So, I sat in my kitchen yesterday, listening to LBC on the radio (I know, I know…), in utter shock and disbelief. Hearing the various opinions on the rights and wrongs of the Neo-Nazi/alt-right/KKK “Unite the Right” rally and the subsequent murder in #Charlottesville and Trump’s flippety-flop of a pathetic excuse for a response got my blood boiling. Obviously, I know that racism is a thing here in the UK and also that it is institutionalised (I see you urban regeneration and RIP Grenfell residents, Stephen Lawrence et al), but perhaps I have been swaddled for too long inside a social media blanket of sameness that has obscured my vision or perhaps I have simply chosen to blind myself to the racism that I am living alongside, cos it’s not very nice, is it? Either way, I wasn’t ready for all of the far-right and even KKK defenders, the Nazi eugenics peddlers, proudly spouting their shit on the radio while living down the road from me here in the UK; here among the 60 percent who turned up and voted to remain within the EU; here in the original melting pot; here in the multicultural metropolis that is London.
Anyway, let me tell you a story. Last week, I decided to sort through the girls’ clothes and get rid of stuff that is too small/they refuse to wear. I managed to collect together three black bags worth of clothes and toys and books, haul them into my car and drive them to my charity shop of choice, which is currently North London Hospice @NLondonHospice
I dropped the bags with the old, white lady in the shop, who looked like your classic English granny, complete with woolly cardie and what I imagine to be an easy to manage hair cut in silver and white, who thanked me as I filled in my Gift Aid info, and I proceeded to browse for bargains. I found a book that I have been semi-interested in reading for a while now and presented it to aforementioned old lady. She rang it up (“That’ll be £1.25, please”), I looked in my purse for the change and obviously had none cos this is 2017 and who carries cash anymore? Not me.
So, I began stuttering an explanation to said old, white lady and asked if she could put it aside for me until later in the day when I would return with the money. She looked at me, looked at the book and told me to “Wait there”. I did as I was told while she went out to the back of the shop and returned a few seconds later, looking very shifty indeed.
Old, white lady put her hand out, all the while looking me straight in the eyes, slowly shaking her head and mouthing something unintelligible. Not quite knowing what was happening, I put my hand up to hers and she made the deposit. With the finesse of the finest pill pusher in your neighbourhood, she subtly slid the coins into my hand – all £1.25 of it. That part of the transaction was complete. Then, as if nothing had happened, she repeated, “That’ll be £1.25, please”, her kind eyes smiling at me.
I was overwhelmed. It may have only been £1.25, but it was a gesture of true kindness that touched me. “Thank you so much!” I said, way too loudly for the little charity shop.
“Oh, don’t worry about it. I couldn’t have you drop all that stuff in and then not help you out”, she replied.
“I’ll pay you back!” I gushed. When are you next in?”
“Friday…officially.” Old, white lady rolled her eyes.
“Right then, I shall be here on Friday with your money.” I took my book and turned to leave. “Oh, what’s your name?”
“Val,” she said, still smiling.
“Thank you, Val!” I said and skipped out of the shop with my book in my hand.
Why am I telling you this? Because, on Sunday afternoon (I obviously wasn’t going to make it back on Friday cos late for everything) I went back to the charity shop to give Val her £1.25. I walked in, praying that she would be there, and she was. I walked up to her and started explaining the situation. Val had obviously forgotten all about me and my promise to return and pay her back, but as I recounted the story I could see the realisation dawning on her face. She was beaming. “Here you go”, I said, “and thank you again”. As I walked out, the sun was shining, somewhere birds were singing, I was smiling and I could hear Val explaining to her mate in the shop what had just happened. I could already hear her telling others about the black (if I’m lucky, or “coloured” if I’m not) girl who had come back to the shop to repay the money that she had lent her a week earlier…the money that she had probably thought she would never see again. I hoped that I would feature in hers and possibly even her family and friends’ narratives about young black people.
Val did what she thought was right and didn’t let any preconceived notions stop her from doing it. Val treated me the same way that she would treat anyone else. She didn’t see my colour as a barrier. She didn’t think twice about helping me out. Val took me at face value, as another human being and I made sure that I justified her decision – not because I wanted an old, white lady to have a certain opinion of me, but because I would expect anyone else to do the same, whether it was Val or me who lent them some money.
That’s all I want. That’s all any black person wants – to be treated as a human. We don’t want any more than any other human. But, we don’t want any less. We want the same. We don’t want to have to keep working twice as hard to get half as much. We want the same opportunities afforded to anyone else. We don’t want to fulfil quotas. We don’t want to have to be fetishised or overly sexualised to get ahead. We want to be respected as individuals. We don’t want preferential treatment. We want equal treatment. And we want the recognition that equal treatment, in it’s truest sense, is not possible in 2017, because while people still believe in white supremacy enough to openly kill in it’s name and while the president of the United States of America is unwilling to unequivocally denounce those murderers, they are validated and free to continue to indoctrinate those who may go on to take up positions of power and the cycle continues. As much as many of us would like to believe that those who marched in Charlottesville are a bunch of inbred hicks, many of them are professionals and probably very respected in their communities. We want to matter as much as anyone else…as much as any other humans. How can we, when there are still many who, in their own inhumanity, think of us as sub-human.
Thankfully, and inspite of what LBC would have you believe, Vals aren’t just elderly, white women who volunteer in charity shops. There are plenty of Vals in the world, black and white and every shade in between, old and young, gay and straight (and every shade in between), you get where I’m going with this. And on days like last weekend and yesterday, I needed MY Val to serve as a reminder of that. For every vile and prejudiced bigot, there are a whole host of kind Vals. And I thank God for that.
Since Trump’s outrageous response to Charlottesville, he has had to disband both the Manufacturing Council and the Strategy & Policy Forum due to resignations of several senior business leaders and condemnation from many of those who remained. A number of tech firms are also doing their part and withdrawing their services from far-right groups. As I type this, the “Philly is Charlottesville” march against white supremacy in response to the weekend violence in Virginia is happening. I am praying that the Vals will turn out in force and that it will end peacefully, but with impact.
What stands a Val apart from others who may have good intentions is that a Val takes action. My Val helped me out, without knowing me, without any obligation at all. It may be a massive leap going from charity shop kindness to solving race relations, but if we were all guided by kindness and did what was right, there wouldn’t be a problem in the first place.
Now, I’m not naive enough to think that we can all sing Kumbaya and group hug to make the world a better place, but from small acorns and all that. So, I’m going to try my best to be more Val and I’ll work the rest out as I go.
RIP Heather Heyer
Sorry about the lack of images. Not very reader-friendly, I know. But, if you got this far, thanks for sticking with me! xx