Nine-year-old Meena grows up in the small English village of Tollington, which she initially finds to be warm and welcoming. However, when economic changes rock the region and Tollington’s peace is threatened by the construction of a motorway, Meena realizes that some villagers harbor resentment for their working-class lives. Frustrated by a system that keeps them from thriving economically, these people seek scapegoats—which they find in non-white people, including recent immigrants like Meena’s family. When Meena becomes aware of the racism that surrounds her, she is profoundly shocked to feel unsafe and unwanted in her own community. What’s more, she discovers that many people—such as the popular teen Sam Lowbridge—don’t even realize the impact that their prejudice can have. The novel thus emphasizes that racism is often the result of frustration and ignorance as much as actively-considered hatred. Such prejudice is no less harmful, however, and the novel ultimately suggests that education plays a crucial role in building tolerant communities.
Meena, who feels relatively comfortable in Tollington, soon realizes that some people around her look down on non-whites. Meena is later shocked to realize that her own neighbors might also harbor racist ideas. At Tollington’s Spring Fete, Sam Lowbridge interrupts public speeches to express his anger at using the money raised to donate to charitable causes. He uses this opportunity to express his hatred toward non-whites, angrily saying that “This is our patch. Not some wogs’ handout.” These ideas, as well as the use of the term “wog”—an offensive term for someone who is not white—shock Meena. Disappointed with Sam’s attitude, Meena is even more shocked to hear people in the crowd express approval of Sam’s ideas. This marks a turning point in Meena’s life, as it causes her to re-evaluate her status in the community. She becomes suspicious of everyone’s motives and begins to nurture anger and disappointment of her own, directed toward racist individuals.
Racist words and behaviors make Meena painfully aware of the differences that separate her from the rest of the Tollington community. At the same time, though, Meena also discovers that people’s racist comments are not necessarily directed toward the non-white people they actually know: instead, such racism might be their only way to express general feelings of frustration and injustice.
Some people seem unaware of the deleterious effects of racism and are not necessarily intent on causing harm. Sam, who has given racist speeches and took part in the beating of an Indian bank manager in the street, appears genuinely confused by Meena’s anger toward him for these hateful actions. At the end of the novel, when he forces Meena to speak to him, he tries to argue that his racist ideas have always been directed toward “the others,” not toward Meena herself, whom he appreciates greatly. However, Meena argues that, to people who do not know her, she could have been the bank manager they beat up. Therefore, “I am the others, Sam. You did mean me,” she explains.
In light of Sam’s bewilderment, the novel suggests that racism can derive from both ignorance and anger. Meena once hears Uncle Alan, a youth leader from the Methodist church, give Sam and his friends a moral speech: “just think if you could use all that energy to do some good. Find out who the real enemies are, the rich, the privileged, not the other people trying to make a living like you.” Uncle Alan tries to show Sam that his hatred of non-whites is the result of finding himself in a powerless social and economic position—a situation that causes him to seek scapegoats instead of addressing the roots of the problem: economic inequality and injustice. Alan argues that immigrants cannot be at fault for white people’s frustration, since immigrants are in the same vulnerable situation as the white working class. Racism, then, is often nothing but a fruitless effort at venting one’s pent-up frustrations.
Through her family’s conversations, Meena also discovers that the root causes for immigration lie in the British Empire’s actions. The British colonization of India caused India to experience a variety of social, economic, and political problems, which have ultimately led people like Meena’s parents to flee the country in search of better opportunities. Some English people’s ignorance of this aspect of history keeps them from realizing that their own nation is at least partially responsible for the immigration of non-whites to Britain. Mr. Topsy serves as a prime example that understanding people’s backgrounds builds intercultural trust and respect. After serving in the British army for ten years in India, Mr. Topsy speaks Punjabi and calls the British rule there “ugly” and “criminal.” He shows great respect toward Nanima, adding that he loved the Indian people. His direct participation in history makes him greatly aware of the difficult circumstances that people like Meena’s family have had to endure, and makes him more welcoming of these people in his own country. This episode suggests that such in-depth understanding of history has the potential to play an important role in fighting resentment and racism.
Although racist comments and behaviors hurt Meena to the core, making her feel alienated and unsafe in her own village, she realizes that some of these attitudes are simply the result of white people not understanding the complex circumstances that lead to immigration—that is, the result of ignorance. The novel concludes that people like Sam’s gang are sometimes more interested in seeking easy answers to their problems by placing responsibility for their problems on immigrants and non-whites, instead of reflecting on the complex issues at the root of their frustration.
Racism and Violence ThemeTracker
Racism and Violence Quotes in Anita and Me
‘You’re so lovely. You know, I never think of you as, you know, foreign. You’re just like one of us.’
My mother would smile and graciously accept this as a compliment. And yet afterwards, in front of the Aunties, she would reduce them to tears of laughter by gently poking fun at the habits of her English friends. It was only much later on that I realised in the thirteen years we lived there, during which every weekend was taken up with visiting Indian families or being invaded by them, only once had any of our neighbours been invited in further than the step of our back door.
But to be told off by a white person, especially a neighbour, that was not just misbehaviour, that was letting down the whole Indian nation. It was continually drummed into me, ‘Don’t give them a chance to say we’re worse than they already think we are. You prove you are better. Always.’
‘I will never understand this about the English, all this puffing up about being civilised with their cucumber sandwiches and cradle of democracy big talk, and then they turn round and kick their elders in the backside, all this It’s My Life, I Want My Space stupidness, You Can’t Tell Me What To Do cheekiness, I Have To Go To Bingo selfishness and You Kids Eat Crisps Instead Of Hot Food nonsense. What is this My Life business, anyway? We all have obligations, no one is born on their own, are they?’
I wanted to tell him about the old lady, but then I looked at his face and saw something I had never seen before, a million of these encounters written in the lines around his warm, hopeful eyes, lurking in the furrows of his brow, shadowing the soft curves of his mouth. I suddenly realised that what had happened to me must have happened to papa countless times, but not once had he ever shared his upset with me. He must have known it would have made me feel as I felt right now, hurt, angry, confused, and horribly powerless because this kind of hatred could not be explained.
I had seen how in an instant, those you called friends could suddenly become tormentors, sniffing out a weakness or a difference, turning their own fear of ostracism into a weapon with which they could beat the victim away, afraid that being an outsider, an individual even, was somehow infectious.
‘They’ll want cookers!’ giggled mama. ‘Doesn’t he know we were fitting bidets into our houses when their ancestors were living in caves? Oh God!’ and then she went suddenly quiet and looked hard at papa. ‘God Shyam, is that how they see us? Is it really?’
Mr Topsy/Turvey watched her with devoted eyes. ‘I served in India. Ten years. Magical country. Magical people. The best.’
‘Shouldn’t have bloody been there anyway, should you?’ I muttered under my breath. ‘Who asked you to lock up my grandad and steal his chickens?’
I was by now walking fast, making Nanima puff and trot a little to keep up, but I could still hear him shouting behind us, ‘We should never have been there. Criminal it was! Ugly. You look after your nan! You hear me, Topsy!’
‘. . . understand why, but just think if you could use all that energy to do some good. Find out who the real enemies are, the rich, the privileged, not the other people trying to make a living like you, not people like . . .’
‘You wanted to hurt people, you mean!’ I yelled at him. ‘How could you say it, in front of me? My dad? To anyone? How can you believe that shit?’
Sam grabbed me by the wrists and I sucked in air and held it. ‘When I said them,’ he rasped, ‘I never meant you, Meena! It was all the others, not you!’
I put my face right up to his; I could smell the smoke on his breath. ‘You mean the others like the Bank Manager?’
Sam looked confused.
‘The man from the building site. The Indian man. I know you did it. I am the others, Sam. You did mean me.’