Being non-white in Cornwall

Very occasionally, I hear a story which I really feel needs sharing because it is so vitally important. One such was What really happened to Oliver? 

Now, at a time where the #blacklivesmatter movement is rightly centre-stage (it was founded in 2013, so is not new; please visit the website and find out more) a young Bude woman called Chloe has written this and (in view of her experiences) courageously agreed to let me put it on Bude & Beyond.

I hope people will treat Chloe and her words with the respect and concern they so obviously deserve from all of us. Hopefully, we can all learn from these powerful words and try our best to ensure that such appalling incidences of racism and other forms of discrimination do not happen again. Idealistic? Probably. But if they do, then we all need to ensure that we do not sit back and accept it. As the saying goes, being (passive) non-racist is not enough. We need to be (active) anti-racist.

This is her story (herstory) in her own words because no one else can tell it better.

I’ve thought long and hard about writing this but I feel that if ever there were a time to write about my experience as a non-white person living in the UK (specifically the southwest of England), now is the time.

The last couple of weeks have been distressing, to say the least. I’ve been on edge and close to tears a lot; I’ve been having heart palpitations and have a twitch in my eye that won’t go away. I have felt angry, upset, anxious, powerless, and at times I have felt like a fraud- after all, I am a mixed-race woman so where do I fit into discussions about race?

At this point, I have lived in the South West for longer than I have lived anywhere else. I moved to Cornwall from London when I was 14, and attended a secondary school in Camelford where I was one of only half a dozen non-white kids. During this time I was called n****r, dirty, and asked: “what are you?”. I was physically assaulted, and regularly experienced other more subtle forms of racism, and I was nearly completely ostracised by my year group. At one point I was pulled aside by one of my teachers and told that “there are other coloured children in the school, yet you are the only one who has had a problem”. I consider this to be an extremely low point in my life, something which I am still feeling the after-effects of to this day, nearly 15 years later. I still struggle to form friendships; I suffer from identity and self-esteem issues and have chronic anxiety.

After secondary school we moved to Bude where things improved quite a bit; however, I still continued/continue to experience racism, both overtly and on a more subtle level. I think most of the time people just are not informed enough to realise that what they are saying is ignorant. For the most part, there is no malice but it doesn’t stop it from being hurtful all the same.

Honestly, I can’t count the number of times people have used the term ‘coloured’, a highly offensive racial slur. I have actually been called half-caste, which is a word that has racist connotations as it is derived from the Latin word ‘castus’ which means pure, so it basically means impure.

I hear the N-word (not just with an ‘A’ but also with a hard ‘R’) far more than I ever did in London; there’s no getting used to that.
Once on a night out, I was called a Paki- I mean at least get your racial slurs right if you’re going to use them!

I have been fetishised – once, after sex, I was told that he had always wanted to sleep with a black girl so he could tick it off his list, and my younger sister tells me that boys her age have a bet on who can ‘get with a black girl’. In fact, she and her white boyfriend regularly experience racism from their own age group due to their interracial relationship, so this issue is not limited to older generations who may be stuck in their ways.

I have had more subtle comments, which are bred out of ignorance more than racism, such as being told ‘I always wanted a brown baby’, or being told I looked a bit ‘Avatar’ at a Braveheart fancy dress party – I mean it was clearly Braveheart but I guess as I had blue facepaint on and black features I must be Avatar. I struggle with social situations anyway but I remember being so upset that we left early and I cried for hours.

Fancy dress situations generally are a source of anxiety for me, as I never know if someone is going to black up. There is usually a float with people who have black faces at the annual Cornish carnivals. I remember once that my aerobics instructor wanted everyone to dress up for charity and he decided to do black face. I never really felt the same about him after that.

During the holiday season, I regularly get asked if I am on holiday; I’ve come to expect it now.

I have been told on several different occasions, by a white person, how they are ‘more black’ than I am, or had remarks make about how ‘not black’ I am. Sometimes ‘black’ is replaced with ‘gangster’.

Conversation often turns to skin colour (not always a bad thing, but it can be tiring) and I regularly get asked where I am from … “yes but where are you really from?”.

My white family members tell me that people sometimes use racist language/air racist views around them, obviously feeling they are in like-minded company as they are all white – they do challenge these people but it’s disheartening all the same.

I have experienced racism from people in positions of power and authority- such as my teacher as mentioned above, and after the birth of my first child: he had a birthmark that looked like a bruise called a Mongolian blue spot, which I learnt is caused by pigment within the skin and common in mixed-race babies. When I consulted my midwife about this she actually asked me if his father was ‘coloured’. In fact, whilst I was in labour, a different midwife had attended who was quite unpleasant and at one point went on a tirade to my mum (who was my birth partner) about poor people and single parents. I have experienced quite a few negative interactions like this where the conversation is hostile and turned towards issues such as class, or people moving into Cornwall from ‘up country’ and taking ‘our houses’, rather than being openly racist. These views, in my opinion, often go hand in hand with racism. I actually have negative social interactions far more often than my white mother, or my husband who is also white.

I’ve had the same conversation with two of my children when they were around 4 or 5 where they suddenly noticed that I had darker brown skin than they did. For a while, my daughter would regularly tell me she wished she had straight hair like her friends at school and she talks a lot about her skin being brown, “but lighter brown than your skin mummy”. We talk a lot about race at home and I make sure to surround my children with lots of racially diverse images/films/music/art etc. but it can be hard to have a positive self-image when there is no one who looks like you in your community.

At times the racism has come from within my own family. At my maternal grandmother’s funeral a cousin, who I had not seen for many years, and who is admittedly not the brightest tool in the box, could not grasp that we shared the same blood through our grandma’s line. He and certain other family members have also spoken out in support of the BNP and used racial slurs in the past.

These are just a few examples of racism I have experienced and I know I am not alone. Talk to any black or brown person in Britain and I’m sure they can list similar examples. But it’s not all bad, seeing the photos of people taking to the streets and protesting for the Black Lives Matter movement filled me with pride and hope. I hope that even after the media move onto the next hot topic of discussion and #blacklivesmatter is no longer trending that people continue to stand up to racism.

The last couple of weeks have placed a spotlight on the racism present in the UK – you don’t have to look far to find the racist and ignorant comments online. Now, more than ever, we need white people to be our allies and continue to educate themselves and their children on race issues. In the words of Angela Davis: “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist. We must be anti-racist.” Now is not the time to be sitting idly- we need to educate ourselves and others.

White people, at times you might feel uncomfortable – maybe you have been someone who has been a perpetrator of racism without meaning to. Use that discomfort you’re feeling, acknowledge it, and educate yourself and your children. Use your privilege to speak up and make a difference.

Thank you so much, Chloe.


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