Why are some people so comfortable being casually racist in front of me? Is it just because I’m white?

·4-min read

A chance encounter in a car park was all the excuse a fellow West Brom fan needed to share his dispiriting views

I had an unpleasant experience on Saturday afternoon, just a fleeting moment with a nasty aftertaste I can’t shake off. I had parked in a municipal pay-and-display car park in Smethwick near West Brom’s ground. I was trying to make sense of the rules, regulations, charges, methods of payment etc, when a woman of south Asian heritage puzzling over the same things asked me in a strong Black Country accent if I had any change. I said I was afraid I didn’t. I busied myself on my phone looking for the correct app with which to pay the correct amount for the correct parking location.

As I was doing so, the woman approached me again with a question. She asked if you had to pay for the parking before you did your shopping, or afterwards. She had thought it was the latter, so had just bought a ticket that showed an exit time an hour away. I told her she had probably made a mistake. She said to me she was an idiot. I told her not to be hard on herself. She said I should use her ticket. I said I’d pay for it. She said there was no need. I insisted, then found a pound coin deep in my pocket, which was a mite embarrassing, given I’d just told her I didn’t have any change. She didn’t seem to make the connection. I gave her the pound and thanked her. She said she’d give me some change. I said there was no need, but she insisted. She gave me some change. We both laughed. I said that if all this went on much longer, I would miss kick-off. And off we went in the direction of the rest of our lives.

So far, so perfectly nice. Then, as I set out for the ground, the window of a car came down to reveal an old, genial-looking white man wearing a West Brom scarf. In his Black Country accent, he said to me: “You want to be careful you don’t catch something from her; they’re not vaccinated around here, that lot.” There is so much that is casually horrible going on there that I don’t know where to start. The words “catch something” and “that lot” are probably key. And there’s also the distressing truth that, although he was apparently familiar with my work on radio and television, he had concluded I’d be open to such talk. Or perhaps I am overthinking this: maybe simply being the same colour as him was green light enough for this gentleman to share his thoughts with me. After all, the colour of this nice woman’s skin had been as much information about her as he felt he needed to help himself to whatever assumptions he fancied. All I felt I knew for sure about her was that paying for parking wasn’t her strongest suit.

I called an old friend of mine, a brilliant woman who works in community relations in the area. She sighed a sigh she’d sighed many a time before, by the sound of it. “None of that surprises me,” she said. “There’s stuff in the papers and it’s just more fuel on the fire for people who want to be divided. That’s not to say there isn’t a problem with vaccine takeup in some communities but none of this helps. The point is, he’s looked at her and decided what he’s decided and, worryingly, has felt able to voice it. It’s a nonsense. For all he knew, she was triple-vaccinated and working as a doctor or nurse or whatever.”

So what did I do? Not much, I’m afraid. I was as shocked as my friend had been wearily unsurprised. When he recognised me and started to speak, I half-smiled, which I turned into a non-smile when I heard what he had to say. And I just walked away. I said nothing. I wish I’d had a quiet word.

  • Adrian Chiles is a broadcaster, writer and Guardian columnist

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