Since the death of George Floyd, I’ve been asked many times by friends and colleagues to articulate my feelings around his killing and the protests which followed. Sometimes it’s hard to gauge just how honest I can be.
It’s been heartening to see such solidarity in the thousands of people of all races marching together in predominantly peaceful protests across the world. But it has also been difficult to acknowledge on a daily basis as this story has unfolded, just how far we still have to go in eliminating the politics of race. I'm still surprised by how many people I know believed up until a few weeks ago that racism was a thing of the past.
As a mixed race woman, I'm aware I represent a safe space for white people, as well as black people I know, to have frank discussions about race. I’ve had some uncomfortable conversations with my white friends who are shocked and saddened by the death of Floyd, but also bewildered by the the need for marches across the UK in the height of a pandemic and at statues being toppled when slavery happened centuries ago.
They look genuinely alarmed when I point them to the statistics which show racism is very much a thing of the present; black women five times as likely to die in childbirth; black graduates twice as unlikely be in full time employment and black students three times more likely to be excluded from school. The list goes on.
When Lewis Hamilton spoke this weekend about his own experiences with ‘implicit’ racism and never feeling ‘British enough’ I'm sure there were many around the country like me nodding their heads with recognition. The thing is, it's difficult to understand just how subtle but pervasive racism is in the UK unless you've experienced it for yourself.
Like Hamilton, I have a white mother and black father and having observed the contrasting ways my parents were seen and treated by the outside world I have been acutely aware of racism from an early age.
My father came to the UK aged 19 after signing up to the British army in Barbados, a former British colony. After travelling around the world with his regiment serving this country, he trained to be a typewriter engineer in London and met my mother – a teacher. They set up home in North London in the 70s and socialised with other mixed race couples – some who had escaped apartheid in South Africa – and were highly politically aware. Racism, feminism and civil rights were regular discussion topics around the dinner table.
I grew up witnessing the openly hostile way my father was treated in shops where he was followed around by security. He easily received interviews for jobs because his name – David Thompson – looked ‘white’, but got used to being told the job had gone as he walked through the door. At work, some colleagues called him ‘n** n**’ and being taunted with racist insults in the street when he went out with black friends was par of the course. He casually brushed such incidents off, they were just part of life.
When our family ever ventured out of London, the stark reality of racism became even clearer. On family holidays driving around Cornwall, my brother and I silently watched the familiar routine as my mother would get out of the car to inquire at Bed and Breakfast hotels if they could accommodate a family of four. It was unspoken, but we knew why dad never went in himself.
Today, the UK has more mixed race couples than anywhere in Europe, with a survey last week revealing that the vast majority of Brits – 89 per cent – would be happy for their child to marry someone from another ethnic group. I see this as a positive sign, but when my parents met, mixed marriages were rare. Their own parents were concerned about the prospect of bringing children into the world that were neither one race or another, but my brother and I were encouraged to embrace both sides of our culture. I duly ticked the ‘mixed race’ box on forms, but, like many mixed race people, I came to identify as black, because I knew it was how I would always be viewed by the world.
I’m lucky that I was raised to believe I could achieve whatever I wanted but my father always cautioned – like many parents of black children – that I would need to work twice as hard and keep my head down to succeed. Today, my job as editor-in-chief of Marie Claire could be seen as an example of someone whose heritage has not been a barrier and growing up I fought fiercely against such limiting beliefs, which I told myself were out-dated.
But I also know that people like me are the exceptions rather than the rule. As an adult, it became clear that there was some truth what Dad had told me as I grew up. When I looked for role models in the media, there were few people who looked like me and headlines about black people were rarely positive stories of success unless we were sportsmen or musicians.
Being half half black, half white, I felt able to float between racial groups but in doing so, I observed stark differences. When out in the world with black friends as a teenager, I was always aware of subtle expectations that you were going to cause trouble – especially if there were boys with us. There were refusals to clubs and bars for seemingly no reason at all, and the reality of being flagged down by police when out in a car. These things just didn't happen with my white friends.
Sadly the statistics paint a bleak picture. In the UK, black people make up 4 per cent of the population but 8 percent of those who have died following or during police custody in the past decade. This suggests that black people are twice as likely to die in custody but the figures point to a deeper problem. Once in custody, they are actually less likely to die (of the 163 people who died in custody over the past decade, 140 were white). However, black people are more than twice as likely to be in custody to start with (making up 9% of all the people arrested in the UK over the same period). In London the reality of being a black man is being four times as likely to be stopped and searched as you go about your day.
Today, I have two sons with my white partner. My eldest James, now 8, has blond hair, blue eyes and when he was a baby I was often confused for the nanny. His brother, Alexander, is five and has slightly darker skin, darker and curlier hair and as a second generation of mixed race children I wonder how their heritage and experience will differ to mine.
I have worked hard to inform them about where they come from and pass on my passions. British culture has produced great artists, writers and poets, and I am proud to call myself British. But it is also important for them, and all British children, to know about slavery and the value system it left behind which has shaped our cultural beliefs about black people today. Perhaps if my generation had been taught about this at school, there would be more understanding about why certain statues provoke such deep feelings today.
My boys have watched transfixed as the news has unfolded in recent weeks. "Why would a policeman kill that brown daddy?" my 5 year old said yesterday of the most recent footage that flashed up on screen featuring Rayshard Brooks. I admit I was lost for words, trying to explain.
These days, I may not experience the outright racist comments in my own life that I did at the start of my career (when a colleague joked ‘oh, we’ve never had one of you before’ in my first day at a new job). Things have moved on (people wouldn’t use the N word in the workplace, like they did in my father’s day), but that’s not to say casual racism doesn’t exist. When I entered the world of work, I noticed the lack of faces like mine outside the kitchen or cleaning staff and occasionally IT. This is still often the case in many UK companies. The last overtly racist comment I witnessed in a professional setting happened 10 months ago. I felt sad and disappointed.
As a black person, you have a way of coping with these episodes. For the sake of your daily sanity, you quietly park your suspicion that the world is one where you can be seen as an outsider or ‘other’ – even in the country of your birth. You tell yourself that most people don’t care about skin colour, that you’re not a victim, that you can achieve whatever you want if you work hard enough and stay positive; that you should focus on your successes rather than the times when barriers stood in your way.
But then, after three weeks of protests, you are made to confront the issues again. Late at night you find yourself unpicking the events of the day on your news feed and realising they have triggered deep emotions from your past. You see the Prime Minister promising yet another review into the matter and declaring that the culture of ‘victimhood and prejudice’ should be abandoned in favour of ‘promoting black success’ and feel frustrated and totally misunderstood. Black people don’t want to be seen through the lens of victimhood. They just want the disadvantages they have come up against to be recognised and the legacy of these in our society’s structures to be addressed.
The past few weeks have made me consider my racial identity and heritage in a way I haven’t done for years and it's been exhausting. I just hope that when my sons are adults the conversations will have shifted and the sort of protests we’re seeing today will not be necessary. Though, I worry, the past suggests that probably won't be the case.
ANDREA THOMPSON IS EDITOR IN CHIEF OF MARIECLAIRE.CO.UK