1. lower in rank; subordinate: a subaltern employee.
2. In the critical fields of post-colonialism, the term subaltern identifies and describes the man, the woman, and the social group who is socially, politically, and geographically outside of the hegemonic power structure of the colony and of the colonial Mother Country.
There are two ways to tell a story.
One way is to slicken the narrative, make the dialogue pithy, the turn of events slick, and follow a traditional arc, you or the main protagonist come off as the hero or villain or comedic foil of the piece and you cut out any extraneous detail. The other way is to tell it like it happened. People talk about the game-ification of our online lives. The bigger problem is the story-fication.
It’s a picture of a snowman penis. A big massive six-and-a-half-foot cock, with unbelievable amounts of detail in the circumcised bell-end and testicles, with a thick throbbing vein running down its spine.
An example, if that’s what you need, is how I tell the story of the snow penis. In my story, I’m sat in a pub with friends, minding my own business. We’re sharing poo stories. I’m telling the hilarious one about the guy (me) who accidentally pooed on his ex-girlfriend’s mum’s head, via a blocked toilet and gaps between floorboards. I’ve since added the detail that she’s sat at the table underneath, balancing her checkbook when she feels the dripping on to the crown of her head. She slips her tongue out to taste the water seeping through the floorboards and trickling off a light fixture. I’ve told this story so many times now I forget how it really happened. I’ve told it so many times we now gloss over the fact that in this situation, she is the victim and I’m the wrongdoer. Now, I’m a bumbling fool with hijinks on my hands. I never have to get as far as the Hugh Grant-style sorry-sorry-sorry apology. Because I can’t remember how it happened. But does that matter to the story?
This is the story I’m telling in this loud pub juddering with house music, for it’s Friday night, it’s after closing time, and this is where underage drinkers get served without fail.
I’m telling this story when we’re approached by one of the underage drinkers. Despite the cold outside—did I mention, it’s snowing in this story? That’s quite important—he’s wearing a short sleeve white shirt, he has a crew cut, he’s young and cocky, and he’s white. He approaches me and says, “Want to see a picture of my white snowman? I’ll show you my white snowman.” I accept this request because it’s fun to indulge the off-piste, that’s how writers gather stories to retell. He gets his phone out and loads up a picture. It’s a picture of a snowman penis. A big massive six-and-a-half-foot cock, with unbelievable amounts of detail in the circumcised bell-end and testicles, with a thick throbbing vein running down its spine. I smile and nod and say something pithy. He looks at me, into the core of my soul, and says, “This is my big white willy. I love my big white willy. It’s not a brown willy. It’s a white one.” He repeats this a few more times. My friends don’t quite know what to say. He walks off and we leave the pub because that is as good as any signal that it’s time to go home now.
When I tweet about it, I write, “Last night someone came up to me in a pub to show me a picture of a white willy snowman. Not brown, he stressed. White.” I struggle to fit this into a tweet, send it out, and wait for the sympathetic @-replies that agree with me that racism is bad. But I’ve changed the story. I’ve storified what happened. Remembering that out of the four people I was with, three of them are on Twitter, I feel guilty and I delete the tweet. They’ll know the truth so I should tweet the truth. But the truth isn’t as good as my tweet, which has been aided by the editing process. By this point, it’s got four retweets and three @-replies of sympathy. That’s viral for me. I put up another tweet qualifying what really happened. And suddenly the story loses its potency. I worry that by telling the truth, I’m losing the heavy racial implication.
I think he’s trying to chat her up so I put a protective paternalistic arm around my wife, who is more than capable of fending off unwanted advances if this is indeed an unwanted advance.
We are leaving the pub because it’s too loud. It’s too loud; we’ve all been to see a three-hour film with many talking points, ones that are redundant in a loud pub where we’re too sober to be on a level with the underage drinkers juddering to loud house music so we decide to leave. As we walk out the door, I’m complaining about the noise, like an old man. I’m complaining that the barmaid didn’t understand me when I asked what local ales are on tap. I’m complaining about the fashion of the underage drinkers, for I remember when it was fashionable first time around. One of my friends is remarking that I’m turning into a grumpy old man. I don’t mind the implication. My wife notes the presence of a snowman in the courtyard loudly.
“Wanna see my snowman?” a boy says, finishing his cigarette and approaching her. Immediately, I think he’s trying to chat her up so I put a protective paternalistic arm around my wife, who is more than capable of fending off unwanted advances if this is indeed an unwanted advance.
“Yes,” my wife says to the boy, who’s drunk and cocky and all the things I described before, because that generic cocky young underage drinking male stereotype is par for the course. My wife is more than happy to indulge the off-piste to see where the rabbit hole leads.
He pulls out his phone and shows her a picture of his snow penis. A big massive six-and-a-half-foot cock, with unbelievable amounts of detail in the circumcised bell-end and testicles, with a thick throbbing vein running down its spine. My wife doesn’t really know what to say so says something pithy. We all make “yeah, yeah whatever mate” noises so we can move on. The boy looks at me and says, “It’s a white willy. I love my white willy. I love my big white willy.” He flicks a look at me when he says white. This much I have independently verified as we leave the pub. The implicit is made explicit. He has a white willy. If I were to read into this, I would say, he’s making a play for my wife’s sensibilities by saying I have a brown willy and he has a white, more preferable, one. I think that’s why when I storify this later, I add “not brown. White.” To emphasize the implication he’s making, to project my own feelings of racial differences on to the perceived subtext of a drunk underage boy who does laddish things like building throbbing white cock snowmen so he can, har har har, show girls, har har har, pictures of his “big white willy,” har har har, in the pub. Har har har.
Race politics are at the forefront of our minds. My wife is white. I’m not. The friends I am with are white. As we leave the cinema, I picture the burden of the oppressed on my shoulders, shaped like chips.
The sad thing is, I don’t even notice him looking at me when he stresses “white” three or four times. I find it odd but during the entire exchange, I’m looking between my wife to see how she handles this idiot, and the exit, where I’m dying to go so I can go home, via the all-night bakery and some freshly made croissants. It’s only afterwards, when we’re standing outside the courtyard to the pub saying goodbye to our friends that my wife asks if I saw the boy looking at me when he stressed it was a “white” willy. I didn’t. But then I feel like I did because I found it odd he kept mentioning the color of his snowman cock. Because snow is uniformly white. That’s the thing about snow. Mentioning its color is redundant.
But let’s go back a bit. The three-hour film we’ve just been to see explicitly deals with the horrors of slavery, albeit in a cartoonish and almost dismissively silly way. Race politics are at the forefront of our minds. My wife is white. I’m not. The friends I am with are white. As we leave the cinema, I picture the burden of the oppressed on my shoulders, shaped like chips.
Let’s skip forward to an alternate timeline. In this timeline, I tweet: “Last night someone came up to me in a pub to show me a picture of a white willy snowman. Not brown, he stressed. White.” My friends DM me to say that’s not how it happened, I admit to them that it’s the tweet that matters, not what really went on, be cool, go with it, my online brand is not my real life. We grow apart because they realize I’m more interested in mining the potential racism of situations to make myself look oppressed than telling the truth, that no story is beyond me storifying it and that I’d rather tweet my own version of life than live it in meatspace. The tweet gets retweeted by the same few people who retweet everything I write. Eventually, the big name authors get involved, then some journalists, then the chief editors of some broadsheet newspapers then Caitlin Moran. My follower count rises. I become the voice of an ethnicity. My tweets become endlessly race-related. I get no work other than writing articles and stories and essays and memoir pieces about other half-remembered incidents of racism and oppression. I get invited on Today, Newsnight, the The Culture Show, I divorce my wife. I date two Indians. I eventually peak when I host one of the awards—Best Rising Star—at the BAFTAs with Adele, who is graceful in her thirties, and the papers next door call me a has-been. I realize I haven’t written anything new in years.
Let’s go back to before Twitter. Before Twitter, I had the same four stories. I would love meeting new people because it meant getting to tell those stories. There was something in the act of being in control of someone’s imagination, leading them through a narrative of your construction, making them laugh, sad, angry and interested in you. Conversational charm—that’s what I used to have. Now my friends are more in tune with the top of my head as I hunch over my phone than my words.
My dad once told me over Christmas leftovers about the maize factory that his dad and his dad’s brothers used to own in Nairobi. This was before my grandfather decamped to the coast, to Mombasa and a more preferable climate than the windy winters of Nairobi in the mountains. He told me about visiting the factory. He told me about that time in history, about how Indians were moving into East Africa exploiting visas to help build things and while they were there setting up their own businesses. He told me things about learning to swim. About learning to drive. About the flat opposite the shop. I remarked that my father was a product of the British Empire. He grew up in a country under British rule. He lived through independence. The only reason he remembered Kenya getting independence was because they got a day off school. He told me about the time his father’s brothers had harbored Mau Mau rebels in the factory for a week. I immediately got obsessed with this. They did what? They harbored Mau Mau rebels? Against British soldiers? Were they supporters of the uprising? Were they under duress? What did they think of the British Empire? I needed to know these things. My dad had said this as a flippant way to illustrate a point—that he had grown up in a time of history. And when I had pressed him on the history and what that meant to who he became, he had no details for me. He couldn’t remember. All he could remember was getting a day off school because Kenya had gained independence. He was a typical teenager, living in history as he was, his concerns were still good grades at O levels, having money, escaping the boring place he lived in, imbibing pop culture—Bollywood (not called Bollywood back then, that’s an ’80s label) and Bond films, hanging with his friend who shared his name, sitting in his friend who shared his name’s apartment and staring into the rooms of the hotel opposite the road, hoping to catch sight of British delegates and dignitaries having sex with young black and brown girls with the curtains open.
And when I think my dad understands oppression and what it means to be abused for your skin color, I find out that his primary concern was earning money so he could afford to go to the cinema, and going to England to study and hang out in the rock’n’roll clubs. The rest of it just passed him by. He has one other story about having a bottle smashed over his head by skinheads as he got off the bus, and people rushing to his defense. He doesn’t like going into detail because it’s a bad thing, one not to be remembered. I disagree. I would allow myself to be defined by that story. I push him for details but the older he gets, the fuzzier the memory becomes.
Let’s go to the present. In the present, I have the ability to differentiate between what I say and who I am. Especially online. In the future though, I’ll be the sum of the stories I told on Twitter. Months after my mother died, I was emailed by a friend asking how I was. I told her I felt terrible, depressed, I could barely find the enthusiasm to do anything. She asked why—I seemed so chirpy on Twitter. I told her that my mother had recently passed away. She was furious. “How was I supposed to know that?” she wrote in the CAPS LOCK of anger. “You didn’t tweet about it.” We don’t talk anymore.
In that moment when that kid approached us to show us a picture of his big white willy, I had the perfect moment to give him the speech, the speech that I want to lay out before anyone who insinuates race, but isn’t racist. There’s a video by a New York hip-hop DJ called Jay Smooth. He says that when confronting racism, “there is a massive difference between what you say and what you are…” i.e. don’t be so quick to call someone a racist just because they said something racist. If they said something racist, they may not be a racist and thus can be saved. I didn’t think that kid was a racist. I did wish I’d said something to him. Because often, I’m the one with the problem. When you call something racist, the onus is on you to prove it is, not on the accused to prove they have black friends. I could have said my piece.
And if I could go back in time, I would have said, “Listen, I don’t like your insinuation that you’re in any way superior to me because of the color of your willy. First of all, how immature are you to build a snow cock. You’re post-university. Secondly, it’s snow—we all know it’s white. That’s nothing that needs to be signposted. So, what you’re essentially doing is trying to make me feel uncomfortable to provoke a reaction out of me so you can tell me to calm down. Because if I have a reaction, I’m the one with the problem. I see what you’re doing. I know who you are. You’re my chemistry teacher. You’re the girl in the line behind me at the comedy club when I stepped out of the line to have a cigarette and not bother people with secondhand smoke who denied calling me a paki. You’re bloggers who ask me about the Indian-ness of my work without bothering to work out whether I’m actually an Indian. You’re a young immature boy with a superiority complex and the arrogance to back it up.”
But I didn’t notice anything. And I wish I had a time machine to go back and see how it went down. Because now, sat here, I’m not sure if I’m remembering it properly. But that’s the burden of the subaltern when the subaltern speaks about race.
Nikesh Shukla is the author of the Costa First Novel-shortlisted Coconut Unlimited, an e-book about the 2011 London riots, Generation Vexed (with Kieran Yates), and the Channel 4 Comedy Lab pilot, Kabadasses. His stories have appeared on BBC Radio 4, the Book Slam anthology, The Moth magazine, Best British Short Stories 2013, Five Dials, Teller Magazine, The Guardian and The Sunday Times. He co-hosts the podcast Meat Up, Hulk Out with James Smythe, and the author-on-author podcast, The Subaltern. He currently lives in Bristol but was born and always will be a Londoner. He is an avid reader of Spider-Man comics and once met Michael Jackson on a train.