A major influence on how my life turned out, was my parents’ decision to home-educate me. With Black Lives Matter back in the news, the most interesting effect of my childhood has been my experience of racism. As I never attended school, most of my social interactions were with my brothers, who are all of the same ethnicity as me, half-Chinese to be specific.
Of course, I regularly attended youth groups such as Scouts, cadet forces, and even a group of fellow home-educating families however those few hours at a time were never enough for me to pick up on things like ‘casual racism’. The friend whose family were getting ‘a chinky’ that night, the dog or cat eating remarks. With my pre-existing lack of social awareness growing up, these things never stuck in my mind. As a child, I was never exposed to such language for long enough for it to sink in.
As I grew older, and gained more cultural awareness and learned about racial slurs, terms such as ‘chinky’ started to bother me. I had started school since then, and heard it enough times that I remembered it happening. But I brushed it off. Nobody else ever seemed to be bothered by it, so how could it be that bad? I even used to feel bad for being uncomfortable with people saying it, I didn’t want to be a bother to anyone, so I never spoke up about it. I learned to make derogatory comments about my own race for cheap laughs, so that people would like me. I didn’t understand that this was making my friends think it was ok to say these things.
Looking back, I never felt any hostility when people said these things, I never worried that they were going to hurt me until I experienced the fear of standing out at school. Anything unusual about me became a reason to make fun of me, and so I learned to keep my head down, and never expressed myself.
A few years on, I went to University, I found people I felt safe expressing my feelings to. Which led to me exploring my own head in a healthier fashion. It was only recently I realised just how badly all the racist jokes could have affected me. Imagine if I had been more engaged in my Chinese heritage as many of Chinese friends were, imagine if I’d encountered the racism all day, every day at school, from the age of 4 until I was 18. Imagine if I’d grown up from such an early age learning to pretend that I wasn’t the race I was, for fear of being singled out, or targeted for my ethnicity.
Many Schools breed such an anti-individualistic environment, that many people learn to pounce on any difference in order to establish a feeling of power, to show how much better they fit in. Race is no exception. I can only imagine the fear and anger that could stem from being made to feel ashamed for looking different from the moment they encountered other people. How lucky I am to have dodged such a childhood.
Even now, I don’t recognise prejudice and ignorance right away, because I don’t instinctively worry about my race as something people would notice. So, when a certain MLA asked me where I got my tan, I was more confused than offended at the question. I wasn’t tanned, so what were they talking about? Having remembered that my skin looks different, I still didn’t realise how bad the question was, I simply explained that I was half-Chinese, and thus I was drawn into a story about a Chinese restaurant near their house. I didn’t understand until days later that in this man’s eyes, I was nothing more than my race. Even though someone who had seen the whole thing, hugged me and told me they were sorry.
This isn’t to say that my childhood was worse, I am ever grateful for experiencing a different way of life. And it’s not to say that other parents raised their children wrong, school is the right choice for some children. My point is that racism is a bigger issue in the UK than you might believe, and my childhood can show one of the reasons why.
It’s not just the people that say ‘chinky’, it’s not just the cops that put their knee on a black man’s neck, or push over an old man. It’s everyone around them who never says anything. It’s their colleagues who resign to stand with them. It’s the people who vote for them, despite their similar, more public, record of remarks about the LGBT community. Bigotry, racism included, needs to be called out by more than just the victims, or the victims will stop speaking, out of the fear and the anxiety that they are alone.
Of all the people I want to read this, I want my MP to read my words especially, so that the next time someone tells him we need to ‘get the ethnics out’, maybe the Member for East Antrim will challenge them, instead of agreeing with them.
David Lam is 21 and from Carrickfergus. He is studying Law at Dundee University and wants to get involved in local community activism after he graduates.