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Pardon my pessimism

Updated: Jun 21, 2021

Hussein Hussein - CAPE Mentors - June 16th 2020

I was 11 years old when I first knowingly experienced racism. It was the summer holiday of 1999 and my good friend, Jermaine, had suggested we play in the park in Shellgrove estate. The game was simple. Swing on the swings, jump off, and then land without hurting yourself. We named it ‘parachutes’, after the plastic bags we wore on our backs with the hope of softening our landing.

On route to the park, a group of adults stopped us. They pressed us up against the estate’s coarse redbrick walls. They identified themselves as police officers. I breathed a sigh of relief. Obviously, there had been a mix up and they would apologise for their actions before letting us get to our game.

“We’ve had reports of a gang of black boys committing robberies in the area.” One said.

The word gang confused me. Numerically, I did not understand how two people could constitute a gang. It made no sense to me. I was tiny; a particularly skinny child with a fully developed man head. I looked so unthreatening. I resembled a toy discarded at a car boot sale more than I did a gangster. If they did not notice this, my response should have revealed they had made a mistake.

“Can I get my mum?” I naively asked. I was confused and knew she would be able to fix this.

“There’s no need for that, this shouldn’t take long.”

Though we knew what was happening was wrong, we complied. As children, particularly children of a working-class background, you learn to do what people in power tell you to do.

Those minutes, as an eleven-year-old pressed up against a redbrick wall with plain-clothed officers patting me down, rummaging around in my pockets and taking my name and address, served as my sharp introduction to racism.

I grew to understand this was just part of being black. While the glare of white privilege prevented the world from seeing racism, those of us within the black community were left to self-medicate our continuous and relentless suffering.

As a kid, I was tackled by my friend’s father, as he saw me riding his son’s scooter and thought I was a ‘thug’ who had robbed his child. My former English teacher renamed me Mohamed, when I corrected her, she grew frustrated and to the amusement of my class asked, “so what are you then?”. A professor, who could not believe I attended Sussex University, asked me to show him my ID when he saw me walk past his office. A few doors from my house, keys in hand, I was surrounded by police and put in cuffs for a stop and search. I was assured they meant no offence; they could just tell I “looked fast” and did not want to risk me getting away. When working in the city, a former boss pulled me aside to tell me, she knew I was ‘hardcore’, and that I would need to stop talking ‘street’ and cut off my plaited hair if I wanted to do well. This is just the highlight reel. My top-five racisms.

Racism is forced upon us, in plain sight of the white world: experiential experts in racism they chose not to see. Whenever I attempted to call it out, I would face a compelling argument to demonstrate that, in fact, I misunderstood what had happened. Hussein, do you not see how it could have looked like you robbed his son? Hussein, it was an innocent mistake lots of people are called Mohamed. Hussein, is it a big deal the professor asked to see ID? Hussein, stop and search keeps our streets safe. Hussein, when you work you need to be professional.

So, the past few weeks have left me conflicted. I am relieved that the world has finally acknowledged racism exists, but I am deeply troubled that it took a nine-minute video of George Floyd being lynched for our cries to finally be heard.

The response thus far seems insincere. When it was hard and difficult the world was silent. But now the tide has turned, it is convenient to declare a newfound voice against racism. So, white world, my question to you is what are you willing to do? Attend a protest? Attend two protests? Compose a monologue on your social media platforms denouncing inequality? Create a cute video, slogan, and hashtag ?‘Check in’ on us?

These gestures are not the tonic for our pain. Now is not the time for orthodox solutions. If you truly want to show that black lives matter, we need those of you benefitting from the status quo to share your power and resources as quickly as you have been willing to post black squares and hashtags. We need you to be as angry and as passionate as you are now, six months down the line. We need you to shine a light on our institutions so bright there is no place for racism to hide. Time will tell if all your gestures have been genuine, then, as now, to be silent is to be complicit.

While the tide may be turning, recent history tells me that us within the black community have more pain to endure on our long road to equality. Our government has terrible form when it comes to putting action to words. We clapped for NHS workers, to then see an immigration bill pass that will contest many of their rights to residence. We pushed for an inquiry into our community’s increased rate of death to COVID-19, to then see it withheld because of the ‘current global climate’ and the most damning aspects of the report left out altogether. We saw Theresa May apologise for the treatment of the Windrush generation, to then see a further 17 people deported to Jamaica two years later.

I hope the world’s response to George Floyd’s death proves to be the beginning of profound structural transformation. Until then, please pardon my pessimism.

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