Change Edition

From expat to thief by way of skin colour
The L Word

From expat to thief by way of skin colour

by Sarita RAO 4 min. 27.03.2022 From our online archive
Columnist Sarita Rao asks why her accent and appearance get such different responses
Does my skin colour make me a potential thief, but my accent say I'm an expat?
Does my skin colour make me a potential thief, but my accent say I'm an expat?
Photo credit: Shutterstock

You may or may not know that this columnist was born in London but is of Indian ethnicity. 

I have the sort of English accent that would place me comfortably sipping afternoon tea with the Queen.

That accent, however, is coupled with the fashion style of a crazy cat lady. I don't even look Indian - more Baba Yaga than Bollywood beauty, with dark skin and ferociously untidy hair. 

And it is my appearance that makes some people think I am up to no good. 

Appearance versus accent 

Step back to the pre-pandemic Christmas of 2019, when wandering the aisles of Auchan, I noticed a security guard was following me and watching to see if I planned to slip a box of Lego into my handbag. 

My reflex reaction was to ask directions from a member of staff in my most clipped British accent. Upon hearing my voice, the guard vanished.

The point of this story? Well, to highlight that I may be one of many expats in Luxembourg, but I am one that is a person of colour, and that affects how some people treat me.

It calls into question why my accent, or the colour of my skin, would or would not make me a potential store thief.

I asked my husband the other day (he’s Irish, pale skin, freckles) if he is ever asked to show that his shopping bags are empty as he passes the cashier at the supermarket checkout. Never, was his response. I get asked at least once a week.  

Government survey reveals micro-aggression racism

Is this prejudice or do I just look shifty (in a Baba Yaga sort of way)? That’s a question I often ask myself. 

Do I have a chip on my shoulder or is the suspicion I receive simply another form of racism?

Study response to Luxembourg's Black Lives Matter protests
Study response to Luxembourg's Black Lives Matter protests
Photo: LW Archives

Earlier this month the government announced the results of its racism and ethno-racial discrimination study, commissioned in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. Its findings surprised many of my friends, but not me.

Of the 3,000 people interviewed, more than 15% said racist reactions are sometimes justified, and four out of 100 people believe that some races are superior to others. 

Racism often takes the form of a “micro-aggression” in day-to-day life, the study showed – such as supermarket staff asking to check my bags even when I’ve been shopping at the same shop two to three times a week for almost 10 years.  

A third of those surveyed thought racism had increased in the past five years and almost four in 10 people of colour believe they will be a victim of racism in the future.

The government is now conducting more in-depth interviews, but if I were to respond, with my comfortable expat life, I could not say I have been the victim of an attack or even direct abuse in Luxembourg.

Not everyone, and not only Luxembourg

A bit like spiderman, I have a “Sarita tingle” that lets me know when someone is being grumpy (we all have bad days), or when someone is being grumpy because of the colour of my skin. Sadly I don’t have any superpowers to do anything about the way I am sometimes treated.

This is not a particular issue for Luxembourg, and of course there are countless people in this country, both local and foreign, who have helped me, served me with courtesy, listened to my dreadful French and Luxembourgish patiently, and generally been very kind.

Neither is it country specific. I have at times been treated with suspicion in many European countries.

One incident stands out. Again in 2019, but this time in my country of birth. I tried to use a Northern Irish £10 note in a charity shop in Kent in England. The shop assistant very uncharitably accused me of trying to use fake money, which is what “my sort” do, he said. Doubt the banks of Northern Ireland would be pleased to know their money is fake. And "my sort" are what exactly? 

Europe needs to tackle underlying racism

In the midst of the Ukrainian invasion and bombardment, when millions are fleeing the war, it saddens me to read that people of colour have reported harsh and racist treatment both within and across the borders.

As a schoolgirl, I studied the history of both world wars. I could recite the war poetry of Wilfrid Owen and Isaac Rosenberg. And I fully understood the post-war desire to create a Europe of equality and peace, coming together in union, so that such an atrocious loss of life would never happen again. 

But I ask myself, when will Europe include people of colour in that noble manifesto?

The Luxembourg Times has a new mobile app, download here! Get the Luxembourg Times delivered to your inbox twice a day. Sign up for your free newsletters here.

More on this topic

Spending more than a million in 20 minutes, sleepless nights over interest rates, and sorting through your accumulated junk. Is moving house worth it asks columnist Sarita Rao
Twenty minutes to make a life-time commitment
Two thirds of us have average intelligence and creativity so maybe we should embrace our middling qualities, argues columnist Sarita Rao