The reaction to this video of a man righteously shouting down a racist on the tube has been one of pure joy of ‘almost erotic’ proportions. The short clip went viral, and for good reason. Not only did the bafflement of the intervening man expose the absurdity of the accused’s position, it also disarmed the verbal attacker of his power of ridicule and bigotry. By taking a forceful, factual, and no-nonsense stand, the hero of the video physically and mentally touted a righteous anger to give someone his due comeuppance. Though the phenomenon of a viral ‘instant justice’ video is not unique to London, it made me reflect on the role of the city and the tube itself in such confrontations.
In the video, the dull decor of the underground provides a familiar setting—its yellow and blue poles, curved doors and capsule-like enclosing. The tube exists in a vacuum. It is not lawless—there are obvious rules and unspoken ones—but it does not appear to come under the jurisdiction of London in natural daylight. The tube’s atmosphere gives it a distinctive industrialised feel, one with jagged escalator steps and huge warning signs. It is flashes of colour before the grey sets in; it is movement, a sea of buds in ears, and eyes glazed from routine.
Drunken jeers and mob reverb usually lurk under the shadows in these underground spaces, passing as but a flash, but one drop of fear can rear sinister faces. Racist tirades in public spaces often appear out of an underlying ugliness, a reminder that London is not post-racial and multiethnic, but subject to the abuse of bigots, xenophobes, sexists, homophobes, transphobes, Islamophobes, anti-Semites, and a whole cast of grotesque creations who, yes, are London’s residents too. Such rants on public transport are a spectacle; a spontaneous reaction commodified for a worldwide audience through everyone’s ownership of a smartphone.
There is nothing brave about a bigot verbally unloading on a stranger on the tube. But, in a way, to that individual it must seem so cathartic, given their deeply-held beliefs about their own superiority, and thus the inferiority of others they are forced to travel alongside everyday. Yet, if we are talking a numbers game, it is surely never going to end well for them. If there were one thing to unite commuters to whom eye contact is an affront, save for an emergency, it would be the interruption we witnessed in the video.
As is often the case with outrageous human displays, the backlash tends to be more interesting than the original performance. The very real and tangible defence of victims of racism or prejudice, in the moment, deserves recognition as more righteous than the act itself, and the viral nature and celebration of the video proves it. The man defending the victim, and so vividly confronting the fanatic, channels all the counter-anger that many feel but do not necessarily express. It is a reaction to racists in high office, in the police or in other positions of power, where such a raw clash with injustice is not always possible or even thinkable. In that moment, the person standing up against racism represents another London, one that does not tolerate such bullying and does something about it.
The tube harbours this deep resentment from those with something to prove, which is prone to explode in the heat, artificial lights, and close proximity of fellow commuters. And the reaction to this, after the initial shock has worn off, produces a voice; an energy to counter the hate. In this most recent example, the succinct articulation against hostility, as well as the clear real-time impact of the words, gives the purest sense of retribution for us, the observer. Plenty of other examples have appeared in recent years, but also cases in which an outspoken public defence really could have changed the narrative for sufferers of harassment or violence.
This retribution is enough for some to counter the real visceral hate that exists in London, running parallel with the extreme, visible inequality of the city. The fact that injustice can be countered so successfully at the basest level is enough for some to provoke a sense of pride. While the response to the public spectacle should be applauded, it is not enough in order to counter a bigger, uglier wave of hate crimes and right-wing extremism that has been encouraged by huge swathes of the media, the ruling classes, and factions of the dark, untraceable internet.
One person standing up for another is not enough—one-off incidents have the tendency and momentum to increase and become more than just singular abominations. And in that sense, reactions to viral videos of racists being publicly told off serve their purpose. Like the tube, these reactions exist in a microcosm, and to break out of that shell, London must actually progress as a collective; it must confront the rotten core of such unadulterated hate, and not just as a backlash to injustice captured on camera.
Shakerah Penfold has created something I haven’t seen before. As the uncertainty of our times is caused by a myriad of factors—be it unprecedented Brexit proceedings, politicians showing their prejudice across national TV or the rise of hate crime towards minorities—this hostile air can make communities feel polarised and divided. The @AskAPoC Instagram account is a space on the internet where that gap shrinks. This account is where you can ask a question regarding race or stereotypes and be answered by Penfold and the @AskAPoC community. And all it costs is one British pound.
Screen Shot magazine sat down with Penfold to discuss how in an era of being either ‘cancelled’ or ‘woke’, asking unfiltered questions works.
On a daily basis, Penfold works performs a charitable service by pairing vulnerable people with volunteer opportunities. The founder of @AskAPoC describes herself as not having a penchant for long walks on the beach, but one for dismantling racial stereotypes and “fighting the patriarchy before breakfast”. A southerner “lost up North”, Penfold was inspired to create @AskAPoC when she saw a @trueblacksoul post asking white people to ask a question that they have always wanted to know the answer to. Realising this could be a regular conversation and somewhere she could direct people in her workplace (especially when they asked her 21 questions about her hair), @AskAPoC was born.
“So it’s a pretty basic concept whereby curious people can send a question anonymously to the page and it’s answered by myself, and/or the community that the question is aimed at,” explains Penfold. Those who want to ask a question, have to first donate to the charity founded among Penfold and her friends called Food For Thought SL. The money from platforms such as @AskAPoC goes to building sustainable development projects in a village called Robuya in Sierra Leone. After the money is donated, you can then direct message the account and Penfold will share the question and her answer and then give it up to the floor (the @AskAPoC Instagram community) to chime in as well.
Though the questions are largely asked by white women and answered largely by women of colour, the audience for @AskAPoC is diverse, and Penfold and her team don’t know what the race of the quizzers are unless their question reveals it. Was she afraid of creating an echo chamber with her views front and centre? “I wish!” says Penfold over email—I can almost hear her passion over Gmail. “The page is called @AskAPoc, meaning that only people of colour need to answer. However, we still get a LOT of non-people of colour answering and taking up space so there are no chances of an echo chamber.”
With accounts such as @AskAPoC, it’s important to remember that people of colour as a whole are not a monolithic group. Even the phrase ‘people of colour’ is debated on widely, as it implies that white people make the norm and everyone else the are ‘others’. “In fairness, even without that input, people of colour are all raised in different societies and cultures so there’s always conflicting answers. I say go with whichever answer feels right to you,” adds Penfold.
Having experienced racism in the past, and having had to explain why macro and microaggressions are not acceptable for Z, Y, and X reasons, I know the emotional toll racism can take first hand. Therefore, discovering @AskAPoC, I initially thought it’s only fair that the minimum should be to donate to a charity first. But then I thought, why is it always the work of women of colour, and especially black women, to undo ignorance? The intellectual, social, and mostly emotional labour Penfold and her community do regularly is not a small task, especially as the @AskAPoC community grows.
“Sometimes it feels emotionally draining, especially when non-people of colour are in the comments trying to justify or push their own agenda,” says Penfold when I ask if this all feels too heavy to carry. The founder also mentions how yes, there are frequently asked questions that are disheartening such as “Why can’t I wear my hair in braids?” and “Why can’t I say the N-word?”. “However, it’s always balanced when I get emails saying how much someone loves the page and how much they have learned from it”. What Penfold really teaches through @AskAPoC is to spot the intention behind a question. Not all of us live in cosmopolitan cities nor do we all have the same experiences; therefore, being considerate within the @AskAPoC community is imperative, and it works both ways.
It’s also a space to understand how valid black and brown reactions are regardless of the intent.
I don’t believe that people of colour can undo a systemically racist system that continues to undervalue us by the spreading of information only, especially if those stories fall on defensive and deaf ears. Nor do I think we should expect that this is a task for people of colour to undertake on their own. However, what accounts such as @AskAPoC do is allow an open conversation to take place, and, essentially, share hope in what can feel like dire times.
Though black and brown bodies and minds have every reason to be angry at the mistreatment of their communities, their marginalisation also tends to evoke profound compassion, knowing what it’s like to be pushed aside. It’s this empathy that has taught Penfold and her community so much about humanity. “People are so willing to be educated and people like to help others learn. I think that’s beautiful, especially in the world we live in. I love how a community of people of colour who may have faced so much ignorance in their lives have not hardened their hand, but draw on those experiences to try and stop it happening to their fellow sister or brother.”