My maternal grandfather was a white, working-class, London man made good. He was born in 1901; patriotic, racist, paternal, homophobic and sexist. He voted Conservative. But he was also honourable, loving, dynamic, devoted, skilled, perceptive, sensitive and protective of those he cared about. He, more than anyone I’ve ever met, encapsulates the peculiar dynamic in which mixed people of colour found themselves trapped in the white culture of the 1950s.
With success came a move from London to the countryside, first to Essex then to Devon in 1964. For many, the countryside represents the ‘true’ country; glorious nature unsullied by human excess. It was considered noble to bask in its rural magnificence as well as to conquer it; civilise its people and tame its wild, wild ways. That bucolic fiction has, in part, driven the global political landscape since the 16th Century and in more recent history drove the ‘blood and soil’ politics of two world wars. Those themes are still popular today and have one thing in common; they are overwhelmingly white.
My parents met in the early 1950s. My dad was from a famous Thai family; well-connected and respected, yet no longer wealthy. He was in the UK to study architecture and engineering. My mother was studying technical drawing at the same college. Knowing my mother’s views, politics and cultural background, I now think her affair with my dad was an act of rebellion, after which she reverted to type. Their marriage didn’t last.
Since my mother’s death over 20 years ago, I’ve re-established contact with my father and visited him several times. He lives in Bangkok and is a fit, active 91-year-old. We’ve spoken about his time with my mother and my grandparents in Essex, and it is no surprise that their marriage was doomed from the start. I was born in 1956, and by the time I was 2 he had returned to Thailand.
At school in Essex the teachers, parents and children, used racist (and sexist and homophobic) language. Racial theory was taught in schools as science. Eugenics was still considered respectable by the power-elite, even by many on the left. As a small kid I knew no Thai people, nor indeed anyone who wasn’t white. I spoke no Thai and no effort was made to introduce me or my sister to our Thai family. It wasn’t until 2002 that I discovered I had a Thai cousin living in Norfolk.
Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968 was a pivotal moment for me. I had become used to the micro-aggressions, the bullying, the beatings up and constant pressure to be white, from teachers, class-mates and strangers. I had become used to the idea that I was an ‘honorary white’, that my grandfather’s status in rural Devon would somehow be passed on to me. I had been persuaded that my experiences of racism were uncommon, bad luck, and wouldn’t happen once I was ‘grown up’.
I was living in a bubble of belief inculcated in me by a family desperate to protect me but who I believe saw me as racially inferior. I was encouraged to be hard-working and ambitious, but as soon as I had any success I was steered in another direction – the idea that I might actually be a success went against the family’s essentially racist ethos. “I know you’ve worked hard, but we don’t think this is right for you,” was a phrase my mother and stepfather often used.
Powell’s speech brought everything into focus; he was part of the establishment and my family thought him wonderful. The effect on me was as though a veil had been lifted. As much as I loved my white family – even the most racist members of it – I really didn’t like them very much. I certainly did not trust them, or my teachers, and I started to mistrust my closest friends. I explained my anxieties to them, and they’d respond: “But Nick, you’re one of us, you could pass for white.” “We don’t notice your colour.” “We never even think of you as not being white.” They were trying to reassure me but made things worse.
As I grew up, I’d switch from honorary white boy to ‘troublesome’ yellow kid. At school I was chosen to read racist passages from books, none of my medical needs were taken seriously, and the bullying escalated if I stood up for myself. To the very few dark-skinned kids at school I was white. To white-skinned kids I was yellow. As a teenager at parties, girls would ask me why I was there and tell me how they favoured blond boys with blue eyes, that Asians were creepy, smelly and violent. White boys would agree with them and tell gruesome tales about Japanese prisoner of war camps.
The only films featuring yellow skins were war movies in which we were all portrayed as brutal beyond redemption. Then there were the ‘comedy orientals’ with their exaggerated accents; bad tempered, buck-toothed and myopic. White kids took those stereotypes to heart. At school I was verbally bullied but it went beyond that. I had a brick smashed into my head, I was chased, I regularly had my possessions stolen and was pushed into the river. My school-work was torn up, I was given ludicrous punishments by teachers for minor infringements for which white kids were never chastised. Once, when swimming in the river with a friend, the school’s Cadet force shot at me with small calibre rifles. Luckily, only one bullet hit me, through my right ear, but I easily could have died. That episode haunts me to this day.
Whenever I write about my experiences I become overwhelmed by emotion: sadness and compassion for my younger self; compassion, love and revulsion towards my white family; anger at the injustices of living as an unsupported mongrel in a world divided by communities defined by colour; resentment towards white friends full of good advice that has little to do with my predicament. Of course friends mean well. But once a mixed race person, particularly a man with South East Asian heritage, starts calling people out for racism, sexism and homophobia, as I started to do as soon as I entered the work-place, one’s career is over.