Racism: ‘A belief that one’s own racial or ethnic group is superior, or that other such groups represent a threat to one’s cultural identity, racial integrity, or economic well-being; (also) a belief that the members of different racial or ethnic groups possess specific characteristics, abilities, or qualities, which can be compared and evaluated. Hence: prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against people of other racial or ethnic groups (or, more widely, of other nationalities), especially based on such beliefs.’
My mother is White British, she grew up in the southern countryside of England with my Aunt my Uncle and my Grandparents. Her father grew up in post-war Devon. Her mother was born to an Irish father and an English mother, yet she spent the first few years of her life living in Bermuda as my Great-Grandfather served in the British Navy and was based there at that time.
My Father is Black British. Like my Grandmother he was born in England but spent the first years of his life abroad in Tanzania. With his parents, brother and a pet Mongoose. After a few years they moved to Geneva as my Grandfather had secured a job there. He went to prep-School in Switzerland, then, at around the age of 12 he started attending Boarding school in England.
My Grandmother on his side is Zulu. She grew up in apartheid South Africa but left for England when she got the first opportunity which is where she met my Grandfather. In her later life, my Grandmother became a school teacher and helped build and set up schools in my Grandfathers country, she was even influential in creating legislation which granted better, and more affordable education for younger children which at the time was not available.
My Grandfather on my father’s side was Herero and grew up in the neighbouring country to South Africa which, at the time, was called South-West Africa and was also under apartheid rule. This was due to it being annexed from the Germans by South Africa after World War 1. It is now called Namibia. My Grandfather was exiled from his country at an age younger than mine for the crime of simply campaigning for independence and being a member of the then illegal SWAPO (South West African People’s Democratic Organisation) party advocating freedom for all Black people in Namibia under apartheid rule. He did not return until after its independence in 1990, and whilst I do not know when he was exiled you can imagine the number of decades he spent, in foreign countries dreaming of the day that his people would finally be free.
This is just a minute number of details about the people who made me. And the people who made the people who made me. Who am I? Well I am a young man of mixed ethnic heritage. I grew up in the North London borough of Haringey for the first twenty years of my life, my father still lives in this borough. My mother in the neighbouring one of Barnet. I attend Southampton University. I am a sailor, and an avid movie enthusiast. I enjoy bouldering, I love to read and write, I have a love hate relationship with my Playstation and I would like to think that I am a pretty decent cook. This is who I am. Yet to most people, I am just plain and simply, Black.
My dad has known I am black since the day I was born. My mother realised that I was black one day when I was a toddler. Her and my father were on a bus going about their business when she noticed a man staring at the then young couple and a little brown baby boy. She was not used to stares like this before, I mean of course she wasn’t. She is white. But as they got off the bus the man did too, he looked at them and shouted something she did not manage to hear. When they got home she asked my father what he had said and my father told her the man had shouted a phrase from Mein Kampf. That was when my mother realised I was black.
I realised I was black when I started primary school. There were a few other black kids at my school, a few Muslim and a few Asian, but most of them were white. I have an early memory of when I was little that I am embarrassed to recall. I asked my mum why I was Black, why I didn’t look like all the other kids at school. I wanted straight hair not curly. I wanted blue eyes not brown ones. I wanted to be white. When I remember, this I feel horrified, I love what I look like now, although it has taken a while to get there. Yet how is it that a little boy of mixed heritage living in a seemingly multicultural society manages to feel so different that he wished he looked like everyone else? I believe it is because we are surrounded with reminders of eurocentric beauty yet none of the beauty of people of colour. Adverts on TV, pictures in a magazine, lead actors in films, cartoon and comic book characters. They are all white. When a child cannot identify with a representation of themselves in the culture they are a part of, they begin to wish that they looked like all these other people represented by it. When my sister who is nearly six years younger than I am was that age she had similar problem too. Every self-portrait she did of herself had straight hair, and pale skin. My mother struggled to find her stories with empowering female characters of colour. But eventually she did.
Luckily enough for the both of us our parents taught us to be proud of who we were, that we are so much more than something as ridiculous and menial as the colour of our skin. Unfortunately for me, nobody seemed to manage to tell the world that. When I was a little older in Primary school I had a huge Afro, it was awesome and I loved it. Unfortunately, all the other kids loved it too. I don’t think that during the entire period of having an afro that I could go a day at school without someone touching it. In the classroom people would put pencils in my hair, it was fun at first, until it wasn’t. In the playground kids would grab it and pull it, pushing their sticky fingers into my neatly combed curls and stroking it. Like I was someone’s dog, not their classmate. One day I asked my mum to cut it all off so she did and when my afro went, so did all the attention. Later on, when I was older and it had grown out again I had a judo instructor who used to touch my hair like that as well. It made me feel incredibly uncomfortable, looking back on it now it was a complete violation of my privacy. But what is a scrawny thirteen-year-old yellow belt going to say to a brawny Argentine black belt? I quit judo because of that reason. I never told my parents that was why.
Once I got to secondary school, I was once again another student of colour in a sea of white. But as I am sure you will know, secondary school is much more ruthless than primary. People made jokes about my skin, they saw my complacency as an excuse to keep making those jokes. People made jokes about me stealing, about me not being able to swim (even though I had attended swim training twice a week for years). They saw my awkward smile and attempts to play it off as permission to say the N word. I had people call me the N word to my face, some people would sing songs with the N word in it right in front of me with not a care in the world. When I made a complaint, I was told that it was ‘just a song’ or to ‘not be such a p***y’. Teachers and students alike would make fun of my funny sounding name. But the worst thing about all this was that one of the main people who did this at the time was my best friend. So, racism like that began to become normal. Normal to the point where I began to internalise it.
In order to not be hurt by the joke I had to become it. I made jokes about stealing, about loving watermelon and not being able to swim. But the jokes that I am most ashamed of making were the ones about Africa. About a land that was so far away, that I had hardly ever been too, a land that I was attached to and yearned for. I made jokes about it being poor, I made jokes about AIDS, about there not being running water. All these jokes that I had been the brunt of I turned onto home and to this day I am ashamed of them. I did all these things just to fit in a little more. Because I liked strange foods like olives, because I sailed or was well spoken I was told that I was the ‘whitest black guy they had ever met’. Because I did things that were associated with white behaviour I was told by white people that I wasn’t properly Black. Even other black people joined have told me the same. The colour of your skin is not responsible for the content of your character, yet this was something I had to learn myself. As a Black boy in a white world.
It wasn’t just inside school that these things occurred though. As I got older I started noticing things outside as well. One time I was followed around a shop by security guard. I had someone cross a road to avoid me, I know this because I saw them crossing back to the other side once I had passed. One time me and a friend of mine of Pakistani descent flew out to France to visit another friend of ours. We landed at a small airport and as we arrived at border control we were the only two passengers to be brought aside for questioning. They asked me questions about my friend, they asked my friend questions about me. I am told that this is a feature of interrogation used by police and security forces when they are suspicious of an individual. It makes it easier to catch out irregularities in information given to them. When travelling I have been searched by security guards at airports in Germany, Italy, Spain and Greece. I must be a very suspicious looking person.
Back home I have been on nights out and had girls tell me that they’ve ‘never been with a black guy before’. But what’s the difference between being with a black or a white guy other than one can fill some perverse sexual fantasies and the other is normal. When I am at parties I have, people asking me where I’m from. I say ‘London’. ‘No, where are you really from’ is the response I often get. I don’t understand this because as far as I am concerned I’m from the same country that you are. The only difference being that society makes you feel like you belong here and that I don’t. Sometimes I double down and continue to tell them that I’m from London until they either get the message or are forced into an awkward corner where they say something we both don’t want to hear, ‘why are you black?’ was the worst one I’ve had so far. But more often than not I cave in and explain that my mum’s white and my dad’s black, Zulu, Herero, you get the gist. They nod their heads and go along but most of them don’t even know what being a Zulu or a Herero means. They probably couldn’t even point to Namibia on a map. You might be shocked at my reluctance to take part in this type of questioning. At first I wasn’t reluctant, but after the tenth, the hundredth, the thousandth time of saying the same thing over and over again wouldn’t you get bored too? Why do me and my friends of colour have to verify to you why we are here and where we are from when our white friends do not? It becomes mentally exhausting.
The most overt act of abuse I have experienced in my life was being called the N word by a group of eight or nine Portuguese kids the same age as me. As I sat on a ferry with my Dad, his girlfriend Tamsin and my sister on our way to the beach. I could not believe a gang of kids would call an multi-ethnic family the most degrading racial slur possible. They said it over and over again getting louder and louder. Each time they turned amongst one another sniggering and grinning. Each time a different one would lead getting jostled amongst his friends. To them it was all just a game. Yet the worst thing about it wasn’t the fact that we were the brunt of a racist joke. It was the fact that of the scores of other adults on board not a single one said a thing. Nobody confronted them. Nobody came to our defence. They just stood there avoiding our eyes as they looked around pretending that nothing was happening. I am only thankful that my younger sister, who was perhaps only eleven at the time did not hear this. This incident was perhaps the most humiliating experience of my life, sitting here years on I can still hear the sound of their voice in my head. That one word being repeated over and over again, the laughter that followed at my expense.
I am lucky enough to have lived a very sheltered life in which experiences like this are not the norm for me. Yet they still happen, but what about the other black people who live in this country? I have been told stories by black people of being stopped and searched for just walking down the street. A black man once told me of a time he once tried to help a girl up off the floor after she had fallen over whilst doing NOS at a party, only to have her scream and recoil away from him. Later on, she apologised and told him it was because she was scared, her parents had told her not to trust people like us. They had taught her that we were a threat. I have worked with, studied with and met other people of colour who have experienced the same. One told me that he spent several months in prison having been accused of being an accomplice to a murder, all because he was around the area and knew one of the people involved. He was eventually released and the charges were dropped. He never received compensation. A Muslim girl once told me of all the abuse she faced on the way to school. Grown men spitting at her, telling her to go back to her own country and trying to pull off her hijab. Grown men, doing that to a teenage girl.
The reason I believe all these stories of racial abuse is because I myself have experienced instances of racism. I view myself as being one of the lucky ones because instances of abuse have not come to dominate my life as it does for others. This is why my heart goes out to black people across the world who have to experience the same things I do and so much more. Me recounting my experiences of injustice doesn’t even come close to comparing to theirs. Yet you can imagine how drastically they differ. It is why when I look at, what I can only call, humanitarian atrocities being committed against black people and people of colour in America, I can do with empathy and share their pain. This needs to stop. This is racism whether you like it or not and it really, really, really needs to stop. People in this country look at America and think that because it is so bad over there that it doesn’t happen here. But it does. Its happened to me and I represent an incredibly small demographic of the Black British community. Every Black person’s experience with racism is different. But we all experience it none the less. It is time to take a stand and not just be racist, but actively opposed to it. This is a phrase you have probably heard already so don’t forget. Because if you struggle to denounce racism in society then you are a part of the problem. You become someone who enables it, like those adults on that boat in Portugal. Turning a blind eye and ignoring it isn’t going to make the problem go away. It only makes it fester under a veneer of peace and normality, until a man is murdered and the whole world suddenly burns. The global humanitarian crisis that is racism will not go away until something is done to address it. It is time to educate ourselves and start a new chapter for society where there is only one race. The human race.
I hope my experience has given you a little insight into the trials Black people and other people of colour face. Thank you.
I decided to write this essay after a dream I had last night. I was at a bar with a friend getting some drinks. In the dream, we had driven for a while from a place I do not know to this Pub in an area I know not where. Here we were drinking, pint after pint and after a few I went to go take a piss. I walked up a steep wooden staircase and found myself suddenly in the bathroom. It was large, it was grey and it was empty. As I relieved myself more and more men gradually entered until the bathroom was filled with people. I turned around and smiled at them as I went to go wash my hands. Once done I turned again and made my way to the door only to find it blocked. The men were in the way. The one face I remember the most belonged to a tall skinhead but it was the one next to him who did the talking. Not talking so much as just uttering one thing. ‘You know why we’re here don’t you’. It was then that I realised that all the men were white, and I was black. The dream became a nightmare. I ran forward pushing past as they grabbed at my jacket throwing punches. I managed to make it to the door and launched myself down the stairs shouting at my friend that we had to run. The bartender had disappeared and all I saw was the door. We made it outside only to be caught by the gang as they chased after us. I remember the struggle. I remember kicking. I remember punching the skinhead in the face as I was dragged further and further outside. Concrete buildings surrounded us and all of a sudden I was filled with an overwhelming sensation that I was about to die. It was a lynching. It was at this point that I woke up.
This all happened after I spent a whole day on social media talking, discussing and arguing with strangers I had never met about George Floyd. A black man murdered at the hands of a white police officers. I saw Black people being gaslighted online and having their experiences denied to them, all by white people. They said that there was insufficient evidence for it to proven that it was racially motivated. They denounced looters and regurgitated statistics selectively that only showed a very narrow minded perspective of what was happening. I then saw even more people questioning protests over here. I read comments vilifying protesters and calling them thugs. People being told to wait until coronavirus had passed before protesting. But the thing is, coronavirus has been an issue for a few months. Racism has been an issue for centuries. I felt so disheartened and upset that people could be so ignorant of something that to me is reality. When the facts and truths of the experiences of being a person of colour become, dismissed and questioned it can make you feel insane. By the time evening came I was so angry and upset I think it literally transferred into this horrible dream that I have just described.
Today after a restless sleep that lasted the best part of five hours I saw a different side. I saw the amount of support Black people and PoC have been receiving online. I have signed petition after petition with hundreds and thousands of votes campaigning for education on Black history. I have received messages from friends asking for me to recommend reading material for them so they can start to learn and understand the problems that racism creates. People have asked after my mental well-being. I have had conversations with family members who are saying they have learnt more about racism in the past week alone than they have learnt their entire lives. Change is coming and I have a message to all the racists out there, people who campaign on fear and lies. People who abuse their power and spew this vile racist rhetoric. Soon, if not already, we will outnumber you. Your days of hate will soon be over.