Last Saturday, my family and I took a shopping trip to East London’s Green Street in Forest Gate. Green Street is a high street of Asian clothing shops, jewellers, grocers and beauticians. It’s a great vibrant little community that also has an Islamic Centre and Gurdwara.
I was there looking for an Asian outfit for a Sangeet night I’m attending soon. I used to get my threading done in this part of London when we lived fairly nearby, some six or seven years ago now, so its familiar territory for us.
But apparently not a welcoming territory any more.
From the moment we hit the high street, the hostile glances towards us became really obvious. Literally everyone stared at us. We went into the shopping mall, people looked us. We went in and out of shops- this was the worst- the shop keepers made us feel so unwelcome. Think of the shopping scene in Pretty Woman before Vivian’s big makeover!
Seriously, it was a horrible experience. In an all-Asian area, an Asian woman with her white husband and their mixed race child are made to feel unwelcome. You could see the judgement and prejudice written all over their faces. It was intimidating, upsetting, and totally infuriating.
I’m used to people, particularly other Asians, judging me for my unconventional life choices, so it wasn’t this that was shocking.
No, what really shocked me was that this racism was happening in London, in 2015. I mean when my husband and I first started dating 15 years ago, there were certain places we’d go that this kind of obvious racism would happen a lot. Brent Cross shopping centre was one of them (!) All the aunti-jis would look disapprovingly at us, sometimes even tut at me. But that was pre-9/11, pre-Islamaphobia (as we know it today), and pre-fourth wave feminism. It was a different time. Social activism via Twitter and the fight for equality wasn’t what it is today. Not that that excuses the behaviour, obviously; but it was of its time.
So why in today’s climate is it apparently even less acceptable, less tolerable, for an Asian woman like me, to be married to a non-Asian; at least in the eyes of other Asians?
Perhaps it’s part of the growing backlash against Asian women marrying out of their community. We’ve seen a sharp rise in this amongst the Sikh community, and so perhaps this intolerance is not just contained to one section of the British Asian community.
Or perhaps the Asians of Forest Gate have become so ghettoised that they cannot hide their surprise- let alone intolerance of a white man and an Asian woman together on their streets. I find that hard to believe though. Green Street sits right next to Stratford, home of the Olympic Village- the Olympics that we won the right to host because of London’s diversity and tolerance. Ok, so maybe that was disingenuous marketing strategy employed by the Olympic planning committee. But still, we’re not talking about some ghetto in the middle of nowhere: it’s LONDON- one of the most multicultural cities in the world!
And equally alarmingly, is that most of the hostile glances came from young women- some who were probably younger than me. I get it when the older generation judge me. They hold to their traditional values which don’t often include the intermarrying of races. But I would’ve expected my peers to understand my position. How many of them have fallen in love with someone of a different race at work or at university, and would give anything to marry him? How many of them want to make their own choices, like who to marry, but can’t because of family pressure I wonder? This is hardly unfamiliar ground is it?!
I think largely what it comes down to is that we are incredibly judgemental of our own people. The biggest critics we face are our peers. Perhaps some of them begrudgingly conform to family pressure and cultural expectations and can’t stand it when one of us crosses the boundary. It seems mind-blowing that there are no-go areas for people like me who have dared to do so.
And before anyone comments: “why would you take your white husband to an-Asian area? You know the looks you’re going to get!” I’ll say this. I think we all agree that there should be no street, no neighbourhood that is a no-go area if you’re of a certain race. But apparently those areas are alive and thriving today.