My mixed-race story of why #BlackLivesMatter by Tom Gayle
I’ve struggled with identity pretty much my entire life. I now say it with pride that I am mixed race, but that hasn’t always been the case. However, what has always been consistent is the way society views me, which is most definitely black.
Like many, the murder of George Floyd triggered an unexpected and overwhelming sense of reflection, which led to me question just how I’ve become the man I am today.
I’ll never forget the first time I was racially abused. Aged seven, sitting down in my primary school yard, a much older kid who was running at speed, playing some form of tag, jumped over me. He must have only seen me late as upon landing he spat out “watch out black jack”. He laughed, my friends laughed, even I laughed, but purely down to the embarrassment of not understanding what was so funny. My friends, even my best friend, continued to refer to me as “black jack”. It only stopped when I spoke to my parents about it, and they in turn spoke to my teacher.
Being called a n*%ger cuts deep. I don’t think I have ever not felt a tiny piece of my heart break anytime it’s been directed at me. But I’ll be honest, being the recipient of abuse from people of colour has hurt just as much. At secondary school, an older boy would greet me daily as “spongy” due to my preferred hairstyle of short on the sides and long afro curls on top. His friends always found it hilarious. I hated that guy. The opposite of this would be when a close friend practically disowned me when we both embraced the new environment of sixth form college. He felt I fell way short of the demonstrable level of blackness required to remain friends with him and his new found peers. Wigger, Coconut and Bounty are all familiar put downs, which have been used in various scenarios, including when I refused to carry drugs for someone else, or for defending a friend who was wrongfully accused of trying to chat up another man’s ex-girlfriend.
I must admit I feel uncomfortable talking about the racial abuse I’ve encountered, because to me, my experiences pales in comparison to the reality of fellow Britons and people of all creeds and colours from around the world. But I can only tell one story, my story.
What I do know is my Dad, who travelled from Jamaica to England in the 1960’s, will be mightily relieved to know I haven’t even come close to walking a 100m in his shoes, never mind a mile. From having to literally physically defend himself, solely due to his mere existence; to having to accept it’s probably best my Mum knocks on the door of next B’n’B in South Wales, so they might actually stand a chance of finding somewhere to sleep during their honeymoon; right up to the unimaginable relief he must have felt on the day of retirement, knowing he no longer had to go to work with racists. It didn’t take me long to figure out just why he was so keen to greet any person of colour he met in the street, and just check how they’re doing. He’s the greatest man I know, and I love him to death.
My Mum has always encouraged me to embrace my mixed heritage. I vividly recall filling in an application form during my mid-teens and ticking the ‘black’ ethnicity box. After reviewing the form my Mum said, “What about me?”. From then on, and to this day, I still endure the frustrating process of having to scribe ‘Anglo Caribbean’ in the painfully small section marked other.
Whilst my experience of racism is more aligned with what my father encountered, I’ve never taken for granted what my Mum has had to endure. As a teacher, I’m sure she quickly got used to dealing with quizzical youngsters who couldn’t quite figure out why there was a picture of two brown boys on her desk. The looks and stares we would at times encounter whilst out shopping without my Dad though must have been much harder to shrug off. I’ve no doubt she would have quickly put anyone in their place were they brave enough to verbalise their prejudices. I love my Mum to death, she’s the greatest woman I know.
For me racism has always been so blatant, and taken either a verbal or physical form. This past fortnight though has made me realise how naive at times I’ve been to the micro aggressions. Why did my child minder teach me that version of Eeny, meeny, miny, moe? Why was it at primary school the role deemed fit for me in the Christmas play about World War Two, was that of newsreader, who introduced himself as Trevor McDonald, only to be met with roars of laughter from the audience? Why do people say my hair feels funny, and constantly want to touch it? Why were people so surprised I was good at swimming? Given my strong academic background, why did my sixth form tutor tell me I was not capable of getting an A? Why have I been approached numerous times and asked if I’ve “got any coke”? Why did that police officer pull me over in the early hours of the morning when I was stone cold sober, driving below the speed limit, and dropping a friend off? Why am I the whitest black person you’ve ever met? Why verbalise your surprise at my colour when we’ve only previously spoken on the phone? Why do you feel I’m not suitable for this role when I have demonstrated considerable expertise in the required field? Why is it the only reason I’m here is just to tick a box? I could go on, but I won’t.
I’m far from perfect, so certainly not here to preach. For as many times I’ve challenged people’s racism, there has been a numerous incidents where I’ve laughed the situation off, or pretended not to hear. I’m know I can do better. All I want is for you to ask the same of yourself.
For those who want to dismiss #Blacklivesmatter, I’ll leave you with my most gut wrenching experience to date. Two years ago, I was helping my two-year-old son climb a tree. A nearby group of teenagers started making monkey noises.
I don’t agree with the view silence makes you complicit. Maybe like me, some people just need time to try and make sense of it all before commenting.
Thanks for reading.
Written by Tom Gayle
We are hosting an event to discuss mixed parenting and #BlackLivesMatter. It’s on Tuesday 23rd June at 8.30pm. More information here.