World Book History #8: Let Me Tell You This

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is let-me-tell-you-this.jpg

In 2020, racism is still a very global problem. Events in the US over the last two weeks have brought about awareness on the biggest scale that many of us can remember. But it’s far from just an American problem.

Here in the UK and wider Europe, the attitude that ‘our society can’t ever be as bad as America’s’ is both widespread and deeply problematic.

And Nadine Aisha Jassat is all too aware of racial divisions in her native Scotland. As a woman of colour, her perspective on race, heritage and integration in the UK is profound and affecting. In her debut poetry collection Let Me Tell You This, she lays out that perspective in direct style that’s brutal, uncomfortable, wise and truthful in equal measure.

It’s a book that – along with those highlighted by this petition last week – could do wonders on the UK educational syllabus. It’s full to the brim with crucial material, but there are three poems in particular which confront that very British strain of racism head-on.

And they are…

Paki Hands

As white people, it’s vital that we start checking our privilege. Early on, Jassat confronts that issue in ‘Paki Hands’. The poem shows just how normalised racist language has become in British dialect, and is pertinent regarding current events in the USA;

I could ask her what she means, but then I’d be told I’m making a scene. But if I stay quiet – gaze lowered to pale-dark hands, feet and knees – what will the silence do to me?

Here Jassat highlights another crucial way in which white people have to become able and proud allies to people of colour. If we’re not checking our friends – calling them out on the use of racist or generally problematic language – then we’re not helping.

So entrenched are offensive ideas about ‘foreignness’ that people are often shouted down for trying to be the difference. But the fight for race equality has never been quick or easy to resolve.

An ITV news report on racism in the UK, dating from 2016. Have thing got any better for BAME people?

Built to Last

A post-colonial mindset still has a strong grip on many Britons. This gets even murkier when nationalist groups, politicians and activists begin re-branding and reinventing the truth about entire sections of society to adhere to some notion of ‘Britishness’. In ‘Built to Last’, Jassat writes:

I’m starting to learn your ways, through your attitude to names. Stories untold, makers’ hands forgotten, once the item is marked ‘sold’ (or ‘gifted’, never stole – )’

At some level, all white people benefit from what other cultures offer us. Jassat’s allusion to that colonial mindset, which positions the values and beliefs of non-white societies as being lesser than our own, is clear-cut and powerful.

Not only does it show the confusion caused by white superiority, but also that people of colour have to work so much harder to gain acceptance in UK society. Only through amplifying voices like Jassat’s is that going to become a thing of the past.  

Hopscotch

Unfortunately, the majority of British people of colour will be familiar with the question ‘where are you from originally?’. Which is why Jassat’s inclusion of it in ‘Hopscotch’ is so pertinent. It’s the sort of thing that many would associate with a mentality from a bygone era. But Jassat, as a young woman, has still experienced it. It’s a signifier that things haven’t changed enough.

Jassat entwines that realisation with notions of toxic masculinity:

              Hey beautiful – isn’t she Gorgeous, Stunning, Bollywood Babe – I want you.

Combined with the inevitable question about origin, Jassat exposes how any supposed ‘compliments’ she’s given are ultimately about control and denigration. They mask a very real, very vicious kind of belittlement.

‘Where your blood comes from is such a small portion of who you really are.’ British people give their perspective on the ‘where are you really from?’ question.

Conclusion

Jassat’s observations are both personal and universal. Personal because she has experienced them first hand, and universal because many women of colour in the UK have experienced them too.

Let Me Tell You This could go a long way to improving the representation of BAME voices in both UK consciousness and representation.

The longer texts like this are ignored, the harder the fight becomes.

Grab yourself a copy of Let Me Tell You This via the 404 Ink website today.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s