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Some Early Personal Experiences of Racist Britain

Growing up in Bristol, a key pivot of the slave trade in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, my first recollection of the manifestations of racism was encapsulated in a childhood saying. The saying, obviously directed at girls, was that ‘if you step on the lines between the stones on the pavement, when you grow up you’ll marry a black man’. I also recall going for a walk with my grandmother, and her pointing out with surprise, ‘look there’s a black man!’.1

A little later in my childhood, I think it the late 1950s, as immigration was increasing, I remember being told (although I do not know whether it was true) that a well-known chain store had a policy of not employing black labour. As a young child, the racist norms of the society must already have affected me. Having seen black women working in Woolworths, I remember thinking that this other popular chain store, known especially for its cheap goods, must be in some way superior because of its operation of this ‘color bar’. About the same time I remember my cousin remarking to me disapprovingly that ‘Jamaicans’ spent more money on their cars than on their homes. At the time it was commonly accepted that black people ate Kit E Kat (a popular cat food) because they knew no different.

At school, in the early 1960s if I recall correctly, I found myself being driven home from school by a medical doctor, who happened to be the father of a friend. As we passed near St. Pauls, an area with a long-standing black population, he told me that that was where the ‘jungle bunnies’ live.

© The Author(s) 2017

M. Cole, Critical Race Theory and Education, DOI 10.1057/978-1-349-95079-9_1

One of my best friends at college in London in the late 1960s (where I studied for and failed a sociology degree) was a Trinidadian of Asian2 heritage. Our friendship continued as I embarked on a teacher education course at another college. We used to meet up regularly to drink beer and eat curry in a couple of rooms in which I lived in Kew Gardens, in the southwest of London. I remember vividly the reaction of the landlady, on discovering his presence: ‘it’s not right having a black man in a white house’. When challenged, she responded by stating, ‘it’s not so bad him being in your kitchen, but I do object to cleaning the toilet after him’ (we had our own kitchen, but shared the toilet with the landlady).

By the 1970s, I was teaching in a primary school in Ladbroke Grove, in west London, determined that I would use my role as a teacher to challenge racism, and all the other inequalities that, as a Marxist educator, I had decided was one of my main goals. The opening remarks about my final year primary class (ten to eleven year olds) from the Deputy Head before my first meeting with the class was ‘you won’t get anything out of them’. Determined to prove her wrong, I decided to change the order of things somewhat. During morning assembly, the (overwhelmingly) African-Caribbean children were forced by the Head to sit cross-legged on the floor and to listen to western classical music, while the Deputy Head moved around the hall and coerced them into order and silence. I insisted that on the first day at the school (I was employed by the Inner London Education Authority on an enhanced salary to work temporarily in schools that were having difficulty retaining staff) that I would not teach the whole class, but would meet all the children, either individually or in pairs. At these meetings, several were surprised that we had a mutual interest in reggae music. I suggested to some of them that they bring in some records the following day. One of the first deals I negotiated with my class on that day was that, if we worked through the day, we could play some reggae in our classroom at the end of the afternoon.3 Some months after I started teaching, six of the children’s poems were published in the popular and highly respected community newspaper, West Indian World. Some poems were about nostalgia for Dominica, the country of origin of most of the children; others were angry tirades against the racism and class exploitation in their lives. One of the many things that sticks in my mind is a girl of Dominican origin in my class telling me that there were too many rats in her flat, and about the white man who drove round every Friday in his Rolls Royce to collect the rent.

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