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My Black History - Black and Proud

Laura is a social worker based in Edinburgh. In this reflective piece asked for and published by the City of Edinburgh Council as part of Black History Month last month, she shares her experiences of racism in practice...

Darkie. Nigger. Monkey. Chocolate woman. Foreigner. Dirty. Black bitch. You speak good English. Go back to Africa. Do you know that song, 10 little Niggers? Where are you really from? I won’t have a darkie in my house. Is Laura your British name?  I bet you save a fortune not having to go on sunbeds. I’m not racist, but. Oh, your daughters are pretty even though they’re black. You’re not too black. I can help breed the black out of you.

My name is Laura, and this is the first time sharing in writing what my experience as a mixed race woman has been like living in Edinburgh. Now to be clear this is my testimony, I am not writing on behalf of all who identify as from the African diaspora, I am not claiming to be an historian or educator in all things ‘black’.  My truth is that I went to primary and high school in Edinburgh, I was married in the city, bought my first house in the city and I’m raising my three children in the city. Edinburgh is my home and I believe that sharing and listening to each others stories and experiences, can bring about change and real community. That is my hope.

Black History Month may resonate differently for me, as it may to others. But the truth is, black history is part of Scottish history, the good, the bad and the ugly. I have wrestled with our history over the years due to the complexities of being mixed race and having the oppressor on one side and the oppressed on the other. I remember a conversation with my Jamaican gran about our surname coming from our British slave owners and that while according to my gran I have “good cotton picking hands” (good palm to finger ratio), that I would have been a house slave rather than out on the plantation. Wrestling that reality, with stories from my white Scottish mother’s side and how family members benefited from doing business which essentially exploited and oppressed people within colonised countries within the Empire, as well as Native Americans during the Gold Rush.

Before becoming a mother and trying to navigate growing up mixed race in a community that views me as black and the ugliness of colourism, I look back at how I managed the racism that I faced, and I’m saddened and somewhat embarrassed. I was so insecure and desperate to fit in, that I tended to laugh along with the jokes and the racist comments. The initial racist words and comments at the top of the article are a small snippet of the things that have been said to my face here in Edinburgh, and I can recall various incidences when travelling abroad that have reduced me to tears and even fear. When on a road trip in North America, I will never forget a threatening letter on headed paper from the KKK being left under my car window wiper. I remember a crew member on a deep-sea diving boat at the Great Barrier Reef reducing me to tears when he made the not funny joke “how long does it take a black woman to do a shit? 9 months”.

I have many stories and experiences where racist comments, judgemental words and insensitive jokes have pained me to my core, to the point that I can’t cry anymore. There is a numbness, where comments start to feel normal and even expected in some environments, that as a coping mechanism the fragility is pushed down and covered up with a mask that it’s all fine. In my job as a social worker, I have faced a lot of racism in my 16 years of practice. Where people have refused to allow me into their home to carry out necessary assessments, where they think it’s still okay to use the word nigger or where they get offended when I ask them to stop touching my hair. I recall a joint home visit with a health professional, where the person we were visiting refused to call me by my name and kept referring to me as “the darkie”, after their refusal to call me by my name, I said that I would have to leave, where the health professional then stated that it was their house and that it was unprofessional of me to correct their language choice in their own home. I confess that I, like many people in the community, don’t report incidences and that as a result it appears that there is no issue in Edinburgh and in fact (going on that government commission report) the rest of the UK. I stopped reporting work related incidences after getting increasingly disappointed in being told that it’s part of the job and to use my social work skills to manage it. That alongside, my already established mindset of racism being normal and just something I have to deal with in a similar way that other people have to deal with other forms of discrimination. This resulted in my apathy and silence.

It all changed when I married an incredibly proud black South African Xhosa man and we had three children. My husband was born during apartheid, he grew up in a township and he has his own testimony of how the institutionalised racial segregation and racist regime devastated communities with the effects still being evident today. His strength of identity, black pride and hope for a real rainbow nation, played a big part in my personal reflection, an awakening if you like, on who I am now and what am I going to do to use my history to positively influence the future. 

When it was just me, I lived in my little bubble getting angry and upset when I watched certain films or when someone said something to me. I’m ashamed to admit that I kept my head in the sand and chose to ignore what was going on around me and not participate in trying to bring about change. If I’m honest, what motivates me now is a mixture of hope and fear. The fear stems from the ‘what if’. Most of us have seen the video of George Floyd being murdered. It’s easy for others in a position of privilege to tell me that my son will be fine and not to worry, but as a mother, as a mother who wants her son to travel the world and live life to the full, I have the fear that he will be in the wrong place at the wrong time. We also have two daughters and while my heart was overflowing with pride as they held their cardboard signs  saying “young, gifted and black” and “I am strong, I am brave, I am smart, I am beautiful” at the Black Lives Matter Protest, I have had to hold back tears when I think about the ‘what ifs’, because I know that this world can be so incredibly ugly and children and people can be so unkind.

But I have hope too. I have such hope for a real community, for love, for compassion, for education, for united voices, for more than sympathetic white faces, for friendship, for action, for safety, for opportunity, for support, for listening ears and for justice.

I joined the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) Network within the organisation that I work for around 18 months ago, as I wanted to be part of a safe space, that connected me with a community who are also passionate about addressing the issues that people from minority ethnic groups face in the workplace and the city.

The Network enables us to collectively come together, with the support of allies within HR, to formulate plans with regards to reviewing policies, structures and implementation of effective reporting avenues. I have seen such positive steps forward, in particular the introduction of a process for reporting prejudice based incidences. This gives oversight for the first time of what is happening and where as well as recording what action is taken to address these incidents. It’s vital that we take collective action to address racism in all its forms, wherever it comes up and I encourage us all to use the systems we have to speak up.

I was voted in to be the Vice-Chair of the BAME Network about a month ago. It’s quite timely that its now Black History Month and while I’ve felt a little vulnerable sharing my history and my journey with the masses, there is something very empowering about speaking my truth. I can no longer sit back and stay silent. I hope as I continue to breakdown my own oppressive coping mechanisms, as I listen and learn from others; I urge others to come alongside, to speak up and share their truth. We cannot change black history, our history, but we can change what we do today, here and now, with a hope for tomorrow.