For many of us who come from developing countries, moving here to London was a dream come true. With its big city lights, old world charm and cosmopolitan vibe, London was a city that enthralled and mesmerized you. I felt incredibly lucky when I got the opportunity to study here then eventually work. I knew a better life awaited me because I’ll get to enjoy boundless opportunities as long as I worked hard and proved myself to be a capable worker. I'd get to enjoy free healthcare, better education, professional opportunities and other benefits that were not readily available to me back in the Philippines.
The sad truth is that for many of us Filipinos, we often think life is better in the UK than back in the Philippines - that is why we take risks and sacrifice so much in order to build a life here. But one thing no one ever tells us is the price we have to pay for chasing our dreams. Amidst all the glitter and glamour, the UK is still quite steeped in racism and discrimination.
When I first stepped foot in London, I honestly did not realise how racism is so prevalent here. Sure, I’d heard stories about some bigots and racists in some parts of the country, but I never once thought it could happen here in London. London, after all, is the vibrant capital of the country and a melting pot of cultures.
The problem with racism against Asians here in London is that it’s not often verbally expressed or physically shown, that is why it’s often difficult to see or impossible to believe that it exists. However, the truth is much darker because stories like mine often go unheard. I feel as if there’s this cauldron of seething awareness that people have preconceived ideas about me simply because I’m Asian, a Filipino, who came here to this country to make a better life for herself and that it reached a breaking point during the Covid pandemic. Before the pandemic, people were more subtle with their racist attitudes, but when the pandemic began, things became worse. People’s small acts of racism became more overt, seemingly fueled by anger amidst a time of chaos and uncertainty. Mundane, everyday activities such as travelling in the tube and walking down the street became riddled with racist comments and actions.
During the early days of the pandemic, I encountered such incident while on the Tube. I was sitting on my seat quietly minding my own business when two white males came in the carriage I was in. In a time when social distancing was the rule, they intentionally stood in front of me and threw me an angry look before turning their backs on me. One nearly hit me with his backpack when he turned around. Caught by surprise at their action, I sat there frozen, unable to speak out or move, too afraid to say anything in the hope they would go away. Thoughts started running through my head, “Is it because I’m Asian?”, “Did I imagine that?”, “Am I overthinking this?” Despite these thoughts, I was too scared to say or do anything. I didn’t know what the two guys would do or how they would react if I suddenly stood up and confronted them.
Thankfully, the passenger nearest to me, an older white male, saw the whole thing and reprimanded the two guys. The two guys sat down but not without throwing a nasty remark at the old gentleman. When the train reached my stop, I turned to the old gentleman and thanked him loudly for his help and kindness. What angered me with this experience was not the actions of the two guys. It was the fact that at that very moment, I felt so helpless and didn’t even know how to stand up for myself.
I always look back at this incident with some sense of shame because I am an educated and independent woman but I couldn’t even confront these people because I was too scared to speak up. Another instance was when upon exiting the train station, two white males came up to me. One laughed and pointed at me while the other guy stuck out his foot, trying to trip me. Luckily, I saw what he was trying to do and immediately side stepped his foot. I tried to drag my luggage across his foot instead. He managed to evade my luggage and both guys ran away. My first thought was to get away from the place as fast as I could. I didn’t even hesitate as I walked faster, almost running to the bus stop and never even looking back to see if they circled back and followed me.
Aside from taking the tube and walking down the street, racism is also truly alive in the dating game. I once went out on a date with a guy I met through a dating app. During our date, when he found out I was Filipino, he asked me if I was actively looking for a husband to get a visa to stay in the UK and that he was willing to do it if he could charge me for it. He tried to say it in a joking, teasing manner, but I knew that he was serious. Sadly, he’s not the first guy I’ve met to assume that most female Asians who come to the UK are looking for a husband to sponsor their visa.
The truth is that some forms of racisms are not overt. They’re just felt. Sometimes it’s hard to see if someone is racist because unless words were expressly said, we don’t really know if the remark made or act done was intended to malign our identity as Asians. We just know, deep down, that it’s wrong. One friend’s story also sheds light on what racism is like in the UK.
Mark^ is an accomplished and tenured professor from one of the most respected universities in the Philippines. He went to UK to take up his doctoral studies at a prestigious University in Scotland. Mark’s journey in the UK had its share of ups and downs. He encountered instances of racism but one event stands out above the rest.
During the pandemic, Mark lived alone in his flat and this took a toll on his mental health. Isolation was hard on him as he was a social creature who thrived on meeting people. When his original lease was about to expire, he thought it would be a good idea to save money and share a flat with a friend in a student accommodation in his current building. His friend, Emir^, was from Turkey and has been a close friend since the middle of 2020. Emir^ did not have a good track record with previous flat mates as there were stories that he displayed aggressive behaviour towards his flat mates. Though it seemed extreme to express one’s disgust to a peculiar practice, Mark ignored the story because Emir appeared to be a decent and fine person to everyone in the group. Emir even hosted Mark’s birthday of 2021. However, two weeks after Mark moved in with Emir, the latter started showing the same aggressiveness towards Mark that he showed to his previous flat mates. For instance, Emir threw away Mark’s food in the bin because he needed the pot, accused Mark of letting twenty wasps come into the kitchen, moved Mark’s things in the bathroom for his own comfort, and accused Mark of being dirty in the kitchen for a speck of dirt. It wasn’t long before Mark started feeling bullied.
He found himself going through lengths to avoid Emir, including drinking water from the bathroom faucet and not going to the kitchen to cook or eat. As a result, Mark’s student and academic life began to crumble. Mark reported the incidents to the University Warden and kept him abreast of the events via email. Although the Warden acted on the matter by sending the Resident Assistant (RA) to organize meetings between Mark and Emir, Mark began to feel that his case was being mishandled especially since no meeting ever happened. Mark felt that the administrator was simply taking the comfortable route to dealing with the problem, which made him realise that his desperate condition may actually be profitable for the university accommodation.
Mark regularly followed up with the Warden if any investigation was going to happen. Unfortunately, no action was taken. As a result, he was forced to constantly watch his back. From Warden to RA’s, from Advice Place to mental health counselors, Mark was only told to call the police when he got attacked, but Mark knew that he needed help to deal with a flat mate who aggressively intimidates with a display of potentially violent behavior. Mark even reported prior incidents involving Emir and his previous flat mates, but nobody took him seriously or even investigated why Emir’s previous flat mates have left. The University’s Advice Place eventually endorsed Mark’ case to Level 2 of the complaints process. In less than 6 hours, Mark received a rejection email from the person handling the complaint, saying that the committee found no case worthy to pursue in Mark’s grievance and that his complaints were to be brought back to the university accommodation. Mark was distraught by how fast the committee was able to come up with a decision. He sent the forms, screenshots of conversations with Emir and other proof of Emir’s behaviour at around 10:46 PM and a decision email was already sent to him at 5:02 AM the next day. Mark asked if he could appeal the decision, but he never received a response. At that point Mark’s mental health started to deteriorate to clinical level. It had been traumatic for him to recall the risky steps he had to take to survive the insane circumstances of being bullied, live in a constrained place under the threat of aggressive harassment, thrown out of the building he called home since 2016, made to pay ludicrous amount of rent, and a thesis that wasn't able to progress.
The Warden was quick to send Mark an offer to transfer him to another flat upon finding out the committee’s decision. With no other alternative, Mark grabbed the offer in a desperate move to feel safe. He had not written anything for this thesis and had not been sleeping for weeks. Sharing a flat with Emir was taking a toll on him physically, emotionally, psychologically and financially. Mark was forced to move to new flat that cost him 1,000 GBP a month. The new flat was falling apart and was in much need of repairs. Nonetheless, he was less concerned about the place than he was concerned with discussing the case with accommodation. After weeks of waiting, Mark was able to arrange a meeting with accommodations to discuss his situation and complaints. During the meeting, Mark encapsulated what he felt was the university’s failure to mind his welfare as a student, a foreigner to be exact. In another vantage point, he also began to see this as a matter of racism – beginning from the Warden’s ineptitude, the insincerity of the Advice Place, the lack of rigor and empathy in the officers handling of Mark’s case, and the poor customer-service approach of accommodation. He felt that somebody profited from his desperation and he was left to mend for myself as the aggressor simply continue with his daily life unaffected. Eventually, Mark left the UK without his formal complaint being heard or acted upon.
My story and Mark’s story are not unique. Ever since the start of the pandemic, some of my friends have been sharing their own experiences with me. One thing we all had in common was that we rarely spoke up or confronted these people, too scared to rock the boat or cause a commotion. I’ve often heard advice such as “Don’t start a fight”, “Take the high road”, and my favourite, “Ignore them, they will go away”. I understand the logic behind these types of advice but they never work. I’m now realizing that it’s the very silence and inaction that propagate this systemic kind of racism. If we always see silence as the proper reaction, what then do we do when our rights are transgressed? Our failure to speak up when we see injustice done, not only to others, but more importantly to ourselves, is what makes racism flourish in a country which ironically advocates for equal rights and free speech. If we don’t speak up now, who would take up the cudgels for us later on? I believe we would have failed our fellow Asians if we teach the next generation that it’s okay to be treated this way, that eventually the problem will go away if you just ignore it because playing nice, being polite and not making a scene are much more important. The problem, however, is that racism never truly goes away no matter how much you deny or ignore it. It is so embedded in the British culture that some people do not realise how racist they are to begin with, that their comments and actions not only sting but often deeply hurt. Sometimes what they consider to be a normal assumption is actually a reflection of their own ignorance and bigotry.
We need more platforms and avenues to raise awareness of racism against Asians because it does exist here in the UK more times than we care to count. We matter. Our voices matter. It’s about time our stories of racism come out of the shadows.
^ Name was changed to protect the identity of the person.
is a qualified lawyer in the Philippines and is currently a Senior Projects Manager for a UK-based charity that works globally to advance economic justice and the rule of law by connecting communities, governments and civil society with pro bono legal expertise. She has been living in the United Kingdom for more than two years and lives in North London.
Prior to coming to the United Kingdom, she was a Court Attorney in the Supreme Court of the Philippines. She’s passionate about environmental causes and advocates for legislative reforms on several environmental issues.