In light of recent events and discussions around racism, I have been reflecting on my own opinions and values. I, like many, have come face to face with the stark reality that being “not racist” is not good enough.
I like to think of myself as a “good” person. I despise racism. As a family we talk frequently about diversity, be it race, gender, sexuality, disability…. Some of our favorite story books have led to great discussions about transgender identities, racism and intolerance. In my mind, these are conversations we should all be having with all children. Not everyone agrees.
My daughter returned from her first day in Reception having had a big fall out with her new classmates. It turns out that she had vehemently explained to her friends that she could most definitely marry a girl if she wanted to. A couple of days later, I was standing in the playground with a small group of mums. “Young children are too innocent for this kind of thing,” one of the mums tutted. Too innocent…What does that even mean? I listened to the discussion but remained silent. The kids came out. Everyone went their separate ways.
I look back and feel ashamed. I should have looked that woman in the eye and called her out just like my daughter had challenged her friends. But I hadn’t. Instead I had lost sight of my own values in favour of trying to “fit in” with the other mums.
“Keep quiet. Don’t make a scene.”
How many other times had I remained silent when I should have spoken out?
The honest truth
“Don’t stare!” my mum barked as I craned my neck to get a better look at the family on the other side of the road. I didn’t often see people with black skin. There was only one girl in my primary school who didn’t have the same colour skin as me. I must have been about 8 when she joined. She remember her sitting cross-legged in front of me in assembly. Her hair was different to mine. I reached out to touch it gently so she wouldn’t know: thick and slightly bouncy with tiny tiny curls. It smelt incredible- why didn’t mine smell like that? Her skin was brown like caramel. I was intrigued. Where was she from? How did she get here? Did she speak English? The 8 year old me knew no better.
When I was 11 we moved to live in a small village in the South of France. As Brits, we were never really welcome. Most of the locals were supporters of far right political parties and xenophobia was readily accepted. It wasn’t easy. At school I was made to feel like a foreigner, an outsider. People didn’t use my name and instead referred to me as “L’Anglaise” (The English one). It became normal. But the abuse that I received for being foreign was nothing compared to the racist behaviour that I began to adopt towards the Northwest African community.
The school bus used to drive through a council estate on the way home. No stops but enough to notice the high-rise flats, blaring rap music, kids in the street and the occasional burnt out car. We hadn’t been in France long before I knew that the people who lived here were genuinely “bad”. Known as “Les Maghrebins”, they were from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. I used to feel nervous as we drove past them. “La racaille.” By the time I was 13 or 14, I was terrified of them. I agreed with everyone else. They needed to return to their own country. They weren’t welcome.
Yesterday, I looked up the English translation for the term “racaille”.
Four letters. S-C-U-M.
Overwhelmed with nausea, I sat on my bed crying.
I never thought of myself as racist, yet there, in black and white, was the truth. As a teenager, I colluded in racist language and behaviours. I discriminated based on skin colour and religion. I accused a whole community of being violent criminals. And the worst bit of it is that I had no idea I was doing it.
Sorry sounds pathetic. I don’t deserve any kind of forgiveness. There are no excuses and I take full responsibility. What I can say is that I see a young girl who had just arrived in a foreign country. A girl who was learning a new language and trying to fit into a culture that didn’t really want her. Impressionable. She did as she was told.
A girl who knew no better.
I’ll write more. This is only the beginning of my anti-racism journey.