14 October 2020

Growing up mixed race in Britain can mean different things to different people. To me, it has brought the benefit of the influence of different cultures and countries, but it has also brought the pain of the intergenerational trauma of racism and a feeling of growing up like I somehow don’t fit in. But these things make me who I am, and I am proud of my heritage.

My grandad was among the first 345 West Indian men brought to work in and around Liverpool in February 1941, pioneers of the ‘Windrush Generation’. A highly skilled engineer, he was invited to Britain by the government during World War II when migration from the Caribbean was encouraged to help the war efforts, and worked in a Munitions Factory. This is where he met my nan, a white British woman, and they fell in love. Life as a bi-racial couple in these days was very hard. They experienced racism and prejudice, which was particularly evident when they were looking for a house to buy. These where the days when signs reading ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’ were commonplace, the colour of my grandad’s skin meant they were turned down for houses on the spot. In the end, my nan had to attend viewings alone to avoid discrimination, and they eventually bought a house in Tuebrook.  Here they raised 13 kids, 8 boys (including my dad) and 5 girls. After the war, it was impossible for my grandad to gain the skilled employment that he was trained for, and for the rest of his days he worked at the Jacobs Factory, riding there every day on his bike, wearing his trademark trilby. He was invited to come to this country from a British Colony, and I don’t think he ever expected to receive such treatment. My grandad has now passed and I never got to meet him. I often wonder if he would have been a victim of the ultimate insult that was the ‘Windrush Scandal’ and like many Black Britons had his life devastated by Britain’s deeply flawed and discriminatory immigration system.

My grandad, Gladstone Christian (back row, third from right) and the rest of the first contingents of West Indian technicians that arrived in Liverpool in 1941 to help with war work. Photo was taken on a trip to London in July 1942 where the group visited the Ministry of Labour (taken from the book ‘Staying Power – Black Presence in Liverpool’ by Marij Van Helmond and Donna Palmer)

As such a large family, and growing up in a predominantly white area of Liverpool, my dad had a tough life. He has spoken to me about the racism they experienced; from racial slurs being hurled at them, to harassment by even those people that are supposed to protect them such as teachers who would beat them or the police who would attempt to provoke them. But the family stuck together and used music and education to help deal with the trauma. Both my grandparents worked hard to protect them from racism, and my nan would drive the whole family to Wales every weekend to keep them out of the trouble and attention their skin colour brought. My dad and several of his brothers formed a band The Christians and went on to have success, with songs such as ‘Hooverville’ and ‘Ideal World’ hinting at the oppression and injustice they had experienced. One of my uncles is a black history scholar gaining a PHD with a particular interest in the history of black people in Liverpool (and is mentioned in the renowned book Why I am No Longer Talking to White People About Race which I would recommend to read for anyone that has an interest in learning more about the history and experiences of black people in Britain), and many of my aunties and uncles are university educated. To be successful against such discrimination was an amazing achievement, but even with success my family still experience racism and have to work harder to prove themselves.

Then there is me and my three sisters, and the many other decedents from my aunties and uncles. There are so many different experiences within the family, and these are often marked by how dark the persons skin is. My mum is of welsh decent, so myself and my sisters are light-skinned, and we experience the benefits of that, but we still have faced racism, usually in the form of micro-aggressions, and have often felt out of place. I grew up feeling inferior to the White-European beauty standards that were all around me and struggled with my identity. One thing that particularly stands out is being called names for my hair, or having people touch my hair without consent like I am a dog, or being turned away from hair salons because my hair is “too afro”, or being asked to pay more because of my hair type, or even being told in work that my natural hair wasn’t “professional enough”. I feel more validated today when I see people who look like me in the media or in films and there so much more awareness around issues such as this. For example, there is a campaign called Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri that centres the issue of the oppression of afro hair.

In recent times with raised awareness I have felt much more empowered by connecting with my roots, and researching black history in Britain and educating myself on systemic racism, and I am now very secure in my identity and I am an advocate for breaking down the oppressive systems. There is a misconception that racism does not exist any more or where racism is only understood as interactions between individuals, but Britain has thrived economically over the centuries by exploiting other groups of people and countries, and this colonialism has informed how our institutions and systems were built. There are unconscious biases and institutional racism that are still present and still disproportionately disadvantage people of colour in the country every day. But I have great hope for the future and know that the majority of British people want our country to be a fair, just and equal society, and that the change we need in our education system, judicial system, policing and in workplaces will come if we all work towards the same goal.

Working for Liverpool & Sefton YMCA, I know that as an organisation they are committed to taking the issue of unconscious bias seriously and have goals in terms of racial diversity. The Learning & Development team that I am a part of, have plans to introduce some new workshops that tackle the issues of unconscious bias, and look at equality, diversity and inclusion in the workplace, and I am really excited to be a part of that and hope to see you all there.