Alexander Benjamin shares his grandmother’s, his mother’s, and his own experience of racism in the UK.
We have said it before and we will say it again; the Black Lives Matter movement is one that affects black people worldwide, not just in the USA. The racism that prevails causes a deep ache that has been shared through centuries, stemming from our ancestors to our grandparents, our parents, ourselves and our loved ones. There are undeniable parallels between the black British experience and the African American experience albeit they are less overt. Racism remains an incredibly present problem in an increasingly intolerant Britain.
My grandmother, a Jamaican-born British citizen, moved to the UK nearly 70 years ago. Back then, the UK was adorned as the “motherland”. The UK invited citizens from Caribbean colonies to move overseas with the promise of employment to fill labour gaps in nationalised industries such as train services, bus services and the NHS. My grandmother and many others who migrated during this time are part of the Windrush generation.
During her journey across the Atlantic, which lasted several weeks, she turned 18. She was a starry-eyed young woman excited to start her new life. But upon her arrival to the UK, she faced a harsh reality. She was unaware of the predominance of racism in the UK and prior to her arrival she had never experienced it. Whilst training to be a nurse in Essex, she struggled to support her family back home on a trainee salary.
She then moved to Birmingham because the city provided job opportunities – it also allowed her to reconcile with her former boyfriend from Jamaica, my grandad. She then found employment as a bus conductress and my grandad as a bus driver. Yet things remained difficult; signs erected saying, “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs”. She faced continuous rejection from landlords. Politicians such as Enoch Powell sought to make ethnic migrants feel abnormal and unwelcomed through his “Rivers of Blood” speech. Even to this day prejudice and systemic racism is prevalent, as exhibited in the Windrush Scandal.
One could say improvements were made during my mother’s childhood, yet racism still existed. My grandmother wanted to provide the best education she could afford for her children despite her low income. As a result, she was determined to place my mother in a private school. My grandmother had a white friend call the school on her behalf and was instructed to visit the school with my mother. On arrival, they were told that the school was full and that they were not accepting new students. A few weeks later my grandmother saw the school advertising for new students. Eventually, another school accepted her. Though she faced less overt racism on the streets, she could not escape the verbal abuse amongst her peers and the systematic racism within the British education system.
Racist name calling showed the prejudices held by those in society at the time. She recalls instances where her teachers would often doubt her intelligence. When she scored the top mark in her class, her teacher was stunned and insisted upon double and triple checking to ensure my mother didn’t copy or cheat from others. During sixth-form she was told by her form tutor that she was too ambitious “for a black girl” when expressing her desire to attend university. My mother had a black friend who had applied to Oxford but was rejected on the basis that it would be “too much of a culture shock”.
During university, she explained moments of respite as her Anglo-Saxon last name meant she would be marked more favourably compared to her African counterparts. They weren’t afforded the mark of the slave trade through their surnames. My mother also remarks as a young adult when police officers would often pull her over on her way home or going to work due to “reported robberies in the area”. She appeared to be out of place, her car too new and flashy for a woman like herself. At the time, she was a hardworking primary school teacher, but racially profiled as a robber.
She recalls sad memories such as the time where she lost her cousin through the blatant abuse in power by immigration officers. Joy Gardener, facing deportation had been detained by the police where she had her nose and mouth restricted and subsequently suffocated. The ambulance was called two hours after the incident. She was pronounced dead at the scene. The cause: cerebral hyperoxia and cardiac arrest.
I am fortunate to say that I have not experienced such blatant acts of racism. However, that isn’t to say that I haven’t experienced racism at all. Instead, it was disguised as jokes and banter. I was very unhappy at secondary school. I experienced no physical violence, yet faced verbal abuse consistently. Being called the “N” word on such a frequent basis I became desensitised. Black History Month became the month I dreaded the most. Name calling, colonialist jokes, and comparisons to Kunta Kinte made me feel like a foreign alien in my country of birth. One of my older sister’s classmates drew her being lynched whilst studying the Civil Rights Movement. She shared my sadness and discomfort.
As a result, I chose to attend a different school for sixth-form. In those four years since leaving that school, I can “gladly” say that I have had only one incident of such open racism. Things become less overt to the point where people begin to think that racism simply no longer exists in the UK. In Glasgow after a night out some drunk teens shouted racial slurs at me in the McDonalds queue. I tried to brush it off but it was my first semester away from home. It was offensive, disheartening, and completely unprovoked.
Daily microaggressions, while ignorable once or twice, become a part of a much larger problem. Issues ranging from being racially profiled while shopping, having security follow you around, “random” bag checks when entering shopping centres, being asked in clubs for drugs, and constantly being mistaken for another other black student even when they’re of the opposite gender. Even when venturing out of the UK, my parents worry about me being attacked. A worry shared by many parents I’m sure but for different reasons. Mine is out of fear of me being attacked by racists, perhaps an echo of the infamous Steven Lawrence case which many ethnic minority parents may hold at the forefront of their minds.
Though racism may not be so overt compared to that of our American brothers and sisters, the UK still has a part to play. We stand in solidarity not just for George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement but those with whom we share similar worries and pains. Troubles experienced by my grandparents and parents that we try to convince ourselves have been banished from today’s society do still exist. As we all strive towards a more equal, fair, and just society in the US and worldwide, I would like to thank the movement for bringing to light injustices, open or discreet, systemic or empathetic, no matter how painful, to the forefront for debate and giving black people around the world a voice. Together in the UK, we stand with Black Lives Matter.