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Benjamin Zephaniah: 'The racist thugs of my youth are older and wear suits now'

The world has changed since Benjamin Zephaniah faced racist abuse from skinhead thugs growing up on the streets of Birmingham.

The poet and novelist has seen this first hand, he has felt that shift, but change doesn’t necessarily mean things today are better for Black people in this country today.

Benjamin says racism hasn’t disappeared, it has simply become more insidious.

‘It has just changed,’ he tells Metro.co.uk. ‘I think the racists have in some ways become cleverer.

‘I remember racism in the 70s and 80s. Those racists have not gone away. There will be some people who have changed and reformed, I know some of them. There are a lot of people who still hold those racist views.

‘And where are they? Some of them are working in the town hall. Or in charge of broadcast TV shows and media platforms.

‘I remember these guys when they were teenagers with skinheads. Now, they’re dressed in suits, they’ve grown hair, and they have legitimate jobs where they can administer their racism from positions of power.’

Is this sneakier, less direct form of racism preferable to being physically assaulted in the street? Or beaten up at the hands of the police? Benjamin has been on the receiving end of both, countless times – at least with the obvious stuff, you know exactly where you stand, he says.

‘I got stopped by the police the other day. Because I was in the park with a white child. I had taken my friend’s child to the park to help them out with childcare.

‘A woman came up to me and said; “Oh that’s a cute little girl, how old is she?”, and I said; “I think she’s around two.”

‘Around 15 minutes later, the police turned up to the park. They asked me what I was doing with this child, and why didn’t I know how old she was? Which was when I realised that the woman had reported me to the police.

‘It’s funny because the questions they were asking me were everything but – “what are you doing with a white child?” But clearly that was the question they were trying to ask.’

The officers asked him to call the child’s parents, to get them to prove that he actually was babysitting. But he didn’t want to worry the child’s mother unnecessarily.

Eventually, the writer agreed to call the mother, but he put her on speaker phone and had a normal conversation so the police officers could hear that they know each other.

‘As they were leaving I said to the officers; “are you not going to apologise?” And they said, “no, we were just doing our job.”‘

Benjamin was born in the UK, but his parents were firmly part of the Windrush generation. His mum travelled over from Jamaica after seeing a poster advertising the UK as an attractive place to live. She borrowed £70 from her uncle for a boat ticket and set out to start a new life.

The author’s latest book Windrush Child, draws on the experiences of children who came to the UK during that period – experiences that could have been his if he had been born a few years earlier. The book is for children, but Benjamin doesn’t sugarcoat the brutality or language that Black immigrant children would have faced during that time.

‘I wanted to get as realistic as possible,’ he explains. ‘In an early blurb I wrote for the book, I said that I like my fiction to be true.

‘There was a kind of debate between us and the publishers about some of the language I use, but I said I will take full responsibility. This has to be the language I use, because this is the reality.

‘Every scene in that book is based on truth. I don’t want anything to be too fantastical. When I was growing up, and I’m British born, I got beat up three times in one day by racists.

‘In my first experience of racism, someone smacked me on the back of the head with a brick and said: “go home you Black bastard”, and I just couldn’t understand because I was already walking home at the time.

‘They never say to you: “go home person from a minority background”, they call you a Black bastard, or worse. And I didn’t want to shy away from that reality.’

Benjamin wants his book to tell the truth. He wants children to learn that there isn’t only one version of British history, the version that he says is both limited and ‘whitewashed’ when it is taught in schools.

‘We need a better teaching of history. And that applies to white history, too,’ he tells us.

‘I was frustrated when I was at school. Teachers were only telling me about which king and queen slept together and what baby they had, who they had a fight with – but I was thinking, what about the history of Mr and Mrs Smith down the road? What about the normal history of normal people? I hated history in school.

‘You can never get everybody’s history. You’ll never get Black history, Irish history, Scottish history. But what we’ve got to teach, I think, is that it’s all there.’

He says it’s important to interrogate the perspectives of the history we are taught. Why are certain narratives so prevalent? Who do those narratives serve?

‘We started the teaching of history as kind of propaganda for those who were victorious,’ he explains. ‘That’s basically all it was.

‘We keep, to this day, being told that we won the Second World War. We never won the Second World War. We were on the winning side. We never would have won that war on our own.’

The poet believes it’s important to learn about the racism and racial inequalities that still exist in this country today from a young age.

He knows first-hand the damage that can be caused by experiencing racism as a child, and he believes that acknowledging its existence is the first step.

‘When I was in primary school, I went to the loo and I got some pee on the seat,’ he explains. ‘You know what little boys are like.

‘The teacher took me out in front of the whole school in assembly and lectured me. She said: “In this country, when boys go to the toilet they have to pick up the toilet seat. That’s what we do in this country, don’t we boys and girls?”

‘It really confused me. I was thinking – why does she keep saying “in this country”? I remember that for days after I just kept thinking “in this country, in this country” – why did she keep saying that?

‘I was really scared. It made me think I was in the wrong country or someone was going to make me leave or something.’

Lockdown has been a turbulent time for the writer. At the beginning he was able to knuckle down and finish his latest children’s book. But, when George Floyd was killed and the Black Lives Matter movement rose to a head, he found himself at the centre of media attention.

The harrowing last moments of Geroge Floyd’s life stirred up painful and traumatic memories of his cousin, Mikey Powell, who was killed by the police in 2003.

‘He died in exactly the same way as George Floyd died,’ recalls the writer.

‘He had a police officer’s foot in his neck, he was down on the ground. I think he was on the floor of the police vehicle rather than the ground outside. His last words were, “I can’t breathe”, and he started crying for his mum.

‘I have been talking about these issues for a very long time, and when George Floyd was killed I actually stayed silent initially. I felt like this was the time for a new, young generation of activists. But when I thought about what happened to my cousin, I knew I had to say something.

‘There is this idea that what happened to George Floyd only happens in America, so I felt like I had to set the record straight on that one. It happens here too.’

Benjamin has had many run-ins with the police himself. In fact, he says he can’t even count the times he has been stopped or pulled over by the police, but he knows it must be in the hundreds.

With one of his first big pay checks, he bought himself a BMW, and was immediately stopped by police four times in one journey.

So, where are we now? If the racism in this country is now led by powerful men in suits as Benjamin suggests, where do we go from here? The writer believes education is the key to lasting change.

‘I want people reading this book to understand that this is a moment of history that is still alive now. It isn’t something that is just confined to the past.

‘People are still affected by the Windrush scandal up to this day, and children aren’t typically taught about this section of British history.

‘This is history, but it’s not only history – it’s the present as well.’

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