I remember the first time I heard about racism. It was about a gentleman who lived in my street, Evonne Blake, a black man, whose skin tone was very dark. He once went to a hotel — an establishment frequented by white expats — in downtown Kingston in Jamaica, and went to the pool. The other guests immediately left the pool and the hotel called the police to escort him out. They also drained the pool so that the others don’t get into the same water as the black man. It was the early 1960s, I was just a kid then.
Then I remember the summer in 1976, England, when letters would come to the dressing room for us players, with racist messages. “Go back home, crawl back to the trees,” and such. We, as a team, decided to ignore them, and I personally, could do that easily because I knew I was going back home after the tour and I didn’t face that every day. But I also understood that I had that luxury, but what about the people who lived there? It also made me understand and appreciate why the West Indies cricket team’s performance mattered so much to black people in the UK. They could walk with their heads held high to their workplaces next morning. They could look into the eyes of their colleagues and feel, “I know I am as good as you”.
In cricket, the racial abuses I have experienced came mostly from the crowds — I wasn’t racially abused even once by an Australian or English player. The crowd would pile it on, of course, and that’s why I believe racism isn’t a problem in sport — it’s a societal problem. Where do the people in the stands come from? From society. It’s not to say that there aren’t players who don’t feel racially arrogant, but the point I am making is that you have to tackle it by cleansing society.
I remember being inside a lift in a hotel in Australia with other team-mates. As the door opened, a man peeped in, saw us, and didn’t get in even though there was space: Just as the doors were closing, he shouted racial abuses. That’s how cowards behave. But as I mixed with more and more West Indians in England, and travelled extensively, I got to understand what they are going through. Unfortunately for those West Indians, they weren’t leaving at the end of summer. I could understand the frustrations that led to subsequent race riots in the UK. There are problems that the Windrush generation faces — hundreds of Caribbean immigrants in the UK were wrongly targeted by immigration enforcement, with many being detained or deported.
I have not faced racism in India and they were always fanatical about our team. But since I have been to India many times, I have realised that there is a class and caste system prevalent in the country. A lot of bias and prejudice against its own people. I hope that ends. Then, there are lots of Indians who believe that the fairer the skin, the better you are. That always surprised me. It’s a billion-dollar business supported by those who buy the cream to make their skin lighter. This not peculiar to India — there are still dark-skinned people in other parts of the world that think on similar lines. The skin-colour issue is a left-over from the brainwashing of the colonial era.
There was brainwashing in the Caribbean too. I remember, as a kid, I was once walking in New York with a friend. I saw a white man lying in the gutter and I was so shocked that I just froze. She asked me, “You didn’t think a white man could be poor?” I clearly didn’t, at that point. That image has always stayed with me, the moment I realised how I was brainwashed. Bob Marley sang a lot about it: “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery”. We, as people, have to recognise the brainwashing. Look at some of the Biblical teachings. The picture they show of Jesus, blonde hair and blue eyes. Really? Nobody in the part of the world where Jesus was supposed to have lived had that colour.
Consider the recent situation in the US. Not just the death of George Floyd, which is being seen as yet another case of police brutality — as if the rest of the society is not culpable. Did you see the first instinct of Amy Cooper, that lady in Central Park in New York, when a black man told her to keep her dog on a leash, as was the rule in that particular area? Her first instinct was to threaten him that she will call the police — a threat she carried out. That’s white privilege. She knew that if the police came, nine out of 10 times a white policeman would show up. And they would believe her, the white person’s version. Her reflex reaction was that — wired into her, taught to her by the society she lives in.
There is unfair profiling and targeting of black people in England as well but at least you don’t end up dead there, the likely outcome in America. You get the impression some police there go out on the streets thinking who can I abuse today. It’s institutionalised racism in the US that makes them feel they are different.
I would like to say one thing, though, to the kids growing up in the US: Don’t lose hope. This time, it does feel a bit different. People are coming together across the world. In the UK and rest of Europe. Everywhere. Not just people of colour but, heart-warmingly, people of all races. The majority in the US wants change. But the most important thing is to go out and vote — at the lowest of levels. The councillor, the housing administration, the mayor — get local, become more aware, and put the right people in the seats of power.
There has been a history of systemic racism in the US. The housing segregation means that the local school isn’t as well-funded as the richer, whiter neighbourhoods as the schools are funded mostly from the property taxes in that region. The practice of “redlining” that led to banks denying loans to poor neighbourhoods — where black people lived — meant that the divide between the communities got wider. The practice of “felony disenfranchisement” combined with mass incarceration has led to a vast section of people being denied the right to vote. The implicit bias, the prejudices that the people are unaware they have, has led to more educated blacks being unemployed.
There is no single person responsible for systemic racism, and that’s why people have to come together to beat it. To change it from the grassroots, systematically. The burden of change, though, shouldn’t be on the kids: It’s the adults who need to change. The white people who don’t speak up are part of the problem. It should be clear by now that silence isn’t going to solve it. It’s 2020 — if we don’t change now, then when?
As told to Sriram Veera. Holding is a former West Indies cricketer. This article first appeared in the print edition on June 12, 2020 under the title ‘Let’s break the silence’.
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