My family originate in Grenada, a small island in the Caribbean. I grew up in Camden Town in a very religious Catholic family. I attended Catholic primary and secondary schools before going on to university to study Biomedical Sciences.
I made the decision to convert to Judaism after working in a Jewish school, as a science teacher, and becoming obsessed with the morals, teachings and practices. I am married to Ilana Ordman and we are raising five children between us.
Although I grew up in a challenging area, I had privileges that many other Afro-Caribbean people did not. I grew up in a house with a garden. I had access to libraries, social clubs and I was given private lessons in art, music and drama. I grew up with friends who were privileged, from different backgrounds and ethnicities. Only as I got older did I realise that for many Afro-Caribbean people in the UK, life was totally different.
I was asked to make a statement on the current state of affairs with regards to Black Lives Matter. 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 realised 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 it would be remiss if I didn’t take the opportunity.
The first time that I had an idea that being black was a problem was when I was 12. An elderly woman shouted at us, “You don’t belong here, go away!” Initially, I thought she was not compos 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.
As I went from young boy (12-15) to young man (16-18) there were a number of unsavoury incidents. I find listing them 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.
2. After playing football, I was chased by four boys in a car and they attempted to throw white paint on me.
3. I was stopped and searched leaving a famous department store. 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. I was stopped by the police while sitting in the passenger seat of my girlfriend’s car as they asked her, “Are you OK? Do you know this man?”
These are examples of things that would happen to me on a regular basis. All were humiliating and robbed me of any dignity. My mental health started deteriorating. I felt like I constantly had to prove to people that I was not a threat, but intelligent and of value.
Being a young, black adult in the UK was a very challenging endeavour. Having grown taller, I naturally qualified for renewed and more obvious forms of discrimination. Some examples of incidents from that time:
1. Being stopped and searched more times than can be justified and always being told: “You look like someone we are looking for”.
2. Being prevented entry to my block 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 because the receptionist didn’t believe that I was on a science course.
4. I was prevented from entering a lift by men who “didn’t trust” me.
5. 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.
6. I was once stopped three times on the same day in the same area by three different police patrols. I asked them to take a photo of me to send around their WhatsApp group so I could be on time for the family wedding. I was late by 30 minutes.
As a young adult, I began to build a picture of my reality and it made depressing viewing: I am judged by people that don’t know me, the judgement affects my prospects, I have a number of stereotypes associated with me and hence I must take extra care not to appear to fit them — eg, I must be calm because they have been conditioned to believe that I am aggressive, violent or angry.
Being an adult (28 – 33) black man has been an interesting experience. I often elicit stunned looks and standoffish behaviour 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”.
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.
On to my final list — experiences as an adult:
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. My friend offered me the explanation, “They are just not comfortable with you yet”.
2. Getting followed around most supermarkets by security guards.
3. A good friend of mine was promoted at his firm to financial controller. At the next staff party, one of the MDs 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.
A question I get asked is, “Have you 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.
My non-BAME friends often ask me, “What can I do?”
Here is what 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 — I am the one feeling, let me feel.
3. Please don’t feel like you are not allowed to talk about it because you are not black.
4. Acknowledge your privilege.
5. Check to see if you have any prejudices.
6. Call out the racist views.
I am grateful for the opportunity to share my experiences and I am confident that society can take a step closer to true equality.
Michael Mullings is a member of Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue