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We would always have lighter-skinned children to play with. When a member of the far-right group the National Front waved one of their leaflets in my face and started laughing, I felt I owed them some sort of apology. It would be years before I realised I could be angry with them.I was expected to isolate myself from darker-skinned people too, and it seemed perfectly normal to me that the colour of your skin was one of the most important things about you. The racism I encountered was rarely violent, or extreme, but it was insidious and ever present and it had a profound effect on me. I was ashamed of my family, and embarrassed that they came from the Caribbean.My parents believed that, with no real entitlement to anything, they must accept what this country was willing to give. As long as they didn't do anything too unusual that might upset the people of England, then they could get on.
It drew attention to her as well, and she hated that. In Jamaica this had had a big effect on my parents' upbringing, because of the class system, inherited from British colonial times, people took the colour of your skin very seriously.
My parents had grown up to believe themselves to be of a higher class than any darker-skinned person.
It was certainly lost to me for much of my early life, and it was a loss that caused me some problems. I played outside with all the white kids who lived around my way – rounders, skipping and hide and seek. It sailed into West India dock on Guy Fawkes Night in the same year, under a shower of fireworks that my mum believed were to welcome her. She walked out into the street praying for a solution, and found a one-pound note lying on the pavement.
At the time of my bus ride I lived on a council estate in north London. My dad was an accounting clerk in Jamaica for, among other companies, Tate & Lyle. In my mum's eyes that was not a stroke of luck, that was a strategy.
It was too foreign and therefore not worth knowing.
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As I got older my feeling of outsiderness became more marked, as did the feeling that nothing in my background – my class or my ethnicity – was really worth having.At art college I encountered middle-class people for the first time.Proper middle class – debutantes with ponies, that sort of thing.This isolated them from other black Caribbeans who came to live here – they wanted nothing to do with them.My mum once told me how, back in Jamaica, her father would not let her play with children darker than her.She replied: ‘ The more I began to delve into my Caribbean heritage the more interesting Britain's Caribbean story became for me.The story of the Caribbean is a white story too and one that goes back a long way.We were asked to split into two groups, black and white. It was, ironically, where I felt most at home – all my friends, my boyfriend, my flatmates, were white. Thinking about what I knew, and exploring my background with words, began to open it up for me as never before. I met my aunt and cousins and saw where my mum grew up.But my fellow workers had other ideas and I found myself being beckoned over by people on the black side. I soon came to realise that my experience of growing up in this country was part of what it meant to be black. I realised for the first time that I had a background and an ancestry that was fascinating and worth exploring.They didn't know where it was, or who lived there, or why.And they had no curiosity about it beyond asking why black people were in this country.