Experience: it was supposed to be a perfect evening – instead my  young child suffered a racist assault

Experience: it was supposed to be a perfect evening – instead my young child suffered a racist assault

by Dr Nazneen Ahmed Pathak.

This was me and my 9 year old son, R, at Mayflower Theatre, our biggest commercial theatre in Southampton, yesterday, for some precious mummy-son time, like lots of other families, five minutes before curtains up. 

Look at his thrilled little face. 

It’s because he’d just found out what we were there to see. A youth performance of Percy the Jackson: the Musical, an adaptation of my son’s current favourite books in the universe. He wants, right now, to be a “Greek philosopher” and his favourite curse-word is “oh my Gods.” He’s a flamboyant performer, too – into music, street dance, rap, and. he calls himself very proudly, “a drama queen.”  I say all this to show you just how special this evening was going to be for him, just how perfect a surprise I had planned this to be.

Five minutes after this was taken, this all changed.

Five minutes after this photograph, my son experienced his first incident as a victim of racist violence.

At just turned NINE YEARS OLD.

I had sensed hostility from the white woman sat on his left (I was on his right) from the moment we had sat down. Her smiles when she’d made her way down the row past all the white audience members immediately vanished when she saw us – and her frostiness stayed that way. 

The lights dimmed, and the curtains rose. The audience – it being the summer holidays, and a youth performance of a children’s book adaptation – was largely made up of children and parents and excitement buzzed in the air. Lots of kids whooped excitedly. There were lots of packets of snacks rustling in the row behind us. 

My son sat grinning, making hardly any noise, but this woman took it upon herself to turn to him, lean into his face, and “shush” him in a very aggressive way. What I didn’t know then, but found out at the interval, was that when she did this, she also slapped him hard on the arm.

But anyway – I was still already seething. How dare she even shush him? If she had a problem with his behaviour – she should have taken it up with me. Instead, she took it upon herself to intimidate a young Brown boy.

But I had to keep a lid on my rage – the performers were coming onto the stage and my son was so thrilled. I was glad she’d not affected him, but inside, I was all emotions, struggling to pretend to be having an amazing time so my son would stay feeling safe. I wasn’t going to let this woman ruin an experience of a lifetime for him.

At the interval, I took my son away from the aisle and the woman. I commented mildly that she seemed “mean.” And then my son, almost as an aside, mentioned “oh yes, she is. She slapped my arm really hard when she told me to shush.”

That’s how I know he is telling the truth. He wasn’t looking for attention or drama. I shouldn’t have to defend him when he’s the victim, but I know these accusations will be coming at me so I just want to make it all very clear. He was just talking to his mum, and saying what had happened. Reeling, I double checked with him if what he’d said was correct (hurrah to having to gaslight our own Black and Brown children). Then I asked him to slap me as hard as she had done. It was hard. It stung my skin.

I reported it to the manager straightaway.

Cue a lot of talking on walkie talkies and visible squirming when I mentioned race. I asked what they were going to do about it. More squirming and discussion away from us. 

They then suggested we move, with some reference to me having asked R if he could see clearly from his seat. I asked them to move the woman instead and they said they couldn’t intervene in “accusations.”

I got angry. I told them it wasn’t an “accusation,” that my son was telling the truth and that an assault had taken place and it was their responsibility to deal with the situation and make the woman leave. They said they couldn’t do that. When I asked them about their safeguarding responsibilities to children in their space, they said “it’s just like any public space, we can’t do anything. If you want to, you can contact the police.” I assured them I would be.

Finally, I agreed to the move. I was so conflicted about doing this but it was the last performance of this show, and I wanted my son to see and enjoy the final half. But I only agreed to do so after I insisted they speak to the woman and tell her that her behaviour was not acceptable. My son and I watched from the back of the theatre while the manager went to speak to her. I have no idea what was said, or how she responded, as no one from the theatre staff engaged with us after that to even make sure that we were ok.

My son loved the second half (it really was an outstandingly high quality performance), but I just kept hugging him again and again, close to tears in the dark auditorium, rage coursing through me. 

And it’s been coursing through me ever since.

I have contacted the police. I know it was racially aggravated from the way the woman treated us from the outset compared to white audience members, but I’ve already had an email to the effect that it’s being categorised as an “assault without injury” with no mention of race. And so the gaslighting begins once more.

This is not my first rodeo. This is not my first experience of racism in a cultural space in our hyper-diverse city of Southampton. It’s the litany of experiences as a South Asian headscarfed woman artist and writer of colour that prompted me and my husband and intellectual partner in activism Pathik Pathak to write a whole manifesto to help organisations become safer spaces for Black and Brown people.  

But last night was the first night my son experienced racism, and not even just verbal racism – but physical, inflicted on his young Brown body. 

Let me remind you again. He’s just turned NINE.

I grew up experiencing overt and covert racism. At six, my mum and I were surrounded by skinheads at my school gates, my baby sister aged just two in the buggy. At middle school in Surrey, I was called the P-word with hearty abandon while racist kids threw rocks at my head, and their mums, the dinner ladies, looked on and said they hadn’t heard or seen anything.

Almost forty years on, it’s now my son’s turn. And I can say now that nothing  in reality has actually changed. All the symbolic knee-takings, all the black squares, and a young Brown boy can sit in a theatre, be slapped, and have nothing happen to the perpetrator.

I work in the arts. Ironically, a lot of the work I do is to try to make sure that Black and Brown children feel like the arts are for them, in a way I didn’t when I was younger. I write, run workshops and work with schools to try to make this happen. But actually, this incident has made me wonder if I need to stop. How can I do this work to “increase participation”, when I know that it means taking Black and Brown children into spaces that aren’t actually safe for them?

I took to Twitter to share this experience when I got home last night. Although I am heartened by the outrage and the practical offers of support, already the gaslighting there has also begun. Yes, the slap was “awful” but “why do I have to see race in everything?” 

It’s still on the victims of racism to prove it, and unless you have film footage of someone saying the P or N-word while they’re slapping your son, it can’t possibly be racism. But I have a lifetime’s experience of knowing when someone’s racist. Every fibre of my body is primed to know it. Because I’ve lived it, every single day of my forty-three years. And yet, the police and all our institutions still treat it as “one person’s word against another’s.”

It reminds me of other examples. A few months ago, my baby daughter in a sling on my body, I ran a workshop on belonging and anti-racism in arts spaces for local heritage and arts staff. I built it around scenarios I had personally experienced in arts spaces, but standing there, as one of two three people of colour in the room, I met a great deal of resistance and gaslighting in the workshop itself. I posed a situation (that had actually happened to me) where a café visitor had muttered racist abuse to me and my mum, and the staff had told me they were unable to remove him from the premises as it was “our word against his.” I posed this as a hypothetical situation to the staff and asked them what they would do. After some awkwardness and visible discomfort, several said “it was difficult” and that they would have had to do the same – move me and my mum, but not remove our abuser.

A brave staff member of colour then turned around and asked their colleagues if this was how they would react to an incident of sexual harassment in their space. And no, actually, staff members said, in that case, they would immediately remove the perpetrator. When we asked why racism was different, there were no answers.

I think this says everything about where we are at when it comes to racism and actually “stamping it out.” Symbols and gestures are fine. But when it comes to actually protecting Black and Brown people, even Black and Brown children, no one wants to step up, in actuality. Because it’s too difficult, awkward. It’s not nice. And, you just can’t trust the word of Black or Brown people. 

You never know, we could be making it all up.

Because, you know, that’s fun. That how we like to spend our weekends at the theatre – not watching a show, not having some precious family time enjoying arts and culture, but kicking up a fuss about nothing.

My son is ok. I will make sure he is. But I will need to start having conversations with him about things I never wanted to talk to him about. I know my Black friends have probably had to do this way before I have had to – and about a whole lot more than we as South Asians will have to deal with. They’ll have to tell their children about how they can’t trust the police, what to do if they’re approached and stopped and searched, because that’s still higher for Black children in Southampton than whites or Asians. I know that getting to nine without a racist incident is almost a privilege. 

But we shouldn’t be here. In 2022, our institutions and authorities should be there to protect our Black and Brown children, and intervene when they’re endangered. And they don’t. 

In 2022, our Black and Brown children should be safe. 

And they’re not. 


(Editor’s note: we have contacted The Mayflower but not yet received a response)


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