‘He used my afro to extinguish his cigarette’ – Stevenage councillor talks growing up in the town, Black Lives Matter and more
- Credit: Archant
A Black councillor and lifelong Stevenage resident has shared her experiences of growing up in the town, one month on from Stevenage’s first ever Black Lives Matter protest.
As a person of colour, Michelle Gardner has experienced a lot in her time.
Michelle remembers moving from East London to Stevenage in 1966 as a then seven-year-old, alongside her siblings and her mother and father.
She says she felt racism as a young child from all walks of life. Even something as simple as her childhood Janet and John books were reinforcing traditional norms, with every character having blonde hair and blue eyes.
Although she had hoped to escape it, Stevenage proved to be no different for her when it came to xenophobia and racist abuse.
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“I came here and I was immediately an oddity. I was a mixed race girl, from a Catholic background.
“Within my first week I was already racing home from young boys who obviously wanted to do me some damage. The bullying started and I remember some teachers ignored or didn’t recognise the racism I experienced.
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“I do recall all of the name calling, it becomes part of the norm.
“I think what happened during my school years and as I entered work allowed me to build up a shield – I knew I was different and people were going to pick on it. I have to say my experiences made me stronger.”
Michelle recalls one story of being on a bus with her mother and grandmother on their way to Carnival in Stevenage.
A man entered, looked her family up and down and started asking them for money. It quickly became clear that he was asking for Michelle’s family to “pay their way” after “coming to this country”.
What made it particularly insulting was the fact Michelle and her family were all born in Britain. She says it still hurts to talk about it 50 years on.
“I was born in this country but still felt foreign.
“I remember when the National Front was prevalent. Skinheads would line the streets with placards telling people of colour to go home.
“As a primary school student, I remember one teenager using my hair – it was a little afro at the time – to extinguish his cigarette.
“As a Black child growing up in Stevenage I was frightened of most everything. I was fighting for my life for all I knew.”
She remembers her colour always being at the forefront of her mind, as that was what people were reacting to in the 70s, 80s and even 90s.
Even admitting to herself that she was Black was a challenge, as Michelle used to struggle with juggling both the white and Jamaican/Cape Verde heritage within her family.
Michelle reserves special praise for former Stevenage mayor and close friend Sherma Batson.
“When I met Sherma, I finally began to feel that I at least had somebody I could assimilate with.
“She had the strength of character and confidence to speak up and be counted.
“She gave me the confidence to become a councillor and she was an inspiring figure.”
As deputy mayor, Michelle is hoping to become just the third Black mayor in Stevenage’s history.
Michelle thinks that people today are still guilty of not fully appreciating the experiences of people, and particularly women, of colour.
“People will always say to me, you’re Michelle and I see you as Michelle first.
“What they don’t realise is that just the other month I’m walking through the park and I hear the word ‘Negro’. I’m asking myself why is that word even still being used?
“Racism exists in all its colours – wherever you go people have an impression of who you are, what to expect of you based on the colour of your skin.”
At the last census report in 2011, the Office for National Statistics reported Stevenage was 87.7 per cent White, with Black (3.3) Asian/Asian British (5.8) and Mixed or Other ethnic groups (3.2) making up the remainder of the town’s ethnic makeup.
So what more can be done to include the voices of minorities in Stevenage? Michelle said: “It’s important that we have people of colour in positions of responsibility.
“It will take crikey knows how long to balance what has been happening for centuries. We need to understand what happened before so we can correct what’s happening now.
“Schools and curriculums need a more balanced view of history. We need to talk about it all.”