Life as a Baited Bear

My experience of racist bullying and PTSD growing up in Britain

Right now I’m crying. I’m crying over scenes happening on the other side of the world. I feel sick and panicked. I feel helpless and furious. Why should I be crying because of a bunch of ignorant fascist thugs proudly proclaiming their racist jingoistic ideology on the streets of London today? Why not just shrug and ignore them? After all, they’ve always been there. Why ruin my day, my husband’s day over a group of stupid nasty bigots on the other side of the pond? Tune them out, forget about them, move on to the next thing.

Except I can’t. Every time I see those faces, those gurning, leering sneers I know so well or hear those vicious bitter chants filled with hate I go back in time. I go back to when those same faces, those same voices were targeted at me. Targeted day in, day out. A permanent ringing in my ears, a pounding in my head. A presence I could no more ignore than if I’d been beaten with a stick, which I sometimes think might have been preferable. There was always a distance, an otherness. I wasn’t invited around for tea like the other kids were. Little comments, funny looks. Sitting on my own in the playground. Teachers always saying my name wrong. But it was in Year 4 that it became something else. We weren’t allowed to move seats during the school year, so once my colour became a target there was no escape. I was nothing more or less than a baited bear, chained to hot coals and dancing in agony for the amusement of the audience. Constant, relentless persecution. If I didn’t react, they pushed harder. If I did, they laughed and started again. No respite, no way out. All day and every day.

I stopped sleeping. I became sick with the fear of what awaited me the next day. I sat at the foot of my bed praying all night for it to stop, for something to happen, anything that would free me. I still have that raging, painful insomnia. I binge-ate chocolate for just a moment of distraction from the sheer misery of my life. I hated myself. Every time I looked in the mirror all I saw was my brown skin – the disgusting thing that made me different, the thing I couldn’t change. The marker of my grotesque otherness I would have to carry with me for the rest of my life. I was terrified. And I wasn’t wrong to be. It never let up. I got used to my daily dose of being called gross and hideous. I internalised that no one would ever love me because I was so dark and ugly. I expected to be referred to as poo if it was a good day, otherwise worse. Of course I could never have a boyfriend. Obviously I’d have to take the odd punch. Anyone who spoke to me risked guilt by association. I was pitifully grateful for the few manipulative, abusive pseudo-friendships I had.

How can you grow a sense of self-worth when the root of your soul is constantly being pissed on? How can you believe in yourself when everyone around you is telling you that you don’t deserve to be alive? How can you love yourself when your ugliness is shoved in your face every day? And how can you possibly fight against the smug pervasive certainty, the confidence, the absolute cast-iron self-assurance emanating from all of your assailants and their silent allies that they are one hundred per cent in the right? There is no room for argument, no space for dissent – they know in their hearts and their minds that they are right to hate you because, after all, you have dark skin. You are the one who is different, who is other, who is therefore inherently lesser. They know it, so it must be true.

When I see images of proud British racists, I see those same faces 30 years later. They’re probably in the crowd. No one has told them they’re wrong. Quite possibly no one ever will. They are the beating heart of racist Britain-undiminished, unsilenced and triumphantly enjoying themselves. They still believe that people like me are worth nothing. Me crying about it isn’t going to stop them, but sometimes I can’t stop myself. Because their attitude stretches beyond the bullish neo-Nazi minority. They are enabled by the middle-class British establishment that has successfully kept ethnic minorities at arm’s length, limited our participation in arts and culture, kept us off the national curriculum and ensured that we have enough visibility to pay lip service to diversity without ever having to change anything. Racism in the UK is so structurally embedded that when the thugs rear their ugly heads the establishment shrugs and ignores them. They refuse to acknowledge that they are merely the head of the snake, because to do so would flag their own complicity. The children who did those things to me weren’t just the kids of NF extremists. They were the kids of doctors, lawyers and journalists. And they were all in it together-the great equalising act of bullying the brown kid. Oh, and don’t even get me started on the complicity and latent prejudice of the teachers. And if you think that things are better now, think again. Look around you. The white British stranglehold on everything from history to fashion may be being questioned right now, but in a few weeks when this all dies down how many kids will there be being told that they don’t belong in Britain?

13th June 2020

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