[Trigger Warning: Racism, Homophobia]
“Go on, drink up. Don’t be a faggot.” A can of lager was pushed in front of me. The gesture was a demand. I was being told to demonstrate whether I should be included or not—to show them that I wasn’t queer, to show them I belonged. “No”, cut in the large, middle-aged pub landlord sat opposite me, “You don’t drink, do ya’.” It was clear that he thought I was Muslim. I’d been read, named and excluded.
These are the dangers of choosing a table seat on the train. You can quickly find yourself overwhelmed by a group of unwanted travel companions. A couple of weeks ago on a routine journey, I thought I’d nabbed a whole table to myself—but moments before the doors closed, a platoon of white men filed on and occupied the seats around me. And they were hammered. Just steaming drunk. I’d felt uneasy as soon as they got on the train. A couple of shaved heads. Multiple Tattoos. But this was class prejudice on my part. Nevertheless, this early show of homophobic abuse did not bode well for the next hour on the train. I immediately regretted staying put.
“So, what’s your name?”, the landlord asked after we’d struck an unspoken deal that he would surreptitiously drink the lager given to me and pretend that I’d drunk it (by Scunthorpe I was being credited with finishing three cans of Carling). “Jonathan”, I replied. He pulled a face. “Don’t say it”, cut in his son, who was in his twenties and lanky and laconic, “I know what you’re gonna say, and don’t say it.”
“Jonathan?”, he went on, ignoring these pleas and his son’s obvious discomfort, “how can you be called Jonathan!? You should be called Abu Dhabi or summat. That’s what they’re all called ’round my way.” My insistence that it was my name and, not only that, but that I’d been born and brought up in the North, just appeared to make it harder to believe. When some other Asian men also got on the train a couple of stops later, he jokingly complained to me that us English couldn’t even get room on trains these days because of all the immigrants, amused by the fact that he was sharing this with me, a brown person.
There was some embarrassment about this among the others in the group. Mostly, they were harmless enough, and their antics amused some of the passengers. But others in the seats around me were clearly put on edge by their presence. After every loud outburst of profanity from one of them, there was a chorus “ssshh!!” from the rest, concerned about a toddler sat behind them—and given the amount they’d drunk, this happened regularly. More intrusively, the stocky guy sat next to me kept putting his hand on my knee and putting me in a loose headlock, as he pretended to some women on the table opposite that he was “a gay” in an ill-conceived attempt to woo them. Everyone in the carriage was collateral to their cluster-banter, but I was in the centre of it. When I picked up my rucksack and got up to leave the train at Doncaster, one of them put their ear to my bag and shouted out, “is it ticking?” This was followed by widespread laughter.
This week I started a new job. I am now University Academic Fellow in the History of Race and Empire at Leeds University. My encounter on this recent journey made me aware, once again, of how histories that uncover and deconstruct the homophobic, misogynistic and racist dominant ideologies of British imperialism remain as relevant as ever. The logic that governed whether or not I was included as British on the TransPennine Express to Manchester Airport in 2015, echoed that which was used to justify white rule across the empire in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And this concern with preserving and policing an idea of what constitutes ‘British’, an idea always entangled in the history of imperialism, is a concern held by more than a group of drunken men on a train. It has been implicitly expressed in the dehumanising language and callous state response to the plight of refugees seeking sanctuary in Europe. We’re constantly being asked to take into account what is best for Britain on this ‘issue’. But we should pause to consider how this demand has been used in the past and the political work this demand still does. Being asked to put Britain first is like being offered a can of lager by a homophobe. It’s also a way of demanding a show of belonging by excluding others. And the politics of belonging in Britain are never far removed from the history of race and empire.