The appalling murder of another unarmed black man in the United States of America has caused an outpouring of anger across the world. Watching a policeman kneel on the neck of another human being for 9 minutes is unbearable. By the way, 9 minutes is an extraordinarily long period of time. It was not an accident. It takes that long to end someone’s life. George Floyd’s life was of no consequence to the white guy who extinguished it but it matters to us. We look on in horror.
We join demonstrations with banners. We share reading lists of black literature. People of colour are suddenly given lots of media access. We need to listen to their voices as that is how we begin to understand the experience of others. We may inhabit the same world but our experiences are very different.
I have some personal reflections on racism which are a small indication of the challenge in fighting it. My first husband is a black African and my eldest daughter is therefore mixed race. These are my reflections on some of the racism we encountered which I rarely talk about. Racism takes many forms – casual, systemic, cultural, accidental.
Job and I met at University and fell in love. He was stunningly handsome and full of fascinating stories from a different world. He is a black man who managed to escape Ian Smith’s Rhodesia in the late ’70s. He was a boy from an African village who was given an ‘English’ education. He is also a troubled soul and I was unable to fix him in the 15 years we spent together. I came to Worcester in 1989 as a single mum with a 2 year old mixed race daughter.
Reflections on trying to bring up children to be colour blind.
- Searching for children’s books which have positive black characters.
We found Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman and have loved and shared it ever since. This beautiful book starts with, and challenges, the premise that you can’t be Peter Pan in the school play if you are black and female. Searching for dolls that were not pink and plastic. Why should my daughter not be able to cuddle someone who looked more like her? We eventually managed to get a black baby doll after her little sister was born in the mid ’90s. We also found Steven on a trip to the USA – an alternative boyfriend to Barbie’s Ken. I gifted it to my first born on her 21st birthday.
- Hair is a racist issue.
Black hair is different and most hairdressers in Worcester are not qualified to cut it. As the mum of a little girl with black hair, it was a learning curve for me. I guess every mum makes decisions about their child’s hairstyle. Straightening vs Afro? Should we embark on a lifetime of chemical treatments in order to look less black? Instead we discovered the world of braiding and the lovely Jacqui. Day trips to West Bromwich indoor market to get Tari’s hair plaited whilst absorbing doses of black culture in a Black Country accent.
Why is an Afro a challenge to authority? Why do so many black people, of either sex, shave their head to remove this sign of their ethnicity? The Spice Girls were big in the life of my daughters and that empowerment was great. But why is Mel B Scary Spice? Many white people seem to have a fascination with wanting to touch Afro hair. Why does my black daughter still frequently experience this invasion of her personal space? Why has there never been a similar interest in touching the head of my younger daughter with the long blonde hair? At high school, there was an incident when a girl threw salad cream into Tari’s hair. Why was the perpetrator not treated as a racist bully?
- The racism of names.
I took my husband’s name when I first got married. I enjoyed being Lynn Takavarasha. I kept the name when I divorced him as I was still Tari Takavarasha’s mum. I kept being Lynn Takavarasha at work, even when I remarried and became Mrs Denham at home. The casual racism of people instantly assuming they can call you by your first name because they refuse to try and pronounce your ‘difficult’ surname. It isn’t amusing. It’s rude and disrespectful. The worst was an argument with a pharmaceutical rep who tried to tell me the origin of my own surname. He refused to believe that it is the name of a whole clan and a village in Zimbabwe.
- The racism of relationships.
There are people that refuse to believe that this white woman is the mother of my black daughter. She is not adopted, she is the fruit of my womb. I gave birth to her and she taught me how to become a parent. Why can some people not see that she is a bit like both her parents? That is the wonder of producing children! Tari was loved unconditionally by her white grandparents, even though they disliked her father. They travelled to babysit, read stories, buy gifts and make memories together. She has inherited a love of fashion, theatre, reading and throwing dinner parties from her maternal grandmother.
Never, ever judge anyone on appearance. You don’t know their story and you don’t know their potential. You can’t tell by skin tone whether someone is kind, musical, good at maths, brave or nasty.
‘Yes, officer……..there is a problem’.
Lynn Denham, formerly Takavarasha, nee Critchley