My grandparents came to England from Jamaica in the mid-50s. Grandad came first, attracted by the call “your queen needs you”. Although his name was Bevat Baccas, he was given the name of Arthur Dougall on his passport. This was the name of the sugar plantation owner where he worked, a remnant of the way things were done in the days of slavery. My grandma followed soon after and my dad was born a few years later.
This is his story …
Racism has always been a part of my life. My earliest recollections are from primary school when white children used to call me “wog”, “nigger”, “nig-nog”, “paki”. There weren’t many black or Asian children in the school and we were often made to sit separately. The white children used to say we were smelly and dirty. I often ran home after school so that I could get into the bath to scrub myself clean and to wash the ‘brown’ off.
One boy often waited for me beside the railway tracks. He’d kick and punch me because his dad said I should go back to where I came from. I never understood what he meant because I was born here. In the end, my mum told me to hit him back, which I did. He stopped waiting for me after that. There was a small parade of shops on the main road. My mum warned me not to go into one of the shops because the owner had threatened her, telling her he didn’t serve “coloured” people and to go back to where she came from.
When I was a bit older, I won a scholarship to a grammar school where I was one of only three black boys. We were constantly picked on and challenged to fights. One particular prefect took a dislike to me and kept putting me in detention. A teacher who noticed this asked me why. When I explained that it was because the prefect didn’t like my colour, he just laughed. During my first two years there I was in the top ten, but never selected for the top sets. Entry to the 3rd year required that we select specialist subjects. I didn’t get any of mine, and neither did the other black boys, though there were boys that had performed less well than us that did get their choices.
These negative experiences, combined with the rise of the skinhead movement, meant that I spent most of the next three years fighting or getting beaten up because I wasn’t white. Around this time, my mother and father split up and we moved to another part of town – and area that white people considered unsafe. Apparently, you were likely to be mugged by black people, your home was more likely to be broken into, it was run down, smelly, dirty … for me though, it was safe.
One day, I was with a friend walking in a nearby neighbourhood, when a gang of white boys came up behind us – I was hit on the back of my head with a bottle and told to go back to where I came from. Another time, I was with a friend when a white boy with an air gun fired at us – he missed, and we chased him and took the gun off him. Nothing like this ever happened to me in my own, supposedly rougher, neighbourhood.
On my way to school each day, it was quite common for other boys to just come up behind me and punch me and run on to school. One day, I was walking home when a boy from school just came up and punched me in my face, breaking my glasses. I went to school the following day but couldn’t see the board properly so I couldn’t do the work. When the teacher asked me what had happened, I explained about being punched and he had a word with the other boy – apparently he just “didn’t like coloured people”.
Eventually, I’d had enough of this treatment. Just before my O-levels, I got into a fight with another prefect and was expelled from school – even though he was the one who started the fight by calling me names. In a way, it was a relief. I hated virtually every day at that school. My mum felt she couldn’t do much about it because we were poor and black. The one thing she did say, which has stuck with me ever since, is that the only way to overcome this problem is to be better than white people. You couldn’t be the same, you had to be better.
It took me quite a while to get a job, but in the end I found one working for a company just a 10-minute walk from where I lived. It was a good thing that it was nearby, as it wasn’t well paid. I started in the factory making ultrasonic probes for non-destructive test equipment. The works manager was feared by everyone on the factory floor. My immediate manager, who professed not be racist, told me that the works manager disliked black people. In fact, most of the people who worked there told me the same thing. I decided to take my mum’s advice and focus on just being good at what I did; after all, I couldn’t afford to lose the job.
Interestingly, four years later, the company hit hard times and most of the workforce were made redundant. The supposedly racist works manager took me aside and told me that he was keeping me on as long as possible, because he trusted me and liked me. He also told me that my manager kept asking to move me out of the department because he didn’t like working with coloured people. I learned a lot from that experience: not least of which is that the people who tell you that they aren’t racist probably are.
In the early 1980s many British cities experienced riots: London, Liverpool, Bristol, Leeds and then later Bradford. I don’t know what exactly triggered them, but I do know it was common for police officers to stop and search me in the streets, and question me, for no apparent reason. I avoided confrontation in these situations; I’d learned it was better to just answer the questions and let them search me. I know of others who were not so calm and this led to individuals being beaten up and imprisoned for very little reason. I guess there’s only so many times this can happen before people react.
After the ultrasonics factory job, I joined a security company who made it clear there was little chance of progressing, no matter how good I was at the job. I only stayed for 6 months before joining a life assurance company to become a self-employed salesman. This role meant I could be judged more on my performance and ability rather than the colour of my skin. I was fortunate that my managers were very conscious of the disadvantages ethnic minorities faced. They taught me a lot about how to deal with racism because I had to expect it in this line of work. I was 21 when I joined and we worked together for 14 very successful years. I learned a lot from them.
They also introduced me to activities that a person from my background would never normally encounter. One of those activities was skiing.
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I first skied in 1981/82 and have been every year since, normally two or three times per season. I love it. I love the snow, the sun, the mountains, the food, the wine, the skill. For many years I found myself being the only black person in the resort. When I tell people I ski, there is often a look of surprise – “black people don’t ski!” Interestingly I’ve experienced very little overt racism in the ski resorts themselves.
The only significant exception was once in Val d’Isère. My friends and I were in a bar and it was my round. I stood at the bar for ages trying to get served, but the barman just ignored me. Eventually, one of my friends came to find out what was going on and asked the barman why he wasn’t serving me. The barman, who was English, replied without any qualms “I don’t serve black people”. My friend was shocked, but he learned a lesson that day. Although the expression wasn’t in use at the time, he discovered “white privilege”.
These days most people acknowledge that racism exists. It’s not a figment of ethnic minorities’ imaginations. For those of us who experience it, we tend to build racism into our lives in order to cope. Take for example, job applications. We accept that many of our applications will be rejected purely on the grounds of race. We accept that we’ll have to take lower salaries. We accept that we may not be able to get very far up the career ladder, or that we’ll have to work twice as hard as a white person to achieve the same results. We accept that we may not be able to rent or buy certain homes.
I attended a meeting recently where I was asked my opinion on the recent protests over George Floyd’s murder. I didn’t want to get involved in the conversation but, when pressed, I asked: “Do you think the same thing would have happened if George Floyd had been white?” I then went on to explain that the demonstrations were as much about the general, insidious oppression of ethnic minorities as about the murder of George Floyd. I then explained the issue of job applications and asked if they ever wonder, when applying for a job, whether their skin colour matters?
In the 21st century, those of us born here are as much English/British as any white person. I’m not sure where the concept of white superiority came from, or why white people felt they had the right to go to other countries and dominate them, but in the 21st century there are no grounds for such ideas – there never were. Unfortunately, white privilege still exists. Many white people don’t even realise that they receive automatic entitlement to jobs and opportunity, or that their encounters with law enforcement are wholly different to those of black people.
The Black Lives Matter movement is shaking some of these attitudes. It may even succeed in changing them; it’s difficult to tell. My concern is that rather than actually changing attitudes, people may simply learn how to conceal them better. Across the world people are standing, and taking the knee, in solidarity with people of colour. The most important thing you can do is acknowledge that racism exists – often in the most unexpected places (Brexit is sadly teaching us that).
We can learn a lot from the sports world and the music industry, where talent and skill generally rises to the top and transcends race and colour (although how did Ben Stokes beat Dina Asher-Smith for Sports Personality of the Year 2019?). Equality will take hard work, dedication and sacrifice (on all sides), but it can be achieved. If you don’t believe that, we may as well all head for the hills.