When I was nine years old my parents did something to me that I would never dream of doing to a child. I know this because I was talking to my wife about this over the weekend and we both agreed about the damage that it can cause. What they did was move me away from my school in Burnley, Lancashire, to another school in Bristol, Avon (as the county was called in those days).
No big deal. People move house all the time. But while there was certainly no malice involved on their part, no evil intent, the 200 miles or so of separation had cataclysmic consequences for me. All at once my cosy life in a small but friendly Northern working class town was over. I had lost my place. I was suddenly dislocated. Everything about my life was different in every way. And the relocation gave me my first taste of what it was like to suffer racism, or rather its distant cousin ‘regionalism’.
The journey from North to South marked me as something outside the norm. Sure I looked the same as my new schoolmates: I was and remain whiter than white in complexion, however much I lie on the beach. However, the moment I opened my mouth I was a marked man. My deep northern accent presented a huge contrast to the west country Bristolian dialect sported by practically everyone I came into contact with. It marked me as an outsider. I was different to almost everybody else in school. And my schoolmates inevitably reacted to this difference in a variety of ways.
Some seemed not to notice it and treated me no differently to anybody else. Others saw it as an opportunity to improve their standing in the school at the expense of my own. And a small minority saw it as a chance to bully somebody who wasn’t the same as them. But I was a relatively hardly child; in an even battle I could usually give a good account of myself. Black eyes and bruises became a regular part of my school uniform; and they gained the approval of my father, who saw them as a badge of honour. When I was outgunned I simply used my wiles – pretending to be unconscious on the floor, for example, when a much larger boy once attacked me.
It didn’t help that I went to two other schools in Bristol (thus I was put through the thoroughly harrowing process of relocation three separate times) before eventually settling in a large comprehensive with probably a 3:1 ratio of white school kids to black. It was there that I encountered others who were also outsiders. Because that’s what they were. Black people were outsiders: objects of ridicule, objects of fear and misunderstanding. And subjects of all the sorts of things that I as an outsider had been experiencing. It was small wonder that they tended to keep to their own groups.
This is was in the 1970s. And if you think we’ve got it bad now you’ve only got to take a look at some of the TV programmes that were around at the time and how black people were depicted in them.
To name but a handful there was ‘The Black And White Minstral Show’, in which white people ‘blacked up’ and sang to white audiences (I remember that one show actually had white people ‘blacked up’ wearing kilts and singing in pigeon Chinese while pinching their eyes to depict Chinese eyes!). There was ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’ which celebrated British colonialism by simultaneously attacking anybody who happened not to be born in England (the Scots, Welsh and Irish were also fair game) or was homosexual (woe betide you if you were gay in that era).
There was ‘The Comedians’, in which an ugly array of working class ‘comedians’ took savage pot shots at black people, at Asian people, at gay people, at fat people, at women; in fact, anybody who wasn’t a working class ‘comedian’.
Last but not least there was ‘Love Thy Neighbour’, in which a black couple move next door to a white couple and are subjected to untold jibes about cooking pots, tribal dancing and their inherent laziness while routinely being called ‘nig-nog’ and ‘Sambo’ by their smug, beer swilling, pot-bellied neighbour. Even in those days it was utterly amazing that such a program could be shown on mainstream TV. Even more incredible was the fact that some 7 million viewers regularly tuned into to watch this racist, reactionary celluloid disgrace. (In an attempt to redress the balance, the black couple got the chance to call their neighbours ‘white honkies’.)
No small surprise then that is this climate of institutionalised racism trouble was not always far away in the playground. Fights between groups of black and white boys were a regular occurrence. In the home, too, racism was commonplace. Whenever she was looking for someone to blame for anything at all, large or small, my mother had no problem at all pointing the finger at ‘those coons’ as she called them (like many people she would deny it these days). While my father played it another way, boasting about the fact that he drank in the pub with a number of black people and that ‘there’s not a lot of difference really’. Apparently some of his best friends were black.
Yet from all this I somehow managed to emerge relatively liberal. Not politically I hasten to say, but ethically. And I think it was all down to the fact that like many of the racial minorities at my school (West Indians, Indians, Pakistanis, Chinese) I knew what it was like to be different. Even though my difference was in only in the way that I spoke it was enough to set me apart from the majority. And that’s often enough.
Because isn’t it true that we live in a world of racism? That it’s hard-wired into our very essence? I’m always fond of pointing out that our sense of tribalism is so deeply ingrained that if you walk down the street in North London wearing white on a Saturday afternoon you’re quite likely to get a smack from somebody wearing red. And it was the same in Bristol all those years ago when I was a kid: if you wore blue on a Saturday you were at war with those who wore red.
And this is why my wife and I we are staying put. We could easily put our London flat up for sale and get six or seven bedrooms in Kent in return. But we both understand the potential damage this could cause to our daughter, who is at a crucial stage in her development. Because to this day that move from North to South all those years ago still leaves me an outsider.