Stories

'Talking to my white friend about race - for the first time'

Patrick George Image copyright Tom Pilston
Presentational white space

Worldwide protests against police violence and racial injustice have led some black people to have conversations about racism with white friends for the first time. Patrick George, 26, a London chef is one of them.

It was late afternoon and Patrick was just about to walk out the door of his east London home when the call came.

It was Jim. He wanted to talk about the march.

"Bro, I'm speechless," Jim said down the line. "I don't... I don't exactly understand what's happening."

It had been four days since a viral video showing the death of George Floyd had triggered protests in the US, and outside the US embassy in London.

On TV and on social media, it looked as though the world had crashed out of the isolation of global coronavirus lockdown and was now suddenly out on the street.

George Floyd's killing, for thousands of black people and others who rejected racism, was bigger than lockdown, and a desire to grieve together outweighed advice on social distancing. The feeling wasn't universal though, and some in the UK couldn't understand why anger over American policing was reaching the streets here.

Patrick and Jim had known each other for years from playing football together, they were good friends. They had never discussed racism.

"Please explain it to me," Jim asked.

Patrick was six when his family moved to the UK from Jamaica.

They settled in Hackney, east London, where Patrick's mother got a job as a hairdresser. He and his brother and sister joined a local school.

It was challenging. The family spoke Jamaican Patois, a language with several variations, many of which sound similar to English. To an untrained ear it can sound like broken English.

While he understood everything that was being said to him, Patrick's white teachers failed to decipher his accent.

In order to make himself clearer, Patrick raised his voice, speaking deliberately slow and loud. He was immediately called out for being sarcastic and aggressive.

"This attitude will not be tolerated," they told him.

"White people in England can be a bit smarter, they know exactly what they can't say to be obviously racist, but they'll do it more subtly," Patrick says. "They'll come for you in other ways."

He understood early on that some white adults felt threatened by him.

He was frequently stopped and searched by the police while walking around his estate, or to and from school. It was something that he accepted.

But there was no problem with kids of his own age. When some of the boys learned that Patrick didn't know the rules of football, they taught him. They also spent time running and sprinting with him, the same athletics he had enjoyed in Jamaica.

Image copyright Tom Pilston

Those boyhood friends he keeps to this day.

"In my group of friends, the boys are white, Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese and black," he says.

They grew up round the corner from each other, in neighbouring schools. The boys dipped in out of each other's homes and played football in the parks that bordered their homes. They got to know each other's families, taking younger siblings under their wings.

"We were tight from the beginning."

In group chats, playing football and nights out, they talked about most things. But never racism.

Then at 17, Patrick and his family moved further east, to Essex. The community was less diverse, less integrated. On their first day in the new city, a car drove past Patrick as he walked down a street, slowing as it approached.

The passenger threw out a large metal pole-like object that narrowly missed Patrick.

The driver yelled, "Go back to where you come from you black [expletive]," and then the two sped off into the night, the sound of a revving engine, screeching tyres and noisy exhaust packaged up with their laughter.

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It was Patrick's first experience of unhidden bigotry. From then on it would be something he encountered regularly.

"When I became a young man, racism would chip in and out of my life," he says.

If it wasn't overt abuse, it was criticising his tone or questioning his manner, accusing him of aggression - treatment he was prepared for from his childhood.

He experienced it in his first job, working in a kitchen at a high-end restaurant.

One of his colleagues there was an older Jamaican man, and when Patrick slipped into Patois with him the chef immediately pulled him aside.

"This is England," he barked. "Speak English."

Image copyright Patrick George

His white friends in the kitchen couldn't understand why Patrick was bothered by this - it wasn't their identity that was being stifled. Patrick decided not to explain it, it would be an exhausting conversation.

Work was work, and Patrick could live with what was expected of black men in the workplace.

But football was different.

He'd been playing semi-professionally since he was a teenager, in local clubs.

In football, his passion for athleticism and the friendships from his childhood met. Many of the boys would meet him at training. But with football came prejudice.

"Your blackness was seen immediately in football, certain managers would make automatic presumptions: 'You're black, you must be quick. I'll put you as centre-back or right-back.'

"Based on your skin colour, some positions would be automatically eliminated for you.

"You'd never be considered for an intelligent position, such as central attacking midfielder."

Image copyright Tom Pilston

Then in the changing rooms, your body would be fetishised.

"The same tired stereotypes about black men and their anatomy."

If he spoke up he'd be accused of having "a bad attitude".

"And after a while, when these things add up, they chip away at you. The daily reminders that you're different, that you're threatening, that you're rude.

"In England when you bring any of this up, there's an immediate denial, there's a defensiveness, there's a 'Hey, it's not bad like America,'" he says.

"That's what you face when you speak about it - that if it doesn't end with a man being killed on camera, racism cannot exist."

Jim had been quiet the whole time Patrick had been speaking.

When he spoke, his voice shook.

"Why didn't you tell me all this before?"

"I never felt comfortable talking to you about it," Patrick replied. "Because it happened in front of you and you didn't see it."

"I want to see it," Jim said.

The next week, he marched with Patrick for Black Lives Matter.

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