This article is inspired by the bizarre reaction I have encountered as a reasonably dressed British-Asian travelling through the less diverse, major cities in Western Europe. At first I thought I was being paranoid – after all it is hard not to be aware of your starkly contrasting skin-colour in a sea of predominantly white faces. But this particular behaviour became undeniable in places of public transit – such as the queues at passport control and the underground – where you would need to cut the tension with a laser from a high-quality diamond factory. People weren’t just looking, they were gawking.
And the most interesting part was that it wasn’t malicious. There was no sneering or narrowing of eyes, but rather lingering looks of astonishment and intrigue. Eventually I began to wonder, and do excuse my ‘French’ when I say this, could it be that these dear people were not used to seeing a person of ethnic minority actually looking good?
Now, it is important to emphasise that this is not about attractiveness in the traditional sense, but specifically about presentation i.e. the way one is put together. In fact, acknowledging the often blurred line between these two concepts formed the crux of my takeaway from the whole experience. The first time the ‘strange scrutiny’ happened, for example, was when I was travelling with another Indian friend who happens to be quite in touch in fashion, and the second was on my birthday – in an entirely different city – and dammit I wanted to play!: I swiped on one of those popping-pink crayon lipsticks and went swanning around the city in a bright blue detective coat.
So, I began to realise, this wasn’t even necessarily about looking smart, though this can play a part in it too; it was about the fact that my friend and I were expressing ourselves as individuals through impressive and/or creative means. This theory was only compounded by the sights of the city not shown in the hotel brochures. In-between the walks along famous rivers and mad-cap dashes to historic monuments before closing times, opened up the poor inner-city districts: drearily dressed immigrants were selling bric-a-brac souvenirs and some were curled up on the streets, swathed in thread-bare blankets. I remember seeing a Romanian mother just missing her bus as she struggled to push a pram and marshal the two kids who were hanging off it, without letting go of her groceries.
the relationship that mattered between the
people of these migrant communities and I,
was not at all our race but our social standing.
It became clear then, especially given the last example, that the relationship that mattered between the people of these migrant communities and I, was not at all our race but our social standing. These hidden pockets of the city stood as a humbling, microcosmic reminder of the wider first/third world divide of which I had been a lucky escapee. Thanks to a combination of a hard-working immigrant father, and the more equitable cosmopolitan hub of London where my contribution as a worker is valued over my race, I possessed the comfortable status that allowed me access to an auxiliary style-sensitive lifestyle. I could afford to purchase all these little accessories and furthermore had the time and the mind space to care how I was pulling them off.
In short, I was making myself politically visible in a very in-yer-face way. This had a deeply uncanny effect: not only was I forcing people to consider the extent to which beauty is a social construction, but in a very jarring way. One lady seemed to study me from the top down, across what seemed to be ten separate visual instalments. One not-so-furtive glance for every part of my body: shoes, jeans, jacket, scarf, jumper etc. until she finally rested pensively on my face. Yes it was weird, but it did confirm the final piece of the puzzle.
By shining out as an ethnic minority, I was drawing attention to the idea of subjectivity as a whole. Obviously this woman was not pondering grand ideas of race and economic disparity: as mentioned earlier, people were not looking in a patronising, horrified or dismissive manner. But she was completely taken by what it represented as an immediate reality for her. People were used to seeing women experimenting with commodities – I saw elaborate bird feathers, ring-worm (yes that’s what they looked like!) braids in hair, and a severe asymmetrical hemline that was bordering on deranged – but were not used to seeing themselves as a commodity.
By shining out as an ethnic minority, I was drawing attention to the idea of subjectivity as a whole.
Through the attention-grabbing portal of my corporeality, I was illuminating the entire act of physical manipulation of the self: something usually faded, excuse the pun, into the white-wash of the background. So, if I was being looked at as if I was a museum exhibit, it was not as some exotic artefact, but more accurately as a wax mannequin, still under construction in Madam Tussauds. The experience was not so much racist as it was racial – people weren’t judging me, instead they were profoundly aware of me.