There was a time, just after I left my University town of Sunderland for the more vibrant climes of North Yorkshire, when I gave my childhood dream of becoming a journalist a good hard try. It ended up in the unlikeliest of places.
The year was 2003, and Britain was hurtling headlong into what would be a near-decade of war in Iraq. The events of 9/11 had turned huge swathes of the British public (and press) into what could at its most charitable be considered Islamaphobic-curious. All the while, I was looking for my first paid writing gig.
I applied for everything in a commutable distance from York with the word writer or journalist in the title, but considering I had virtually no experience outside of a tiny non-profit and my university paper to my name, I heard very little back. Until that is, I got a response from a company in Leeds. Because when I say that applied for everything, I really do mean it – right down to an advert for a features writer for an Asian Women’s lifestyle magazine.
I went to the interview, where both myself and my interviewer stared at each other in vague disbelief – him that he’d actually invited me in, and me that he’d invited me in. Somehow, I ended up with the job, despite me being neither Asian, a woman, nor in possession of a discernible lifestyle.
The job was a huge eye-opener for me. You know that thing where they say the best way to destroy prejudice was through direct experience? I got that in boatloads. I’d always figured myself as a fairly liberal guy, and even taking the job I was patting myself on the back for being so gosh-darned multicultural. Except I wasn’t, I realised. I had so many preconceptions (and deep-seated fears) born of ignorance, bad judgement and straight-up privilege that my first few months at the magazine were… difficult, at best.
In the end, however, I got through that not by ‘coming to terms with it’, but by unlearning it. I was accepted with eagerness into the various Asian communities of West Yorkshire. Soon the job turned from magazine writer to newspaper editor, and my remit grew. I investigated miscarriages of justice and local shop openings. I went to Muslim business, Hindu religious events, and Sikh charity events, all of which seemed to involve me eating amazing food. I met Bollywood stars, and almost melted on the spot when I was fortunate enough to be in the same room as Aishwarya Rai. I spelled the name of the new Indian Prime Minister wrong in the headline of the profile of him when he came to power and practically died of embarrassment. I interviewed Stephen Lawrence’s mother when she addressed the Muslim community about racism, and I saw, time and again, huge generosity of spirit from almost everyone I met, and integration, friendship, and kinship at every level across various communities.
All the while, almost every time I talked to white people about my job, I ended up couching it in language which would have made the people I worked with and the people in the community I was serving uncomfortable. Even as I was unlearning the imbedded and systemic racism within me, I would bring slithers of it out at will when outside the boundaries of that community.
In the end, the job got too much for me. The long hours of an editor’s job were a bit much for someone in their first job and in their mid-twenties. I longed for another writing job where I wasn’t so permanently outside of my comfort zone and the reaches of my own knowledge. So I jacked it in and went back to bar work, and have never been a working writer since. Something, incidentally, I don’t regret, even if it would have been nice to have walked straight onto the staff of Metal Hammer, or the Guardian.
I look back at that time with a lot of mixed emotion, but in the long run, I think what I’m most thankful for is the understanding I took from it. I see the inherent racism in play in almost every piece of mainstream coverage of the Asian community in this country, and the Muslim community in particular. I am better able to identify bigotry in my own thoughts and actions, and more able to unlearn the impulses and learned prejudice that put them there and try to present the world to my children in a way that will free them from that.
I look at the chaotic world around me and increasingly believe that the only thing that will get us through these dark times is empathy. A huge part of the development of my own empathy as an adult came from the experiences I had working at a small free monthly newspaper serving the Asian community in West Yorkshire, and for that, I remain eternally thankful.
Paul Stephenson is an author and blogger. His first series, the post-apocalyptic thriller trilogy Blood on the Motorway, is available now in ebook and print from Amazon, and free to read for Kindle Unlimited members. Get Short Sharp Shocks, a collection of three exclusive free short stories when you join the reader’s group. Subscribe to the blog to get a weekly roundup of all posts sent directly to your inbox. Also you can share using the buttons below, or why not buy Paul a coffee?