racist statement attached;
  • Expectations that you can speak on behalf of all ethnic people everywhere, when the truth is you can only speak about your own lived experience and your own particular community; 
  • Being told you speak English “really well”, which always makes me want to say “and so do you”;
  • Being told you do not “act like the others”, as if that should be taken as a compliment and you should be grateful for the recognition; 
  • Being told your name is “hard to pronounce” and asked if it is okay to call you something else; 
  • Being called someone else’s name by mistake, usually because you are the same ethnically. 

All of these microaggressions have the effect of dehumanising a person, making them feel lesser, and creating an environment of supremacy on the one hand and inferiority on the other. Everyone has the right to be treated with dignity, to be seen as more than their skin colour, and valued as a human being in their own right. Racism that leads to murdering someone does not start with overt violence but builds up over time with microaggressions that become macroaggressions.

I suppose my visible difference does have one advantage: with my greater level of pigmentation I am less likely to burn in the sun as quickly – although I should clarify that I still need suncream to protect my skin. It is just a shame racism is not so easy to protect against, nor is there a climate controlled room I can escape to.

Right now, the world is seeing the effect of the heat constantly being turned up for ethnic minority individuals. We all need to be cool – but that requires real change.

Shakil Butt is founder of HR Hero for Hire