I've hated racism all my life. The first time it reared its ugly head was at school and under the circumstances, so downright despicable that even as a child I felt outraged. One day my mum got a phone call from the headmistress’s office, from a nun who shall remain nameless. It's about Frances and it's very serious, they said. Worried sick, she dropped everything and went to this emergency meeting.
No I hadn't been selling drugs to classmates, or having an affair with a teacher or stealing from school lockers or smoking dope behind the bike sheds. It was far worse than that.
I had been observed “talking to a coloured person at the bus stop” and the nuns were very, very worried. Apparently, in doing so I was bringing the school into disrepute. As a result I was severely reprimanded and marked down as a troublemaker ever after. I accepted it, though, because I didn't have any choice or at least I was too young to realise that I did.
The next time race became an issue, the shoe was on the other foot. I was 16 and met a Pakistani Muslim boy whilst on holiday. It was love at first sight for us both. (If you recall, I wrote all about it in the Belfast Telegraph a couple of years ago).
My mum and dad were okay about it because he was well-spoken, polite and respectful. But when his parents found out they hit the roof and sent him to Karachi to a hastily-arranged marriage with a distant cousin.
I never saw him again or even got a chance to say goodbye. It was over and that was that. Two hearts broken for no other reason than prejudice.
Once again I had to accept it, because I had no other choice.
Then I left home and went into the big world. I moved to Manchester where people of every race under the sun all co-exist and where it would be possible to see Hasidic Jews and Arabs and Sikhs and Hare Krishnas and Hindus and Rastas all going about their business as you walked through the city centre. Like London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds; just how a modern city ought to be with people from
all corners of the globe getting on without fuss, with an unspoken mutual respect.
Next, I moved to Belfast and it felt like I'd stepped back in time. I had an English accent but I was a practising Catholic so I seemed like a bit of an anomaly when people met me for the first time. The other thing I noticed was that ethnic groups here were tiny and yet racism seemed to be rife.
It was the norm for people to say to me things like: “No wonder you wanted to leave England, it's overrun with blacks/Asians/eastern Europeans etc etc”.
I didn't speak out because I felt like a minority myself at first and besides, it was easier just to nod in agreement than rock the boat.
Twenty-five years later and things have got gradually worse, so even our First Minister thinks it's perfectly acceptable to condemn publicly all the members of a creed without fear of repercussion.
With a leader like that stoking the embers, and hate-mongering preachers given free rein and official backing to add insult to injury, it's really no wonder that racist attacks are on the increase. Instead of being welcomed here for adding diversity to our population, ethnic minorities are living in fear of their safety. Whatever happened to ‘love thy neighbour’?
Although I'd put up with it all my life I suddenly decided that enough was enough. I remembered a ‘verse I'd read once:
“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Racism is wrong. Don't accept it or condone it from anyone. Don't let Belfast become the new ‘race hate capital' of the world!
If you agree then you should join me and thousands of others who've had enough of all bigotry and march across Belfast today in protest and solidarity for our neighbours.