Yasmin Gunaratnam’s recent piece in the Independent on “How should we prepare our children for racism” reminded me of what it was like growing up black in the 1980s England. I don’t recall my parents sitting me down for “the talk” about racism. I know that my parents were aware of what it meant to be an immigrant and the challenges of raising children in a new and often hostile environment. I can therefore say with certainty that discussions about race and identity did take place but what I cannot remember is a specific talk about the very real possibility that some people would look upon me as inferior because of the colour of my skin. I suspect that this is because my parents did not get the chance to initiate that discussion.
If I was to chart a chronology of my education on racism, based on my childhood memories, I would say the racists were my first educators. Sadly this is not a unique experience. In my case, it was the National Front who brought the message home – literally. Within a few days of moving in to our apartment in Hounslow, we found a Union Jack and the words “Go home P**i” spray-painted on our door . My parents knew it was the National Front because they initialed the message with the letters “NF and for further clarity, their message was uncensored.
This was not an isolated incident. The harassment continued, it intensified and it metamorphosised into more confrontational and dangerous forms of abuse. I had a sense that what was happening was wrong, not least because my parents would often inform the police but being a child I was more pre-occupied with what was happening at school.
I had just become the new girl at school and one of only two black children. Alison. That was her name; the other black girl. I knew that Alison and I were similar because only Alison and I were referred to as “doo-doo face” by the other children. Alison and I were the only ones who would stand at the very back of the dinner-time queue, a safe distance apart from all the other children who refused to stand next us because they didn’t want the brown dirt on our skin to rub off on to theirs.
I told my parents about the name calling, not because I knew it to be racist. I just knew name calling was bad. I also told my parents about the children not wanting to stand near us, or wanting to play with us. This was a daily occurrence and my mother’s visits to the school were almost as frequent. In spite of my mother’s involvement the behaviour did not change.
Eventually (though not necessarily because of the racism at home and at school) we moved out of Hounslow, to South London; a new neighbourhood and a new school, both more diverse.
If my telling of all this seems a little disjointed, it is in part to do with my own memory but also a reflection of how, at that young age my mind processed things. I saw no connection between what the National Front’s harassment of my family and the behaviour of my classmate other than that both of these were wrong and that my parents’ did everything they could to tackle both problems. What stuck in my mind, especially in relation to the racism I experienced at school was that my parents insisted that I report every incident to them and my teachers. Even after I told my parents that I was now a “doo-doo faced tell-tale” the message remained the same; don’t put up with it, report it. While my teachers did very little, my parents took action every time I told them.
I do sometimes wonder about the other children who were at my school, the ones who were being racist, what did they learn? What conversations were taking place in their households? While I was learning “don’t put up with it” were they learning “don’t do it”? Why is it that is often people of colour who have to find ways to deal with and prepare for racism? I’m not sure what the answer these or to Gunaratnam’s questions are. I am not a parent, and even if I was, I still don’t think I would have an answer. All I have are the valuable lessons passed on to me from my parents. I should not ignore racism. I do not have to accept racism and even when the act is of resistance is met with further abuse I should not be deterred. Tell someone, challenge it –whatever is in your power to do – but never put up with it.
This means, at least for me, that while the racists may have been my first educators, it is the lessons from my parents that has endured.
Photocredit: A thumbnail image associated with this post appears on the site’s front page. The picture is from Dominic Jacques-Bernard‘s (jacquesy_m) Flickr stream and is published under a Creative Common’s license.