How I first learned about racism and how I am still on a journey

On 21 June 1948, passengers disembarked from the liner “Empress Windrush” including some 800 from the Caribbean. Although there had been black people in Britain since the Romans, the arrival of this group of immigrants is widely regarded as the beginning of the history of multicultural Britain. Since 2018, 21 June has been known as National Windrush Day.

I was born in the same week as the arrival of the “Windrush” so, in effect, my life has been a chronological analogue to the development of multicultural Britain.

I was born in a village just outside Wolverhampton and, although my parents soon moved to Manchester, I regularly visited my paternal grandmother in the Midlands. This was my first exposure to racism as I heard the reactions of the white people of Wolverhampton – including my nan – to the black bus conductors and drivers. It is no coincidence that a local Member of Parliament was the vicious Enoch Powell.

In Manchster, I never came across a black student at school. The most exotic person in my secondary school was someone with a Polish father. In history lessons, we learned nothing about British colonialism or the slave trade. However, my English teacher did recommend that we read “Sanders Of The River”. Even, at university, there was nobody of colour on my course.

Things changed when, after graduation, I moved down to London. My first job was accommodation officer at the then Polytechnic of North London where I struggled to find lodgings for black students because of the racism of local residents.

Everything changed again when I moved to the London borough of Brent where I spent 35 years. This is one of the most multi-ethnic boroughs in Britain with an especially large population of Asian descent and, in my particular part of the borough, Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka. As a contrast to my own school experience, I would say that, at my son’s primary school, almost two-thirds of the kids had a non-British ethnic background.

The events of the last few weeks have moved me profoundly., The murder of George Floyd in the United States , the demonstrations under the banner Black Lives Matter all around the word, and here in the UK the new focus on British colonialism, slavery and memorialisation of those involved in colonialism and slavery – these events have prompted me again to address my white privilege.

There is nothing that I can do about my past, but maybe there is a little something which I can do about the future.

During lockdown, at the request of their parents, I have been doing online history lessons for two nine year olds: one my granddaughter and the other the son of a close friend. I was asked to teach some British history and we’ve done 12 lessons on British kings and queens: the Tudors, the Stuarts, and the Victorian era.

But now, with the agreement of the parents, I’m going to switch to lessons on world history, looking at colonialism, slavery and modern black icons. As with the previous lessons, I will have to do my research and preparation. I will learn a lot and I hope that the little ones will learn something too.


  • Janet

    Your early experiences are most interesting, Roger. Like you (but a few years later), in my class at secondary school was a girl with a Polish father but we also had a girl with a (white) American father. I never met a black person until after graduation. However, someone close to me must have been ahead of their time, because pre-school,I played with 3 dolls who I named Caroline, Rosemary and Mary. Rosemary was black skinned with curly black hair, but otherwise just the same as the others. This would have been about 1960.

  • Peter Clark

    Roger – are you watching the current tv program “Channel 4’s The School That Tried to End Racism” ?
    Two parts, part one last Thursday, part two next Thursday (2/7/20)


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