The brutality of racism and hate crime
In this week’s episode of Our Voices, we hear a story involving racism and hate crime. In particular, the heinous crime of racially motivated arson. We also learn how Dr Zainab Khan is using the trauma she has suffered to help others.
A typical immigrant’s story
Zainab describes herself as “a British-born Pakistani Muslim”. She grew up in Bristol but currently lives in London. Her parents came to the UK in the 1960s as Pakistani immigrants. Zainab says that her father’s story is fairly typical of the British Pakistani migrant experience. “He came to the UK when he was 15, with a couple of quid in his pocket, worked in factories to establish himself and my mum followed a few years later.”
Coming from this background, Zainab has shown a great ability to make progress. She has a PhD as a trained barrister and she is also Pro-Vice-Chancellor at London Metropolitan University. A university she describes as “one of the most diverse universities in the UK.” She also works as the director of the university’s Centre for Equity and Inclusion. Her choice of work is influenced by her own experiences.
She is focused on “advancing change” and making life better for people who come from a wide variety of backgrounds. But she particularly relates to those with whom she shares the most similar experiences. “As a person of colour, as a woman of colour, as a Muslim woman, all these different parts of my identity, I feed that into supporting other people.” These are also some of the people who are most likely to experience racism and hate crime.
A form of escapism
Yet, despite these responsibilities, Zainab’s life is not only focused on work. She has embraced the country’s national obsession: football, describing herself as a massive Manchester United fan. Talking about her feelings regarding the sport, she says: “football has provided me with escapism.
It’s given me a sense of belonging outside of the reality of our daily lives, where, for 90 minutes, we can escape and be part of something really magic.” It makes sense that Zainab would truly value this escapism. Arriving at the place she has in life has not only been difficult due to her family’s modest beginnings. She has also had to face racism and hate crime from a very young age. The most dramatic occurrence of this being a racially motivated arson attack.
Zainab talks about growing up in an all-white neighbourhood. “We were the token ethnics. Not just on the street, but probably in the whole postcode.” She lived in a modest 1930s-style house at the bottom of a hill. But, despite its imperfections, that house was Zainab’s home. “It was the only home I’d ever known because I was born into that house and we lived there for the majority of my childhood.” She could never imagine that this would be the scene of racism and hate crime.
Racism and hate crime
During a winter night in 1995, Zainab and her family were driving back to that home after breaking their Ramadan fast at a friend’s house. As they were approaching their street, they noticed thick smoke drifting through the air. They then saw a myriad of fire engines as they turned the corner and reached their street.
It was clear to Zainab that something had happened but she didn’t for one moment think that it was anything to do with her house. It was only when her father gasped that she realised it was her house which was on fire. “The whole place was alight. The whole upstairs story of the house had giant plumes of black smoke and flames.”
A family scarred
Zainab and her family were offered shelter and comfort from one of the neighbours. Whilst there, Zainab describes how her father, who was in ill-health at the time, was so traumatised that he went into a state of shock. The experience of seeing her father so vulnerable and overwhelmed has haunted Zainab to this day. “Seeing him in that state, and he seemed so scared. I don’t think any child should see their parent in that state at that age.”
Racially motivated arson
The firefighters did eventually manage to get the fire under control but the house had already been destroyed. It turned out that the fire had been a case of racially motivated arson. But the arsonists had not only burnt the house, they’d burgled it and defecated in multiple rooms.
The level of premeditation was such that they had created a bonfire in one of the rooms using the family’s clothes. They’d done this to ensure that the intensity of the fire would be such that it would likely destroy the entire house. The arsonists had achieved their objective. “They had soiled the whole house and trashed everything that was dear to us.”
Loss of innocence
The impact of this experience was naturally devastating for the family. Zainab describes how she became withdrawn for many months. The experience of racism and hate crime had taken away her innocence. Never again would she truly feel safe as a child. Shockingly, those responsible for the racially motivated arson attack were never found by the police.
“So that also sort of promulgates that fear that they’re going to come back and… victimise us again.”
A victim of racism
The event also made Zainab very much aware of how she was often defined by wider society by her race and religious identification. This difference was the motivation of another attack she experienced while driving her car listening to pop-rock. She had stopped at a traffic light and noticed two teenage boys who were on the pavement opposite her.
She sensed danger immediately from the way that the boys were staring at her. “I remember looking at these two thinking, oh god, they don’t like the look of me.” Suddenly, she saw that the boys were picking up excrement from the ground and throwing it at her car window. Fortunately, they missed the gap where the window was slightly ajar but the excrement hit the window. The boys reinforced their violence by shouting racial epithets at Zainab. She drove away humiliated.
Wanting to take action
Reflecting on the experience, Zainab says that, after a few days, she had almost normalised what happened due to being a victim of racism so often. Yet she wishes that she had taken action against these boys in order to help to challenge the racist violence which occurs far too frequently.
In her career, it is her goal to make a positive difference. She was awarded for her work on promoting opportunities for those from minority backgrounds by the Guardian Awards and the Inclusive Companies Awards. She has taken the experiences of racism and hate crime that she and her family have been subjected to and she has channelled them into striving for a better future for the younger generation.
Striving for a better future
She describes her current role as being focused on “advancing equity and inclusion for all of our staff, all of our students.” Despite her experiences, including the racially motivated arson that she was exposed to at such a young age, it is clear that Zainab is a high-achiever. She has put herself in a position to make a profoundly positive difference for young people who come from similar backgrounds to herself.