'Racist incidents were so commonplace'

What were my early experiences of racism? This is such a broad question. I’ve had many.

Tuesday, 30th June 2020, 11:56 am
Updated Tuesday, 30th June 2020, 11:56 am

As a person of colour growing up in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties I’ve had so many that I sometimes didn’t notice and had to have pointed out to me.

I’m aged 55, grew up in Pitsmoor and was a pupil at several schools - Ellesmere Primary, Burngreave Middle and Herries Comprehensive.

When out of my comfort zone ie different areas of Sheffield, I was always wary of running the gauntlet of abuse, or literally just running.

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Errol at RAF Mount Pleasant on the Falkland Islands in 1987

One of my more memorable racist incidents came in about 1980.

I had just left the Crazy Daisy nightclub on High Street and decided to walk down to Fitzalan Square to try and get a taxi.

As I walked down, I bumped into a friend, a white girl called Tracey.

We decided to share a taxi as we lived in the same area and it would obviously cut costs.

Sheffield's famous Hole in the Road was known to be a bit menacing after dark

As we went down the escalators into the Hole in The Road we were approached by several men.

I was suddenly punched in the jaw from behind by one.

“Leave our women alone,” he sneered.

There was very little I could do as outnumbered and basically that's as far as it went.

This was not an unusual occurrence then, if you were out in public with a white girl regardless of circumstance.

I wasn’t romantically linked to Tracey - we just wanted to share a taxi.

I’ve never really discussed it with anyone apart from my wife, and Tracey, with whom I’m still friends, as incidents like this were so commonplace it didn’t really register on the ‘Richter scale of racism’.

Another incident of my past...

I’d caught a late bus from town with several friends. We were a mixed bunch of black, white and mixed race. We headed out of town to Southey Green.

This was a rowdy bus, if you like.

As we drove up Moonshine Lane toward the terminus the top deck burst into song about clapping your hands if you hate black people but with more offensive language.

And when we left the bus at Southey Green library we were chased.

Again not really out of the ordinary, so we didn’t report it to the police.

I’ve had many varied jobs since leaving school in 1981. My first major role was that of a mechanical transport driver in the Royal Air Force. I joined in 1983.

I’ve always considered the Armed Forces a macho-centric organisation which in itself carries various issues such as sexism, homophobia and racism, however not restricted to male members of the RAF.

People try to prove themselves or prove their worth by being more outlandish than others, sometimes disguised as ‘black humour’, where nothing is left off the table with regards to opinions or humour.

Racist comments were commonplace among members of the Royal Air Force of all ranks, so leadership was rarely shown with this regard.

I remember being referred to as 'chalkie' by a very high-ranking officer.

I thought to myself: “If he’s going to do it, what hope have I got? It’s not like I can complain to anyone.”

When you consider these were the times of Jim Davidson and Bernard Manning, it was almost a term of endearment - it could have been worse.

On another occasion, I visited RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire with another officer.

He seemed quite keen to show me the grave of the offensively-named black labrador who belonged to Wing Commander Guy Gibson, from The Dam Busters.

I can only assume he wanted me to learn more about RAF history. I’m sure he pointed this grave out to everyone.

Terms such as Coco Pops and the N-word weren’t uncommon.

Incredibly, I still enjoyed my time in the RAF and I'm still proud of my service.

When I left the RAF to start work in ‘Civvy Street’, racism was always around.

At an aerospace company I worked at for several years a white employee who had just started a relationship with an African lady was mercilessly bullied by other staff members and a supervisor because of the relationship.

When he complained he was sacked, along with others who witnessed and spoke up - under the guise of redundancy.

My 17-year-old son was racially abused and bullied while working for one of Sheffield's institutions.

He complained.

After an investigation his apprenticeship was cancelled, even though the perpetrator was proved at fault.

These are the things you have to endure - shouldn’t have to but do.

I certainly believe absolutely there are worse things out there.

My life, our lives isn’t a constant struggle against racism.

Who could live like that?

We do have good times and good friends and family, but strangely always on your guard.

Is the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, ‘a turning point’?

Only time will tell.

It’s definitely brought divisions in society under the spotlight.

I’ve seen the right wing and far right rally behind their causes, as The Black Lives Matter Movement has been protested worldwide.

The horrendous public death of Mr Floyd has brought little empathy or sympathy from people with racist beliefs, if anything it has stiffened their resolve.

They can no more change their feelings as I can no more change from being right-handed to being left.

I have many friends on social media.

Posts and comments have been rife regarding race relations and the removal of certain statues nationwide.

It has opened up a very emotive debate.

It has also brought to light the background of many statues worldwide.

In itself an education of history missed from the classroom,which we may never have learned.

I feel a lot of my white friends have failed to empathise with what is going on in society and reflected the issues back to themselves by using phrases like ‘all lives matter’ and ‘white lives matter’ - failing to understand the meaning behind the new phrase ‘black lives matter’.

No-one wishes to diminish the worth of anyone’s life.

However, for more than 400 years, black people have felt that their lives have had little or less value in society.

The death of George Floyd in such a graphic and public manner galvanised a need for people to protest worldwide his death and other historic atrocities.

People have said: “It happened in America, what has it got to do with the UK?”

But for the colour of his skin, Mr Floyd may be alive today.

Putting aside the brutal way he died, many believe his colour was a major driving force in his treatment and subsequent death.

This highlighted a massive inequality in the lives of people of colour in society, not only in America, but worldwide, leading to the global protests in a world where people should be treated as equals, without exception.

White lives matter?

Of course they do - this has never been in doubt and that's the difference.