A Series of Unfortunately Racial Events: Life in the UK
Editorial note: The following post is written by one of our students who graduated in 2019 and has just completed the Diploma in Legal Practice. In presenting this post, I want to be clear that all I have done is format it, pick a cover image and distribute it. The core words themselves are entirely the student's. They portray a deeply personal story of one person's experience with racism. Please do take the time to read this in full - it is important that we listen to the experience of others to educate ourselves about experiences many of us would take for granted.
By Kudakwashe Chinyani
In the past few weeks, we have reached a new apex in activism that support social justice movements that address violence and against members of the black community. This movement has largely been led by young people, with those below the age of 35 being the most vocal about the issue, through protests in the United States. Following the tragic death of George Floyd and a ripple effect felt in some of the biggest cities across the world; the ‘#BLACKLIVESMATTER’ movement has spearheaded the drive for social change when it comes to the systematic racism against black people in particular. The movement has spread as a result of social media and the effects are reminiscent of the ‘#TIMESUP’ movement and many parallels can be drawn from 2017 ‘#TIMESUP’ or ‘#METOO,’ which ushered in a wave of women telling their stories of survival against sexual assault in the corporate world and in other areas of society. This has led to black people all over the world and other people of colour to share their experience navigating western society dealing with discrimination and racial biases amongst other issues. As a member of the black community, it seems now is the time to share my experience living, working and studying, as a black African woman in the UK.
Before I begin, it is important to understand that black people are not a monolith. We come in many different shades of black and brown, from different backgrounds and varying socio-economic backgrounds. Therefore, although my experience may resonate with many people from the community, we each have our own individual experiences.
I am a first-generation immigrant from Zimbabwe, who has been living in the UK since the age of 6. I first lived in the south of England and then later moved to central Scotland at the age of 11. This is important to differentiate when discussing the type of prejudice and racism I have experienced throughout my life in the UK.
Moving to England was a dream come true. I felt at home and although I wasn’t accustomed to the cold weather, I remember being so enamoured by the snow that I felt like I was living in a Christmas movie. I noticed I was different pretty early on. My first day of school I was introduced to my class as the new student from Zimbabwe. I was welcomed with open arms, although the pronunciation of my name took some getting used to for my new English-speaking friends. It was a few short weeks before I started noticing how different I was to the other kids. Often when you are different you don’t notice that you are different because you are surrounded by a sea of white faces with straight silky hair. I didn’t notice that my hair was different or care until a girl in the year above me at school shouted “MUFFIN HEAD!”
At first, I didn’t quite register that it was me she was addressing. It was only after this became a chant joined by other kids around the playground that I noticed I was being singled out. You see, my mum would always put my hair into two buns for school. Since my hair is afro and has very tight curls, the buns would form two spheres that would sit comfortably on my head like two little afro puffs. I remember being upset and telling my teacher what had happened. She laughed it off and told me not to pay attention. Reflecting on this minor incident showed me that although her intentions were pure, my teacher was teaching me not to exacerbate the situation, lest I create an awkward and uncomfortable discussion about race.
It was from this moment I started understanding the extent to which I stood out. I asked to change my hair and got my hair braided with extensions, this seemed to fuel another fascination with my hair. My classmates would claw at it, pat it and even pull it. It didn’t matter how I wore my hair someone always made a spectacle of it. So, I became used to it. I began to accept this treatment because, questioning it seemed futile and after all, “it’s only hair, and they’re just kids” are amongst the things I would tell myself.
Living in England my hair and skin were not uncommon especially in the area I lived in. The microaggressions became more pronounced as I got older and began to understand race relations and class in a country where I was in the minority. Moving to Scotland accelerated my understanding in this respect.
It is common knowledge that Scotland’s population is predominantly white. When I moved to Scotland, at the age of 11, the experience was slightly jarring. I remember arriving in Scotland after a long drive and after having unloaded the vehicle, my mum and I decided to stretch our legs and breathe in the clean Scottish air. The entire move felt like a new adventure and a new start and I was optimistic. Not twenty minutes into this walk a vehicle, driven by young hooligans, sped past us and an orange pistol shot at me straight into my abdomen. I remember my mother screaming and running to my aid but mostly, I remember the joyous laughter that accompanied the gun shot. Racial slurs were exclaimed as the car drove into the distance and all of a sudden, the move to Scotland turned bitter. Luckily, the hooligans shot a bb gun at me and the only harm done was emotional. When I think about this being my welcome into a country known for its warm and friendly nature, it saddens me. At the time, I felt that this event was serving as a warning. This event effectively forced me to brace myself for a life in my new home.
At school, it became even more apparent that I was an outsider. My skin, my hair and my accent singled me out in every single arena of society. The kids and I got on well, and I made friends well. However, whenever someone wanted to express their disapproval at something that I had done or said my race became a weapon. “YOU BLACK BASTARD!” one kid shouted after I nabbed the last chicken tikka baguette for lunch. I remember thinking, well that’s a silly insult. What does my race have to do with me being a bastard? How does my blackness and my so-called bastard-ness correlate in any scenario? In fact, what is stopping me from calling you a “white bastard?” Prefacing the insult with your race adds no more injury in either situation. Well this is what I thought until I learned that the insult “YOU BLACK BASTARD”, only works if the person delivering the insult believes that blackness is something to be looked down upon. By delivering this insult, this child was telling me that my skin, the largest organ on my body, was something I ought to be ashamed of and that he felt it was his duty to remind me of this simply because I was having a better lunch than him that day. Of course, there are plenty of other similar instances dotted through my life in Scotland that I could give displaying the same scenario.
When you are a black person it’s not enough to be just a person living in the western world. It seems that the world around you is always trying to remind you how you’re not of this land. The most frequent question I get asked by strangers is “where are you from”? To which I normally respond with the town where I live. However, I am met with a follow up question. “No! Where are you from, originally?” The question is based on nothing else other than my skin. Because, I walk, talk, dress and live my life like most Scottish women do. I share the same goals and aspirations as my white Scottish peers, yet my skin is the only thing that can never truly be Scottish or British, regardless of what my passport says.
I even remember the day that I walked into Marks and Spencer’s and saw that they had hosiery to suit my complexion. Advances like this make black people and other people of colour feel accepted into a nation and society that we have sowed our talents and resources into for generations. The black lives matter movement is a movement for equality similar to that of the #TIMESUP movement. Equality and justice have been the driving force behind both movements. Being treated equally in a developed nation should not be a privilege, it should be a right. In fact, it is a right. Yet people across the globe have been forced to leave their homes during a highly contagious pandemic to remind us that black lives matter.
Black lives matter in all arenas of society. We matter in the justice system and the judiciary. Our lives should not be so expendable that law enforcement can so brazenly and publicly murder us without even breaking a sweat at consideration of the consequences. Our lives matter in Politics as the disaster of Grenfell tower showed us how structural racism has permeated into the quality of housing and education we provide to people of colour in the UK. Black lives matter in healthcare especially during this global crisis we have seen how essential black people are to our beloved NHS. Black lives matter in schools. Our children should be properly educated on racial issues. We need to normalise having awkward and uncomfortable conversations about race. Re-enforcing the importance of racial equality to children and young people is something that should be encouraged. It is this education that will lead us to a future where we don’t have to mourn another George Floyd or bare witness to another Grenfell tower.
Creating an equal society is a job for every single one of us. Tearing down structural racism starts with questioning attitudes and biases we may hold individually. We must all choose to enlighten ourselves and bring about personal change. Personal change can bring about the societal change that we need to finally say “All Lives Matter.” But all lives won’t matter until BLACK LIVES MATTER.