What it means to me

I am a man of few words, I say little although I hear a lot. Many will take my silence for indifference but most of the time I genuinely believe that there is no point saying something that won’t be heard. For one reason or another people are listening to the topic of racism so I will take this opportunity to talk and in doing so, hopefully educate those willing to listen.

For me, racism isn’t  a black man being killed in police custody, it’s much bigger – whilst at the same time being much smaller. A man getting killed in police custody is a horrific crime that shouldn’t happen to anybody of any colour. But for me, racism is not something that happens halfway across the world to a man that I don’t know, who may or may not have been guilty of a crime, rather it’s a lifetime of subtle experiences that have shaped who I am and I know that I won’t be the only person that has been affected by subtle racism, often without even being aware of it.

I believe that there are fewer people now (especially here in multicultural Oxford) who are truly racist, as that is an evil state of mind where somebody needs to hate. People of colour offer a perfect solution to that need. It is almost easier to deal with an out and out racist because you know that you will never have a chance where they are concerned but there are still so many people that will act on racist (sexist and homophobic) foundations, often without knowing it. For this reason I am going to share some experiences that have stuck with me from my life, experiences that seemed so insignificant at the time but have clearly remained in my memories for a reason.

As a 15 year old, I was denied entrance onto a bus because I couldn’t provide ID to prove my age (and that I was too young to do anything like smoke, drink or gamble) and I refused to pay an adult fair. At the time, I thought little of the incident. I always looked old for my age. Of course the driver didn’t want me to get away with paying 60p rather than £1.20. Maybe I had a bad attitude.  But the reality is that no other driver questioned my age, other than perhaps asking my DOB. He wasn’t going to get employee of the month for denying me entrance to the bus no matter how much I paid and I know that ever since the first time that I took the bus alone and had to revise the line: ‘can I get a half return to town PLEASE’ I had always used manners, that’s just the way my mum raised me. So there must have been an ulterior motive. And the way that I argued back to an injustice would have just reinforced his opinion of black teenagers. It is the same now, when a minority of protestors use their anger as an excuse to vandalise, and the narrow minded see these actions as justification for their prejudice opinions against the majority.

The main type of racism that I have experienced throughout my life is to do with stereotypes. If any of you reading this went to Headington Middle or Cheney you might have been lucky enough (and I’m going to name drop right now) to have been taught by Mrs Bowen. One cold winter afternoon I was in her science lesson and I was coughing. She made a comment that I should stop smoking, when I responded honestly that I didn’t smoke she gave me a patronising look and continued to tell me that smoking was unhealthy. On another occasion, after working for several months in a part time job whilst studying at uni, my manager had a conversation with me. He explained that he was surprised that I was so hard working because when he met me he thought I was a stoner.

On occasions growing up I would smoke a bit of weed at parties and have a drink but I was far from a stoner. My laid back attitude and a tendency to suffer from hayfever could be the reason that many, not just those two examples, believed me to be a pot head but the reality is much more simple. That’s just how people perceived a young ‘black’ teenager.

Another experience that made me feel both hurt and angry at the time was when I was out with a friend and his other friendship group. We were in a pub having a drink and this friend of my friend lost her phone. Understandably she was upset by this and I didn’t mind so much when she first asked if I had taken it. The second time she asked if I had stolen her phone annoyed me a bit, but I emptied my pockets to prove my innocence. Later that night she decided to ask for a third time if I was the one to have taken her phone. I had given the girl no reason to suspect that I was the person, in a busy pub, to have taken it but she was adamant that it must have been me. There have been other occasions of things going missing where I become an instant suspect or times in shops where I could feel following eyes of the shopkeeper and it’s a discomfort that isn’t easy to describe.

The last experience that I will share, which is not to say that I don’t have many more, was abroad in Budapest Hungary. On the way into Sziget festival, amongst thousands of other people I was stopped by two different security guards for ‘random searches’ the second of which stepped out of his way to give me a thorough pat down. At first when I explained that I had already been searched he didn’t speak any English, after the search he managed to question if I had any drugs or weapons on me  and had a smirk on his face when I asked if he also wanted me to drop my trousers for him. After joining my friend, who wasn’t searched by anybody on the way in, I had an amazing time at a show headlined by Wizz Khalifa. Ironic no?

By some strange coincidence, whilst writing this I am also watching ‘Brooklyn 9-9’ (season 4 episode 16) and in this particular episode Terry, the black police man, is out of uniform and gets arrested for being black in a nice neighbourhood. The white officer apologised, because he didn’t know that Terry was a police officer but couldn’t understand that Terry was angry because that was the only thing that the officer found wrong about the situation. It’s a perfect summary of a racism I felt a lot growing up around football: ‘you’re alright because you’re our mate’ but what those same people thought about other black people was completely different.

The racism that I have encountered through my life, although very subtle (apart from a couple of direct occasions, which for me, aren’t even worth recollecting), has had a huge baring on who I am today. I’ve always felt the need to be extra polite to be past the stereotype of being a rude black youth, I’ve had to work harder so not to be seen as lazy or a stoner. I’ve felt uncomfortable sat in a lecture theatre of 80+ students with just 3 other ethnic minorities and I’ve had to be considered a black person whilst growing up despite the fact that I was raised by my white mother. Before I matured enough to be proud of who I am, I almost thought that who I was perceived to be is who I should be. Please believe that there are weaker willed people than me who are the way they are because society dictated that they should be that way.

I read a post from a good friend recently. She wrote about how her dad would nod at random black people when she was younger and when she asked who it was he would say ‘I don’t know’. My dad did exactly the same thing and I often find myself doing it. I now interpret that nod as a nod of relief. A feeling of being less isolated. ‘Thank god I’m not the only one being judged around here for the way I look.’ I hope we are on the way to a society where we don’t have to feel relief at seeing another black person because we don’t even notice them. When a job advert says ‘this is an equal opportunity job posting’ it is an admission that once, not so long ago it wasn’t an equal opportunity and it admits that there are still other job postings that are not equal opportunity. Maybe one day there will be equal opportunity without having to highlight the fact.

So if you have taken the time to read this I thank you. I ask if you are a minority reading this to be brave enough to share an experience from your past that made you feel uncomfortable. If you are white, I ask you to speak with your minority friends and ask them about one of there experiences and try to make sure that you never make those judgements in the future. Not every act of racism is as extreme as what you will be researching right now but this is the stuff that happens in everyday life.