An hour before Jo Cox was shot on Thursday June 16, an hour before everything changed, I was given a stark reminder of just how much everything had already changed.
It was approaching noon, I was in Saltaire walking back to my car and as I did so a group of young white English men drove past me. As the car passed the four of them wound down their windows and started chanting “vindaloo” at me, to the tune of the Fat Les football song.
It was two hours before kick off in the England-Wales match.
It’s the kind of event that has happened to me before, but not for a long time.
The irony this time was that I couldn’t have been doing anything more typically English - I was walking back to my car after tending to my allotment.
The men who chanted at me from the car didn’t know I’m mixed race. They didn’t know I have a white mum, a Bangladeshi father. They didn’t know I had a Catholic primary school education or a Theology degree. They didn’t know I was going to be on air at BBC Leeds that night, broadcasting on the murder of Jo Cox, or that I’m the theatre critic of this newspaper. They didn’t know that I’m a passionate England cricket fan.
All they did know about me is that I have brown skin. And as a brown-skinned man in Britain today, I’m a target for them to chant ‘vindaloo’ at, aggressively.
As I drove home, angry and upset, a car passed me. Two men in the car this time. As the car drew level with my own, the same thing happened. Even though there were half the number in this car, the vehemence as the two men chanted at me was far greater. They had England flags flying from their car and they shouted and jeered at me before speeding off ahead.
In that moment the past months of campaigning on the EU referendum crystallised and I realised that we are now changed as a nation.
We’ve gone further backwards than I ever thought possible, even at my most pessimistic.
At the point I was chanted at, twice in half an hour, the EU referendum was a week away and I knew at that point the outcome of the referendum was in some ways irrelevant.
England was no longer my England.
I don’t mean that I no longer have a place in my utterly beloved country, but that a warning my father made to his children when we were at his knee had come to pass.
The warning was that we had to be aware that one day the day may come when the colour of our skin would mark us out as not belonging.
The vitriol, the hate, the insidious racism that some of the Leave campaigners have indulged in over the past few months has brought that day to pass.
They have brought the day where I can be chanted at in the street because of the colour of my skin with their posters of similarly dark skinned men ‘swarming’ our borders.
They have brought it about by suggesting that an influx of migrants will mean increased sex attacks on ‘our’ women.
Nigel Farage, the poster boy who has whipped up the electorate into this state, was claiming as the count came in that the ‘Eurosceptic genie is out of the bottle’.
No. What is out of the bottle is a vile stench of jingoism and xenophobia and it’s a stench that’s going to take a long time to clear. Farage and much of the rhetoric of his fellow right-wing Leave campaigners over the past few months have allowed what I hoped were dead and buried racist attitudes to creep back into the mainstream. He has made it entirely legitimate to not only hold views of hate based on race, but to voice them.
To chant at me in the street.
Hours after this happened to me, on the day Jo Cox was shot and killed, I was on air talking about the inspirational MP. I spoke about the hope that she represented. I wasn’t allowed, as a BBC presenter, to talk about an opinion on the referendum and I certainly couldn’t tell the story I’m sharing with you.
Now that the dust has settled and we’re out of the election period, it’s time I told this story. A story of chanting on the street that tells us what Britain looks like now.
I also want to tell you how it made me feel.
I’m a mixed race, well educated, privileged man working in the media and now I walk the streets of my England with the same sense of tension I felt as a teenager when racial slurs hurled at me in the street were a fortnightly occurrence. I’m upset, of course, but more than that, I’m angry. I’m sad to say that when a group of white men pass me now, I wonder if they’re going to repeat what happened to me last week.
Imagine how it must feel if you don’t have the advantages I have. What if you are entirely disenfranchised, see a constant diet in the media that demonises people that follow your religion and look like you.
If I’m this angry, how do you think those people might feel?
I want Jo Cox’s legacy to last and eventually hope, I have to hope, will win. But right now, with the chants aimed at me in the street still ringing in my ears, that hope is going to take a long time to come emerging back into the sunlight after a period that has changed my England for the worse.