Pick a side…

My 2 weeks annual leave ends this week with a home-cation and a wonderful opportunity to catch up with friends for that months-ago-promised coffee…or lunch…or perhaps a cheeky gin. I am so lucky to have a group of women friends who support each other. I have got to know them at different stages of my life, such as school, motherhood, work, but in all cases I think we are strong women who lift each other up. They have each helped me through difficult and challenging times and I hope I have supported them through theirs. Sisterhood at its best.

Those that I caught up with this week I have known for many years, and yet whilst chatting about our various news, when I have talked about the subject of my writing each and everyone has said that they hadn’t realised that racism was still a problem. Their responses and associated questions have astounded me, and my squiggling thoughts have been thrown into overdrive. Similarly, close friends who came to the book launch of “Hidden Sussex” told me that they hadn’t really thought about what it was like for me being the only black person in our group of friends, or growing up in a very white community. Today one friend, always reflective, remarked after some thought, “I suppose because I don’t have to experience it, I don’t think about it. I don’t live it everyday.” I looked at her and smiled, realisation dawned, “True but why would you know about it? We have been friends for many years and I never talk about it. In fact perhaps I’ve avoided talking about it – Perhaps I have done people like me a disservice by not talking about it.

My thought-squiggles following that conversation were formed enough to start to write the introduction above last night. A school memory of playing sports had coalesced in my squiggling night time thoughts, when up popped a Tweet this morning whilst I was eating breakfast. It is strange how sometimes things seem fateful, almost as if someone has been eavesdropping on your brainwaves and stolen your thoughts. The tweet in question is by Dr Muna Abdi @Muna_Abdi_Phd

It makes no sense to claim you are ‘not racist’. You are either racist or anti-racist. You can’t just choose to remove yourself from a racist system… but you CAN choose to either be complicit or be a part of the change.

There is no space for neutrality here…. Pick a side.

Through most of my life I have chosen, perhaps through self-preservation, maybe through the wish for a simple life, to remove myself from any talk of racism and a racist system. In remaining silent, even to close friends I have been complicit. Why have I been silent? What is that about?

My squiggling night time thoughts had made me think about a memory of school. I burned with shame at the memory but that memory, whilst uncomfortable, helped me understand.

I was good at ‘games’ at school and was in the school team for netball, rounders, stoolball (those from Sussex may know that game) and basketball. I was in the hockey team but hated it, finding it too aggressive for my temperament. Those girls that enjoyed it would pile in to wrestle back the ball – I would sit back waiting for the misplay and the opportunity to intercept and pass the ball to one of the strong players. I have never liked confrontation. To look at me now (and even to an extent then) you wouldn’t believe I was ‘sporty’ – I have always been ‘podgy’ as my mum called it. However, I could catch, throw, hit and bowl a ball with accuracy. I was tall, and therefore a great ‘defender’. I had stamina if not speed. I loved team games, but PE teachers would push me to compete in athletics too which I didn’t enjoy. However it was assumed (!) that I would be good at long jump, high jump, discus, and javelin and despite often coming middle of any competition, time and time again I was put forward to compete.

If I am honest I have always put myself in the middle ranking of any ‘competition’ ever since Primary School. Every week in one particular class we would have to have a spellings or times-tables test. Once the results were checked we would be ranked by being lined up around the edge of the classroom. The teacher would tell us to look at where we were in that line. She would praise those at the top and berate those at the bottom to try harder. There was one girl always at the bottom. She was a frail thin child, who always smelled of ‘wee’ and had a hard time from her peers because of that. I always felt sad for her, but in the insecurity of my childhood was grateful it wasn’t me that the bullies were targeting. She followed me through to secondary school, and like a ‘Jiminy cricket’ on my shoulder, seeing her made me feel guilty for not caring enough to hold out a hand in solidarity and shared ‘otherness’. I will return to her in a while.

I often sat in the middle ‘rankings’ for my times-tables, but I was good at spellings tests. I remember once I placed myself at the head of the line as five of us had got the same highest mark. The teacher looked at me “Oh no, not there Ann” and she moved me down the line to the last of the five, I was closer to my expected middle position, but confused about why. Childhood lesson learned: don’t get above your station in life. That memory has stayed with me, for years shaping my perception of individual ‘competition’ and that as a black person you should not try to stand out, and definitely not above others who are viewed as superior to you. So I much preferred team games, where you could blend in more and I viewed myself as someone to support others to win. Coming first wasn’t for the likes of me.

In our ‘games’ lessons at Secondary school when playing team games the PE teacher would often start by nominating a captain for each team. Miss ‘D’ was a tall white woman, her strong thighs always visible underneath her favoured navy blue, very short gym-skirt. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that she had her favourites amongst pupils. These were the girls who excelled at sports and made up the school teams. These were the people who were picked to be the captain for a games lesson. Each captain would then take it in turns to pick their team from the girls in front of them. I am sure many people have had a similar experience. The feelings associated with whether you are the first or last to be picked stay with you. I can remember the girls who were more likely to be the last to be picked. Some just hated sport full stop. They were still quite often the ‘cool’ ones and they wore their desire not to be good at sport like a badge of honour. They were the girls who would wear the latest fashion “I forgot my kit Miss“, or be caked in heavy dark make-up and painted nails, or smoke behind the gym. They were seldom the very last to be picked because they were still ‘cool’. The girls that would be chosen at the very end were seen as the misfits, the unpopular. Three in particular stand out in my memory. One had significant anger issues and was deemed ‘slow’ – I recognise her now from my adult view as having learning difficulties and mental health issues. The second was a large round girl, with a constant scowl pasted on her face and incongruously had the name of a flower. The third was the girl from my Primary school who was still painfully thin, and still smelled. As an aside, I saw the last two girls sometime after we left school and freed from the shackles of the bullies, both had blossomed into stunningly beautiful women.

So those were the rules of the game. Two sporty ‘first chosen’ got to pick their sides in order to win the match. I was usually picked fifth or sixth but was confident of not being last because I was in the school sports teams. I was also easy going, mostly pliable and reliable. As I watched ‘the choosing’ however my empathy button would be on high alert – I could imagine the burn of shame at being in that last group of people. The captain would choose quickly to start with, and those chosen would have to stand behind her. She would then take the measure of the group left, some of whom looked at her with hopeful eyes, whilst others kept their eyes lowered to the ground in defiance, deference or resignation. I felt sad for them.

And then one week it happened – unexpectedly I was selected to be one of the captains for a game of rounders. I was proud as punch for all of 5 minutes and then the panic set in as I realised that I had the responsibility to choose from real people. As I am wont to do I put myself in their position: how would they feel if I didn’t choose them? The other captain went first and chose my best friend. I quickly picked another friend – she was great at sport and very competitive. The day was hot and I broke into a sweat despite standing underneath the generous shade of the oak tree at the top of the field where ‘the choosing’ always took place. My friend nudged me in the back whispering the name of another ‘sporty’ friend in my ear. I looked at the group in front of me – the sporty stood confidently at the front looking intently and expectantly at me, the ‘cool kids’ at the back not deigning to look my way. In the middle stood the unpopular ‘misfits’. I looked at them with guilt, and caught the eye of the girl who smelled…and blurted out her name. I heard a sharp intake of breath and a “whaaaaat” from behind me. There was a snigger from the captain of the other team. The girls in the front looked aghast. I noticed a raised hand, an accusatory ‘two-finger salute’ from the back row. What had I done? The ‘girl who smelled’ sidled next to me and I felt briefly pleased and warm inside that I had chosen her. The other team captain chose another of my sporty comrades. I took another breath – in for a penny – and chose ‘flower girl’. I felt a hard elbow in my back, “For god’s sake Ann, do you want us to lose?” I can’t remember my next choices now, I think I capitulated and chose the ‘best’ of those that remained after that. I do however remember that we lost spectacularly. I remember that my friend and team-mate threw her bat when our last player was out and stormed into the changing rooms without waiting for me. In fact no one waited for me that day, and as I slowly walked across the playground the PE teacher sidled up next to me, “For goodness sake Ann, you pick a team to win. It is not a popularity contest”.

Those words came back to haunt me for weeks afterwards in matches and lessons. I discovered that actually it was a popularity contest on so many levels. I was shunned and ignored by some of my team mates both in class and in matches. For the next few games lessons I was picked much later than before. The looks and the body language told me that I had let the side down and crossed an unspoken line. I constantly, and precariously, walked that line as a person of difference, and I had overbalanced and fallen into the misfit pit. I felt wretched. Later that term I was given the role of captain again, this time I listened to the sporty friend whispering the names to choose in my ear. ‘We’ won, and easily, and I didn’t give any of ‘the misfits’ eye contact or a second glance as I walked with my team mates to the changing rooms. Only the tight feeling in my chest, and the churn in my tummy told me a different story, survival didn’t feel good. However, I had learned that you had to pick a side with care in order to win. If you wanted an easy life, to be liked and popular rather than othered, you had to follow their rules.

So from this experience I picked a side, the side with less hassle, less trauma, the winning side. As I have said in previous blogs, being black in a white space meant I had no role-models, no one who understood what it was like to be in the minority, no ally to support me. If I spoke about racism, if I voiced my unhappiness at the comments or jokes or the negative experiences of being other, I was acutely aware of the raised eyebrows, the uncomfortable side-ways looks, the turning away, the nervous but negating laughter. I knew that I had friends all of whom would say they were not racist, and ‘reassure’ me that the jokes and the comments were not racist. The bad people were racists, and they were not the bad people. It was easier for me to believe and to stay quiet, avoid that ‘r’ word, beat them to the punchline, stay silent and turn my face away from the racist system. I chose a side because it was the easy more comfortable option, and I felt alone and powerless.

My friend’s comments about not realising that Britain is still a difficult place for many black people, opened my eyes to the fact that all those years ago I picked the wrong side. My silence has made me complicit in the increasing racist environment that surrounds us. An environment where politicians can spout racist garbage and people merely roll their eyes and suggest those words are made in jest, or from the mouth of a fool and not representative of the majority, or even deny that they are meant as racist at all. Their words as leaders influence those they lead, and as a result there feels to be an increase in racist abuse over the last few years and this is seen as acceptable, almost like we have stepped back to the 70s of my youth. Today I felt a cold shiver as I watched Trump supporters demonstrate pure fascism – but that’s America you might say…however, if our politicians have their way we will have even stronger ties to America through the deals that are made. The pay off for those deals will be an increase in their influence on our societal structures and all that brings.

Like Dr Muna Abdi, the brilliant Pran Patel writes about the need for people to recognise that being ‘non-racist’ is not good enough in the world we live in now, people need to be ‘anti-racist’ as “being neutral is part of the problem”. Over the last 6 months or so I have been doing my small part to try and raise ‘my little voice in a noisy world’ and share my experiences from a black perspective despite discomfort, despite the fear of rejection which was such a strong driver for my younger self. This fear has deep roots which demands a daily struggle. I know I need to be braver to do the same face-to-face too, and know that I will have to bear the negative reactions to my words and challenges. So to those that read this and know me I offer no apology for my words in the future or the discomfort it might bring, but give a plea for your allyship. Silence is no longer an option, silence is the problem. I fear it is time to pick a side.