How I discovered what it meant not to be white in the Isle of Man

Recent events in the States, but also previous events in a number of countries, have given everyone the chance to think, and if you’re lucky, talk, about race. We’ve all had the thought of “What would we have done if we’d witnessed George Floyd’s murder?” But for a vast majority of us, it’s very theoretical. We weren’t there. That being said, depending on our age and life experience, we have all been there when someone has been unfairly treated. What did we do then? If a wave of guilt comes to our mind because we did not act the way we should have, we did not stand up for what was right then, perhaps reading of people’s experiences will help us do the right thing next time we witness such a situation. Today, I would like to tell you about my experience. 

The following is written with no bitterness at all but more in the sense of engaging with people who now want to know what it feels like in a small community to wear my skin colour. Here is how it felt to walk in my shoes or, literally, be in my skin. 

A question that has been bobbing around my own head is:

“When did I find out I wasn’t white?”

My mum is white. In fact, everyone in my family is white apart from my dad and so race didn’t really play a role in my life until I started primary school as the only non-white and being laughed at by older students, asking why was I the colour of poo? I want to emphasise that I was only 4! I remember being confused and embarrassed and then making up some sort of story about being dropped in mud and the brown just wouldn’t rub off. This may not sound like much, and the children that said this probably have no clue that 24 years later, but these interactions are still etched in my mind as my first time questioning the colour of my skin.

From that moment on, my childhood was littered with moments, some of them big, most of them small, all of them reminding me of the fact that I wasn’t caucasian. Whether it was being called a random racial slur, to being taunted by my peers online or being laughed at for being Black, all of it amalgamated into feeling lesser than because of my race and therefore my heritage.

Then came the concept of ‘bad hair’. 

Like many children growing up, all I wanted was to fit in! My skin colour, I was stuck with, but my hair… well that was something I had seen could be fixed. I remember begging my mum to get my hair chemically straightened. When she finally agreed to take me somewhere to get my hair blow-dried straight, I can see the face of the hairdresser who looked at me in horror when she had been given the task of straightening it. I can still hear her telling me and all of the other hairdressers in the salon to “look at this nightmare she had to deal with” and that “hairdressers must dread (me) walking through the door”! 

On another occasion, I remember being left in the middle of the hairdresser’s with a comb in my hair and the hairdresser telling me that she can’t deal with that and I need to comb it through myself. Too embarrassed to speak up, I just sat there trying to drag a flimsy comb through my unruly mane, fighting back the tears and frustrations of not being born with polka straight hair. This was the ongoing narrative of going to the hairdresser’s on the Isle of Man until I was finally introduced to Lisa at Studio 1 who I’m still grateful to today for teaching me to not view my natural hair as a curse but something to wear with pride.

The hardest experience for me to look back on and face, even now, happened when I was around 14 years old.

I was on the bus on my way home from Douglas with some friends, when a group of boys got on the bus – some of whom I recognised, some of them I had never seen before in my life. As they clocked me, they started hurtling all of these racial slurs. At first, I didn’t really understand what they were saying or who they were saying it to.  That was until they said, “Go back to where you come from you black b****!” I quickly realised I was the only black person on the bus, and I was the one this abuse was being directed at. For 30 minutes they mixed between making monkey noises and hurling every racial slur they could muster. They didn’t miss a beat in turning their statement about ‘going home’ into a chant that got louder and louder until finally, it was my stop. As I got up to leave there was a huge cheer and applause as finally, the ‘monkey’ was getting off the bus. The sheer humiliation and confusion stung far more than the words alone, however, what really felt like a knife in the heart was the fact that the bus was full. I was with people I considered, and still do consider to be friends, yet nobody spoke up. Nobody was in my corner. Everybody just sat there and watched in silence as I fell victim to such blatant abuse. I had never felt so powerless and so alone. That night I cried to my parents then decided to bury the trauma of that journey as deep as I possibly could and never spoke about it again.

I do feel like the Isle of Man has come a long way from when I was growing up there. You see a larger variety of faces and shades on Strand Street, there are Afro Caribbean shops and catering, and I can finally find hair products for my hair type! Nevertheless, racism still exists, whether it’s the ridiculous notion that it’s impossible that I’m a swimmer as “black people biologically can’t swim due to their bone follicles” – I know! I don’t know what a bone follicle is either – to the mild annoyances such as; when the other people of colour and I are the only ones to have our passports checked front to back to get on the ferry or being accused of drinking and taking drugs while driving and being threatened with a court hearing after being stopped by police with my two black friends, only to have them apologise profusely to my white mum for taking up some of her valuable time after she popped down to the station to see what the kerfuffle was about.

The Isle of Man, for the most part, is a welcoming place and will always be my home and the place I’m proud to be from!

I know that, had I been brought up elsewhere, my race would have been something I’d have had to defend far more regularly than I did growing up in Agneash, however, I also think that this lulls us into the false belief that racism doesn’t exist on the ‘Gem of God’s Earth’. In a bid not to cause offence or a scene, I never once addressed or discussed these experiences with friends out of shame and a fear of singling myself out as different. I think there is a pressure put on people on the Isle of Man not to stand out, not to cause offence and not to cause a scene in the fear of making things awkward, meaning that people do have a tendency to turn a blind eye to injustices that happen at the end of their noses, making tackling racism and unjust behaviour that much more difficult.

I know that many of my fellow Manxies aren’t racist and would be horrified at the sheer idea of causing hurt to anyone. It really has been beautiful to see so many of my friends show their support for BLM, however, my worry is that the focus will be solely on the major events whilst ignoring the micro-aggressions happening right on our doorstep. Even if people of colour aren’t being murdered on our streets, it doesn’t mean that racism is non-existent.

A lot of you might be thinking “what now?”

We have a long way to go but here are my top 3 tips on how to become actively anti-racist.

– Ask questions! Please don’t shift around race because it’s uncomfortable to talk about. Your friends of colour want you to be there for the good times and the times when they have been simply reduced to a skin tone. We need to know that you are open to listening to us, understanding why it cuts so deep when we are constantly bombarded with stories and videos of men, women and children who look just like us, brutally and unfairly murdered and mistreated on the streets across the world with little to no justice served.

– Check your lighter skinned privilege, ie. the preferential treatment you have had just from not being black. I also try and practice this because I know that as I’m not classed as ‘dark skinned’, I’m not subject to half as much discrimination. It’s so important to highlight that the term ‘white privilege’ is by no means a synonym of ‘Racism’. It absolutely does not mean that you grew up with a silver spoon in your mouth and it doesn’t mean that you have not faced struggles. It simply means you have not experienced systemic discrimination due to the colour of your skin. The harsh reality is that our society is set up with a racial bias – having privilege is a force in itself! Use it to be an ally. Take Marilyn Monroe for example, Marilyn promised to sit front row every night at Mocambo Club, if they agreed to allow Ella Fitzgerald to perform. We can all make a difference. We can all make space for those who historically have been left by the wayside.

– Call yourself and others out. A lot of passing racist comments are brushed off as a joke. Over the years, I’ve also had to do a tonne of unlearning, from accepting my role as ‘token black friend’ with all of the stereotypical topping included, to not seeing Africa as one barren continent filled war, where “the greatest gift they’ll get this year is life” but as 54 incredible countries chockablock with music, cultures, art, languages and a rich rich rich history of kingdoms and great nations. My little trick is asking yourself: “Would this sound weird if I were to say this about my own race or my own country?” If that were the case, you probably shouldn’t say it.

If you want to support the BLM movement, there are so many ways to get involved and learn about the topic at hand.

I’d start with diversifying your social media, there are so many amazing Black voices such as Akala, Rachel Cargle and Afua Hirsch, not to mention pages like Show Racism the Red Card or our own island’s poc_iom amongst many many others.If you are financially able, you could also consider donating to one of the many organisations that support people of colour such as Black Lives Matter and Access UK that are working with minority communities to build them up and give them the support they need.

8 thoughts on “How I discovered what it meant not to be white in the Isle of Man”

  1. I’m so proud to share this wonderful Island with people from so many diverse and fabulously interesting backgrounds. Being a volunteer with the Our Island: Our World (OIOW) Festival has only reinforced what I knew already, that having 161 (at the last count!) communities from all over the world living here has enriched our lives beyond measure! There should be no room anywhere on this Island for racism of any sort, and to hear your story, makes me feel so bad that people could be so unkind. I hope that things are getting better but I know there’s still plenty of room for improvement!

  2. Well done Elsa, for sharing this. I hope it will be read widely and that the people on the Island who think there is no racism here (and I know there are many) will sit up and take notice. There is no place in this world for discrimination and unkindness and I hope you were heartened, if only a little bit, to see how many people turned up for the BLM demonstration. It’s a start and I’m sure that the people who were there, myself included, were amazed by the numbers. I’m in my 70s and probably too old to see, in my lifetime, the kind of changes that are needed, but I’ve brought my daughter up to share my values and I know she is bringing up her young sons the same way, so that gives me hope for the future.

  3. Thank you for writing this. I am learning so much reading about the experiences of victims of racism. Thank you also for the positive suggestions of how to learn more and how to do more to help.

  4. I hope that this never happens again , but if it does that everyone on the bus stands up in support of the removal of the gang from the bus … I will write to Bus Vannin to make sure this becomes policy

  5. Really interesting and thought provoking read. Thank you. So sorry about the vile idiots on the bus.

  6. Thank you Elsa. It is not enough for those of us with white privilege to say we are not racist. We have to actively demonstrate anti-racism. If you stay silent you are part of the problem. I hear you and I am unlearning. I did not have to have a conversation with my children before they went to school about how other children might be mean to them or bully them because of the colour of their skin. But I wish all white parents would have the conversation early with their children about why it is important to be inclusive and welcome the difference of all skin colours and the amazing diversity this brings to our culture.

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