(Fin’s story as told by himself and his mum, Colleen to Louisa Adjoa Parker)
Fin is 8 years old and lives near St Austell, Cornwall. He defines himself as British-African. He was born in Kettering. Fin’s dad was born in Uganda, and his mum in Dover. He never met his paternal grandparents. His maternal grandmother comes from Cornwall and his grandfather from Kent. When he was 20, Fin’s dad fled Uganda during the Amin regime and went to Rwanda. He was there while the genocide was taking place. The Red Cross helped him get to the UK, where he has lived for about 25 years. Fin’s mum and dad met in Eastbourne.
Fin says, ‘I like being mixed race. It’s when people are racist to me I don’t like it. It makes me feel I don’t fit in. People stare at me and touch my hair without asking too.’
Fin has experienced a great deal of racist abuse in Cornwall. ‘People say the N-word, that I should go back to Africa where I belong. The first time it happened, I was in Year 1. A kid called me a stupid African and hit me. I talked to the teachers but they said, “Just deal with it, it’s fine.”’
Fin’s family came to Cornwall when they moved away from Northampton, where Fin’s dad lived. In Mevagissey, Cornwall, where they lived at first, they didn’t have any problems. However Fin – and the wider family – have experienced and witnessed racism since living near St Austell.
There have been a range of issues relating to race at Fin’s school, from the other children and the staff. At one point Fin had a blend – the sides of his hair short – as he has a tight afro, and doesn’t like it being brushed. Fin’s mum Colleen says, ‘He’d often be in tears when I brushed it. The school told us it was a “radical hairstyle.” So I gave him a mohican, and told them, that’s radical. They said it needs to be short all over, so we cut all his hair off. They had been talking about exclusion. I told them, his hair’s hurting him. You can’t tell me how to have mixed kids’ hair when you don’t have a policy on this.’
After his hair was cut children insulted Fin by calling him baldy, or bald stupid African. So he grew his hair and wore it in dreadlocks. Colleen says, ‘His dad’s from the Bantu tribe and I told the school dreads are part of their culture. They wanted written proof of this. I showed them a photo of his dad. I just wanted my son to be comfortable in his own skin.’
On the last day of term after Fin grew dreads, the school’s head at the time asked Fin to come back next term with a durag, and told him, ‘I don’t want your hair distracting other students or hanging in your eyes.’
In the last few years the family have noticed kids looking at Fin, laughing and whispering. Colleen has seen children staring at his hair when they are in the park. She feels she can’t help but retaliate as she gets upset.
It’s not only children, however, who have abused Fin. When Fin was 6, the family were walking home from the train station when a car slowed next to them. Men hung out of the car windows making monkey noises. Colleen says, ‘I had a new-born in a pram. I told the kids to keep walking, that the men were making noises because Mummy looks silly. Fin said, “I know they were making the noises at me because I look like a monkey.”’
Colleen says that what’s been happening has affected all of her family. ‘A girl split my daughter’s lip – a girl who calls Fin the N-word. Fin’s (white) sister was bullied by this girl and her ‘followers’ to the point where she beat her brother up in the playground. My kids still have to see her, it hasn’t been dealt with.’
Colleen has also witnessed racism towards other young people in the region. She once saw a 13 year-old mixed race girl being harassed by a group of adult male rugby players on a train. ‘They were all in her face, saying, “There’s only one monkey emit in Cornwall.” I wanted to help her but didn’t know what to do. There are a number of mixed families around here. But it’s as though they ignore it [the racism].’
Colleen keeps her distance from people and focuses on her family. She would like to start something to raise awareness, such as a diversity festival, but doesn’t know how to. She says Fin feels failed by the people who should have been there for him, that what he has experienced is basically ‘dampened down segregation’. She makes sure she talks about what’s going on with Fin so he can rise above it. ‘It’s subtle and not subtle, almost normal here. The education system is a part of the problem.’
When the school has tried to address the racism, things haven’t gone well. Colleen has asked Fin’s school to get books on black history. Fin came home with a book about a yam. ‘They need,’ she says, ‘to teach kids about the roots of all this. Schools are still teaching from the perspective of colonisers, how Great Britain ran the world. Cornish people have a link to Bajan – the Bajan accent has a Cornish tang. It’s because people went from here and owned plantations. We are all connected.’
A new teacher from London held a big assembly on diversity after one of the times Fin was racially abused. There was a picture of Bob Marley up on the wall, and the teacher talked about how all races matter. A child sat next to Fin’s sister, pointed to the poster and said, “Look, another [N-word] like your brother.”
So how has this affected Fin? He says, ‘Sometimes I feel sad and angry. I stopped moisturising so my skin would go dry and dusty and l’d look lighter for school. I scratched white lines into my skin, too, to try and look whiter.’
There are positive aspects, however, about living where Fin lives. He says, ‘I like the duck pond. There’s a big tree I like to climb. And going to the beach, body-boarding.’ And he has begun to form his own identity and find role models: ‘I saw a documentary about the skinhead movement before it became racist. I started wearing the clothes and I liked it. I like the patterns, and the braces. My best friend’s parents wear this style, it makes me feel like I fit in, a bit. I like the music, ska. I like lots of different types of music. I’d like to turn all this [negative experiences] into music.’
When asked what he would say if he could tell the people who have abused him how it feels, he says, ‘I don’t know, because they’d probably just ignore me.’