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Two Conversations About Racism

Updated: Apr 6, 2023

I composed the content of this blog as an email to my close friends on 6th June 2020 following the murder of George Floyd a couple of weeks before. An event that made a bigger impact than we would ever have thought possible at the time. The concept of racism was in everyone’s mind; whatever their viewpoint of the subject. I’m hoping that it will interest and inform it’s readers. Now it’s the focus on Ngozi Fulani and Susan Hussey and each time there is an incident such as this I feel like we’re talking about racism, but we’re not listening. My words below are important to me. I’m not asking for permission or even acceptance; just acknowledgement that I have the right to share my opinion without offending anyone of an ethnicity which isn’t mine. If you choose to read no further I won't mind, but make sure that you don't mind if you do .....

I have a really special friend who I've known for about 20 years, she is aware that she's being included in this blog post, but I won't mention her by name. We've been emailing and messaging a lot over the last few weeks and a couple of nights ago she rang me. We talked for a while about current affairs generally and then she asked if I'd ever experienced racism. I was surprised that she'd asked "if" and she was surprised that I'd said "yes". So, with her blessing I'm sharing with you some of our conversation and another conversation that I was then prompted to have.

When I was young there was a lot of very overtly racist behaviour, from dirty looks to whispering and giggling to brazen comments, offensive graffiti, the full-on shouting of names across the street and stone-throwing. Some of the terminology for insulting Black and Asian people was atrocious and just as bad when others - particularly those who were friends and not people of colour - were called those names too. It's a bit like the expressions: "He cried like a girl" or "You're so gay". There were eight or nine particular phrases I had directed at me, some on a fairly regular basis, that were extremely unpleasant.

Another memory was during a school assembly with the headteacher whose name was Mr. W. He couldn't have been any more aptly named as he looked permanently cross, had shocking white hair that stood on end and a very red face!! One of the boys in my class, T, always seemed to be in trouble and on this particular day Mr. W. decided that he was going to cane T on stage in front of the whole school. T was dark-skinned, wearing a crisp white shirt and as he writhed away from the strikes of the cane, Mr. W. grabbed the back of his shirt by the collar. T jumped off the stage, popping the buttons off his shirt and ran, leaving the headteacher holding it in mid-air. As a family we had been watching the series "Roots" at the time and that image - of the powerful versus the powerless, who is then forced into defiant empowerment - had a very profound impact on me. If anyone doesn't know of it, you might want to Google it and just read the synopsis.

There are too many examples to give when I was growing up in the seventies and eighties, but I remember those pre-watershed sitcoms on television portraying very stereotypical characters and stylised images of a whole range of cultures. "Mind Your Language" springs to mind. It was very common to see actors in blackface, and Black and Asian comedians, some of whom are well-known now, make jokes about their own race. Later programmes such as "Goodness, Gracious Me" and comedians like Gina Yashere and Stephen K. Amos, for example, explore racism up close, finding humour in their everyday lives which they share with their audiences. Patrons know what to expect, so if they're offended it's not their problem!!

As I got older, racism became more subtle and in some cases was due to unconscious bias, but was offensive nonetheless. I heard "I don't like Black people, but you're alright" or "You don't act Black" hundreds of times. My mum had told me that if I was the only Black person someone met, I should leave them with a positive impression. So what often happened was that I shattered the illusion of the token Black person they might have encountered in passing. But sadly, it didn't always alter their ignorance to the fact that we are all representations of ourselves, regardless of our race.

In the world of work my height added to certain people's dislike and I chose to be very restrained in my response to some of the mind-blowing things I heard, like: "I listen to you on the phone with your northern middle-class accent, sounding normal. Then you turn up looking like that [looking me up and down]. Whatever do people think?" To this, I smiled and - with my mum's words echoing in my ears - replied: "Well no-one has run away screaming so far!!"

At a weekend conference where we all wore name labels I was told very loudly: "Not only are you vertically challenged and Black, you've been saddled with a name like that too! You poor thing." Before I could reply to that one, the delegate next to me intervened and yelled back a long, anger-fuelled mouthful!! I'd like to have given a more measured retort myself, but either way I think the conference was memorable for a few people for at least one reason!! In both cases the comments were made by middle-class, middle aged white women, but they weren't the only ones suffering from a lack of good manners or apparent filter.

A male primary school headteacher I worked with in an area of diverse cultures in BIrmingham referred to me as "the black dwarf" to some members of staff - though not to my face of course. Some of these experiences may be difficult to believe and perhaps harder to read, but what disgusts me most is they were all in the context of the teaching and learning of young children. In our telephone conversation on Sunday my very tearful friend asked: "Well if they can say those things in public, what on earth would they say in private?" It's a very valid question. What would they say ..... ? Or do ..... ?

My friend doesn't work in the field of education, but has children of her own. One - an unexpected surprise!! - is of primary school age. While she now feels more comfortable talking with her children about recent events reported in the media, it has made her question what adults outside of her home may convey that she believes to be inappropriate. She's decided to continue to home educate for the time being, so I advised her to take advantage of being under "house-arrest!!" and equip her children with the concepts and language they will need for their own resilience.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to face-time with her gorgeous brood and when she asked if they wanted to ask me anything they hesitated. She left the room and, with gentle encouragement, the eleven year-old asked me: "Would you prefer not to be Black?" Mindful that he will be in secondary school next term, I told him about the sacrifices my parents had made, the ways in which they prepared me for the life I would live, how I felt grounded and what that did for my self-esteem. However, I acknowledged that I've never been trolled on social media [so far], I've never been seriously threatened with harm by a large group of people because of the colour of my skin, or beaten up or left in fear of my life. Maybe the answer from someone else wouldn’t be the same.

He then asked if anyone uses racism towards me now, so I explained how sometimes it's like a whisper or if you blink you might miss it. Until last year, as a senior manager in education within children's services I periodically sat in directorate meetings where I was the only Black staff member. It was always interesting to hear the: "Yes, but ..." responses to my contributions, but amazingly when the same was said by one of my colleagues there would be a gushing: "What a wonderful idea." It was then often followed by: "Can you sort that out, Zelpher?"

It's subtle, but (before lockdown) I felt it's presence when the person behind me in the queue was served before me or a shop keeper refused to put my change in my hand and slapped it down on the counter instead. The funniest times are when people interpret my "special needs" by speaking loudly, over-emphasising the movements of their mouth - as if they're chewing a huge piece of gum - and talking very, very slowly. It's their babbling when I introduce myself - especially if they were talking about me and not to me - that I enjoy the most!! On a trip to rural Cumbria a while back with a large group, the others would say to anyone staring or pointing: "It's alright we're taking her back tomorrow." and we'd erupt into fits of laughter!! It still makes me chuckle, but now I'd put an emphasis on informing those strangers and equipping them with the tools to be respectfully curious.

One of my worst experiences was fairly recent at the airport in Germany. The computers had crashed so the seat booking system had to be done manually and a staff member told me quietly that I was being upgraded to business class. In the shuttle bus across the tarmac I sat in a window seat, removed my back-pack and put it on my lap. The bus was really crowded and I noticed that not only would no-one sit in the next seat, but they preferred to squidge up by the door rather than stand in the available space near to where I was sitting. As the plane was boarding and I took my seat a member of cabin crew walked past me, she then back-tracked and stood in front of me. She started sniffing and asked quite aggressively if I could smell anything. I told her I couldn't and she asked some of the other passengers and they said they couldn't. She then went to get a colleague and they paraded back and forth, while inhaling loudly for dramatic effect. Then an engineer was brought onto the plane; he sniffed up high, down low and actually sniffed me!! The woman - clearly with the sniffing capability of a bloodhound!! - asked if I had anything in my bag that I shouldn't have. By this time I was seething and I said that if anything was there that shouldn't have been, it would have been found when my bag was x-rayed and searched. I felt so uncomfortable for the rest of the journey which seemed excruciatingly long and was thrilled to finally arrive in Sri Lanka - where I didn't encounter any racism at all.

In my experience of working with children I've been asked by them a number of times 'what, why and who ..... ?' when it comes to sensitive issues. I've explained 'which and where' too!! On one occasion in a school, a boy made monkey noises behind me in the playground. We had a long discussion about it; where it usually takes place and how it makes people on both sides feel. So when the boy rang his mum (something the school insists on for significant issues) he told her that I had helped him understand his behaviour and he was sure he wouldn't repeat it.

I went on to write a football-themed anti-bullying assembly which I led regularly for pupils, staff and parents. I talked about people not liking someone just because of the colour of their skin, their race or their culture as well as other prejudices. The assembly was entitled: "I'm not Different, I'm Me", rather than classifying us, it's about celebrating everyone's uniqueness. Now ..... I realise that in order not to be hypocritical I have to not dislike Germans (caveat re: the use of a double-negative applies in this instance!!) which I really don't. I just have to put that single 12 hour episode behind me and look forward to meeting some friendly people from Germany instead.

Police forces in America have an awful lot of work to do and many in the UK do too. Take away the rioting and the looting; something massive is happening all over the world right now. People are stopping to think, ask questions and learn. All races are challenging what they have believed about past events and are prepared to overhaul their historical knowledge to reflect the truth in future. People of colour are articulating ourselves and are validating our own stories; not having others validate them for us. White people are standing alongside us and demanding that we are all heard and aspire for the next generation not to have to wait decades to effect authentic and permanent change. I heard someone say that racism is the biggest pandemic. So we need to put on our face masks, roll up our sleeves and get on with eradicating it. I hope there will be many more conversations about racism from any race, religion or culture to any other race, religion or culture. Together we have so much to learn.

To my dear darling friend, thank you for inspiring me to share our conversation, for the insight into the thoughts of a courageous eleven-year-old boy and bless you when you asked: "How can anyone hate you when you're so lovely?" It made me blush, but I think it takes a lovely person to know a lovely person. Therefore, I'm sure that everyone reading this is a lovely person too!! 😊

There are many other occasions I could add: being verbally abused by an employer, being insulted under the guise of “banter” by another one which pervaded a toxic environment of institutionalised racism. More recently; five Black families, one White family and a Black educator (me) are in a room. In walks a White educator who only speaks to the White family and they all leave the room without a word. When I raised it with my White colleague she said I was "reading too much into it" and refused to accept how it could be perceived even if there was no conscious intent to offend!! It often frustrates me that these are professionals who are considered to be role models working with children and young people …

I'm really pleased to have been accepted on a Train the Trainer course on Anti-Racist Practice in schools which takes place in January. I hope that this training, along with the other courses I offer will go some way to informing educators, but also shifting the mindset in all services for young people. I have been unfortunate to work in three roles where Institutionalised racism cast a shadow over everything I did - or tried to do. It's difficult to fight it alone. So I'm now able to channel the lingering emotions from these experiences to reach much more positive outcomes. I feel the deepest sympathy for George Floyd's family and friends, but trust that his death was not in vain. He lives on in the hearts and minds of many marginalised groups and I know I will endeavour to shift the balance as much as I possibly can.

Rest in peace George Floyd 14th October 1973 to 25th May 2020

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