A personal history of experiencing racism in the UK
It’s sad to think that racism in the UK is still something we have to discuss. It’s even worse to know that those who experience it are often left feeling they have no choice but to accept it as a part of life in England. But this should never be the case. The topic is all too often forgotten about until some catastrophic event brings it back to the front pages. This year it was the death of George Floyd in the US. But this could all too easily have been an incident here in the UK.
When my father arrived in this country from Nigeria in the mid-1960s to study, he faced an awful amount of racism. He has first-hand experience of looking for accommodation and finding signs in windows saying: “No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs.” He had his car vandalised on numerous occasions and laughs now about being sent to work close to the furnace of a steel plant without enough protection because he ‘should be used to the heat’. But at the time, I can only imagine how he must have felt.
The list of stories goes on, but my father never let the experience define him or his treatment of others and this shaped my own response to racism as I grew up. I went to primary school in the early 70s, and the race divide was evident even then in the playground. Some kids had been instructed by parents not to play with Black kids. Race-related bullying and name calling was a regular occurrence.
All these years later and sadly not a lot has changed. Racism is less overt than it used to be, but it certainly has not gone anywhere. I consider myself ‘fortunate’ not to have experienced the worst of racist behaviour, but I've had my fair share of name calling, and car damage, slashed tyres and graffiti. For the most part it is an annoyance as I know it is a small number of people acting this way, but it does take its toll.
I recall several years ago I decided to take up roller blading and was getting quite good at it. To practice I would skate on an outdoor basketball court in the park opposite my home. One day I was literally forced off the court by a gang of local boys buzzing across the court on stolen motorbikes (yes, West Ham was like that back then). They buzzed so close it was getting dangerous to ignore and I had no choice but to leave. When I went back the next day the entire court was covered in racist graffiti, swastikas, and abusive wording everywhere. They had spent quite a while doing so too as they left no part untouched. They had used paint and spray paint and had ruined the surface of the court. In defiance I did skate over it all for that day, but I never returned after that, and never skated again.
There are daily little signs too, the almost unconscious actions like catching women grabbing their bags as soon as they see you approaching them on the pavement. Getting followed around a quiet store while other customers are ignored and so on. My wife worked for years as an A&E nurse before becoming an Emergency Nurse Practitioner. Racist verbal abuse and the threat of violence was not uncommon and always from the very patients she and her colleagues were trying to help, and their family.
It's easy for those not on the receiving end of this sort of behaviour to take it for granted as ‘well it doesn’t happen that often’ or ‘don’t you think you’re being a bit too sensitive?’ - comments I have personally received. But this only serves to trivialise the matter even further and defers any possibility of a solution. I’ve always thought I wasn’t bothered by my experiences and those of others, but when I was made to actually think about it recently, I realised how much a part of my daily life watching out for and avoiding racism had become. When applying for jobs or attending interviews the thought crosses the mind whether the hiring company is receptive to Black applicants, because believe it or not some still are not. Looking for holiday destinations elicits the same response too. It is a burden one really should not have to carry.
Being the father of three grown up children my worries and concerns are now for them. Will they have to experience what their father and grandfather have had to endure? It has been a lot better for them so far, but they have experienced racism too. Only a few months ago a customer walked into the branch of Boots my daughter worked at and refused to be served by my daughter because she was Black. Unfortunately for them, my daughter was the only pharmacist on duty, so the only option they had was to be served by her or come back another day. The customer insisted on a white pharmacist and left never to return. My daughter was obviously upset by it all but had no choice than to brush it off and carry on. My older daughter felt employment opportunities improved after she changed her name from Chinyere to Nicola. This was particularly difficult for her mother and me as names are a very important part of our culture.
Individually these could all be considered as random encounters with a small number of racist individuals, but when you put all the incidents together it builds to a catalogue of experiences that subtly affects one’s behaviour. I’m not bitter, I wasn’t raised that way and I haven’t brought up my kids that way either. I’ve never let the actions of a few change my outlook on world either. But I am angry, that to this day Black people still can’t be accepted as equals by certain institutions, organisations and members of society. History is littered with terrible stories of injustices carried out to people of African and Caribbean and Asian origins, but our present still isn’t rid of this yet either. It’s not always in-your-face, but it’s out there.
Racism isn’t going to just get up and vanish, it’s already been experienced by three generations of my own family. It will take effort from Black and white to call racism out where it exists. To challenge people with these views and to question whether actions that have ‘always been done this way’ are fair to all. I do not want my three-year-old grandson to ever know racism. I want him to grow in a world where he is judged by his actions not his colour. Where he is free to go anywhere anyone else can, without a thought. Where he can work hard and achieve without the spectre of being held back because of his race. I alone can’t provide this ideal world for him, but I will damn well try. For the sake of little boys and girls everywhere and of every race we owe it to them not to burden them with the mistakes and prejudices of the past but to allow them forge ahead to a bright united future.
2020 has been a landmark year in the fight for racial equity and the growth of the Black Lives Matter and global anti-racism movements. For more on the topics, read Holly Branson on the Black British Business Awards, Richard Branson on Black Lives Matter, and more articles on The Equal Justice Initiative, The Bail Project, The Elders, the death penalty and Juneteenth.