The day I realised I wasn’t white
imwithdom by imwithdom | Friday, 25 July 2014 | Click here for original article
I have wanted to talk through the thoughts I’m about to write for years but never felt I had the confidence to articulate what I really mean. It’s taken me days to consider how I’m going to write what I’m about to, I guess that’s testament to how much it all means to me. I always thought that this would one day be a chapter of a book I might write, but I want to share it now because I want it to help other young people to come to terms with identity and sadly the racism that that identity can attract.
22nd April 1993. A day that will stay in my mind for the rest of my life, which is pretty bizarre when you consider I was only 6 years and 2 months old. That’s 322 weeks or 2258 days, for the time leading up to that date I felt a sense of absolute innocence. After that date I took more notice of the facts of life.
Now you may be asking what happened on that date, well on Well Hall Road in South East London an 18 year old boy was murdered just for being black. That boys name went on to become famous, I am of course talking about Stephen Lawrence.
Looking back now it’s actually pretty perverse that Stephen Lawrence is a household name. He’s not known for anything he actually did in his life (which according to his friends and family was a life filled with immense promise), he never got to fulfil his potential. He was known for the manner in which his life was taken. By a gang of racist cowards as he walked home one evening.
As a child I was always interested in the news, my mum and dad would always have the news on in the evenings or the mornings and I would always ask my dad lots of questions about what ever news story was on the screen. I remember seeing the original news bulletin about Stephens death, I also remember not asking any questions. I remember looking at my dad and looking at my mum and thinking for the first time in my short 6 year life that they were different from each other. My mum was and is of white British decent and my dad a Black man born in St Catherine’s Jamaica. Why hadn’t I noticed until now? I thought. Dad had always clearly been black, how had I not realised that he was different to my mum and her family?
Actually I’m told that my first experience of racism was when I was between 18 months and 2 years old. I have no memory of the incident but my mum was walking with me in a pushchair through town and had had some skin head youths shout abuse at her for having a ‘black baby’. It upsets me now to imagine how my mum must have felt, knowing that this little thing she had brought into the world was being targeted before he could even defend himself. Someone as loving and tolerant of diversity of my mum having to face seeing people treat someone she loved this way. I don’t know how she coped.
That memory isn’t one I have though, that’s my mums pain. Nothing changed my way of thinking about myself and my identity more than the death of Stephen Lawrence.
It wasn’t until that moment that I realised that there are people in the world who literally despise me just because I exist. There are people who would love to make me a victim of ‘n*gger bashing’. And there are people who will never be able to look at me as anything more than the vile product of an interracial relationship. That thought makes my blood run cold.
I’ve never spoken to my parents about the Stephen Lawrence murder because at that time I just internalised it. When I had nightmares, I’d always say it was about something else. Still to this day though I sometimes wake myself up at night imagining that I was living Stephen’s final moments, or that I’m his friend Duwayne Brooks and I’m experiencing the fear he must have felt. The thing is I’m lucky, I don’t know the Lawrence’s. I’m aware that Stephen is buried near my granddads house in Jamaica but I’ve never met them or Duwayne. Anything I feel or have felt about the events of that day are minute in comparison to their feelings of loss and grief. And yet strangely the Lawrence’s feel like they are my family.
Stephens death still feels so personal and leaves a huge lump in my throat. A legacy of the murder is that the Metropolitan Police along with other forces across the UK were found to be institutionally racist. The Macpherson Report gave mainstream credence to a theory that many black people had held since arriving here in Britain. Honestly though, I’d happily live without that report having ever having to be investigated. I’d happily live without ever having heard the name Stephen Lawrence and I’d happily live without the knowledge of my own identity if it just meant that he never had to die.
Every year on the anniversary of Stephens murder I reflect on the day I lost my naive childhood innocence and it makes me feel cold. Racism stole that from me. Racists had an impact on my life. That is why I am always so quick (much to the annoyance of many) to call out racism wherever it exists.
It makes me think about identity and the stupid ways society imposes it on us. Apparently if you’re mixed race like me you can chose to take on more of your black side or your white side, because I’m articulate (supposedly) and don’t wear clothes that are considered ‘street’ I am told I take on my white ancestry. Well this is utter nonsense, when I walk down the street on a dark night my presence still encourages fear, when I write my ethnicity on a form it still says I’m not white British and when I close my eyes to sleep I still have nightmares about the racist attack that could end my life and destroy my hopes and dreams. I am a black man and I refuse to be put into any further pigeon hole than that. Trust me if I had a choice, that last sentence wouldn’t need to have ever been written.
1993 seems such a long time ago and it is, but racism is still rampant. Anthony Walker, a young black boy only 6 days younger than me and another name that I wish I never knew. His life taken in 2005 by a racist in Liverpool who couldn’t bare to see a black boy with a white girl. Another person who I never knew but will forever remember. Every time I challenge racism, every time I talk to young people and every time I strive to do something good I do it because people like Stephen and Anthony can’t.
I’ve never met Doreen or Neville Lawrence, Stephens parents. If I ever do I don’t know exactly what I’ll say, but as someone who came through some turbulent teenage years with crime, drugs and negativity I am going to tell them that my future and the future of my generation who were touched by having to intersect their lives is dedicated to the memory of Stephen Lawrence and all the young people whose future was taken by racism.