Residents Against Racism

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Residents Against Racism
Mercedes on her experiences during the Black Lives Matter movement protests & equality in Sutton. Image: Shutterstock.

As a Mixed-Raced girl growing up in multicultural South London, surrounded by my Jamaican family and attending a predominantly Black secondary school, my skin colour was never an issue. I never felt out of place. Fast forward to 2013. I got married and moved to Sutton. I quickly became aware that I was in a minority group. I had married into a White-British family and suddenly all of my husband’s friends were my friends and there wasn’t a black person in sight in our group. Now I must be honest, I was never made to feel uncomfortable with my new family or my new friends; in fact, they embraced me and my culture. However, with the climate being what it is now, and my becoming more vocal about the social injustices out there, and trying to educate about white privilege, my place in that friendship group has become somewhat strained.

Living, shopping and socialising in Sutton all felt alien to me when I first moved here seven years ago. I struggled to find certain food ingredients. Something as small as being able to find a hairdresser with experience of non-European hair meant that I still regularly travelled back to where I grew up to get my hair done. Then, just as I started to get used to life in Sutton, the Brexit referendum happened.

I was suddenly confronted by people who felt that it was okay to voice their racism. I met with racial slurs in the street, was spat at, and told to go back to my own country, because clearly to these people if you weren’t white, you couldn’t possible have been born here. I remember in a previous job being told by one of my colleagues, in front of my manager, ‘Yeah, I’m going to vote Brexit. We can finally undo all the damage those f***ing Jamaicans did when they came over here and bred like rabbits.’

I sat there stunned. This colleague and I were friends. He knew my ethnicity. My manager immediately took appropriate action but the damage was done. I was the only person of colour in that branch and I started to feel like I wasn’t welcome, so I began looking for a new job. I also started to experience real anxiety about going out in the area, especially with my son. I did not want him to experience what I was experiencing.

While these incidences have continued over the years since the referendum, they did begin to die down, until the general election happened. As soon as it became clear that the general election was more like a second referendum, my anxiety flared up. I feared that the racism I had experienced after the first Brexit referendum would resurface, and I refused to leave the house for a few days after the election.

When I finally ventured out my fears were realised. It started happening again, this time when I had my son with me. I will never forget the guilt I felt the first time my son experienced it. I can’t protect him from the hate people feel just because he is a shade or two darker than they are. In the wake of all that has happened to George Floyd in the USA and Black Lives Matter gaining momentum, I met an amazing couple who were holding a mini-protest every evening to support the movement. I joined in with their planning of a larger protest.

I also decided to join them at a protest a week before this one took place, which was the same day as the English Defence League protest in London. As we stood on the roadside with our signs, we caught the attention of some men who had attended this protest and were on their way home. They stopped their car in the middle of the road, got out and started shouting abuse at us. Instead of feeling anxious, I felt exasperated. Having experienced this type of overt racism over the years, I have developed a thick skin and just wanted to be able to have a conversation to try to educate - which can be hard when you are confronted with such anger.

I got to talk to one of the men for a bit towards the end. I just asked him why our signs angered him so much, but there wasn’t much reasoning in his answer. I find that when you ask a racist to explain why they are racist they can never give a reasoned answer. When you explain to them the inequalities and the injustices of it, you get told that they ‘don’t believe you,’ that if you don’t like it, ‘why don’t you leave the country?’ or you get a simple ‘yeah, but...’

Many people passing by stopped walking or stopped in their cars, not to help, but to film the incident. I wonder how many of these people were happy to just stand by and watch this incident take place. Only an African lady and her brother came to help us when she saw what was happening. This experience made me incredibly worried about the protest we intended to hold at St. Helier, but the other people in our planning group ensured that we all felt safe and supported on the day.

We have continued our miniprotests twice a week since then, moving them to Carshalton High Street. For the most part people are very supportive. We get a few ‘All Lives Matter’ comments but it’s nothing like the EDL guys we met. One main difference I’ve noticed recently is that those who do stop to talk to us, who do not necessarily agree with the movement, revaluate their views after talking to us. Quite recently a lady who was cycling home stopped to ask whether her life mattered. After speaking to one of the volunteers for an hour and fifteen minutes she was so thankful that he had taken the time to discuss the issue with her. Her parting words were: ‘Now that you have educated me on this, I can go and have these conversations with others.’ If we manage to do that each time we are out there on the street, I believe we can make Sutton a nicer and more inclusive place to live.