Louise Cooper – 28th February 2021
It’s not easy being mixed-race, you get held up as an exotic symbol of how far society has come. Britain can’t really be that racist surely? Human bridges to unite divided sides. A living balm on a fractured surface. The reality is, you can receive racism from both “sides”. You can often feel like you do not fit in anywhere, including your extended family…and you can’t simply seek out other mixed-race comrades – we really are a mixed bunch and sometimes we are hard to find. This is not just about colour; this is about identity.
I am mixed-race, born to a White-British mother and Mauritian father (tiny island off coast of Africa). I’m also rather pale all things considered, and despite my dark hair and olive skin could easily fall into the bracket of “white-passing”. To some, this means I have “white-passing privilege”.
I grew up in Oldham. Oldham, a little sister Cottonopolis to Manchester, but an industrial boomtown in her own right. Oldham once had a certain Winston Churchill as her MP. Red-brick chimneys, wild moors, back-to-back terraces and salt-of-the-earth folk. At her height, Oldham was producing more cotton than France and Germany. In the 1950’s and 60’s Commonwealth citizens came to assist in keeping the spindles turning, thus Pakistani and Bangladeshi pockets began to form amongst those little terrace streets. And then it was over…decay, destitution and survival instinct, bred resentment and racial tension. Taking firm root as “them and us”; a scene sadly played out in many a northern town.
Growing up in Oldham as a white-passing person of colour was infinitely easier. So yes, white passing privilege box ticked. I could assimilate nicely amongst white working-class pubs and clubs of my youth. But I was scared…scared of being “found out”. The casual, overt racism I so often heard went unchallenged through my silence. I never stood up for fear of being discovered as a pale-faced imposter. It was nearly always directed towards the Asian community of Oldham. So, my “white-privilege” was being able to listen in… a privilege at a personal cost. The words, the bile, the venom seeped in and did their damage.
I was mostly alright, if the truth did come out my hard-to-pronounce surname usually gave me away (can we untick that box yet?). Mauritius was tropical, a luxury honeymoon destination. Some people could tell straight away and well, my Dad often gave me away. I was on the receiving end of some nasty racist abuse (always P**i). I also witnessed an appalling racist act against my lovely Dad. And my Auntie and Uncle were victims of an abhorrent attack against their home. It has left me scarred and I have only started to talk about these events in the last few years… that’s over 25 years of silence. I am not able to write about them here.
Hiding my heritage was easy, as I often resisted buying-into it myself. I am ashamed now, but I was embarrassed when my Dad spoke his primary language (Beautiful French Creole, that I cannot speak because I didn’t want to learn), embarrassed that Aunties and Uncles wore non-Western clothes; never telling anyone they were Muslims. Why? Because I heard people talk about such people as “foreign”, not like “us”, not “British”. Of course, back then I was “half-caste” which was perfectly acceptable at the time and how I would describe myself, which I can’t quite believe now.
But I must say here, the vast majority of my childhood was trouble-free. I had loving family and good friends; race was rarely a thing with my friends. My goodness, how easy I had it compared to others I knew and have met in my life to date. In school there were no real issues I can recall, and I loved all stages of my education. Things got more and more diverse and studying History at Manchester University was the cherry on a well-mixed cake.
I lived in a nice, almost entirely White-British estate. Dad was accepted, as people were nice and “decent” ….…. but when the BNP came canvassing on our estate, knocking on our front door, I knew deep-down they must have felt there was political ground to be won on our doorsteps. The anxiety would set-in. That weird hot feeling in your face and that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach…
The issue was, in Oldham, there are whole different societies operating, whole worlds even and those worlds just did not mix. Secondary schools were segregated by ethnicity, streets, postcodes even. You could quite easily stay in your bit and live a nice quiet life with “no trouble”. My secondary school was in the middle of an Asian area and the “white tr*sh” comments came as I walked to the bus. Yet I also had “P**i” screamed at me from a car once. On the plus side, Dad was always able to go to the Asian Halal butchers on the Coppice estate and get the best lamb chops……what kind of privilege shall we label that?
Racial tension was never far from the surface in the more deprived areas of Oldham. There were areas that would be “no-go” for different ethnic groups. It was a tinder box; everyone knew it and the 2001 riots were no surprise, but the ferocity of the violence was truly shocking. Anyone else count burnt-out cars on their way to their Saturday job in town…or was that just me? Nevertheless, we were safe, as we did not live near the location of the rioting. But I felt more scared than ever. It divided Oldham further. Where did someone like me, fit in?
I do not live in Oldham now. Or rather I chose not to. I still love her and will never deny where I am from, though my accent won’t budge and betrays me every time anyway.
And what about now? Well now I am out-and-proud. If you can’t tell I’m mixed- race, you will soon be told. But why? Because it’s so much easier to have a voice as a well-educated adult. I have nothing to lose by calling out racism. I have the power to call it out, walk away.
As an educator and as a senior leader I have a platform; a sphere of influence and that is my absolute privilege. I do not and should not have the “power” to force people think a certain way, but I do seek a “power” in the sense of producing an effect; acceptance, inclusion, and equity. A nicer world for our young people.
There is much work to be done.
More on the Oldham riots can be found here:
How Covid-19 has exacerbated racial tension in Oldham:
A recent Sky report paints a bleak picture of child poverty in Oldham (Feb 2021):