Black History Month: Jennie’s Story
To commemorate Black History Month, Worcestershire Transformed are looking to publish a series of articles which highlight the experiences of black people in the county and across the U.K. The following article is a transcript from a talk given at an local Anti Racist Group Meeting by Jennie, a mixed-race woman living in Warwickshire.
“Hello. My name is Jennie. First off, in this talk, I hope you don’t mind but I’m going to refer to white people as a whole (quite possibly using the word ‘you’). I will do the same when I am talking about black and mixed-race people. At no point will I mean all white people or all black people, it’s just for ease and simplicity right now in the hope that I don’t waffle! It does however go against my natural instincts as I have always been taught not to group people by the colour of their skin so please do bear with me! It is also important for you to note that this is my experience of being a mixed-race woman in Britain today and very much my own opinion of what I feel could and/or should change. Everyone’s story and experiences will be different and I can only speak for myself.
Anyway, now I’ll tell you a little bit about me. I’m 33 years old and married with 2 children, my son is 15 and my daughter is 6. I also have 2 stepsons who are 16 and 12. I live in Warwickshire and work in IT for the NHS. One, if not the first, thing other people see when they meet me is that I am black. Quite a fair thing to see, except that I’m actually mixed-race. One of the first questions I often get asked is “Where do you come from?”. This question usually comes before my age, where I work, in fact, generally, it’s pretty soon after I’m asked my name. Again, it’s not at all an unfair or rude question, and I’m not saying that you should never ask people where they are from, it could certainly lead to a really interesting conversation. My point is that I want you to ask yourself this….would that question have been so high on your list if I was white? You see, for me, it’s not so much the question that ‘bothers’ me, it’s more about the presumption you might have made about what my answer will be. The answer to that question is that I am from the UK. I was born and grew up here. In fact, I’ve never actually been to where my Dad is from. Now, as an adult, when I’m asked that question, I know and understand what people actually mean is “What is your heritage?” Again, to reiterate, it is not at all bad to be interested in someone’s heritage and I’m certainly not telling you never to ask, I just sometimes wonder why it is a priority above things that I actually feel tell you much more about me as a person and who I am? But, as a child, when asked that question, and believe me, I was asked that from a pretty young age, is actually quite confusing. You see, a child often won’t understand that what you are actually talking about is heritage. They will wonder why you want to know that they are from England as opposed to what their favourite game to play is and to be fair, they have a point! They will also pick up on the fact that you didn’t ask that question to their white friend standing next to them. You might not be aware of it but I can promise you, they are. Now, this is just an example, I will give you many more this evening. My aim is not to make you feel guilty or ashamed. You did not know any different. I always tell my children that I will never tell them off for doing something that they didn’t know was wrong. As a parent, it is my job to teach them. Once they know, they can then choose their future actions based on the knowledge that I have provided them with. Those decisions are then what define them as people. The same applies here. Although I am not your parent so technically it is not my job to teach you, I feel that I have some experiences that may help with your journey to becoming more aware of the issues surrounding race in Britain today. As you are here tonight, I’m presuming you want to learn more and educate yourselves which is a huge step in the right direction.
So, as I said, I am mixed race. My Mum was white and my Dad is black and a direct immigrant from Guyana in South America (not Jamaica—another assumption that is often made!). I grew up with my Mum and older brother as my parents split up before I was born. My Dad wasn’t particularly present in my life but I did see him from time to time. As my Dad wasn’t really around, I have been predominantly surrounded by white family and friends for my entire life.
However, I was extremely lucky in that I was brought up by an extraordinary white woman who made it her absolute mission to learn about black history and culture in order to educate me with the aim of empowering me to grow into a positive, confident adult. She recognised
the issues that me and my brother would face as mixed-race children and she worked tirelessly to educate herself and then went on to educate other people in order to support us and other young people to become well-rounded, confident, and secure adults. She didn’t shy away from anything and if she were still here today, I guarantee that she would be at the centre of the BLM movement. Sadly, she died of cancer in 2011.
The early years of my life were spent living in Coventry which was actually pretty multicultural. When I was 8, we moved to Warwickshire to be near my Grandparents and because Mum got a better job. Wow. That was a shock to my system! In my school in Coventry, not being white was pretty unremarkable. On my first day in school in Warwickshire, I was one of very few mixed-race children in the entire school. My brother was starting secondary school by this point so I didn’t even have him there. It’s the first memory I have of walking into a room and instantly feeling out of place/wrong/different. I cried for pretty much the entire first lesson despite no-one being at fault which made it really difficult to articulate what was wrong when asked by my teacher. It is a feeling that I have carried through life with me and now, whenever I walk into a room, the first thing I automatically do is look to see if there is another black or mixed-race person there. More often than not, there isn’t. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I would run straight over to the other black person if they were there, it would just be that I felt that little bit less different. It’s not even something I’m always conscious of doing—it’s just natural for me. I currently work in IT within the NHS and I have found that the higher up in the ‘ranks’ I travel, the more white the environment becomes. I am currently the only black person that works in my building. I am not saying that this is true across the whole NHS, I am only speaking from my experience.
Being the only black person in a room (or building) doesn’t sound like a big thing, but it’s really hard when you are 8 and there is no-one else like you. I think mixed-race children can often feel this the most because although to white people, they are in the ‘black’ group, sometimes mixed-race children can feel that they are not part of the ‘black’ group either. We are literally in the middle. As a child, when I went to my Dad’s, I often didn’t feel ‘black enough’ to fit in there. Not just because of my skin colour but also because of cultural differences as I was brought up in a white community as well as practical things like language barriers. I suppose this leads quite nicely on to talk about why I titled my talk ‘I don’t see colour’. So, I hear this phrase spoken so often by so many people. My best friend’s Dad actually commented on a post I had put on social media not so long ago. He had the best intention and it was coming from a place of love and kindness. That makes it even harder to address BUT the phrase ‘I don’t see colour’ is one that I think needs to be looked at and I will tell you why….
When people say ‘I don’t see colour’, what they actually probably mean is ‘I don’t treat people differently because of their skin colour’. Two very different statements and it is important that you understand why. Now, I’m going to ask you to think about this. When I was that 8-year-old little girl that walked into the new classroom for the first time, what do you think I saw? I saw colour. I saw the beautiful white skin of all the boys and girls in my class. I saw that they didn’t look like me. Saying ‘I don’t see colour’ almost implies that it is a negative thing to see colour when in actual fact it is imperative that we do. How can we address the issues that black, mixed-race or other non-white children face if we are saying that we shouldn’t see difference? That little girl sees difference. That little girl feels difference and her feelings are valid. They need to be acknowledged. They need to be understood. We need to show her that yes, she is the only little girl with brown skin and ‘frizzy hair’ in that room because that is fact. But we need to make sure that she knows that she is still just as beautiful as the children with white skin and blonde hair. We need to support her in finding herself and being proud of who she is. How can we do that if we ‘don’t see colour’?
For me, this is where society needs to step in. Because there are so many 8-year-old little girls that don’t have a Mummy like I did. I was told that I was beautiful more or less every single day. I was told that I was loved by my Mum every single day without fail, right up until I was 23 years old on the day she died. I was so so lucky. I grew up with the most amazing mother who ensured I was surrounded by love and so many wonderful black role models too. People like Misan who was one of my Mum’s dearest friends and still someone I turn to, especially when I am struggling with issues around race. Because it still happens now. It still hurts now. Sadly, I am now also dealing with a different kind of pain. I would say that it is worse. I have to deal with the fact that my children have to face the same things, and unfortunately that is fact and it is today’s reality. They have already felt the same hurt and rejection and the only thing I can do is to prepare them for life as best I can, pick them up when they are kicked down, and just like my Mum did for me, constantly remind them that they are beautiful, inside and out and every day (much to my 15-year-old son’s dismay!) I tell them that I love them. Because that is what can give a child a sense of security within themselves. An inner confidence that they can swim against the tide and still get to their destination—and believe me they will have to. Now, a lot of black and mixed-race children just won’t get this from home for many reasons and not through lack of love from their parents. If you think about it, I was taught this by a white woman who grew up in a society that was naturally ‘on her side’ for want of a better phrase. She didn’t spend her life feeling different and not quite fitting in. Society would have given her that inner self-confidence without having to get it from home. The black community of her generation (and even this generation) didn’t and still don’t necessarily have that as a given in the same way that white people tend to. And if you don’t have that self-confidence, how can you teach it to your children? And so the cycle continues.
I firmly believe that children are our future. That they are the key to permanent change. We have an education system in place which means we can capture all of our children and teach them to open their minds and as corny as it sounds, change the world. We need to use that. We need to turn the curriculum on its head. We need to stop shying away from the difficult conversations. Take Britain’s role in the slave trade for example. How deep do we delve into that at school? It’s not pretty, it’s uncomfortable to talk about but it is necessary. It is a part of who we are. It is a part of that 8-year-old little girl. Aside from all of that – it’s actually really interesting! My Mum taught me all about the slave trade whilst I was still of primary school age. It didn’t make me hate all white people. It made me see more. Learn more. Understand more. The slave trade is not just ‘Black History’. It is British history. Our children also need to learn about more positive black role models—there are so many out there! Rosa Parks, Mary Seacole, Martin Luther King Jr are just a few. Please do research them if you don’t know who they are. We need to literally show that 8-year-old girl that there are amazing people who have achieved outstanding things that do look just like her. We also need to show the white children in the classroom that black people can and do achieve just as much as white people. Choose the black child to play the part of Belle from Beauty and the Beast—it’s amazing how quickly a child just comes to accept things. I always knew that I wouldn’t get the lead roles because the characters were always white and I wasn’t. But actually, why does Belle have to be white? The answer to that is—she doesn’t! We need to redefine success and beauty.
As a child, I went through phases where I so desperately wanted to be white. I didn’t go as far as to try and whiten my skin but there have been children that have tried. I do however have a physical scar, a sort of dent in my ear from using chemicals to try to change my appearance. I did it when I was relaxing my hair. Relaxing is straightening it using chemicals—almost a reverse perm. As soon as my Mum allowed me to relax my hair, I couldn’t wait to do it. She wouldn’t let me until I was a teenager but lots and lots of very young black children do. I so wanted to be rid of my afro frizzy hair. I hated it. Up until very recently, I would relax my hair regularly. I would leave the chemicals on longer than I should to try and get it as straight as possible. My Mum used to do it for me which meant that it was done properly without causing too much damage to my hair. However, as I became older and able to do it myself, I would leave it on for even longer. Sometimes up to double the amount of time I should have. That is how I burnt my ear so badly that there is still physical evidence of it almost 10 years on. I would endure the pain of burning on my scalp in the hope that my hair would look more European and less afro. Now, I’m well aware that most little girls (and boys) go through phases of not liking their hair but would they go as far as burning their own heads to change it?
I think that society silently feeds us this idealistic picture of what perfection looks like. And unfortunately, that is not a mixed-race girl with frizzy hair. You can see it when you walk into a toy shop or a book shop. My little girl is doll-mad. She absolutely loves them and she has hundreds. Yet, I still have to consciously look for black or mixed-race dolls. They are not frequently just on the shelves in a shop. They are available now, which is much better than when I was little, but they are still not ‘the norm’.
This brings me to talk to you about a time where I had to stop and re-evaluate how I had been parenting my little girl and really look at what I was surrounding her with.
It’s important before I tell you this story that I describe my children. Mixed-race children can look completely different from one another. The key is in the term mixed. Some mixed-race children are very light-skinned and others very dark. Although my son’s father is white, my son’s complexion is similar to mine and so when you look at him it is obvious that he is mixed-race. My daughter, however, has much lighter skin. If she is out with just my husband who is white, people probably don’t think that she is mixed-race. I’m sure that as she grows up, this will bring around a different set of challenges for her.
Anyway, she was about 3 and we were in Asda. She was sat in the trolley and she said “Mummy, I don’t like anything that’s brown” so I replied “Oh, OK. Why’s that then sweetheart?” and she said “because brown is yucky” so I said (thinking, “it’s fine she loves me so I’ve got this”) “What about Mummy? I’ve got brown skin” and she replied, “No, I don’t like brown people because brown is yucky”. My heart broke. Now, after a bit of reflection, it’s quite obvious that my daughter does like me. She was 3 and her way of ordering her thoughts and structuring her opinions was very simplistic. But, that conversation made me stop and think. It made me check myself. It made me take a step back and ask myself “am I doing everything I can to create an environment for my daughter where she is seeing black and mixed-race people in a positive light” The truthful answer was no, I wasn’t. I’m not a bad person, I’m not a racist person but I had forgotten that I had to make an extra effort to be aware. I was getting swept along by society. It’s so easy to do. You see, no matter how amazing my home life was, the outside world was still the same. Growing up, every successful person I saw on TV, was taught about at school, all of the most wanted dolls were all white. So that is still in me. I can admit that I subconsciously look towards the white doll if having to choose because that is what the world told me to do and it is hard to unlearn that. So, what did I do about it? Well, I went straight home, went on to Amazon, and ordered loads of books with black characters in them and a selection of black and mixed-race dolls! She thought all of her Christmases had come at once!
It’s just so easy to go with the flow in life. Not notice what is going on around you. We all do it. We are all the centre of our own world so we have to make a conscious effort to sometimes take a step back and actually look at what is going on around us.
Now, I want to talk a bit about overt racism. This feels to me as though it has probably progressed the most over the years. I imagine that is because it is the easiest form of racism to tackle. Society now tells us that it is unacceptable to be overtly racist. Therefore, if someone shouts racist abuse at a black person, most people would see that as wrong and some people would challenge it. I struggled with this type of abuse more so when I was a child and teenager, which I think is still the case today. My son has been called names and it is horrific to be on the receiving end—I mean it’s literally like a gut punch. The phrase ‘sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you’ could not be more wrong.
When my son has been the victim of racist abuse, he has dealt with it in a variety of ways. He was quite a quiet child at primary school. He was a good boy who liked rules and boundaries—deep down he still does although he won’t admit it! He has always been much older than his years and had (and still has) a very strong sense of fairness and equality. Black and mixed-race children can find themselves having to deal with racism almost by themselves from a very young age. I think my son was about 5. Now, when I say he had to deal with it by himself, I don’t mean that the school did nothing and I certainly don’t mean that I didn’t support him but in that precise moment, when those hurtful words were said to him, he had to hear them, process them and then choose how to react instantly, all by himself. He would have felt so many things. Pain, anger, jealousy, guilt just to name a few. Pain because it hurts when anyone says anything horrible to you. Anger because it is not right or fair. Jealousy because in that moment he may well have wished that he was white, and then guilt for not being proud of being mixed-race. So, think about that. At 5 years old, he had to process all of that and then try to choose the best way to react. Not easy for anyone, even an adult. So, maybe now that might help you to understand a bit better when you just see the reaction. Sometimes, and often for my son when he was younger, children will cry and run away. Children who are lucky will have a safe person to run to who will help them. Children who are not so lucky may just sit in a corner alone. Another reaction is to name call back or fight back. This is sadly where things get really tough for black and mixed-race children. This is where their legitimate feelings of anger can get them into trouble. This is where they can get their ’label’ as a bad person or trouble maker. Often this happens as they get older. Now, I’m not condoning violence. I never have and never will but I’m asking you to try to understand it. If my son first experienced overt racism at 5 years old, he has now had 10 more years of having to deal with those emotions. That’s a long time and as much as he is a wonderful, kind, and gentle young man, he is also only human. Sometimes (and it’s not often, maybe once or twice in his life) he explodes. He fights back. He loses control. A classic and recent example of this is when a child in his year had been constantly making little snide comments and remarks. At one point this child gave everyone else in the group a sweet and actually told my son that he wasn’t having one because he was black! My son is at secondary school—telling teachers sadly isn’t the done thing so he just let it go. Again. Fast forward a couple of days and this child randomly kicked my son from behind in the corridor. My son automatically turned around and punched this child without thinking. However, he didn’t just punch him once. He punched him a few times. He lost control. All of the months of pain and anger that this child had caused him had been kept bottled up inside and now the lid had been taken off. Now, as I said, my son is really not a fighter and no real damage was done to either child. It wasn’t even big enough for the school to contact me, but my son came home really upset. Surprisingly, he wasn’t upset with the child he’d had a fight with—he was still angry, yes, but he was mostly upset with himself. He was ashamed that he’d lost control. He was worried that he’d let me and himself down. How sad is that? He had been the victim of racist abuse for months, then he was physically attacked and yet somehow he came home feeling guilty and ashamed. Needless to say, he wasn’t in trouble with me. I gave him a huge cuddle and let him cry it out. I told him that yes, fighting is not ideal but everyone has a limit and that he does have every right to defend himself if he is being physically attacked. I explained that he would have to take any consequence the school deemed fair as he had to also own his behaviour but that I was not disappointed in him or upset with him or angry at him. Then, to my utter surprise (I’m still not sure how I feel about it—a mix of pride and sadness I think) my son went and apologised to the child for hitting him. He apologised to the child that had been bullying him. This is just one example. There are so many more. I suppose what I’m trying to get across is that the anger that young black and mixed-race (often boys) show can be far deeper than you may imagine. They have absolutely every right to feel angry. You would feel angry. I still feel angry. Because it isn’t right and it isn’t fair.
I vividly remember being very angry at the fact that, for about a year, I was regularly stopped by the police because I ‘looked like’ another mixed race girl who was often in trouble. Now, I completely understand that from the police’s point of view, I met the description they had. There also weren’t many other mixed-race teenage girls in the area I lived in at that point, so I understood why they stopped me. That fact didn’t make it any less frustrating for me though. I wasn’t her. I didn’t get into trouble. How was it fair that I was always getting stopped? Now, I am married to a police officer so it’s safe to say that I’ve not grown up hating the police but I can see where that feeling of frustration can come from. I’m in a very interesting and somewhat difficult position when it comes to the current issues with the police so I’m not going to delve too deeply as I’m still trying to figure it all out. I can see both sides. I personally know lots of police officers and their families. It makes me feel torn because not only do I know and understand the pain, anger, and frustration of the black community, I also see first hand the pain, anger, and frustration of the good police officers. My husband goes out to work every day, not knowing what to expect. He has seen things that no-one should have to see. He has been on the receiving end of both verbal and physical abuse. He has been in positions where he has risked his own life to keep others safe. He doesn’t do it for the money. He doesn’t do it for power. He does it because he cares about our community and everyone in it. He joined the police to try to help make the world a better place and I’m incredibly proud of him. I suppose for me, I feel that it is the institution that needs looking at and changes definitely need to be made. Just to be clear, I am talking about the British police force and not America. Anyway, it’s something I’m really struggling with at the moment and there is no real answer that I can give you right now.
It is not uncommon for young black and mixed-race people to go through a period of time that they are really angry. Angry at the world. My son is approaching it now and I remember feeling it too. He said to me the other day “Mum, I work on the basis that all people are racist until they show me that they’re not”. It made me really sad. That comment is not coming from a place that means he hates all white people. He’s trying to protect himself from pain. Because, he thinks that if he goes through life expecting the worst, he can’t be let down. We’re a work in progress at the moment… I could go on forever about racism in teenagers. I think it’s probably a talk in its own right. Really interesting though and if you ever get the chance to, I’d definitely recommend speaking to some black and mixed-race young people – they have an awful lot to offer, and believe it or not, most young people are actually quite nice!
So, what can you do? Well, your role is so important and you have more power than you know. As white people, your power is your voice. Society listens to you. This doesn’t mean that you all have to grab megaphones and start shouting your newfound learning to the world. That works for some people but actually, I’d imagine most people aren’t comfortable with doing that sort of thing and that’s absolutely okay. But what we need you to do is to talk about it. Talk to your friends and family, explain what you have learnt to those around you. Encourage them to do the same. Create a ripple effect. Challenge the throwaway comments or assumptions that you previously wouldn’t have agreed with but as they weren’t directly aimed at anyone in particular, you just let go. An example of this that I come across quite often is when someone is talking about an incident (good or bad) and will say something like “oh, there was a really nice black guy outside the office today handing out free sandwiches”. This is not a horrible comment, it’s talking about something quite nice—however, I would challenge that by questioning why it was relevant that the nice guy was black? Would you have said, “oh, there was a really nice white guy outside the office today handing out free sandwiches”? Probably not, because the colour of each man’s skin is irrelevant in this circumstance. Challenging comments is not easy to do as it can often make the other person feel uncomfortable or embarrassed and so you won’t always choose to do it. You can’t possibly spend your life challenging everything and that’s okay too. I certainly have to pick my battles otherwise I would spend my life fighting. What is important is that you recognise that there are battles still out there, in this country, every single day.
Thank you for inviting me to speak today. I hope you can take something away from this. I’m happy to answer any questions you may have.”