Flash Says…

Black, white or coffee coloured?

Posted on: 2010-07-23

Watching Tessa Sanderson on Masterchef this week brought back for me a memory of the 1984 Olympics, when I was seven years old. She and Fatima Whitbread were feted as great athletes, but I was confused. Why was the British flag flying, when they were obviously African?

It’s easy to be mistaken when you are young, but I had no experience of black people so when I saw our athletes on TV I naturally jumped to conclusions. White people could be British, but there must be some mistake about those with darker skin. After all, I’d never seen anyone like that, other than in geography books.

Nowadays I can look back with embarrassment and surprise. It doesn’t matter if I am reminded that times have changed, I am still slightly ashamed at my naive beliefs. I currently live in east London, in a street which has a diverse mix of race and nationality among its 40 households, and I think that the area is all the better for this variety and vibrancy. The primary school at the end of my road is a slightly extreme example, as a majority of the children speak English as their second language, and indeed many tens of different languages are spoken among its pupils, but at least there is no discrimination, deliberate or otherwise. As I walk my dog past the playground I watch children playing together, of all backgrounds and religions. It’s a happy scene and one among which I would much prefer to have been brought up than the closeted environment where everyone was white British.

One of the first albums I bought was “The Youth of Today” by Musical Youth. I was six. Back in 1982 they were the first black artists to be shown on MTV. I didn’t care about any of that – I just liked the song “Pass the Dutchie”. However, I didn’t associate them with myself. I had no idea that we were even from the same country.

Going back even further, my mother tells an awkward but humorous tale. As a family, we stayed on holiday in London at a time when I was an inquisitive toddler. One morning, we encountered a cleaner in the hotel; a very large black lady, wearing a denim overall. I started to say “Mummy…” but she shushed me. My cries grew in urgency “Mummy!” before I could restrain myself no longer and burst out: “Why is that woman all blue?”

Of course coming from such a young child this is an amusing anecdote, but if that child is not ultimately educated in the ways of the world then it becomes embarrassing. When I changed schools at the age of eleven, I encountered a black girl for the first time. I remember touching and pulling at her hair, finding it wiry and waxy. I cringe to remember asking her “is it real?” Of course she didn’t like this attention and tried to stop us girls from tugging her hair, but I was genuinely entranced. I thought it was somehow not real, and was intrigued as I had never felt anything like it before. Nowadays, I feel ashamed of the way I treated her, but by sixth form we were friends and I do hope our early fumbling encounters were forgotten.

I was brought up in Somerset, at a time when there were no black people in the town and the only Asian people present ran the Chinese restaurants. When a Chinese boy joined our primary school all the boys ran up to him saying “Ah! Kung Fu!” but as he spoke no English, these primitative attempts to communicate with familiar concepts may have actually been useful and at least broke the ice. By the time I left the school he was as fluent in English as the rest of us.

When I moved to London as a university student, I was soon immersed in a range of new sights, sounds and experiences. I rented a room in the east end where multiculturalism was all around. It was new to me but I embraced it, enjoying the variety and the influences from a range of different backgrounds. It wasn’t long before I – being naturally fairly unobservant – would describe an acquaintance without mention of their skin colour. I assumed that if I hadn’t noticed, they must be white – which led to several friends being wrongly described, before I realised that I genuinely did not notice this detail anymore and in fact many of my friends were black or mixed race.

Therefore, having absorbed and appreciated everything and everyone around me, I was shocked when my Irish grandmother in law came over for tea. We took her for a walk around a nearby lake in Epping Forest, very popular for boating, fishing and just relaxing. As we passed busy picnic tables, she loudly asked “What are THEY doing here? Are they on holiday?” I glanced around to see several black families having fun and had to explain “No Nan, they live here…” I felt mortified, but I knew my nan-in-law was only asking out of curiousity, not bigotry. She, like me, had been brought up in a very white area.

As I  said earlier, I now live in a cul-de-sac of around 40 households. I’m sure my street is representative of east London as a whole and you could find people of all origins and skin colours there; in fact I know that you can. This is one of my street’s best features –everyone rubs along together well, without even noticing it.

Give me east London any time. When I return to Somerset something feels strange – sooner or later I realise awkwardly that I am white, and so is everyone else I see. I enjoy variety and integration, and believe it can only be for the good of everyone. As a music fan I love world music festivals, enjoying the vibe and working out how different styles have influenced each other. I sometimes feel ashamed by my childhood self, but at the same time I recognise that my behaviour was based only on  experience.

Give me London, give me the world! Let me discover everything in one place, and let me appreciate living here, among such fantastic diversity, and among such kind and generous human beings. It may have taken until my adult years for me to learn and understand equality, but having experienced it I would never want to leave such a vibrant, multicultural and trusting place as the street where I live. This is my home, and I hope it will also be an open and welcoming home for anyone who chooses to come here.

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2 Responses to "Black, white or coffee coloured?"

A very thought-provoking article … I decided eventually I should respond. Partly to share my own experiences, partly so you know there is actually somewhere out there reading your blog 🙂

Where I grew up [Dundee, in Scotland] my experiences were broadly similar. The only ethnic minorities were the Chinese family who ran the takeaway next to the pub, and the Bangladeshis [although of course everyone called them, ahem, a word that implied they were from Pakistan] who ran the corner shop.

By the way, thanks to the huge number of drunken fights at the Chinese, and the racial insults and threats they used to get, the place was like Fort Knox … a little wire grille through which you ordered [initially by number, but after a few years they knew enough Dundonian and could understand our very nonstandard pronunciation to do it by name]. So that was my total exposure to foreign culture for many years. Not even a single kid at my primary school was non-white. And this is in a city of 150,000 or so people!

It wasn’t until I got to secondary school that, thanks to the vagaries of alphabetical order, I made my first friend from an ethnic minority. He was alphabetically next to me at first year induction, and we got talking. And I thought nothing of it, really. So, his skin colour is different, but he has a Dundee accent, he is to all intents and purposes Dundonian, and he was a funny guy, as was I. So the two of us got along fine for many years, right up until I left school and lost touch with him.

Secondary school was, overall, far more ethnically diverse than primary school had been, but it still was a tiny fraction. Up here in Scotland, in most areas you can’t even get detailed census data involving ethnicity without going through a (rather rudimentary) screening process which asks why you want it. The reason? The percentages of ethnic minorities, in some areas, are so vanishingly small that you could potentially identify individuals from it… 😦

Sadly, where I live now is hardly any more ethnically diverse! There’s an Asian family in my block of flats, but I haven’t engineered a social excuse to say ‘hello’ to them yet. Maybe one day… I mean, no one talks to their neighbours nowadays! Is it the lack of diversity that discourages people here from knowing their neighbours? I dunno…

But, let me end on an amusing note … A friend of mine told me about the time he was at secondary school, when it was all white, and these two black sisters suddenly turned up in his class at the start of term. He was totally astounded by this and imagined that they must be exotic African lassies from afar, and he went over and introduced himself and asked where they were from …

… to which they replied in broad Glaswegian ‘We’re fae Glesca’ 😀

Malcolm, thanks for replying and for letting me know I’m not just talking to myself! I’m glad my article struck a chord with you.

I’m sad to hear that you don’t talk to all your neighbours, but then again it must be much harder in a block of flats than in a street where I can pop out to tend my garden / go to the corner shop / walk the dog. I do talk to my neighbours but then I’m a nosy sod, and I’m chair of my local residents association too (which means people often stop me in the street to tell me their troubles!)

I don’t have any great suggestions other than popping over with a home made cake or pudding at Christmas time (regardless of religion / faith I find people are willing to accept gifts at that time of year). However, Asian families are harder to reach, unless they are very westernised. I spoke to an Asian friend about this – her mother goes to events organised by their temple, and others go to events organised by their mosque, so from what I can understand Asian families do have a social life but it is very exclusive and not something that atheist neighbours would penetrate. Also, when I’ve tried to include them in residents association events it has been harder as they already have a busy diary so may not have time to spare for more general community events. I won’t give up, but you might find it hard to get through unless you find a connection. Does your block have a residents’ group?

I love the comment “We’re fae Glesca” – great stuff! Nothing like that for confronting stereotypes and misconceptions!

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