Have you ever been in a situation when you’re on the loo, enjoying five minutes of solitude, thinking about what to eat for dinner and how long is acceptable to wait before texting that guy back when someone, typically a gaggle of girls, comes into the bathroom and start hysterically conversing in the female equivalent of “locker room talk”?
I hadn’t. Only vicariously through Mean Girls and the fuzz of girlie chatter in nightclub toilets when I was too full with vodka to remember or care what was being said. Until this weekend.
Picture the scene, but maybe not too graphically for your own sanity. I’m in a pub in Luton. After two overpriced rum and cokes, I decide I need the toilet and perhaps more urgently, a mirror to check the overall appearance of my face.
So I’m on the toilet, so far, a wholly unremarkable situation. Even the clip-clop of wobbly heels doesn’t catch my attention, and a then a shrill voice rings out.
“This black guy keeps trying to chat me up,”
“You know what they say, when you go black you never go back,”
“I’m just gonna say, no thanks mate, you’ve probably got 12 kids and a girlfriend somewhere,”
I felt my blood run cold and my whole body stiffened. Admittedly, I’m like a dog with a bone when it comes to racism, so my impulsive nature told me there was only one possible way this could end.
I flushed the toilet and rammed open the toilet door with such force that the latch hit the other side of the cubicle.
Three white, middle-aged women turned to look at me.
I have never felt more black in my life.
Suddenly, I feel intimidated. The words that I was just meant to blurt out in a movie scene moment got stuck in my throat.
I circled around one of the women to get to the tap, but she stopped me in my tracks.
When most people get caught in the act, they usually shut up or say sorry. Maybe it was the amount of wine she had consumed or maybe she was just stupid, but she did neither.
“What do you think I should do?” she asked me.
I looked at her in the eye and used a go-to phrase which is meant to sound threatening but is actually just a filler for when I have nothing else to say: “are you joking?”
“like I’m not racist, I’ve been with black guys before but he just won’t leave me alone,” she continued.
There was everything wrong with this sentence. Every word I had written about race, every discussion I had had about race with my friends felt like it was leading up to this moment, where racism was staring at me right in the face in an LBD and a broken heel.
“Ask him to leave you alone, but don’t mention the black thing,” I finally said, drying my hands, “it’s incredibly offensive.”
“Have a good night,” I said, before walking away from whatever pre-1970s universe I had wandered into.
Obviously, the first thing I did was animatedly relay the entire debacle back to my friend. We shared “Oh my gods,” “what the fucks” until we decided to get really drunk and go clubbing, but when he asked me the next morning why I didn’t give her what-for, I couldn’t think of an answer.
What could I have possibly taught her, in that moment that would have remained with her beyond the morning after?
I like to think I have one now, but I’m not even sure if it’s the answer, I just know it’s my answer.
I could’ve slapped her. I could’ve gone against everything my mother taught me about being the bigger person. I could’ve given her a lengthy lecture on race, given her a timeline of racist events in history, even, if we’d both had the time. But when I picture her in my mind, eyes drooping, stumbling, unable to put a proper sentence together, let alone know the difference between right and wrong.
What could I have possibly taught her, in that moment that would have remained with her beyond the morning after? I care about stamping out racism, but I’m not superhuman. In fact, in that moment, I was exhausted. And I honestly felt like she was not worth my energy.
Two days later, I was back at my local primary school with my Dad, teaching the kids about prejudice, discrimination and what it means to be inclusive. It felt good because for once, what I was teaching them wasn’t coming from my anger. It came from my craving to make a change that wasn’t confined to five drunken minutes in a public bathroom.
And that, I think, is the ultimate clap-back.