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Racism And Me: What It’s Like To Be A Young Black British Woman Today
Words by MICHELLE ABRAHAM
As Black Lives Matter protests continue around the world, Michelle, 31, a writer from Hertfordshire, shares her personal experience of racism through school, dating and work
Michelle Abraham.
My Childhood

I grew up in the 1990s to working-class parents in Hertfordshire; a talkative, passionate Malaysian dad and a kind and doting Mauritian mum. 

“You’re going to big school soon and will play with loads of other little girls and boys,” my mum said. She was beaming with pride as she took a photo of me, aged five, in my baggy, bright-red primary-school jumper and pleated grey skirt. 

A wave of nostalgia hits me with that comment: “loads of other little girls and boys”. My parents never really talked about race in my childhood and never made me feel that we as a family were different to anyone else. 

They instilled in me that I must treat everyone equally and with compassion. My mum and dad taught me people should be judged on their morals and how they treat others.

My primary school was mostly full of white children, but with the innocence of childhood I never thought they looked different to me. I remember watching my classmates arrive at school full of energy, boisterous and squealing. I felt excited to play with them and make friends.

One morning my mum dropped me off and we did the usual hug and kiss goodbye. I wasn’t expecting to see her a few minutes later, bursting into my classroom and pointing at a classmate. She furiously told my teacher and the class that the little boy had called her a “p***” and thrown a twig at her as she was leaving the school.

I didn’t understand why my normally timid mum had seen red, but I felt frightened and thought to myself, “Mum, you’re going to get me in trouble.”

There weren’t any further problems, but after that incident I was quite lonely and withdrew from the other kids when it came to group activities or play time. My teachers tried to encourage me to mix, but I was reluctant and anxious.

“I didn’t cry and or feel angry, but I was deeply ashamed. It was the first time I thought I was different and that I didn’t belong here”

My next experience with racism was at 14 years old. Greasy-haired, shy and small, I was walking into my cul-de-sac when I saw a neighbour’s friend who was roughly the same age as me. He gave me a long, piercing look and I immediately had a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach, so tried to up my pace to get to my front door.

“Hey, sexy!” he shouted. I didn’t respond and then, when I was about a metre from my front door, he yelled, “N****r.”

When I got inside and sat on my bed, I didn’t cry or feel angry, but I was deeply ashamed. It was the first time I thought I was different and that I didn’t belong here. I’ve seen this man a couple of times since recently and he always puts his head down when he sees me. Does he do that because he feels guilty?

That was the beginning of a catastrophic decade of self-esteem issues. I had repetitive toxic thoughts – wishing I was white; thinking boys would fancy me if I was white; asking, why wasn’t I born mixed race like my cousins? This identity crisis was only intensified when I began dating.

My Dating Life

I’ve only ever dated white men. I think it comes from watching the 1998 World Cup and observing a clean-cut, floppy-haired footballer called David Beckham being given a red card. Give him a break guys, he’s gorgeous!

In my late teens, after dating a boy for a few weeks I suggested watching a film at his house one evening – he lived with his grandmother. The boy responded, “You’re very pretty but my nan would never accept you because, erm, you know, you’re Black.”

It hit me like a bolt of lightning, and I felt a burning pain of sadness. I was also irritated with myself because I believed my race was preventing me from having a normal relationship.

Later, in my early 20s, I started to see another man. With a nonchalant tone, one day he said to me, “Mich, you’re amazing but my mum would never let me marry a Black girl.” I remember feeling complete helplessness and thinking I would never find love because anyone I like is going to say nothing can happen between us.

Over the next few years, if friends tried to set me up on dates, my default reaction would be, “Do they know I’m black?” or, “Have they seen a picture of me?” I was very insecure for a long time and was plagued with incessant thoughts that I was unattractive because I was Black.

My Career

One of the best things I have done in my life is move to London and start a career in journalism 10 years ago. The capital has always made me feel accepted, confident and that my ethnicity is not a hindrance.

There’s a systemic racism problem in the UK. Historically, journalism has faced criticism for being a white-washed industry. And from my own experience, I’ve only worked with a handful of Black people in the past decade.

However, I have never encountered racism in my career. I’ve always been treated as an individual who isn’t defined by my race, gender, socioeconomic status or anything other than my work. What has been recognised by my employers are my skills, passion and dedication. My race has never been mentioned in the office, in meetings or at after-work drinks. 

I have never felt my race has impeded me – I’ve always been treated as an equal member of the team.

I fully appreciate I am the exception. I know there are many young Black women, especially in journalism, for whom this is infuriatingly not the case. It has been the most empowering and wonderful feeling to be championed by my managers and team members after what happened in my earlier years.

“Journalism has faced criticism for being a white-washed industry. And from my own experience, I’ve only worked with a handful of Black people in the past decade”

In my first journalism job, I was promoted after six months to deputy editor at the age of 22. In my current role, I was promoted to senior editor after a year. When I first got the position, I remember feeling proud as I sat alongside four senior male colleagues for our first editorial meeting. 

The biggest thing I’ve learnt in my career is how important it is to treat everyone equally and judge colleagues completely on their work and how they treat others. I know my career experiences have been largely positive, but this is rare. 

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) 2019 Racism at Work survey shared plenty of distressing findings. More than 70% of ethnic minority workers revealed they have faced racial harassment at work in the past five years. Almost half of those surveyed said they had suffered “verbal abuse and racist jokes”. And more than 40% of people who reported a racist incident said they were either ignored or had been branded a “troublemaker”.

These shocking statistics show we have a very long way to go before Black people are no longer met with discrimination and hostility for the colour of their skin. 

Black Lives Matter

The death of unarmed black civilian George Floyd left me horrified. My jaw dropped when I saw the footage of white police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes as he pleaded that he could not breath. 

The Black Lives Matter protests happening around the world right now are important. Although I strongly disagree with any violence or looting, those participating in peaceful protests have brought injustices, sufferings and issues Black people have endured for centuries to the forefront of everyone’s minds and instigated a powerful conversation about race, one that’s long overdue. 

Whether it is personally or professionally, most Black people in some area of their lives have felt oppressed and unequal in comparison to white people. Change must happen.

Where Am I Now?

I am finally happy being a Black woman. I am so eternally grateful for the support network around me – my amazing family, friends and wonderful boyfriend have supported and encouraged me to be proud of my race and who I am as a person. 

I am proud of my heritage and my black skin, and I am hopeful for a better world for Black people from this movement. 

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