FOLLOWING the horrifying killing of George Floyd in America, the Black Lives Matter movement has changed the world.
Here, four women reveal their experiences of being a person of colour in the UK.
‘People would cross the road to avoid me’
Bex Stephenson, 29, is a technical support worker and lives in north London.
“As I sat on a bus in December 2011, telling my boyfriend I loved him on the phone, a man spat: ‘You don’t know love, you’re a f**king n****r’. I don’t know if anyone else heard, but I quickly got off the bus, crying with anger.
“Growing up in north-west London, like most black people I experienced racism – particularly because I lived in a very white area.
“I was expected to fulfil black stereotypes in the way I spoke and dressed, and was told many times when speaking on the phone to people that I didn’t ‘sound black’.
“Sometimes, people would cross the road to get away from me, or shout the N word at me, which is inexcusable.
“I met a white Scottish man in 2009, moving to Glasgow to be with him in 2013.
“There, some people didn’t realise they were being racist, and I had to explain why it’s socially unacceptable to say certain things, such as calling a Chinese takeaway a ‘chinky’.
“Race was one of the reasons I eventually broke up with my ex after seven years in October 2016 – a year after we got engaged.
“When I’d get annoyed about racists, he’d take it personally, like I was blaming him.
“I asked him what he would do if we ever had a mixed-race child and someone was to call them something racist.
“He didn’t have an answer. It got to a point where I couldn’t have those conversations with him any more.
“In January this year, I moved back to London to a very multicultural area.
“I haven’t been leaving the house much because of lockdown, so I haven’t encountered any racism – yet – but I know from speaking to my friends here that it’s still a huge problem.
“If I have children in the future, I’ll have to teach them about societal racism, and explain that while it’s not their fault, it is the cards we’ve been dealt as black people.
“I hope that with increased awareness from the Black Lives Matter movement, things will get better.
“I’m open to dating any race in future, but my next boyfriend will have to love me and fight for my rights as a black woman.”
‘As a child, I felt like I’d been dropped from outer space’
Esuantsiwa Goldsmith, 67, is an author and activist and lives in south London, with her partner.
“Tears stung as I told my mum I’d been called ‘woggy’ again at school. She told me to ignore it, but the relentless bullying was deeply affecting my self-esteem.
“I was born in 1953 to a white British mother and Ghanian father I never knew, and grew up on a white, working-class estate in south London.
“When I was eight, my mum married my white stepfather, and I had two white siblings.
“The only mixed-race child in my area, I felt like I’d been dropped from outer space.
“At school, I was told I’d ‘been rolling in dog s**t’.
“Even in my family there was a lot of tension, and my auntie told me I should never have been born.
“My mother was sympathetic, but wasn’t able to challenge it.
“Back then, attitudes towards illegitimate children and ‘half-castes’ were very different.
“Polite people would treat me as though I was white, but others would have no inhibitions about calling me names.
“As a teenager, I began to feel depressed and alone.
“In October 1972, I was the first of my family to go to uni, studying for a combined arts degree at Leicester University.
“I became the first black female president of the student union in 1975.
“Most of my friends there were white, and I got used to aggression from some male colleagues in the union, who couldn’t handle women who stood up for themselves – let alone a black woman.
“I did a PGCE before going to Tanzania in 1977 as a volunteer teacher for two years.
“I went on to work in aid and development there and found the industry rife with ‘white saviour complex’.
“Many people thought they couldn’t be racist, as they were helping black people, with little understanding that black people came to the UK as it had invaded their nations to begin with.
“It was hard to get my head around.
“I went on to have two kids with my white British partner.
“I brought them up in a very diverse area of south London, but they still encountered racism.
“I remember coming home in 1996 to find my son crying, as kids had told him superheroes could only be white, which was heartbreaking.
“I just want my own children to live in a world of equality and respect.”
‘I’ve had to make sure my hairstyle isn’t too wild’
Joycellin Akuffo, 45, owns a tutoring company and lives in south London with her husband Solomon, 42, an accountant, and children Josh, 15, and Priscilla, 11.
“I was dumbstruck as the headteacher of my son’s private prep school finished speaking.
“She’d just asked how we were able to afford the fees at her ‘lovely’ school, and I knew that she was only asking because of the colour of our skin.
“My black British husband and I both went to uni, then I worked as a journalist and he became an accountant.
“We’ve grafted hard to afford our lifestyle.
“But unlike white people, I’ve had to deal with suspicion, judgement and imposter syndrome regularly.
“In January 2013, I launched a tuition business called Geek School.
“One of the biggest issues I’ve experienced as a black female business owner is my hairstyle, and I’ve had to make an effort not to have an extravagant ‘do that’s too wild.
“I’ve noticed that parents don’t sign up if I look like I conform to an ‘ethnic’ stereotype, and I’ve had people arrive after weeks of discussions on the phone, only for them to look at me with obvious disapproval.
“Over the years I made an effort not to show my face on the company’s website.
“But I’ve now added a photo of myself to its ‘about us’ page for the first time, as I want people to know who I am, why I founded the business and what I can offer their children.
“After that headteacher questioned our ability to pay her school’s fees in 2008, we ended up sending our children to a different private school.
“By and large, it’s been fine – but recently, a small incident happened where Josh was called an Oreo by his classmates, a derogatory term used to describe black people who are ‘white on the inside’.
“I’ve tried to comfort him, but he’s asked me not to get involved or make a big deal out of it at school.
“When I drop Priscilla off at the gates, I see parents staring at me.
“I drive a decent car, but if I’m dressed a certain way – say, in gymwear – I feel like I am looked down on.
“But I won’t change the kids’ school – that would be giving in to the racism.
“Lots of black kids have a terrible experience, and by the time they leave school, they’re falling behind.
“I hope that my kids will rise above discrimination, the system will change, and that all children from all backgrounds can grow up in a safe and fair society.”
‘At school I was called an Oreo’
Tiah Shepherd, 19, is a student and lives in Birmingham with her mum Helen, 54.
“Sitting opposite my Tinder date I stared at him in surprise, I went over what he’d just told me – that dating mixed-race women was every man’s ‘goal’, and I suddenly realised how often mixed-race people are fetishised on dating apps.
“Guys compliment me on my skin colour, and while they’re trying to be nice, I know these conversations aren’t happening to white women.
“I’m from a diverse part of Birmingham, but my black dad used to tell me that I’d have to work twice as hard in life.
“At school, I was called an Oreo and asked why my hair was frizzy.
“In 2011, aged 11, I begged my mum to let me relax my hair.
“Had I seen more mixed-race people in the media, maybe I wouldn’t have been so desperate to look as white as possible.
“I began studying for a liberal arts degree on a scholarship at Wesleyan University in the US, in September 2019.
“I’ve found there is a binary idea of race in America: you’re either black or white – but I’m both.
“However, on my campus, people are open to difficult conversations and there’s a willingness to become more educated than in the UK.
“I returned to Britain in March because of the coronavirus crisis, and when I saw the video of George Floyd, I couldn’t believe this kind of murder is still happening.
“I realised that as much as society appears to have progressed, racism has just taken on a different form.
“I’ve had to rethink my own education, too.
“My high school didn’t teach us about British colonialism, including slavery and the empire’s role in the wars.
“I’ve had arguments with my mum, as she wants me to tell her how to educate herself – but it’s not the role of people of colour to educate white people.
“I hope the current movement encourages people to realise that something has to change.”
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- The Space Between Black And White by Esuantsiwa Goldsmith (£8.99, Jacaranda) is out now
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