We were in year 5 and I remember hearing the whispered words “I would go out with Lola if she wasn’t black“. Usually when someone said something, I had a quick retort, but this time I didn’t know what to say or how to react. I pretended I hadn’t heard and carried on with my work, but I still remember the shock, embarrassment and initial sting.
My recent trips down memory lane have been unearthing particular comments and instances of ignorance that I brushed off whilst at school and didn’t thankfully dwell on, because if I had I would have potentially become a very unconfident person.
With this particular incident, a couple of boys at the back of the classroom had been talking about girls and my name came up, one of the boys made it clear he’d be interested in ‘going out me, but only if I wasn’t black’.
I’m actually quite a sensitive person, but I very quickly learnt to develop a thick skin at school. Even if something upset me, I never let anyone see me upset at school. I knew showing weakness was playing right into the hands of certain people and I carried myself with a no-nonsense manner, but at times being the only black girl in the year was quite a lonely and difficult experience.
To put this into context, when we’re young and in year 5, ‘going out with someone’ loosely translated to being someone’s girlfriend or boyfriend. Of course, going out with someone didn’t mean much then, we were 9/10 years old – the most you’d do is play with each other during break time!
Whilst some of my other friends were ‘going out’ with different boys, I wasn’t really that interested. Firstly, I thought it was ‘yucky’ and also I knew my mum would not allow it! However, there was one boy I ended up quite liking at the time (let’s call him Jake). I remember Jake and I used to chase each other around the playground and play together and I always had fun with him. Everyone thought we were going out but we weren’t. One day Jake asked me out and even though I liked him I remember just crossing my arms and not giving him a yes or no answer. He asked again and I laughed and walked away. Inside I was terrified and happy. I was terrified because although I liked Jake I didn’t want to go out with him, I wasn’t allowed, what if my mum somehow found out? Also I’d heard rumours that some of the people going out together had ended up holding hands and hugging, I couldn’t imagine doing that. But I was happy, I liked Jake and he liked me, even though I hadn’t said yes, him asking me out was good.
Anyway, back to that day, I’d heard what the guy had said but pretended I hadn’t. I think his name was Ryan, but I can’t remember for sure as this was around 2004/2005. I’d decided in my mind that I wasn’t going to react and would pretend I hadn’t heard the conversation at the back of the classroom, I really didn’t want a scene. However a few moments later after the comment people were saying ‘Lola, you won’t believe what this person said.’ I remember thinking I don’t care because I don’t want to go out with him anyway, this particular person that had made the comment was overweight and in the bottom sets in our year group – I definitely didn’t want to go out with him, the feeling was mutual! By now, it felt the whole classroom knew about the situation, I was so embarrassed and wanted to fall into the ground. I said to the guy, ‘I’ve heard what you said and I don’t want to go out with you anyway’. I remember him turning red and trying to laugh to make things light-hearted, he seemed pretty embarrassed too. A lot of people told him he was out of order and shouldn’t have said that. Now that the comment had been addressed, we all just carried on with our day. I remember feeling so embarrassed and looking forward to going home that day, which was a first, because I really loved school.
We were all in year 5 and only 9/10 years old, but even my race was already showing the ignorance in certain people. It was also becoming more apparent to me that I was different to the other students and there were certain things I’d experience as the only black girl in the year group, which they wouldn’t. This was quite frustrating, because everyone was nice enough but they couldn’t relate and I didn’t want any pity. They couldn’t relate when someone decided to randomly ask me if I could rap, they couldn’t relate when someone said ‘your hair isn’t as good as mine as it doesn’t blow in the wind’ and they definitely couldn’t relate when someone stupidly asked ‘Lola is that your dad’ when we had a black supply teacher. The people who made such comments were in the minority, but it was still one too many.
I look back on all this and feel grateful that I walked away from it all unscathed. It makes me feel proud of myself for being a confident and self-assured person. A potential impact of growing up in such a white dominated area could have been me hating who I am and where I come from, but I never felt that way and fell into that trap. Wherever my children grow up (particularly if it’s within an area with little to no black people), I’ll be discussing their race and identity with them and the importance of being able to handle negative and ignorant comments. Dealing with ignorance from a young age definitely helped me to grow and mature, and whilst I don’t want my children to experience the same issues, I feel prepared to help them if the issue rears its ugly head.