IT HAPPENED TO ME: They Made Me Run With The Boys On Sports Day Because They Said I Was Naturally Fast

I was the only black girl in my class.
Publish date:
September 3, 2014
childhood, racism, race, athletics, England

I can’t really remember much about 1995. But one day of that summer is vivid.

It was a typical British childhood summer, not distinct enough to be separate from all the others, and decorated with ice cream van jingles, water bombs, grass-stained knees, hay fever, and of course, sports day. Sports day was one of my favourite days at school -- not only because my competitive streak could shimmy across the school field in all its glory, but because sometimes I could see my Mum and Dad, two of the perhaps five brown faces in the crowd, smiling back at me.

1995 was a year they weren’t there. I’m not sure why, perhaps there was more on at work than usual, or perhaps they just forgot, but they weren’t there. Mum and Dad weren’t there.

My heart pounded as I stepped up to the start line. This race was more important than last year’s, because this time everyone was expecting me to lose.

I tugged at the bottom of my regulation green shorts as I waited for the other kids to sidle up beside me. There was Alex, chubby and brunette in the first lane on the left, and Thomas, spindly and blonde two lanes further from him. My face felt hot with embarrassment. I didn’t understand why they’d made me run with the boys. I knew what they’d told me, but I didn’t really understand why.

The other girls sat on the benches across the field, giggling and playing with each other’s hair, and as I watched them, a lump formed in my throat. The sports teacher had pulled me aside, and murmured something along the lines of “Shade, we think you should run with the boys this year -- you’re naturally fast and it’s not fair on the other girls.” I nodded mutely.

I was the only black girl in my class. In fact, I was one of the only black girls in the entire school, and I had consistently won every race for the past two years. I guessed it was fair. It wasn’t the last time someone would complain about my apparently God-given speed. Four years later, when I was asked to be athletics captain, a girl piped up in front of everyone: “It’s not fair, black people are naturally good at sports, she shouldn’t be made captain.”

One of the teachers shouted, “Go!!” and I ran, skinny brown legs against a background of green grass and white skin. As I looked up at the finish line I was given a little blue ribbon. Second place. My heart sank. I hated losing.

It was one of my earliest introductions into what it was to be black and female and Jamaican in middle-class England. In fact, it was probably one of the first times I decided that "Black-British" was an oxymoron. I wasn’t even truly aware of the term, but I understood clearly that day that I was not British. I didn’t want that label; I wasn’t interested in being part of a culture or being classed with a group of people that clearly saw me as "other," who would invite the rest of the class to tea parties but regrettably inform my parents that, unfortunately, there just wasn’t enough room for one more. Who spitefully told me that even though I had the perfect pair of red shoes, I couldn’t play the part of Dorothy, because obviously, she wasn’t black, so I ended up as the scarecrow –- one of the boys again.

My seven years at that small private school in suburban England would be littered with bullying, all of which had an undercurrent of racism that I did not want to believe was there.

After a few episodes where I was taunted by my classmates –- the worst being where they pulled my hair out of its two ponytails, pinned my arms down and paraded me around the field for the other kids to laugh at my "kangaroo afro," my Dad sat me down on the corner of the bath for our first serious conversation about race.

"Shade, God shows us that we must love white people and be kind to them, but you must never trust them. They don’t see you as the same as them.” I cried and told him that he was the racist. He didn’t understand -- he came to England from Jamaica in the ’60s when people threw rubbish at immigrants in the streets and asked them if they had tails and people don’t do that anymore. I wish I could say that as I got older I realised that what my Dad said wasn’t true, but I can’t.

Being black and female in Britain meant that not only was I "other," but a less beautiful, less feminine other. As I grew older, I realised that women like me were feminine enough to be a fetish for posh white boys who found us exotic, but not necessarily feminine enough to take home to their parents. We were feminine enough to be half-naked, derriere-shaking background dancers in a music video, but not enough to be the main love interest.

My experience would be littered with faux compliments about how articulate I was; with unsolicited hair petting; with consultants at the hospitals I would rotate at as a medical student, ignoring my answer of "London" ( the city of my birth) to ask me where I was "really" from; with lecturers who would say how well I’d done considering the school I went to (because they assumed I attended a state school with poor resources and disruptive classmates).

This is what it meant to be black and female and "British." To be constantly pulled between a narrative of either asexuality or hyper sexuality. To be invisible in media and yet always noticed as an oddity in person.

I’m always intrigued by Americans who see Europe as some kind of racial utopia. No, thankfully we do not have as many Michael Browns or Reneisha McBrides here, but this is no fairy tale black existence. Racism is no respecter of country borders, and global systems of privilege and power don’t give up their seats when the passport stamps change.

If I could go back to five-year-old me, I would hug her and tell her that it’s OK to lose, especially when other people cheat. That in a few years, she would grow into her skinny brown legs and that her brown skin is nothing to be ashamed of. That her "kangaroo afro" is a curly halo, saluting the sun, and that one day she will love its kinky, coily mass. That she can be anything she wants to be.