Hanna Stephens| An Incident with a Cleaner

In secondary school, my ‘race’ was something I never considered or reflected on – perhaps because I went to a multicultural school in London. It wasn’t until I came to Cambridge that my ‘Asian-ness’ was commented on and felt. In first year I only had a few international friends, and as there was (and still is) a deep segregation between the international and British students, I felt othered or different in my predominantly white surroundings. I don’t blame anyone for this as the intent wasn’t malicious and largely came from ignorance, but categorising me into a diverse number of countries clumped together as Asian, then using generalised stereotypes with which I don’t identify to make jokes about me as ‘banter’ is hurtful. Examples include statements like ‘you Asians will eat anything’ or feeling awkward ordering rice at hall because I know a joke is coming. Dealing with this last year in a situation where I didn’t know people that well made it awkward and difficult for me to say that it was unacceptable and offensive, making me feel powerless. In fact I started to believe myself that maybe I was being over-sensitive and so I would laugh it off and makes jokes myself, which retrospectively was a stupid thing to do as I was just sending the message that racist banter was acceptable.

Not all jokes are created equal
Not all jokes are created equal

Starting second year with friends I feel comfortable with around me, I’ve managed to cut most of this out of my life, to rid myself of the feeling I had last year that I needed to make friends with and please everyone. I think I’m more aware now of what I shouldn’t tolerate and if anyone does make the odd comment I will tell them that it’s unacceptable. It is in this context that I stood up to a racist cleaner and took action to remove him from my accommodation block.

One morning, I went to my kitchen to make breakfast and a cleaner came in who was covering for our usual cleaner who was off sick. As soon as he walked in he started complaining to me in a threatening manner about how my kitchen was the dirtiest in the whole corridor and how we needed to do the cleaning up. I thought he was just in a bad mood and I told him that none of it was mine and that I’d tell the others, then I went to get my bowl from my room and came back in. He carried on complaining about the mess (it really wasn’t that bad) so I silently nodded, wanting him to be quiet but lacking the energy to argue with him. He then asked me, ‘how many Asians live on this end of the corridor?’ This was when I felt that something problematic was coming so I was prepared to engage in an argument. Knowing that he was racializing me as Asian but wanting to challenge his assumptions, I purposefully didn’t include myself telling him, ‘there’s a girl from Vietnam and a girl from China, why do you ask?’ He said, ‘I’ve been working here for 14 years and I’ve found that the Japanese and Chinese are the dirtiest.’ This made me very angry and I told him that that was a racist generalisation and very offensive. I told him my mum was Japanese and that actually hygiene and bathing is highly valued in Japanese culture, and although I had no first-hand experience of Chinese culture it definitely wasn’t okay to attribute messiness to a group of people based on where they are from. He seemed taken aback by this, perhaps he had stereotyped me as a ‘passive Asian’, but he went on to insist that ‘the Japanese and Chinese leave their toilets black’ and got defensive saying that I wouldn’t know as I never had to clean the rooms. I told him that was still extremely racist and that he couldn’t say that, to which he said he was gay and knew what discrimination was. I told him that that was irrelevant as homophobia and racism are two separate things and being gay doesn’t mean that you can’t be racist and vice versa.

We should feel comfortable in our colleges
We should feel comfortable in our colleges

After this I went to my room as I didn’t want to be around him. When I left my room for lectures he was still in the corridor and asked to talk to me again. I thought he would be apologetic but he told me he was offended by the fact that I had called him racist. He then said he was just commenting on what he’d observed and repeated his spiel about ‘the Japanese and Chinese are messy, they leave their toilets black.’ I told him I wasn’t going to apologise because it was racist and then I left.

I told my friends about what had happened and he has apparently said the same thing to other students in our accommodation block and to another ‘Asian’ girl who was unable to complain. It made me deeply uncomfortable that he was working in my college and spreading racist remarks about Japanese and Chinese people. Further, putting ‘the Japanese and the Chinese’ together made me feel like he was simply guessing the ethnicity of people that ‘look Asian’, assuming they were all Japanese or Chinese and therefore dirty, and this is how I feel he judged me, simply by looking at my face.

I therefore decided to complain to the cleaning department, and although I was sceptical of how seriously they would take it, they dealt with the situation very well, apologising on his behalf and assuring me that he wouldn’t be cleaning on my floor again and asking me to submit a formal complaint. Following this, I haven’t seen him since, and although I have contacted the head of the cleaning department to find out what has happened, she told me that the information was classified.

However, what was perhaps most revealing about this was different people’s reactions when I told them this story. One friend (also half Japanese) was deeply upset and offended, most people were sympathetic, telling me I should complain and others just had the attitude that it was bad but these things happen. When it was apparent that this cleaner was no longer cleaning in our accommodation block and hadn’t been seen around college, some of my friends joked I had got him fired in an accusatory way. This made me feel silenced, like they didn’t take the situation seriously, and were implying that I shouldn’t have complained if it meant someone losing their job.

To that I say this; it is not my fault that he was racist to me and to other ‘Asian’ people, and we shouldn’t have to put up with a toxic presence in college who makes us feel uneasy or uncomfortable. If he was fired, it isn’t because of me but because of his own prejudices. This is something that is quite difficult to say as I know that some people will have a problem with this and with me showing little remorse for potentially making someone lose their job, but I’m tired of other people telling me how I should feel when I’m targeted in this way or in any way surrounding my ‘race’, when they are not themselves a minority that faces oppression.

Silencing is not an option
Silencing is not an option

So, if people are committed to anti-racism, I don’t think these types of reactions should occur. Whatever it may be: racism towards Asian people, black people or Islamophobia etc., incidents that make people uncomfortable in their surroundings, regardless of whether you yourself can directly relate to them, should all be taken 100% seriously. Any silencing that occurs is a demonstration of the systemic racism that persists in our society.

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3 thoughts on “Hanna Stephens| An Incident with a Cleaner

  1. You are right, it is wrong to generalise. But I have definitely experienced people of Asian descent (I have no idea where in Asia they are from, sadly) leaving kitchens in a real mess, far more often than other people I know. Obviously it’s not a “race” based thing, but I do wonder whether there is a cultural reason for these international students to be reluctant to wash up after themselves. For example, might it be less common in certain cultures for teenagers to do household chores, leading to an extended adjustment period when they first come to university and need to start doing everything for themselves? Obviously the solution is not to be racist but to be understanding and appreciative of any possible differences in other cultures.

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    1. Hi Beth, Audrey here. I appreciate that you agree that racist generalisations are not OK, but you’ve made a worrying generalisation of your own. I don’t think you need to look for some cultural reason why the East Asians (I’m assuming that’s the demographic you’re writing about specifically) you’ve lived with may have been messy. Within every demographic there’ll be lots of untidy people, and the most sensible reason you can give for their messiness is… that they’re messy people. Not that their culture makes them less inclined to clean up after themselves. No one, if they lived on a floor with predominantly English people (as most of us do at Cambridge) and the kitchen on that floor was perpetually messy (as they often are, we’re at uni after all), would come to the conclusion that it “must be an English thing” to be messy. You’d just assume you had the bad luck to be accommodated with messy people. It might, therefore, make more sense to assume the same about people of all races, and not just assume that because they’re “the other”, that a perfectly normal, human characteristic found in people everywhere is somehow inherent in them in a way that it isn’t in others. I get that you’re going based on what you’ve noticed, but if we’re using personal observations, then the experience of other people who have never noticed such a trend would be enough in itself to suggest that such a wide generalisation is unwarranted.

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