By Hesketh BenoitMarcia RiggWeyman BennettZita Holbourne
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Growing up with racism in Britain

This article is over 11 years, 10 months old
The threat posed by racists on the streets and fascists at the ballot box shows that racism has not gone away. Zita Holbourne, Weyman Bennett, Hesketh Benoit, Marcia Rigg and Assed Baig discuss their experience of racism and how to fight back.
Issue 351

“Let’s tackle the roots of racism” – Zita Holbourne

Growing up in 1970s London, I was viewed as a strange phenomenon by many. Frequently my mother was told to “go back home” and called a “wog”. People tried to apply labels to me and called me “half caste”, “half breed”, “half pint”. Some didn’t know what my race was but knew they disliked me because of the way I looked and called me “Paki”, “Greek girl” and “Chinese girl”.

I remember being fearful of the Sunday market trips my mum took me on because we had to pass by the National Front (NF). I couldn’t understand then why mum insisted we walk past them but it was a lesson I took with me into adult life – refuse to be driven away or intimidated by racists.

Nazi attack

One night my boyfriend and I were surrounded by ten NF thugs in Trafalgar Square on our way to catch the night bus. They brandished weapons, hurling racist abuse at us. I thought I was going to die that night. I could not believe that in such a crowded place nobody would help us. Then I heard my boyfriend shout out, “These racists are telling us we don’t belong in this country.” Two black men without hesitation took off their belts ready to take the racists on. As a gap formed in the circle I ran. I cried all the way home but then an anger formed inside me – over the incident but also over teachers who treated me like a second class citizen, the careers advisers who said I was only fit to work in a factory, the man who had slammed a door in mum’s face and called her a “wog”, the woman who had spat at us to “go back to the jungle” and all the people who had bullied or discriminated against me. It was a turning point. Malcolm X said, “Usually when people are sad they don’t do anything. They just cry over their condition. But when they get angry, they bring about change.”

I went through a lot more racism, much of it institutional in education and workplaces. I think development of policies and wider awareness of laws meant that people became concerned with the repercussions of being racist. Plus popular culture embraced the music, food and fashions of black people. Slowly we appeared on TV and began to hold prominent positions in all aspects of society. Mixed relationships grew and the NF went quiet. However, under the surface racism was simmering. Racist murders, such as the murder of Stephen Lawrence, uncovered how widespread institutional racism was.

When my son was born I started to really dwell on racism, afraid and saddened for him growing up in a place where young black men were stereotyped, disregarded or even demonised. It became the driving force behind my fight against racism both on a personal level and as an activist. I represented a member in tribunal who had been likened to a caricature of a monkey and the judge asked of the images, “Are they from the Jungle Book?” It took me right back to my childhood and the “You
monkey” and “Go back to the jungle” taunts.

Around the same time, on a local bus one Saturday with my son, we heard chanting. On the upper deck all the passengers – mostly young and black – pressed their faces against the windows only to be greeted by the NF marching and chanting about us. The police surrounding them outnumbered them three to one and I remember thinking that I pay taxes so that racists like them can get police protection to flaunt their fascist views. My son was well clued up on the NF and British National Party, but it was upsetting and I worried about the other children on the bus. I was extremely angry that the nightmares of my childhood were parading themselves in front of these children and in the heavy silence that ensued I wanted to gather them up in my arms.

Looking at the way forward, there is no simple answer. One thing’s for sure: while the right to self-organise and self-determine for black people is essential, equally important is the need for black and white people to work together in the fight against racism, learning from those who have experienced racism first hand.

Fight collectively

We have to dispel the myths, strengthen the unity, fight collectively and, most importantly, invest in our young people. There’s an old African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” We all have a responsibility towards ensuring that they receive the love and guidance they need and are raised to understand, accept and embrace the differences between them. It has to start at pre-school and continue right through. Schools have been teaching that black people began as slaves – as if we had no history before that. The achievements and identities of black people have been written out of the history books in Britain. Every subject on the curriculum must reflect accurately the roles and achievements of black people. While children need to be aware of the past they also need to grow up with pride for their individual cultures plus a shared identity where they are treated as, and see themselves as, equal. Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

We have to tackle the roots of racism or we will continue reacting rather than preventing. We have to break down the barriers that divide us and expose racism. Nobody is born racist. It’s a disease – the longer you leave it, the more it spreads, but if you cut it out when the first signs emerge you have a better chance of curing it. We must be confident and empowered to challenge racism as soon as it rears its head, because each time we ignore it, the racists feel emboldened. We will never cure every single person of racism but we can tackle the roots and make it clear that it will not be tolerated using the tools available to us – not just laws and policies but the goodness of the human heart and our united strength – to overcome.

Zita Holbourne is a member of the TUC race relations committee and joint chair of Black Activists Rising Against Cuts. She is also a member of the PCS national executive, vice-chair of the PCS national equality committee and a (visual) artist and poet.

“We cannot let history repeat itself” – Weyman Bennett

Over the last 30 years we have witnessed enormous changes in racism in Britain. When I was growing up in the late 1970s racism was deeply enshrined. At school one of our arts and crafts teachers had two canes. One was black and the other white, and he would use the appropriate one according to the race of the child he was chastising. I am glad to say we broke into the cupboard where he stored the canes and demolished them in an act of revenge.

That act was a consequence of the fight against racism which dominated much of the 1970s and early 1980s. The question of whether black people were here to stay in Britain had not been fully answered, and Britain changed from a country with a labour shortage to one with mass unemployment.

Today racism is no longer seen as respectable, unlike in the 1950s when people openly claimed that black and Asian people were naturally inferior. In a recent opinion poll only 20 percent of people said that they were prejudiced – a substantial fall. It is important to identify what has changed and the role that integration in schools and workplaces, along with the challenge to racism from trade unions, has played in this.

Now we can see the emphasis shifting from race to religion. This is most noticeable with the rise of Islamophobia. Fascist organisations like the BNP even claim they are not racist, though of course their practice exposes the reality.

Racist and fascist organisations suffered severe defeats in the 1970s and 1980s. The NF, the biggest fascist organisation in Europe, was smashed by the Anti Nazi League and consistent anti-racist struggles. The old biological concepts of racism were partially demolished, so today the targets of anti-immigrant hostility are not necessarily black and those engaged in racism towards Muslims are not automatically hostile to all black Britons. Organisations like the English Defence League (EDL) are willing to accept black and Asian individuals so long as they accept racism towards Muslims.

Islamophobia remains the cutting edge of racism. In 2001 riots provoked by fascists in Oldham, Burnley, Bradford and elsewhere indicated this new chapter. The New Labour government narrative tried to explain the riots in terms of cultural separation, not deprivation, and this developed into a full-blown attack on multiculturalism. The “war on terror” then further intensified Islamophobia.

The gap between the new racism and previous manifestations of racism shouldn’t be exaggerated. It is not an accident that less than a month after the 7 July 2005 bombings in London, black teenager Anthony Walker was murdered in Liverpool because he had a white girlfriend.

People from black and Asian groups are around four times more likely to be unemployed than the white population, despite them having the required skills and qualifications. Poverty rates for ethnic minorities in Britain stand at 40 percent – double the figure for white British people.

Black Power

In the 1960s and 1970s the consequences of the Black Power movement meant that many people blamed the system for producing inequality. Today many Afro-Caribbeans look instead to blame models of family for gun and knife crime, for example. This means the problems are internalised into the black community rather than being seen as rooted in wider society against which we can struggle collectively. This can change, especially against the background of government spending cuts which will affect all groups.

When racist organisations such as the EDL or the BNP have taken to the streets they have been met by overwhelming united resistance by black, white and Asian people. It is this spirit and tradition of an integrated working class that can determine our future.

One of the most convincing factors in my journey to becoming a revolutionary was the experience of unity in the working class. In the aftermath of the Great Miners’ Strike in 1985 there had been rioting in Tottenham, north London, and Winston Silcott was falsely accused of killing PC Keith Blakelock. The newspapers were full of lurid racist stories. But visiting miners’ villages to raise support for the defence campaign I witnessed magnificent solidarity. George, Winston’s brother, received standing ovations in working men’s clubs. Impoverished miners dug deep to give money to the campaign. The riots were seen as class riots against a vicious Tory government and the miners felt solidarity for others they identified as being the same as them.

I was at Hull University then, where there were only three black students, but one thing was absolutely clear to me: socialists were at the forefront of the fight against racism. They occupied banks against apartheid and faced expulsion to stop Enoch Powell coming to our college. I joined them because they were the tribunes of the oppressed but they also had a vision of a world free of racism and oppression. I have never regretted that decision.

Today the growing tide of Islamophobia is reminiscent of the anti-Semitism of the 1930s. We cannot let history repeat itself. The historic coming together of the TUC, the Muslim Council of Britain and hundreds of other organisations for the national Unite Against Fascism demonstration in London on 6 November is a vital chance to derail the racists and the Nazis. We must seize the time to shape the future.

Weyman Bennett is joint convenor of Unite Against Fascism and a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party.

“I saw Union Jacks – I knew to avoid that side of the street” – Hesketh Benoit

My family come from Dominica where dad was a taxi driver and mum was a seamstress. They had four kids in the Caribbean and then another three in Britain. They came here for work, and because they’d been told that “the streets were paved with gold”.

They were frightened to leave the extended family and community support back home, but were strong-willed and determined. They were also apprehensive – letter-writing was really big then, so they’d heard the stories about the racism here, and were prepared for the hostility. However, they were very loyal – every Christmas in Dominica we watched the queen’s speech!


My dad came over first to get work – labouring and then painting and decorating. My mum followed, and the four of us came two by two as they could afford it. It was difficult for my parents to find somewhere decent to live – they saw the signs “No dogs, no Irish, no blacks”. They settled first in Paddington, because that was where the community from Dominica settled and would support newcomers. They lived on friends’ floors, and only brought us over when they had their own room.

I was the fourth child, and lived with my granny until I was four or five. I didn’t want to leave her because she was my mum as far as I was concerned – the first time I remember my parents was when they met us off the boat. We lived on Liverpool Road in Holloway in north London in a shared house. Mum and dad had a room of their own, and the four of us used to top and tail in another room.

I remember my first school in Holloway. There were only about ten black kids in the whole of the school – I was lucky because I had two older brothers and an older sister. I remember the bullying and name-calling – I was called “Sambo”. Mostly it happened in the playground, but the teachers turned a blind eye to it. We were a close family so we used to talk about it at home, but my parents wouldn’t have dreamt of going to the school to complain – the culture in the Caribbean was that you handed your kids over to the school and school rules prevailed. They just taught us that we had to learn to deal with it.

At secondary school I became more conscious of racism, although it was a very mixed school, and when I was in year eight or nine there was an influx of Turkish and Greek kids. Some of my friends were picked on by the teachers, who would characterise the black kids as “uncontrollable”. We were very aware that there were things that the white kids could do that we couldn’t – lunch clubs, after-school activities and extra science classes.

Out of school I was lucky, I had six brothers and we looked after each other, but you knew that there were areas you couldn’t go to, and sometimes you had to run away from the Teds and skinheads. I remember going to Petticoat Lane, and seeing Union Jacks and bulldogs – I knew to avoid that side of the street.

In my teens I became aware of the sus laws. When I was about 14 I saw an elder in the community trying to challenge the police who’d stopped and searched a young man in the street and were roughing him up. The elder man said something like, “Hey, why are you hurting him? He’s not doing anything!” The police response was to say, “What do you know, blackie? What’s it got to do with you?” They radioed, and within a few minutes there were 25 or 30 police all around him; they had him cuffed on the ground with knees in his back.

This made me think about institutionalised racism, and the way racism passes down organisations and from adults to children. If it’s not consciously challenged it can grow unchecked – if you have a school with a head who doesn’t tackle racism it will take hold.

Making a difference

Partly because of this I decided I wanted to go into teaching – to make a difference, and also because it was much harder to get a look into the world of business if you were black. A lot of black people went into the public sector because racism in the private sector was more blatant, and we thought that we’d have more protection because public bodies had a duty to uphold equality laws. We were also encouraged into the public sector through “positive discrimination”. Ironically, because black people are more heavily concentrated in the public sector, we’re being disproportionately hit by the cuts!

Racism is different now – it’s not so open, people can no longer get away with calling you a “black bastard”, but now it’s more covert, and in some ways that makes it harder to deal with. When I read about the disclosure of the BNP membership lists, it really worried me – loads of people with power and influence were members. It’s a bad sign that the country had allowed people like that to get a foothold in the institutions that really make a difference to people’s lives.

My kids (I’ve got three in their late teens and 20s) don’t face the cutting edge of racism like we used to. They’ve been raised in a mixed-race community and from that point of view things are much better. But you don’t see the invisible ceiling that stops black people getting on. I would give everything I own to have a more socialistic society, where there is real equality – we’ve got to build that, for our children and their children.

Hesketh Benoit is a teacher at the College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London, head basketball coach for Haringey and a community activist.

“Another family’s grief, another death in custody” – Marcia Rigg

Marcia Rigg (centre). Photo: Louise Whittle

I was born in Britain in the early 1960s to parents originating from the Caribbean. I recall many stories being told to me by my parents, one of them being that some white people believed black people had tails and would peep through their curtains to see if they could catch a glimpse of their tails!

From the age of about seven I recall being the first and only black girl attending infant school together with one black boy. While I never really received racism directed at me personally by the other children in the school, I experienced their views of black people, which could only have originated from their parents and their peers. This included television and radio using name callings such as “gollywog”, “blackie”, “nignog”, and telling us to “go back to our own country”. For my part and many others, we knew no other country.

For our men it was much tougher: racism was experienced regularly in the workplace and they encountered police brutality. If you were black and on the street, you were likely to be labelled a troublemaker. In the late 1970s and early 1980s the sus law was introduced during which time our fathers, uncles and brothers were being stopped, searched and brutalised by the police simply because they were black.

Some lived to tell the tale but many died at the hands of the police in brutal and
suspicious circumstances, with not one single officer accountable for these deaths. Anger and riots raged across the communities. Working class white men were also on the receiving end of police brutality and death, leaving the strong impression that this was a class issue, not just a black issue. Yet black and ethnic minorities bore the brunt.

There have been well over 2,500 deaths in custody since 1969 in police stations, state prisons and mental health institutions. Black and ethnic minorities have been and are increasingly overrepresented. Why? What has really changed over the last 50 years?

What we certainly do have are past cases and a history of more people dying with no accountability, proving that deaths in custody are a serious matter with little or no acknowledgement and/or change from the British government. Even after families have vigorously and tirelessly campaigned for justice by lobbying, marching and highlighting in the media the horrendous and blatant murders of their loved ones, the state simply continues to cover up and protect the same people who should be protecting us.

Institutionalised racism hits out hard. These custodial institutions can literally get away with murder. Does the British state have a conscience at all? Does it really care about how the community feels? We still have investigations being carried out by the police against themselves, even after arduous campaigning to get the Police Complaints Authority (PCA) scrapped.

The system continues to boast long drawn out investigations to wear families down with officers using the “I can’t recall” tactic. All families are means tested with little or no funding for the inquest and with private criminal prosecutions being almost impossible for families to self-fund. However, the police, prison service and mental health institutions automatically receive free legal representation from the public purse, yet the system only offers a “no case to answer” verdict. Is this not a waste of our resources? The Independent Police Complaints Commission replaced the PCA in April 2004, yet has failed to restore public confidence in its investigations into deaths in custody. Investigations are fashionably biased in favour of the police and the government appear to ignore the evidence of this. In 2010 why are there not cameras in police vehicles? Inside police vans people have testified to being spat at, beaten and abused. Some do not live to tell the tale and the state remains silent.

This must stop. We need a mass campaign – a public outcry. Families need to share the similarities in their individual cases so that the public are fully aware of the serious issues surrounding deaths in custody.

It took the unfortunate suspicious death of my brother, Sean Rigg, a talented musician, on 21 August 2008, for me to fully become aware of this appalling situation. My family have to wait until 2012 for an inquest and have been campaigning for the past two years.

Lies and cover-ups seem to be the system’s game. How much longer should this go on? Should the public put the current system on trial by conducting a “people’s court”? I think yes. We must continue to have faith, hope and unity in our pursuance of justice and put an end to deaths in custody and police brutality. No justice. No peace.

Marcia Rigg is a founder of the Sean Rigg Justice and Change Campaign.

“We need resistance on all fronts” – Assed Baig

Assed Baig

On my first day of secondary school, as I walked through a narrow alleyway between the two school sites used by all the students, an older boy saw me and shouted, “Paki bashing!” He grabbed my head and smashed it off the wooden fence. Distraught and shocked, I saw the head teacher moments later and told him what happened. He told me to come see him later. I did. Nothing happened.

My father had decided to send me to this school because it was majority white. His colonial thinking made him believe that a majority white school would mean a better education for his son and therefore a better chance in life. There were only 12 Asians in the first year. It was acceptable to call people “Pakis” or “bud bud ding dings” and say we smelt of curry. At first I responded to it aggressively – when I was physically attacked I would fight back. This landed me in trouble and I soon found myself on my last warning before I would be suspended. My father, a traditionally strict Kashmiri man, gave me a stark warning: if I was suspended I would be in serious trouble. I could no longer fight back. I still remember the times I was punched in the face, while being called a Paki, and not fighting back out of fear of my father.

Every day we would receive racist abuse. We even used to have a “Paki bashing” day – you can imagine what that entailed. But we were let down by the authorities, and the only time the racism stopped was when we stood up for ourselves. However, the school authorities did not see our actions as a reaction to racism and sometimes we were treated more harshly than those subjecting us to the racism.

Nothing has changed. The police and government do not see the difference between self-defence and racism. Now when we face up to the EDL we are treated the same as them, when there is a major difference.

This indifference comes from a lack of understanding about racism, oppression and the rights of communities to defend themselves or, even worse, a complete lack of empathy with those communities. I believe the police and government do understand, but they just see anti-racists as the problem. The idea goes that if people do not protest then the racists will just go away. This kind of thinking leads to mass oppression and tyranny.

There are also among us black and Asian people who have been bought up in a generation who have lived sheltered lives, who have gone to posh schools and whose education has made them look down on their fellow brothers and sisters. So when Asians defend their streets from fascist thugs they are condemned because they make “us” look bad. When Asians stand up to people calling them Pakis, they are told not to demonstrate as it only makes it worse.

Since 2001 the atmosphere has got worse. Never have I felt so discriminated against, so frustrated and not a part of society: stopped at airports, stared at in train stations and, once again, subjected to people who feel that they can use racist and Islamophobic language, because now it seems like it is backed by the state. When Jack Straw made his comments about the Muslim face veil, immediately I felt the backlash on the streets of Stoke. People drove past shouting “Paki!” Muslims were the centre of attention once again. It has been intense, frustrating and very upsetting. I got rid of my television because I could not bear to watch the news – every day it would be Muslim bashing. There was nowhere to run or hide.

I have debated with racists before. They did not call me Paki but covered their racism in pretentious language. But debating with them gave them the idea that their argument was legitimate. The jokes at school had started with curry, corner shops and taking the piss out of our names; it ended with Paki bashing. We stopped it not by debating, or depending on an establishment that would rather the problem went away – we stopped it by standing up to it and hitting back. Hitting back did not defeat racism. It defeated the violent racist. We need resistance on all fronts; we need to tackle the root causes of racism. This is not done by giving a platform to fascists or condemning those who defend themselves from fascists.

My experiences are not the worst, by any means. I do not want people to feel sorry for me, nor do I want pity. I want people to understand that our experiences shape us and that if you are black or Asian your experiences are going to be very different.

Every time I thought it was too much, I was lucky enough to have the solidarity of comrades in the movement who helped me through – people who stood up to racism and fascism, who stood up to Islamophobia, against war and against the scapegoating of the Muslim community. The effect is immense. When Muslims see white people standing shoulder to shoulder with them and speaking out, it gives them confidence to come out and have their voice heard.

Nothing demonstrates this better than the demonstration in Birmingham against the EDL. Most of the Muslim youth had never been on a demonstration before, but when they saw white, black and Asian people standing up with them the experience left an indelible mark. Wherever the EDL turn up they are faced with local Asians and anti-fascists. This is down to the solidarity the movement has shown to the Muslim community. The only way that we can defeat racism in the future is to once again create an atmosphere where Islamophobia and the new language of racism are deemed unacceptable in wider society.

Assed Baig is an activist and journalist.

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