UP CLOSE IN HITCHIN: Black Lives Matter members relive experiences of racism at start of Black History Month
By Layth Yousif
4th Oct 2020 | Local News
Hitchin Nub News aims to support our community, promoting shops, businesses, charities, clubs and sports groups.
We will be showcasing some of these businesses, organisations and individuals regularly in a feature called 'Up Close in Hitchin'.
For today's Up Close, to mark the launch of Black History Month, we meet the inspirational Tony Williams and Maureen-Rose Ezeofor from Hitchin's Black Lives Matter movement as they bravely share their experiences of racism, give their take on policing, discuss how George Floyd's death marked a watershed moment, share their hopes for the future and much, much more.
I've been in Hitchin about 35 years. I originally came from Jamaica as a child. I love Hitchin a lot. I went to school here and North Herts College, where I did catering when I trained as a chef before moving onto becoming a teacher.
When I first came here it was exciting. I came to be with my mum who I hadn't seen for six years. It was the usual story really. Coming over to make a new life and be with my siblings who had already moved over here with my mum who. It was an exciting time. A new school.
The first challenge I found was that I found people thought I didn't speak English. It was a shock to learn that people here didn't think Jamaicans spoke English. I went to Bowes Lyon (now the Priory).
Until the honeymoon period ended. People used to ask me if I lived in a hut. Back then I thought it was amusing that people even had that thought. I also thought it was strange that teachers didn't know anything about Jamaican history.
Tony Williams: At that time it was very much about Britain being the 'Mother Country.'
Maureen: Yes. Not only was I coming to see my mother but I was coming to see the Mother Country. So when I got here and there wasn't that sense of reciprocity and welcome it was a bit of a shock. I remember it as if it were yesterday. November 12, 1977. It was a freezing cold day. I was in a denim outfit.
I felt amused, then bemused at people's attitudes. I had a cousin who acted as a buffer, so if you messed with me she would look after me.
But going out into the world, at college, I coped with it as I was there to study. But as I became more aware of what the comments meant, it became more of a challenge.
HITCHIN NUB NEWS: How did you deal with those challenges?
Maureen: I dealt with them as I deal with them now. I know who I am. I've had people say to me when I've gone for new jobs: 'You're a bit ambitious aren't you?'
I'm thinking isn't that what I'm meant to do? To try and progress? I simply register what it is when it happens. I tend to side step it by giving an answer that is relevant to that moment and not make a big thing about it.
HITCHIN NUB NEWS: That sounds similar to my dad's experience where, as an immigrant to this country in the 1970s, you had to 'fit in'. To keep your head down…
Maureen: Yes. I think nowadays with youngsters they are less prepared to put up with any form of racism. For example, my mum's generation, they wanted to earn money to send back to Jamaica to build a home. They worked long hours, they didn't have time to 'mess around' with they racism they faced. They hadn't got time to engage with anything like that. Their mantra was 'ignore it'. But as time has gone on, the feeling is 'why should we ignore it?'
TONY: I remember my dad saying to me: 'Keep your head down. Get on with what you need to get on with. Work twice as hard as anyone else.' Their attitude was: 'You'll hear it and see it but you've got to ignore it and brush it off.' They felt by facing it head on you'll create more problems for yourself. Still to this day. Even now during my work with Black Lives Matter and Black History Month he'll say to me, why are you doing all this that will just bring attention to yourself.
MAUREEN: Exactly. That's what the older generation were like. As I got older I understood more and more what the ramifications of what it meant. I have seen it in my career when people were treated differently because of their colour and I challenged it. I remember recounting this to an elder in the community who said: "Oh no, you shouldn't have done that. You should have kept your head down.' To a point you have to choose your battles. But if you always run away from everything then what does mean? There is a line when you should say something. And that is important. Whereas before the feeling was that you should leave it and not address anything you felt was wrong.
TONY: When the Black Lives Matter movement gathered momentum over the summer a few people I know asked why I was so 'into it'. I was asked why I had suddenly become 'this person' – overtly political. I said it's not to do with politics it's to do with equality. They replied: 'You've never been like this before'. And I explained that before I had just kept quiet and not said anything because of fear of conflict and wanted to fit it. But I'm of the age now when I've had too much of racism and want to speak up.
MAUREEN: When you have children you want to protect your children.
TONY: The thought of my children having to go through some of the stuff I have experienced is not good. I'm quite fortunate in terms of, while I have experienced racism I was also shielded from it because I lived in a small village as the only black family around. I still recall the first time I was on the end of a racist comment. I was about eight. Bear in mind I'm half Indian – my mum's from India, my dad's from Grenada. And someone at school aimed the 'P' word at me.
I had no idea what that meant. So I told my mum. She explained it's referring to someone from Pakistan but English people use it as an insult. So I thought about it. And I replied: 'But I'm not from Pakistan.' I went back to school and told the boy who said it to me: 'I'm not from Pakistan, I'm from India.' Which drew a non-plussed response.
MAUREEN: As a supply teacher I remember a Year 8 in a science class only a few years ago doing a 'Jim Davidson' voice to me. I was so shocked. Thankfully another teacher came in and 'said not on my watch'. But it was a shock.
TONY: I think this is where TV has a big influence. And why it's important to get message right on TV. Otherwise people parrot what they see and think it's acceptable. I remember watching Love Thy Neighbour and Mind Your Language which played up to stereotypes and my dad rushing over to switch it off. But then I remember 'Desmond's' and the fact we used to watch it as a family.
MAUREEN: It's about balance. It's important to have role models in everyday life. Not everything has to be about conflict and to see a programme about black people living their lives was good. What surprised me when I came here was that people didn't have a clue about people's lives about Jamaica. I went on holiday there as a kid and a woman said to me they wouldn't have any toilet paper there. Why would anyone say that?
HNN: Would you say there is a more subtle racism now? Unconscious bias?
MAUREEN: [Emphatically]All the time. What was the trigger for me to not be a 'silent bystander' was that everyday of my life you could step out of the door and meet it at some level – and George Floyd's death for a lot of people was the trigger to say enough is enough.
It's so subtle at times. Sometimes you just know it. You just do. It's conscious in you and you pick it up. It could be as much as someone staring at you. Sometimes it's overt words. But sometimes it's a sense.
HITCHIN NUB NEWS: In my experience I get that when someone asks about my name. You get a sense of whether someone is genuinely interested in learning about your heritage - or whether they want to move the conversation onto race and profile you to fit their perceptions and bias...
MAUREEN: Exactly. Very much so. Sometimes people say that phrase: 'Where are you from?' Then they ask: 'Yes, but where are you really from?'
TONY: It's the intent in the question.
MAUREEN: Sometimes people do not genuinely recognise they are being racist. I can understand that to a certain extent. But what hurts for me is when they tell you you're being too sensitive. So you get the wallop from the hurt of a racist comment, but you also get blow from someone telling you that it's you being too sensitive. That is more of a kick in the teeth.
TONY: Unfortunately unconscious bias rubs off on people. Especially growing up in north Herts as opposed to say, London, where there are far larger black and Asian communities.
MAUREEN: The balancing act is always there. But in doing so you lose who you are. I think a lot of times, in many ways, you end up behaving in different ways for different audiences. You almost feel like you have different 'selves' when trying to fit in.
TONY: My partner calls me 'the chameleon' because I behave in different way for different types of people. She says the way I speak in family groups is way different to the way I speak to other people.
HITCHIN NUB NEWS: I would categorically say I've been passed over for jobs due to my ethnicity both in investment banking and in journalism. Would you say you've been passed over for jobs because of your colour?
MAUREEN: [Emphatically] Yes. Where do you start? I also know I've been interviewed for jobs because I was 'ticking boxes' with those who were interviewing me having no desire to actually give me the job. What do you do? You can't sabotage it by saying 'I'm not going to play this game'. But, yes I have been passed over for promotion many times because of the colour of my skin. 100 per cent. Without a shadow of a doubt. I've even been told that I had to 'look as European as possible' when going for a job.
Look at my work not what I look like. But some people don't. Many people don't. Equally, it's also the subtleties of behaviour you face that cause problems.
TONY: I had locks when I worked in nightclubs. But when I went to work in an office I felt I had to 'westernise' and confirm. Maybe that came from my parents wanting me to fit in.
I can say it's happened to me one time for sure. At the start of the financial crunch I worked for a company and I was the only black person in a large office and I was the only person made redundant. My work was good. It shouldn't have been me who lost their job. It wasn't about ability it was about colour. 100 per cent.
HITCHIN NUB NEWS: What do you think has changed since the death of Stephen Lawrence in 1993? Colin Kapernick taking a knee was four years ago…
MAUREEN: For me not a lot. But people are more willing to listen than before. People are more wiling to acknowledge there is a problem. If you don't acknowledge a problem how can you solve it.I remember the death of Joy Gardner at the hands of the police in Crouch End in north London in 1993, the same year Stephen Lawrence died. It's been going on for so long. TONY: The biggest change has been because of lockdown. People have had time on their hands to learn more. To educate themselves more. The manner he [George Floyd] died. It's been happening for hundreds of years. But what shocked people outside the black community was the nonchalant way the policeman knelt on his neck. His hand in his pocket. It doesn't matter what type of man George Floyd was. He was a human being. That's all that matters. MAUREEN: It upset me. For days I was in shock. For me, if the policeman had been angry or violent ,you would have gone, well, 'ok, he's lost control' – not that it would have made it any more acceptable of course. But it was his casual manner. Like it was such a normal thing to do. It so was matter of fact. It showed that a black life didn't mean as much to that policeman. It upset me so much I burst into tears. TONY: Why do we have this term black crime? It's meant to demonise a particular group of people. No-one ever labels knife crime as white crime. Or white on white do they? Why is that? Yes, there is knife crime. But that is because the majority of knife crime occurs in low income areas where there is poverty. Black on black knife crime is around 10-15 per cent. The majority of knife crime could be referred to as white on white knife crime. Why is that not mentioned more? MAUREEN: Why do they have to mention the colour of a person? It's not relevant. Language is a very powerful demoniser. If you listen to the language of what people say, that is a very powerful indication of where their intent is. Black on black crime is a key example of that. A way of demonising a race or colour. HITCHIN NUB NEWS: Every right-minded person can explain the answer to this but can you give a response to those who say: 'White Lives Matter'…? TONY: All lives matter is not wrong. Of course all lives matter. But we're not on an equal footing. We want black lives to matter as much as white lives. We want black lives to matter to that policeman that killed George Floyd as much as white lives matter. But they didn't to him. And so many others. The problem is people see it as black people wanting to be 'better' than others. Which it isn't. It's about wanting to be equal. But they can't see it. They're not looking at the situation they're looking at the term. It's a kick in the teeth more than it should be when people say White Lives Matter and refuse to acknowledge black people wanting equality. MAUREEN: Is it really that they don't get the point that we're saying we want equality? Or is it a defence mechanism and reaction to say that they're being confronted with something they don't feel comfortable about? I find it so difficult to believe that people think we're saying that we think some lives matter more than others. I can't believe people are that daft. It's more about defensiveness. Because given all the context, surely you can't think we're saying 'our lives matter more'. TONY: As someone said on a Black Lives Matter march: It's lucky we're asking for equality not revenge. MAUREEN: It's not a demand it's a human right. It's people not wanting to hear deep down what they know to be a problem. TONY: The piece Nub News ran on the police not encouraging or discouraging police to take the knee is apathy. I get apathy from the police at the moment because there is a lot of things they have to deal with. First things first. The police who attended the Black Lives Matter protest in Hitchin were amazing. Many police officers took the knee. The police have a difficult job. The majority of British police officers are there to do a job and are good people. Most of them do their job because they are dedicated and professional. They don't take the job to be horrible. Which is good. The problems come from when you encounter institutional racism. That comes down from policies and targets the police are given. Many don't understand what defund the police means. HITCHIN NUB NEWS: Can you explain what defund the police means for those you may not know or understand what the aims are? TONY: First things first: Defund the police DOES NOT mean getting rid of the police. The police have and always will be needed. The idea of defund the police was an idea born in the US but is gaining traction and is as relevant in the UK as it is over there. It is about looking at why so much police time is taken up dealing with "petty crime" rather than real serious crime. If we take some of the funding designated for the police force and used it to deal with social issues, then that money would reduce the need for those fund in the police force. By examining and dealing with the roots causes of crime, we stop the need for those crimes to happen. For example, if we look at and treat drug addicts like a health issue rather than criminalising and demonising them, by giving them access to prescription drugs through a health centre, by legalising drugs so there aren't kids on the corner selling them, by opening more drug rehab centres and giving recovering addicts more support and help to thrive than to fall back into the same pit of despair, we will negate the need for all those police hours dealing with the effects of illegal drug activity - whether that be dealing, shoplifting and burglary to feed a drug habit right through to the much larger illegal distribution of illegal narcotics and all the violence that sits around these things. This is just one example of many. Throwing more money at the police is like putting a plaster on a gunshot wound. Unless you deal with the root cause of the issue, the bullet, then it's doomed to failure no matter how many plasters you stick on it. By reinvesting police funds in services, the idea is that it should look to fund things like community health and knowledge, social housing, employment, education and other programs to be deprived communities, instead of additional police officers. By doing this and reducing the need for officers to be trying to hit the targeted quotas for crime reduction in a specific area, it frees them up to look at and investigate real crimes like murders, child exploitation and molestation, rape, serious financial crimes which leech more money away from communities than any other type of crime. This would free up police to have a bobby on the beat again, working with local communities to enhance police community liaisons. Don't get me wrong, there will always be an aspect of petty crime, it's inevitable, but by drastically reducing those numbers through social and community investment, we free up the police to properly deal with what is left, and then some. HITCHIN NUB NEWS: The Black Lives Matter protest at Windmill Hill over the summer was incredibly successful. How did it make you feel? TONY: So many people helped. We got it together. I was tasked with getting speakers and so many people said yes immediately. I was asked to host it. I've never been as nervous as my best friend's wedding when I had to give a speech. There were 600 people there. We'd expected maybe, 50, 60. We started with the kneel for eight minutes. It was a graphic thing to do that made people realize just how long that policeman's knee was on George Floyd's neck. MAUREEN: It was a panacea. That there were people who cared enough to come out and show their support. To make their presence felt. To feel like they were listening. I'm actually feeling tearful about it speaking about it even now. HNN: What happens next? MAUREEN: I hope this is just the start. We want to move the process forward. For me personally I want to be more engaging with this than I ever have been in the past. By speaking out more I want to get more people to understand. Anger is valid but my thing would be to try and speak to more people and spread the message. To get people to ask questions, to educate more people. TONY: It's about everything forward. We want to set up different groups to get people speaking to each other. There's a lot of things that happen through individuals but if we can get all those individuals together and go forward in the same direction we can make far more of an impact. Previous Hitchin Nub News UP CLOSE features: Sir Kier Starmer Matt Bean, owner of Cantina Carnitas Chris Cheah, owner of Chicken George Fabio Vincenti, owner of Fabio's Gelato Simmy and Jhai Dhillon, owners of Rice and Spice Danny Pearson, Beano comic writer Hitchin Squirrel Rescue [L]https://hitchin.nub.news/n/feature-hitchin-food-rescue-39seeing-volume-of-food-that-would-otherwise-go-to-waste-makes-it-very-real39[L+] Hitchin Food Rescue Adam Howard, organiser BackToSchoolival Hitchin's inspirational Black Lives Matter movement If you or your business or organisation would like to be featured in a future UP CLOSE please email [email protected] or tweet us @HitchinNubNews