DEALING WITH BEING DIFFERENT
Experiencing racism in the Uk
By Olivia Otigbah
Growing up mixed-race in Newcastle, a predominately white city, I always felt a little different. You see, I am one of just 14% of the British ethnic population.
I often hear statements such as, “Britain isn’t that racist”, forgetting that the country we call home was an integral part of the slave trade between 1567 until its abolishment in 1834.
Even today, while slavery may be abolished, racist sentiments continue towards ethnic immigrants arriving in the UK.
While the level of racism people experience is varied, others such as Joel Nwokoye, 30, from Kirkcaldy, have been subjected to extreme race hate crimes.
Addressing his experience in a recent Facebook post, he said: “My family home was terrorised by racist kids in the street. We used to get called ‘jungle bunnies’, have eggs and rocks thrown at our house and car. My mum got spat at and was called the ‘N-word’ at least once. It got so bad that my dad had to bribe the leader of the racists, Andy, to keep his gang away from the house.
“I was good at sports and well-liked but being the only Black kid in class meant that when the whole class was talking, I’d always get singled out. I remember being so jaded about it, not even realising that it was because I was the most identifiable person.”
“A teacher who glances up to tell the class to shut up, of course, notices the only Black face talking in a sea of white.”
Shaheeda Sinckler, 24, from Edinburgh, also had a similar experience as she recounts a time when she and family members were spat at and psychically assaulted.
“Having been born in London and living there for the first eight years of my life, moving to Edinburgh was a massive culture shock. My parents converted to Islam and my mother wore a hijab, so we were easily identifiable, which added a new layer of ‘otherness’ to the mix.
“When I first relocated [from London] the area we lived in wasn’t exactly welcoming. I had racial slurs directed at me, our car was spat on and my [white] stepdad was headbutted in a shopping centre for being visibly Muslim.”
The first time I realised that I was ‘different’, happened one-day after the British National Party (BNP) knocked at my door to promote their latest campaign,
Being greeted by a three-foot child with an afro, the men looked uncomfortable, my mum freaked out, thrust their leaflets back at them and angrily slammed the front door. I didn’t understand why as they seemed friendly enough, so why was she so irritable about a seemingly innocent visit?
“Olivia, they are a racist political party,” she said, visibly upset, “They don’t represent Black or ethnic people. We don’t need anything from them.”
More than 20 years later, we watched in horror as another unarmed Black man, George Floyd, 46 was killed by police officers on the streets of Powderhorn, Minnesota. The killing came just weeks after another Black male, Ahmaud Arbery, 25, was also gunned down while jogging in the Satilla Shores neighbourhood of Georgia.
While the UK has had its fair share of unlawful killings, the recurrence of aggressive police conduct in the US is what continues to cause outrage and has sparked mass protests across the globe.
However, does this mean that racism happens less in the UK or are we just more ignorant about what racism entails?
Phrases such as the “P*** shop”, had been forbidden in my vocabulary and household. Unfortunately, for one Pakistani male, 29, who wishes to remain anonymous, these racial slurs were a part of everyday life.
“Being called a P*** was normal for me, so I would just ignore them.” He said.
“The only time I did get shocked, was when I was at an interview and the owner of the business said, “this is a small office and at lunchtime, I don’t want you to make the office smell of curry.” I wanted this job role, so I kept my mouth shut and took the job. He would say other comments, but I’d laugh it off.
“I resigned from the post.”
My own memories tell a similar tale. When I moved to Edinburgh, I was desperate to fit into my new environment. Within a few months, I was called “Bush” because my hair was frizzy, or “Camel” because of my skin tone, coupled with my plaited hairstyle.
As a pre-teen myself, I dismissed these comments as ‘kids just being mean’ and until recent events, it wasn’t until I reflected on this time, that I realised that this was racist and had affected my self-esteem.
As more people took to social media to share their stories, I realised I wasn’t alone.
Liam Nelson, 24, from London but raised in Edinburgh said: “From a young age all I wanted to do was fit in, so when comments were made and names were thrown, I brushed it off. I tried to join in on the joke. Recent events have made me realise that this whole process of being moulded by society is just so wrong.”
“This brushing off has affected my confidence and the way I interact with people more than
10 years later,” Liam added.
Echoing a similar experience, Arooj Farooq, 23, from West Lothian even resorted to joining in with racist comments towards herself to cope with the slurs.
“When I was younger I’d try and make a joke of my own culture, a joke of slurs because I thought if I make a joke of it then no one could make fun of me and it would just be like they were all laughing with me,” Arooj said.
“As I got older, I realised I’d been doing things like lying about what I had for dinner because I didn’t want my friends to think I ate curries every day. It got to a point where I started questioning, who am I doing this for?
“That was my coping mechanism.”
According to the Home Office, between 2018-2019, 103, 379 hate crimes were recorded, seeing a 10% increase compared to the previous year.
Furthermore, the figures have more than doubled from 42,355, since 2012-2013. The report also revealed that 78,991 hate crimes, were race hate crimes, which account for three-quarters of offences.
In Scotland, more than 80 experts signed an open letter in October 2019, warning that racial attitudes were “rolling backwards”. The letter was signed by academics, lawyers, and activists, including human rights activist Sir Geoff Palmer, and representatives of the Edinburgh Caribbean Association.
In the letter, they expressed concern over “a trend in Scotland that seeks to silence the voices of people who face colour-based racism”.
As a mixed-race woman, Saorsa Treanor, 25, from Edinburgh has sometimes felt racially profiled from both white and black groups after being brought up by in a predominantly white community.
“As a mixed-race Scottish female being raised by a white mother, I had a slight identity crisis. My white friends would refer to me as ‘black’ but to black people, I ‘wasn’t black enough’. I felt out of place and uncomfortable, sometimes I still do.” She said.
“When I was in high school, I began straightening my hair to fit into the social standard of beauty and draw less attention to myself. I remember one day when I was 16, I couldn’t be bothered to straighten my hair, so I went to school with it natural.
“I was swarmed with people patting my head, ruffling my hair, and pulling my curls. Even though I know it was coming from a good place, I felt like an animal in a petting zoo.”
For some, direct racism wasn’t prevalent but with continuous attention drawn to her nationality, Zara Chatir, 23, from Edinburgh, began to resent her ethnic heritage.
“Although I never experienced outwardly racist remarks growing up, it was the little things, like the hesitancy of teachers before pronouncing my name on the class register that reminded me that I was a little different,” she said.
“For years I would hate my surname and wish I had a more “normal” name. At times, my friends and I would say “half-cast” as a joke - none of us understanding or realising how problematic this is.
“I’d also describe “Morocco” as near to Spain instead of just saying North Africa - because I didn’t want to be associated with my Moroccan ethnicity.”
So, what do the subjects of this article feel authorities could do to educate people on race and promote more diversity in society?
“The most important thing is for the government to include the following topics in school curriculums: Britain’s role in colonisation and Britain’s participation in the Slave Trade for example,” Saorsa said.
Shaheeda shares a similar opinion, saying: “I think we need to have more education that provides positive role models in history and present-day that are people of colour which isn’t intrinsically linked to racism.
“Include writers that are people of colour in your English curriculum, explain how some parts of Africa’s decline was due to colonialism – create a more balanced view, dismantle ideas Eurocentric superiority.”
Liam would like to see more support for ethnic children growing up in British communities.
“Ethic children in white communities should be offered support on how to move forward in society but hold on to their roots. Those who are entrusted to protect us should not be so quick to follow the stereotypes invented by the past.” He said.
“All authorities must look to learn from the past and look to the future so that history does not repeat itself,”
Like the article or want to add your thoughts?
Leave your comments below, I'd love to hear them!