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Mentoring Plus mentor Mark de'Lisser

Where are you REALLY from?

Mentoring Plus professional mentor Mark De’Lisser relates to the experiences of the young BAME people he supports, exposed to thoughtless racism and micro aggressions, even from friends. But perhaps now there are signs we’re ready to acknowledge an ugly history and start having difficult but vital conversations.

“But where are you REALLY from?”

I’ve almost lost count of the amount of times I’ve been asked this question.

“North West London.”

“But you can’t REALLY be from London.”

“Why not?” I reply.

“Because you’re Black.”

I feel the frustration and the anger bubbling up. I have a flash to an alternate reality where I open the flood gates and years and years of dealing with this kind of ignorance come pouring out of my mouth in a verbal assault.

I see myself standing on the table, fist held high in the air and schooling them about the Windrush scandal, Britain’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade and the truth about its colonial history, all to a sound track of Steel Pulse, Peter Tosh and the Clash.

“What do you mean, you never heard of Zadie Smith, Benjamin Zephaniah or Akala?”

Then I take a deep breath and I look again at the person asking the question. I see the look of genuine interest tinged with slight confusion on the face of the elderly man, the 12 year old boy, my ex-girl friend’s dad, and swallow it down… again.

I’ve had the absolute pleasure and privilege of working with many BAME young people in Bath and I can assure you that these experiences are not unique to myself. In a city where people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds make up around 6% of the population, it’s pretty commonplace to be asked “where are you REALLY from?” It’s also common to be followed around a shop by a security guard.

Micro aggressions are a common occurrence for most BAME young people living in Bath.

“Can I touch your hair?”

“You’re pretty for a black girl!”

“You don’t sound Black.”

“You must love chicken!”

“I would love mixed babies.”

“Can I say the N word?”

All things have been said to the young people I’ve worked with. They may seem like innocent statements, some even humorous. But these subtle and insidious forms of racist stereotyping have huge effects on the mental well-being of our BAME young people.

Many of these kinds of things are said by friends. At a time in our lives when all we really want to do is fit in, it’s easier to laugh them off and hide the pain that they cause. I can relate to that.

Equally, in conversations about race I have will regularly hear things like “I don’t see colour”. The intention is inclusive, but the reality is that this denies the experience of people who feel that their colour and identity matter, and that it impacts on not only how they experience the world, but also on how the world experiences them.

So I often find myself wondering what impact always being seen as ‘the other’ is having on our young BAME people.

To know that you are 3 times more likely to be permanently excluded from school because of the colour of your skin.

To have the constant awareness that people who share a similar heritage as you make up around 26% of the prison population, but only around 13% of the general population.

The fear of knowing that if you are a Black woman, you are much more likely to die from complications surrounding pregnancy and childbirth than a white woman.

These are really hard truths, but if we want to make the reality better for BAME young people today, we must acknowledge them before we can begin to change them.

It’s been 72 years since those men and women from the Caribbean stepped off the Windrush in Essex with dreams of starting a new life in Britain. They were faced with signs reading “No Dogs, No Blacks” when trying to rent rooms, daily racist abuse and regular violence.

It feels hard to believe that today in 2020 their grandchildren are still having to remind us that their lives matter too. But this is where we are.

The Black Lives Matter protests here in the UK have allowed us to open up the conversation about racism in this country. They have given a platform to Black voices who previously felt like they were shouting into the wind.

They have given people from Black, white and all backgrounds a chance to come together and show their disgust at the ingrained racism within our institutions that have created such inequality in our society. There is now a chance for us to truly address these inequalities and to create safe and supportive spaces to have these difficult conversations.

I’m not alone in believing that it begins in our schools and with education, and there have already been some positive movements happening locally to create lasting change. In an open letter to a local school, parents demanded changes to the curriculum to include more information for children on racism and slavery, as well as dropping the name of a slave owner from a school house.

Hundreds of ex-pupils from another school in Bath have urged the school to improve its racial education and teach more about racial diversity, systemic racism, and black history. These can only be steps in the right direction.

Rather than continuing to turn away, it seems that collectively we are now ready to face the ugly bits of Britain’s history and the impacts they are still having on BAME communities today.

As Maya Angelou beautifully said:

You can’t really know where you are going until you know where you have been.

My hope is that BAME young people will begin to feel safe, valued and heard and will no longer have to deal with the every day racism and micro aggressions that are still so prevalent in our society.

Maybe one day they won’t have to explain where they are REALLY from. Maybe the question won’t be asked anymore.