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“I never thought that a 6 year old story from a socialist website would attract me and sum up a Britain 6 years in the future, we need to pause and not allow ourselves to sink !”

 

The threat posed by racists on the streets and fascists at the ballot box shows that racism has not gone away. Zita Holbourne, Weyman Bennett, Hesketh Benoit, Marcia Rigg and Assed Baig discuss their experience of racism and how to fight back.

“Let’s tackle the roots of racism” – Zita Holbourne

Growing up in 1970s London, I was viewed as a strange phenomenon by many. Frequently my mother was told to “go back home” and called a “wog”. People tried to apply labels to me and called me “half caste”, “half breed”, “half pint”. Some didn’t know what my race was but knew they disliked me because of the way I looked and called me “Paki”, “Greek girl” and “Chinese girl”.

I remember being fearful of the Sunday market trips my mum took me on because we had to pass by the National Front (NF). I couldn’t understand then why mum insisted we walk past them but it was a lesson I took with me into adult life – refuse to be driven away or intimidated by racists.

Nazi attack

One night my boyfriend and I were surrounded by ten NF thugs in Trafalgar Square on our way to catch the night bus. They brandished weapons, hurling racist abuse at us. I thought I was going to die that night. I could not believe that in such a crowded place nobody would help us. Then I heard my boyfriend shout out, “These racists are telling us we don’t belong in this country.” Two black men without hesitation took off their belts ready to take the racists on. As a gap formed in the circle I ran. I cried all the way home but then an anger formed inside me – over the incident but also over teachers who treated me like a second class citizen, the careers advisers who said I was only fit to work in a factory, the man who had slammed a door in mum’s face and called her a “wog”, the woman who had spat at us to “go back to the jungle” and all the people who had bullied or discriminated against me. It was a turning point. Malcolm X said, “Usually when people are sad they don’t do anything. They just cry over their condition. But when they get angry, they bring about change.”


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I went through a lot more racism, much of it institutional in education and workplaces. I think development of policies and wider awareness of laws meant that people became concerned with the repercussions of being racist. Plus popular culture embraced the music, food and fashions of black people. Slowly we appeared on TV and began to hold prominent positions in all aspects of society. Mixed relationships grew and the NF went quiet. However, under the surface racism was simmering. Racist murders, such as the murder of Stephen Lawrence, uncovered how widespread institutional racism was.

When my son was born I started to really dwell on racism, afraid and saddened for him growing up in a place where young black men were stereotyped, disregarded or even demonised. It became the driving force behind my fight against racism both on a personal level and as an activist. I represented a member in tribunal who had been likened to a caricature of a monkey and the judge asked of the images, “Are they from the Jungle Book?” It took me right back to my childhood and the “You
monkey” and “Go back to the jungle” taunts.

Around the same time, on a local bus one Saturday with my son, we heard chanting. On the upper deck all the passengers – mostly young and black – pressed their faces against the windows only to be greeted by the NF marching and chanting about us. The police surrounding them outnumbered them three to one and I remember thinking that I pay taxes so that racists like them can get police protection to flaunt their fascist views. My son was well clued up on the NF and British National Party, but it was upsetting and I worried about the other children on the bus. I was extremely angry that the nightmares of my childhood were parading themselves in front of these children and in the heavy silence that ensued I wanted to gather them up in my arms.

Looking at the way forward, there is no simple answer. One thing’s for sure: while the right to self-organise and self-determine for black people is essential, equally important is the need for black and white people to work together in the fight against racism, learning from those who have experienced racism first hand.

Fight collectively

We have to dispel the myths, strengthen the unity, fight collectively and, most importantly, invest in our young people. There’s an old African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” We all have a responsibility towards ensuring that they receive the love and guidance they need and are raised to understand, accept and embrace the differences between them. It has to start at pre-school and continue right through. Schools have been teaching that black people began as slaves – as if we had no history before that. The achievements and identities of black people have been written out of the history books in Britain. Every subject on the curriculum must reflect accurately the roles and achievements of black people. While children need to be aware of the past they also need to grow up with pride for their individual cultures plus a shared identity where they are treated as, and see themselves as, equal. Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

We have to tackle the roots of racism or we will continue reacting rather than preventing. We have to break down the barriers that divide us and expose racism. Nobody is born racist. It’s a disease – the longer you leave it, the more it spreads, but if you cut it out when the first signs emerge you have a better chance of curing it. We must be confident and empowered to challenge racism as soon as it rears its head, because each time we ignore it, the racists feel emboldened. We will never cure every single person of racism but we can tackle the roots and make it clear that it will not be tolerated using the tools available to us – not just laws and policies but the goodness of the human heart and our united strength – to overcome.

Zita Holbourne is a member of the TUC race relations committee and joint chair of Black Activists Rising Against Cuts. She is also a member of the PCS national executive, vice-chair of the PCS national equality committee and a (visual) artist and poet.

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