Helen is a British-Caribbean 45 year-old freelance writer. She was born in London and now lives in Taunton. She’s also lived in the West Midlands and the Netherlands. Her mum is white Scottish, and her dad was black and Grenadian. She moved to Taunton from London with her (white) boyfriend, so they could afford to buy a house and because they like the West Country. Her boyfriend had family nearby, and now her mum has moved to the area too.
Helen says her experience of living in the rural UK was fairly negative as a child. ‘I liked the countryside, having a garden and being able to walk in cornfields and paddle in streams. But I experienced overt racism, as it was the 80s.’
Living in Taunton has been a much better experience. ‘It could be because Bristol is so close and has a relatively large black/Asian community. I am light-skinned, so that’s going to impact my experience. Since I’ve moved here, there are more people of colour living in my area.’ In general, living outside the city has obvious benefits – it’s close to the countryside and nature, cheaper property, slower pace of life, fresh air. But it lacks diversity and cultural events, such as theatre, cinema and music.
As a child in the West Midlands, Helen experienced racial abuse such as skinheads throwing stones at her; overhearing kids saying “did you see her skin?”; and being excluded from friendship groups because they “didn’t want to play with brown girls.” She was called racist names, and felt awkward during school assembly: ‘we used to sing this hymn with lyrics about “the page is white, the ink is black, the child is white, the child is black” – it was supposed to be about acceptance, but as the only black kid it was mortifying for me.’
Helen describes her childhood experiences as ‘kind of traumatising.’ She felt Othered, especially after growing up in London, where she wasn’t conscious of her colour. She didn’t feel attractive to boys.
‘When you’re a teenager, boys not liking you is a big thing, especially if it’s because you’re black. I heard a boy say, “you can’t fancy her, she’s a paki”.’
When she moved to the Netherlands, there was a black girl in her school. ‘It was amazing. We are still best friends. It was important to have black friends – they helped me learn how to do my hair and cultural stuff.’
As an adult in Taunton, Helen hasn’t experienced overt racism. She has, however, experienced micro-aggressions from friends, including them not understanding racism in the media, (such as the backlash against the black actress in Ghostbusters – “that’s just the internet, not racism”). Feminist friends, she says, aren’t intersectional in their feminism; for example, some have rolled their eyes at things like cultural appropriation. Other friends have made racist jokes.
‘I have to censor myself, when it comes to conversations surrounding race, so I don’t get shouted down. One friend likes to accuse me of being racist, fairly regularly. Other micro-aggressions include a shop in town which has a window display of the golliwogs it sells.’
She describes this as exhausting. ‘It makes me wonder if my friends are really my friends. Luckily, they’re not all like that. Generally, the friends I have here who are understanding have also moved here from outside the area, so they have a wider world view.’
Her heritage has influenced her career; the things she writes about (diversity and race in creative media) as well as the narratives she tells in games and fiction. ‘I am a diversity advocate in the games industry, as a result of my Caribbean heritage. I identify as Grenadian and I love my island, having spent a few summer holidays there.’
There is no black community in Taunton – not a cohesive one, although black people do live there. She runs a writing and roleplaying groups, so feels part of two sub-cultures within the community.
‘The reason I don’t encounter overt racism is because there aren’t enough of us to worry about. If you consider Polish immigrants, who experience lots of prejudice, it’s not because people dislike Polish people and are fine with black people. It’s actually because the perception was that large numbers of Polish people were moving in and changing the area. If there was a high influx of POC, I think there would be an increase in racism, but over time, it would become a more inclusive community.’
Helen believes that including black/Asian history and the legacy of Empire in schools would help make the area more inclusive – this needs to be nationwide, not just in cities. More inclusive media representation would help too.
Helen’s experience, she feels, has been different to that of POC who live in cities. ‘In the city you can find your community. There are more POC walking down the street, so you don’t always feel like the only one. It’s less isolating – you can find spaces and people reflecting and sharing your experiences.’
*name has been changed for confidentiality