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“How come you’re not black?

A black boy trapped in a white body, Elliot Ferryman-Avery talks about looking like somebody
you’re not.

Like the majority of people in this country, I look white. However, unlike the majority, this
isn’t the full story. My mother’s black and my father‘s white, making me, like over 600,000 other
British people, mixed race. Growing up as I did, it’s always seemed normal to be surround by those
from different ethnicities but it’s often a shock to my friends when they see my family for the first
time. When I was young I don’t think I ever understood why some people seemed confused when they
saw me with my mother but now that I’m older my background can be a source of serious frustration
for me, for a variety of reasons.
I went to a different high school from my junior school classmates, which meant I had to go
through the whole process of introducing myself and making new friends. This was something that at
first I wasn’t too worried about; I enjoy meeting new people. Yet the reaction after my form found out I
was mixed-race made this a fairly daunting task. These reactions ranged from people suddenly wanting
me to sit on their table (this from the other mixed race boy in the class), to somebody calling me a liar
to my face. That was the first occasion on which my ethnicity caused such an upset amongst my peers
but, unfortunately, it wasn’t the last.
I think that only about 50% of the class actually believed me at that point, and among those,
some still had reservations. One boy, a perfectly decent human being in all other respects, accepted that
my mother was black but to him this left the only conclusion to be that I was adopted. Others just asked
a few too many questions about it for them to seem as though they really believed me. A question I
grew tired of then but am still asked, even by those who completely believe me, is something which I
think shows a fair amount of ignorance, “How come you’re not black?” as if my ethnicity is dependent
solely on my skin colour.
Often it isn’t something people say but the tone in which they say it, or certain looks that they
give you that show they don’t think I’m black (despite the fact I’m not black, I’m mixed race, a
distinction lost on many people, including black people) or that my mother is. I’m not sure that I’ll ever
manage to understand why this is. Why would I lie about my ethnicity? What kind of benefit would I
get from saying I was mixed-race if I wasn’t? More importantly, why do others place so much
importance on what my ethnic background is? These were all questions I found myself asking as I
encountered mistrust and scepticism from others.
Occasionally, because of how I look, even people who know about my background forget
about it and make some slips of the tongue that definitely wouldn’t occur if my heritage were more
obvious. There’s one particular example of this that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. It was in my last year
of high school. Four friends and I were sitting around chatting during registration - bear in mind that
these people had been in my form for nearly five years at this point - when the conversation came
round to where we lived. One of my friends, who will remain unnamed although if he ever reads this he
knows who he is, quite unexpectedly told us that he never catches the bus from outside his house. We
were quite surprised, as you can imagine, but not as surprised as we were by his reason for it. When we
asked him why, it was apparently because “there’s too many niggers around there who think they’re all
hard ‘cause they’re black and shit.” Silence fell around the table. Then, without thinking, I leant over
and hit him right in the face. He looked surprised for about a second before starting to say something,
then he realised why I’d done it and went quiet. It might not have been the best way to handle it but it
seemed sort of fitting and, I have to admit that given the chance I’d do exactly the same again.
That wasn’t really common inside or outside of school, although that doesn’t mean that less
people were as prejudice, just that they were less blatant with their racism. I’ll use another ‘nameless’
friend as an example. I was sitting outside with group of mates discussing immigration - yes, I know
it’s hard to believe teenage boys weren’t talking about girls or sport - when someone I’d always
thought intelligent decided to voice his views on it. I can’t remember his exact words but his argument
was something along the lines of, “They’re letting too many immigrants into our country, and giving
them loads of free stuff!” with ‘they’ being the government of course. He went on to list everything he
thought was wrong with all these ‘immigrants’; that they were taking jobs that naturally belong to
British people, pushing up the house prices by living in so many bloody houses and obviously that so
many of them cram into one house that it can’t be hygienic. Notice the impeccable logic in his
argument. I waited until he had finished before asking him precisely how he thought it was that my 80-
year-old grandmother, an immigrant from Jamaica, was causing all these wrongs. If you doubted his
intelligence before then look away now; his reasoning behind all these claims was that he’d “read it in
the Daily Mail”. That’s right. He was basing his perceptions of thousands of people on what he’d read
in one of the worst ‘news’ papers known to man.
This kind of view was by no means exceptional either; immigrants were a point of irritation
for most of my school, let alone my year group. It was shocking how wide spread ‘casual’ racism was
and how few people realised that their attitudes were actually racist. The communal ‘whipping-boy’
was anybody who was, or even looked, Muslim or Asian and the word ‘Paki’ was a part of everyday
vocabulary for nearly everyone, including people from other ethnic minorities. Naturally I, and the few
others in my year with principles, would object to it but when it’s so widespread that it’s just part of
normal conversation then there’s not much you can do to stop it.
This was something I had to put up with right through high school and I am still protesting
against it now. It’s upsetting to think that I’ll probably be arguing with people over it for the rest of my
life, perhaps even with the same people. In my school year, which I admit probably wasn’t
representative of Britain, I’d say at least 90% of my peers not only held racist views but also
considered those views to be acceptable or even normal. I find it terrifying to imagine what this country
is heading for if those people don’t realise where they’re going wrong.