Have you ever experienced racism, unfair situations with the police, lack of education in Jewish schools/community?
by Michael Mullings
I was asked to make a statement on the current state of affairs with regard to BLM. My first thought was “I don’t want to offend anyone, as it may ruin my position of privilege in a wonderfully warm community”. Luckily, I very quickly came to my senses. I realized that I had been given a platform to speak out. The kind of platform that many people around the world have been protesting for and I would be remiss in my responsibility as a member of society, if I didn’t take the opportunity presented to me.
The following is a short exploration of my experiences as a black man growing up in the UK. I will attempt to remain neutral and speak about the instances from a perspective of objectivity. I offer my apologies in advance where the incredulity of the situation makes me stray into opinion. I will also avoid mentioning detail of specific situations so as to preserve the identity of the parties involved.
My experiences can be summarized in three stages; as a young person, as a young adult and as a man.
As a young person (12 – 18)
The first time that I had an idea that being black was a problem was when I was 12 years old. We moved into a new house on the right side of the road and an elderly woman shouted at us “You don’t belong here, go away!” Initially, I thought that this was the remonstrations of a senile individual who was non compis mentis. It was only later that I realized that she meant get out of the country. Up until that point my mother had done a sterling job keeping my siblings and I away from prejudice. We were given private ballet lessons, art lessons, music lessons all to keep our minds and time occupied. My teenage years past mostly without major incident. There were a few minor incidents of parents not wanting their daughter to date me and being told that I was ‘unsuitable’ for specific courses. I had a good friend that attended Highgate boys private school. I would often eat at his family house [I later found out that it is very important to parents of private school boys that their sons have at least one black friend. This enables him to appear ‘worldly’]. As I transitioned from young boy (12-15) into a young man (16-18), there were a number of unsavory incidents. It may seem terribly pragmatic, but I find listing them to be the easiest way to express them;
1. I was chased out of a girlfriend’s house with a baseball bat as her dad shouted racial slurs. He had returned from the pub early, she had only told him my name and he naturally assumed I was white – this happened so much I felt compelled to tell people that I was black when I met them, so they were forewarned.
2. After playing football, was chased by 4 boys in a car and they attempted to throw white paint on me.
3. I was stopped and searched leaving a famous department store as the manager said ‘I looked like I couldn’t afford anything there’.
4. After losing my wallet, the police refused to let me have it back until I had been fingerprinted and my background checked.
5. Was stopped by the police sitting in the passenger seat of my girlfriend’s car as they asked her “are you OK? Do you know this man?” – This was truly ridiculous.
6. Booked a relaxing holiday with my girlfriend, went out to buy water and was refused entry back into the hotel as they didn’t believe I had a booking there.
These are 6 examples of things that would happen to me on a regular basis. All of them were personally humiliating and would often serve to rob me of any dignity. My mental health started deteriorating and my self-image was reduced to nothing. I was faced with an existence that was one of constantly having to prove to people that I was; not a threat, intelligent and of value. I would dread meeting new people because it would mean having to go through the ‘questions’ which were humiliating by their very nature. Not to mention the prejudice statements from ‘well-wishers’: “you speak so well”, “Your English is really good” or my personal favorite “you’re just like a white man”.
As a young adult (18 – 28)
Being a young, black adult in the UK was a very challenging endeavor. Having grown taller, I naturally qualified for renewed and more obvious forms of discrimination. Again, the list is to aid in my expression of particular events;
1. Being stopped and searched more times than can be justified. Always under the same reasoning: “you look like someone we are looking for”. The hardest thing about a stop a search is that, even though you know you are innocent, you feel the eyes of people looking at you as if you are guilty.
2. Being prevented entry to my flat building because one of the residents didn’t think I lived there. She called the police and I was not allowed to enter my flat until the police had come and gone. No apology issued.
3. I was refused entry to a science exhibition with my classmates as the receptionist didn’t believe that I was on a science course.
4. I was stopped at an airport by a passenger who wanted to look through my bags because she thought they looked similar to hers.
5. I was prevented from entering a lift by a group of men who ‘didn’t trust’ me.
6. I was prevented from entering a gym, even though I had a pass, because the receptionist said that I didn’t look like an ‘executive’ member.
7. I was once stopped 3 times on the same day in the same area by three different police patrols. I asked them to take a selfie so that they can send around their whatsapp group so I could be on time for the family wedding. I was late by 30 minutes.
8. Was prevented from picking up a parcel using my credit card, even though the gentleman before me had no ID and was given his parcel.
9. Was robbed at gun-point by police in Mexico who targeted black tourists as they knew that they could get away with it.
10. When playing sport, I was told that my job was to ‘run up and down’ the pitch because, in my coach’s words ‘you people are supposed to be good at running’.
This is but a drop in the proverbial ocean of my experiences with the police and wider society. There is one thing that each of these incidents have in common: they rob you of your self-worth and value. An individual can be left feeling worthless, dismissed and generally broken – it is maybe a factor that accounts for the disproportionate number of mental health conditions in the black community. As a young adult, I began to build a picture of my reality and it made depressing viewing. It seemed that, any way I looked at it, I was screwed. I am judged by people that don’t know me, the judgement affects my prospects, I have a number of stereotypes associated to me and hence I must take extra care not to appear to fit them e.g. I must be calm at all times because they have been conditioned to believe that I am aggressive, violent or angry. I can’t even have a peaceful relationship because, even though I know my partner loves me, I wouldn’t want to put her family through the challenge of having a black partner. I remember telling women that I couldn’t date them because, even though we were really compatible, I couldn’t face the family dinners with the constant questions or the persistent justification that some parents seemed to think that my presence warranted e.g. “He’s actually quite intelligent”.
As an adult (28 – 33)
Being an adult black man is an interesting experience. I often elicit stunned looks and standoffish behavior until I open my mouth. Once I start talking I can see people visibly relax as if to say “Ah, he’s actually one of the good ones”. It’s quite interesting to watch the complete 180 people do sometimes when they meet me. I have long since come to the realization that I appear threatening – close and trusted people tell me. I ask them why and they shrug mostly and attribute it to my size. A remarkable feat on my part – I used to be really slim so I’m glad that I was able to progress in one area of my life. Another interesting experience was becoming a dad. I remember the looks I would get when I would push my daughter around or carry her in a harness. It seemed as if I had gone from a threat to the most desirable person. This was really weird for me. For the first time in a long time, I wasn’t persona non grata. I must admit I did milk it as having my daughter with me was a blessed relief from the usual society driven personal onslaught of scared glances, clutched handbags and people crossing the road when they saw me walking toward them. My final list of experiences include some of the experiences of my family, my closest friends and experiences in the Jewish community. I am sharing to highlight that my experiences are not unusual;
1. Whilst working in a private school as a rugby coach, the parents would often thank the coach of the opposition and all other white adults on the day and ignore me. This happened at a number of schools across the borough. My friend offered me the explanation “they are just not comfortable with you yet”.
2. Getting followed around most supermarkets by security guards. My mum was followed so often at M&S that she is now really good friends with the security guard and he comes over for Christmas dinner.
3. When entering Israel, my sister’s friend walked straight through customs and my sister was subjected to 35 minutes of questioning.
4. A good friend of mine was promoted at his firm to financial controller. At the next staff party, one of the MD’s said to him “don’t worry, if it doesn’t work out you can always go back to the zoo”. He left the company the next week.
5. Three of my close friends left a prestigious accounting firm as they were tired of promotions being denied them and being given to younger, less experienced individuals.
6. Countless occasions of individuals in retail greeting customers with a smile and greeting me with a frown.
7. Being stopped by police in Munich and being asked to see passports.
8. A gentleman once approached a partner of mine and asked her “what do you see in him? What do your parents think and what was wrong with white men?”
A question I get asked regularly is “have I experienced racism in the community”. In short – yes. However, there is a huge caveat. My general experience of the community has been such that I sometimes have to remind myself that I am black; whatever that means. I have never experienced the level of acceptance and warmth from any community in comparison; including the black community. I feel so well accepted that I often feel agoraphobic whenever I need to foray into wider society. I find myself less and less desirous to be in the company of wider society, owing mostly to my overwhelmingly negative experiences there. As a Jew of colour, I often elicit the most curious of looks from aspects of the wider society. I can almost hear the imaginary cogs turning as they attempt to reconcile all of their prejudices in a desperate attempt to fit me into their understanding of the world. The bigots provide an altogether different, and yet more enjoyable, pastime. It brings me great joy to watch them seethe as they battle to decide which part of me they hate most. This being said, I have experienced a few incidents of blatant racism in the community. I was once at a lunch and a young child was shouting at me calling me the S word. At a seuda, I was called the same thing by a young man. The majority of the other incidents involve a lack of knowledge about my identity. I come to understand that, for security reasons, the community can be very suspicious and hence if I a refused entry to Shul on Shabbat, if I am locked in a Shul that I have been given entry to by security or if I am followed around a supermarket shop, it is because the community are security conscious. I was walking home one night and I was stood outside the place I where I was staying and a man appeared out of his house and he was staring at me and on the phone (to shomrim I later found out). He came up to me and asked me why I was standing here and I told him that I lived here and then he invited me to lunch on Shabbat! In another experience, I was sitting in my parked car waiting for my wife to return from the shop and I noticed a man taking pictures of me in my car. I asked him what he was doing and he asked me what I was doing parked for so long. I told him I was waiting for my wife and when he found out who she was, it transpired that they had gone to FZY together.
For the most part, I feel welcome, protected and accepted in the community. However, I acknowledge that I am in a privileged position. Many people in the black community are not in my position. They are not given the opportunity to have a platform with people that want to hear what they have to say. They are not given the opportunities to speak about their experiences. Most black people suffer in silence as they have no means of being heard. I am thankful to be given the opportunity to share my experiences to an open-minded and supportive community and I hope that others in wider society will emulate the example demonstrated in the community to show acceptance, respect and warmth.
My non BAME friends often ask me “what can I do?” They tell me that they feel guilty and it makes them feel embarrassed about something of which they have little control. I tell them that, whilst I’m not an expert in such things, I feel that are some things that can be done to help move the situation forward. I have compiled the list of suggestions that I tell my friends;
1. Don’t feel guilty when I am telling you how I feel – I am not blaming you, I am just explaining my limitations.
2. Please don’t tell me how I feel – statistics may support your point but I am the one feeling so let me feel.
3. Please don’t stay silent – don’t feel like you are not allowed to talk about it because you are not black.
4. Acknowledge your privilege – most of my friends will now tell me things like “I’ll book the AirBnB because they’ll probably not accept you”. It is not about being guilty; it is about understanding that you have a privilege that I don’t have.
5. Reflect on your views – check to see if you have any prejudices.
6. Call out the racist views – if you hear a family member or a colleague being racist, call them out on it.
I am grateful for the opportunity to share my experiences and I am confident that society can take a step closer to true equality.