This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Most of us had awkward teenage years. Not only was there the GCSE coursework and WKD Blue Vodka to contend with, but you were probably harbouring an intense but ultimately fruitless MSN relationship with a guy in the bottom-set maths class.
For people of colour who grew up in majority white towns, however, the usual teen growing pains came with the added blight of daily microaggressions and outright racism – both inside and outside of school. According to the 2011 census, the population of England and Wales is 86 percent white. If you lived in a small town or were from one of the few black or brown families in your neighbourhood, racism will likely have been an unfortunate staple of your coming-of-age story.
What’s it like to grow up as a person of colour in a majority white area? How does life change when you leave your home town and find a diverse network of friends at university? I spoke to some people of colour about their experiences at school.
LISTEN: "Outnumbered by White People" – a podcast about the lack of diversity in Britain's education system from the VENT Documentaries series, produced by VICE UK and the young people of Brent.
“I’m Bangladeshi and also Muslim and I grew up in Feltham, a really white working class part of London. It’s changed now but when I was growing up, there wasn’t a very big immigrant community.
Although my heritage is something that was always encouraged at home, it was something that I wasn’t always proud of while I was at school. The same goes for being Muslim too. I was always too white for the Muslim kids and too brown for the white kids, so I ended up just having loads of white friends. It was a struggle to balance my Bangladeshi and Muslim heritage alongside fitting into social circles at school. When you grow up as a diasporic child in the West, you whitewash yourself, not just so that you can fit into a structure but so you can fit in in general.
When I got to university, it was the first time that I had people around me who looked like me and had similar upbringings as me. I’d always craved sisterhood, so when I got to uni and I found that, it was genuinely life-changing for me. However, it was a difficult space for me to navigate because while I was quite confident in general, I wasn’t fully comfortable in all parts of my identity. I was unsure about whether I had a claim to it because of how much I had whitewashed myself to fit into certain circles.
I actually went through a break-up with all my white friends from school during Brexit. I posted a Facebook status and all of a sudden, my white friends felt attacked. I remember I was sitting at uni with my ethnic friends around me, breaking up with my home friends and crying. It’s really hard when you have to admit that people that you loved or had a huge impact on you growing up were actually really responsible for a lot of your identity issues within yourself.”
"Throughout primary and secondary school, my friend group was made up of mainly white people and it was always pretty obvious that I was the only black girl in the group. I definitely always stuck out.
Secondary school was especially hard and really eye-opening to how people perceived me. I wasn’t bullied at all, but there were definite microaggressions. I remember sitting in a DT class and the teacher repeatedly calling me by the only other black girl in my year’s name and getting annoyed that I wasn’t answering her. In the same class, a fellow student told me that I was “actually really pretty for a black girl”. A lot of people at school’s parents voted UKIP, and would say things like, “You’re not like other black kids.” It’s really weird to think back on now but I guess every kid wants to fit in and have friends, so you put up with it.
Going to university was amazing though, I didn’t only make friends with other people of colour from the UK, I have friends from all over the world and it honestly makes you feel a lot less alone. It made me feel more accepted and able to express myself. I was always really shy growing up and I doubt the people I was once friends with would recognise me as I am today.”
“I grew up in Bermondsey, my parents moved there in the 80s and some of their stories are crazy. I remember one time when I was still in primary school, an egg was thrown at our house. Someone had gone out to throw the bin out and they threw eggs at our house. Another time, when I was walking to school with one of my friends, we had the N-word shouted at us.
My primary school was mostly black but I would get picked on for 'sounding like a white girl' so many times – I have no idea why. So, throughout the whole five years of secondary school, I ended up hanging out mainly with white people too.
I felt like a weight was lifted when I left secondary school. I had spent five years running away from being black and feeling ashamed. Obviously, as a teenager, you’re trying to fit in and I definitely took part in certain things that weren’t for me. But you make mistakes and you learn, move on and grow. Now, as a young adult, I’ve definitely got a level of security in myself and my friendships.
When I started working in the creative industries I started finding like-minded black people mainly social media. For all it’s problems a lot of the good things that have happened to me happened through there. I found my job through social media and it’s been a big factor in finding new friends.”
*Name has been changed.