- Tell us about yourself and your family history.
My name is Louise and I studied Law at Newcastle University and was Called to the Bar in July 2019. I am due to start barrister training at the end of September this year. Over the past year, I have spent just under 4 months in Arizona supporting American lawyers on death row appeal cases. For the past 5 months I have been working as a paralegal on the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.
I am mixed-race; my father’s side of the family are originally from Scotland (White British) and my mother’s side of the family are originally from Guyana (Black British/Caribbean). My maternal grandparents and mother moved to England in 1963. They are part of the Windrush generation – the Windrush generation being the people who moved from the Caribbean after a lot of encouragement in the form of advertising from Britain, who needed help rebuilding the country after World War Two.
- At a recent BLM protest that you spoke at, you mentioned when your grandparents arrived in Britain racism was more overt. What did they experience?
When they arrived in Britain their first task was to find somewhere to live and at that time many properties had signs that read ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’. This made finding a place to stay extremely hard. In the end they managed to rent a room in a house with shared facilities, which was quite normal at that time.
My grandfather first started working for London Underground and unfortunately died before I was born. My grandmother worked as a nurse for the NHS and her patients would regularly refuse treatment from her because she was Black. Although she was hurt by this, she always responded in a caring and gentle way because she knew that they needed her nursing care.
My grandparents’ experiences should all be put in the context of them seeing Britain as their ‘Mother Country’ because they came from a British colony. They were invited to move to Britain, uprooted their life and left their families behind. They did not expect to experience such discrimination in their ‘Mother Country’ when they arrived, so the racism they faced truly came as a shock. The book ‘Small Island’ by Andrea Levy is an excellent representation of what the Windrush generation experienced.
My grandparents are not the only people in my family who have experienced racism. My mother took the entrance exam to join a private school for sixth form and even though she met the academic criteria, she was rejected because she was Black. My grandmother found this out through a friend who was dating one of the governors at the school. She said to my grandmother that they rejected a Black applicant because they didn’t want a Black person at the school, without realising that the only Black person who sat that entrance exam was her friend’s daughter (my mother).
My uncles also experienced overt racism throughout their lives. Racial slurs were often hurled at them in the street, and one of my uncles at the age of 6 was harassed by White teenagers on his way home from school, resulting in him arriving home in tears. Both uncles have been consistently harassed by the Police – the aim of the police officers being to provoke them into reacting so that they could then arrest them. There was a time when one of my uncles was staying with my mother before starting University and he was working at the local supermarket. Almost every night on his walk home from Highgate station a police car kerb-crawled him all the way home. It was a 10-15 minute walk. The two policemen antagonised him by saying to him that no one like him lived round here and kept asking him what he was doing – suggesting that the area was too nice for a Black man and that he must up to no good. They watched him walk into my mother’s block of flats every night, but that did not stop them from doing the exact same thing the following evening and almost every night for the next 3 months.
This type of police targeting is still very much a reality in the UK today. Black people in the UK are 8 times more likely to be stopped and searched and 4 times more likely to have force used against them by the police. I have anecdotal evidence of this in the fact that I have not met a young Black male that has not been stopped and searched. And these men are doctors, business graduates, finance analysts and bankers – not that this should make any difference.
- What was your first experience of racism and how did it impact you?
I grew up in a small town in Lincolnshire which was and still is predominantly White. I went to school in that town and was the only person in the school that was not White (and this includes all the staff at the school).
When I was 5 years old I experienced racial bullying. A couple of boys would say things to me like ‘You look like poo’ or ‘You look like you have just come out of a mud bath’. Another child wrote notes and put them in my book bag, one note said ‘All Black people should be killed.’ I would cry at home every night saying to my mum ‘I wish I was White and had straight hair!’ I also expressed to my mum that I was fearful that no one was ever going to like me because of the colour of my skin. This meant that my mum had to have conversations with me at an early age about race. I remember her saying – there will be some people that won’t like you because of your skin colour, there will also be some people that won’t like you because of your personality, but there will be other people that will like you, you should focus on them.
I think what is important to note from this experience is that at a young age children of colour are picking up on White supremacy, without being able to articulate it in any other way than by saying: I want to be White. A child wanting to be White is a child that has realised that if you want to have a better chance in life you need to be White. It is a child that has realised that White people are the only group in society that don’t have negative experiences as a result of skin colour. It is a child that has understood White privilege.
I was able to overcome these negative feelings and to embrace who I am. I knew from that day forward that I was going have to work a lot harder to be able to achieve my dreams, compared to my White counterparts. However, not everyone that experiences racism is able to overcome these feelings. Racism can be internalised by the victim meaning they start to believe what they are being told by society and individuals – that they are not good enough, or capable enough or that they are not beautiful. This lack of self-esteem, which has developed as a result of racism, can really hold people back from achieving their full potential because it means that they don’t chase opportunities or it means they are intimidated by predominantly White spaces – most workplaces. So racism can really have a lasting impact on that individual and prevent them from achieving their full potential.
- In one of your videos you mention fighting racism and the “oppressive system on a day to day basis” can you explain what you mean?
I think that racism has often been understood as interactions between individuals; where one individual says something racist or acts in a discriminatory way, but this barely scratches the surface.
The way that Britain has built its economic power over the centuries has been by oppressing and exploiting other groups of people and countries. This fact is often wilfully forgotten. The system and institutions present today have grown out of that history – a history which means that the vast majority of White people are unconsciously biased against people of colour, even if consciously they believe that all races are equal. As Britain is predominantly White this means that White people dominate the system and the institutions within that system. The collective effect of White people’s unconscious bias against people of colour oppresses people of colour in their everyday life.
Although in theory everyone in this country should be treated equally, this is not what happens in practice, for example Black boys in London are nearly three times more likely to get permanently excluded from school. Job applicants with ‘White’ sounding names are 74% more likely to get a positive response compared to applicants with an ‘Ethnic Minority’ sounding name. Black women in Britain are five times more likely to die as a result of complications in pregnancy than White women.
So, this is what I mean when I talk about the “oppressive system”. It is the system that, through overt but mainly unconscious bias, gives White people advantages and opportunities and disproportionately disadvantages people of colour. People of colour experience this oppression on a day-to-day basis because it is everywhere, in our schools, workplaces, healthcare system… the list goes on.
- What is your view on the controversy surrounding the removal of the Bristol statue?
My view is that the controversy surrounding the removal of the Bristol statue is a distraction technique designed to prevent us talking about the real issues. The more we are talking about the Bristol statue, the less we are talking about racial injustices. The media’s focus on this issue, and whether the protesters were right or wrong for doing this, has meant that the focus is not on tackling systemic and institutional racism. We have been distracted from holding our government and our institutions to account.
The media has a massive impact on our unconscious bias by the language it uses and the stories it chooses to report on. It has been highlighted by many that when a Black person does something positive, ethnicity is often not mentioned/specified in media reports. However, if the news story is negative then the person’s ethnicity is almost definitely mentioned. This type of reporting means that consumers are unconsciously associating Black people with negative news stories and therefore build a bias against them without even realising.
The main argument that I hear condemning the removal of the statue in Bristol is that it was illegal. Which shows people’s willingness to forget history. Many illegal acts have been committed in the fight for justice and equality. In the UK the suffragettes went on an arson and bombing spree. Martin Luther King Jr was an advocate for peaceful protests, but as segregation was the law, when Martin Luther King and his fellow protesters peacefully entered White spaces, they broke segregation law. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison for breaking the law. This should highlight that, just because something is illegal does not necessarily mean that it is wrong and vice versa, just because something is legal does not necessarily mean it is right. We now celebrate the suffragettes, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela because we believe that what they were campaigning for was right. What is right and wrong is not the same question as what is legal and illegal.
I think we should also note that there had been petitions and other peaceful requests to remove this statue and these requests have been ignored. If I had been at the Bristol protest, as an aspiring legal professional, I would not have got involved in the removal of the statue. However, I am not going to condemn their actions and say that it was morally wrong.
If you are still in the position where you are condemning those who removed the statue in Bristol, but you are not condemning the systemic and institutional racism in our society, then actively try and learn more about racial relations in this country.
- What are your hopes for the future?
My hope for the future is for Britain to be a just, fair and equal society. One of the main reasons why I pursued a career in Law is because I believe in justice and accountability. I think changes have to be made everywhere and in each individual for that to be achieved.
Having said this, a key area where I would like to see massive change is our education system. I would like Black British History to be a mandatory part of the curriculum because Black British History is British history. But I do not want it to stop there.Often when we talk about Black British history, racism is taught as if it is something that happened in the past and no longer exists now. I want conversations about race and racial inequalities to be a normal part of school life. Books written by Black authors, or books where the main characters are Black should be a normal part of the English curriculum. There should be opportunities for students to discuss and debate racial issues in subjects like Philosophy and Ethics. There are number of things that schools can do. If you are interested in this topic, I can recommend the Channel 4 documentary called ‘The School That Tried To End Racism’. If you are working in education, then I would like to direct you to the organisation called The Black Curriculum– they currently do great work with schools.
I would also like to see workplaces taking the issue of unconscious bias seriously and taking steps to counteract it. I would suggest that they reflect on their hiring practices and think about how they can attract people of different races to their organisation. I want to see organisations having goals, in terms of racial diversity, in the same way some organisations have goals in relation to gender diversity. For example, HSBC announced in 2015 a 50/50 recruitment target to increase the number of women moving into senior management roles, as part of its commitment to create a more diverse senior leadership team.
Finally, I would like to see changes in policing. The police should not be given such broad and vague powers because the result is that Black people, and other ethnic minority groups, are disproportionately negatively impacted. This is demonstrated by the UK stop and search statistics I highlighted earlier, and in the powers that were given to the police to fine people during the corona virus pandemic. People of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds were at least 50% more likely to receive coronavirus lockdown fines compared to those who are White. I believe that these broad and vague powers need to be revoked and more energy and funding needs to be put into measures that prevent crime rather than police crime.
I’m going to tell a story – a true story –
I grew up in Bradford, with a mixed bag of friends. My good friend Mick, was of Ukrainian descent, his Dad had come to England to escape Nazism, met his Mum – could be said to be of ‘mixed race’, but, not mixed colour – one generation, accent gone – who’s to tell the difference? He was a blue-eyed blonde.
Mick was out one night, with his two good friends – one Indian descent, one Malaysian descent. These two, were held back by a group of Asian lads, while other Asian lads, beat the living daylights out of Mick, for being white, and for being, as they saw it, in the wrong place. There were places in Bradford where it wasn’t a good idea to go if you had pale skin. Apartheid. I wrote “reverse apartheid”, than realised – apartheid, is apartheid – no two ways about it.
This could have made Mick, and us, his paler skinned friends, turn again Asians. Of course, it didn’t. That would have been stupid, and Mick wasn’t stupid (past tense, as he passed from this life, 20 years ago). And the rest of our group, aren’t stupid. We recognized the mis-guided prejudice, and stupidity, of that particular group of lads – who happened to be Asian.
So, that’s the story. Could be said to be the other side of the coin, but the coin shouldn’t have sides. We’re just – people.
Me? I’m Irish descent – we came just after dogs, on the boarding house list!
Gosh Bernie that is a truly horrific story. Nobody should ever have to experience that!
One thing I would say is that the term ‘mixed race’ is used for people who are of mixed ethnicity rather than nationality. Because lots of people, if not everyone, will have a mix of nationalities as it is extremely rare to have ancestors who are all exclusively from one country.
Prejudice and violence happens on both sides. Having said this, a key element of racism is power and which race is in power in that country. So in the UK the dominant race is White as it is a predominantly White country. What people of colour experience in this country is not just discrimination on this person-to-person level, as you described Mick having experienced, but also from a structural and institutional level. If Mick is White passing as you say, it is very likely that he will not experience prejudice on this many levels. Meaning it is highly unlikely that he will experience prejudice in the education system, in the job application process, in the workplace, in the healthcare system etc. So that is the difference between racism (which requires power) and prejudice.
This is not to say that those responsible for assaulting Mick should not be held accountable through the criminal justice system. I’m just trying to explain how racism is beyond just interpersonal acts of violence because it is not a one-off incident, it affects your everyday life!
I’m not going to nit-pick – I just want to clear some things up….
Mick’s parents were from what might be called two races – two sets of people, from different countries, anyway. His Dad was Ukranian – came to England and met his Mum, who was – a Yorkshire woman – could be a bit of Viking, could be a bit of … Saxon – who knows? The outcome, was Mick and his sister, who sounded Yorkshire, and looked – East European – blonde hair, blue eyes – tho’ could just as easily have been Northern England – with a bit of Viking in the mix. Can’t judge a book, by looking at it’s cover.
And, I literally mean that he has passed – he died in 2000. He hadn’t experienced racism, as he was blond haired, blue eyed and had a Yorkshire accent. He did, however get made fun of a bit for being short – but he was strong, and took no notice.
The incident I wrote about, happened in the early 1980’s. He didn’t go to the police, because – our group of friends, were not people who naturally turned to the police for help – if you see what I mean! Also, he had a good idea that, had he done so, the police were likely to use it as an excuse to ‘have a go’ at the Asian community. They were different times. I am old!
I’ll add this – when he was an adult, he wanted to visit the village his Dad had left, to escape the Nazis. He nearly achieved his goal, nearly got there, but – didn’t have exactly the right visas – it was then under Russian rule, and he was a ‘foreigner’. He wasn’t allowed in, turned round and came ‘home’. What a load of non-sense. That was the home-land of his ancestors, but, because of some political non-sense – he wasn’t allowed in.
It’s a mad world we’re living in. Always has been – humans are humans.
To quote the wonderful Curtis Mayfield – we just keep on keeping on.
Here’s another part of Mick’s tale, which has wider applications………
When his Dad arrived in England, from the Ukraine, he had a jaw-breaking surname, starting with W, and with a lots of Z’s, K’s and I’s in it. When he needed to register for things, have interviews etc. – he had endless difficulties, so, he changed his name, to Ward – nice and easy for people to get their heads, and their tongues, round.
Someone in the same situation, wouldn’t have to do that now – folk can have whatever name they have. Some people do still have limited attitudes, and behave accordingly, but …today they, mostly, don’t get away with it. People who are being discriminated against, do have recourse to laws which have been put in place to defend them. There has been improvement.
Sometimes, recently, it can look like society is stepping back a few hundred years. But, mostly, unfair behaviour or attitude toward people for being different, can be dealt with by the law. Except, of course unless it’s the Prime Minister & Co being rude about people, then we do step back a few hundred years, to when the high-ups did what they liked, and rest of us, had to put up with it.
The difference is – we now have the vote – if folk would just think hard, before they use it.
I’ll stop now!