First published in 2016 in The Good Immigrant, a book bringing together writers exploring what it means to be black, Asian and minority ethnic today, in this essay, Musa Okwonga explores his complex relationship with Britain – and himself.
So here’s my experience of growing up in Britain; it was always a case of making sure that I was grateful. Maybe that wasn’t such a bad attitude to have; after all, my parents were brought to the UK as refugees, fleeing the hyper-violent regime of Idi Amin, and so there was no question that they had been given a second chance at life. At the time of their departure, Amin was busily wiping out anyone who might represent a future threat to his rule, and my parents – then attendees of two of the best schools in Uganda – were firmly within his target demographic. And so they came to West Drayton, and a few years later I turned up: the eldest son of two doctors, with an eagerness to please their adopted country.
I didn’t notice that eagerness until I was eleven, when I was given a bursary to attend Sunningdale, a boys’ prep school. Until that point, I hadn’t given much thought to my skin colour, since everywhere I’d studied before had been racially diverse: now, though, I was one of two black pupils out of 130. What’s more, my new peers and their families weren’t like the white people I had met before, whose lives were reassuringly everyday, and who generally only owned the one home. My new classmates seemed to have the most glamorous of existences. Many of them lived abroad. Their holidays were spent skiing and shooting. One had a butler. The richest ones were always the most shabbily dressed: if a boy had holes in his sweater, he was more likely than not to be descended from some emperor.
Following the overthrow of Idi Amin in 1981, my father returned to Uganda to help to build what he believed would be a better country. He became the military physician for Major General Oyite-Ojok, the commander who defeated Amin, and he died with him. On December 3, 1983, their helicopter crashed – or, most likely, was shot down – in a moment that was seen as the turning-point in the struggle for control of the country. My mother, widowed, was left to raise four young children alone; and with her attention divided between us and endless shifts as a local GP, I learned that the last thing she needed was additional problems from me. No: what she needed was for me to be smart, dutiful and responsible. So I turned up at Sunningdale School, black and from a miraculously solvent single-parent home, amongst the sons of white millionaires.
I became an unofficial ambassador for black people. There were so few of us in the boarding-school world that I felt driven every week to prove that we could be just as good as our white counterparts. Returning home for my holidays, I saw the implications of a world where people were judged by their skin alone. My cousins and I were starting to be stop-searched by police, and on one occasion merely for waiting by a bus stop. “Loitering” became a code-word for “being dark-skinned in broad daylight”. And here I was, at school with boys whose parents had the potential to change things for people who looked like me: with boys who, one day, might be running the country themselves. I approached my studies with a furious sense of mission: believing that, if I made a good impression here, I could help to erode some of our society’s firmest prejudices.
Maybe, in attending Sunningdale, I felt as much of an immigrant as my parents had in their schooldays. My mother had gone to Gayaza High School, in Kampala. As one of its few pupils from the northern part of the country, she had been mocked by her classmates, who said that members of her tribe were rumoured to have monkey-tails. Perhaps, like my parents landing in the UK, I was in an alien landscape, grateful for the opportunity I had been given. It didn’t help that, never having been taught Latin, Greek, French or Tudor History, I was immediately bottom of almost every single class. I only remain thankful for being good at English, which allowed me to reassure those around me that I wasn’t academically useless, and for being decent at football, which among most boys that age was a pretty immediate path to social acceptance.
After two years at Sunningdale, I found myself at Eton College. This, I told myself quietly, was the Big Time. I had watched a documentary about it on Channel 4, “Class of 91”, and was captivated. Here, I thought, was a place an outsider had to go to prove himself. Some of the world’s greatest leaders had been here, and now their sons were presumably going there too. If I was to achieve anything in life, I had to acquit myself against them, and excel. As Frank Sinatra once sang of New York, if I could make it there, I could make it anywhere.
I took to my studies with such a spectacular seriousness that, for a couple of years, I carried my work around school in a briefcase. That must have looked excessively formal, even by the standards of a school where we wore wedding clothes to class. Desperate to make the best of an education that so few people, let alone black ones, would ever experience, I got involved in every school activity I could. If there was an arts magazine anywhere in sight, I wanted to edit it; if there was a school society I liked the look of, I wanted to run it. I enjoyed my work, but I didn’t much enjoy my social life. Whenever I went back home, I discovered that I was considered too posh to hang out with most of the locals there: and during the school holidays I rarely saw my classmates, since most of them seemed to have prohibitively expensive tastes. Moreover, there had been the warning that an Old Etonian, one of my mother’s patients, had asked her to pass on to me when I was just about to start my first term there. “Tell him he will never be one of them”, he said. I scoffed at that advice then, but with each passing term I was less and less sure.
I remained grateful to the UK. Then the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, horrifying in itself, exposed a police force so addled with discrimination and alleged corruption that it could not even complete what, at first, seemed to be a reasonably routine investigation. Lawrence’s death annihilated the lies we told ourselves – that if we were just good little black boys and girls, that if we just stayed away from the bad crowds, no harm would come to us. Lawrence was a budding architect who spent most of his final hours playing video games with his best friend; it didn’t get any more innocuous than that. Yet that didn’t stop him from encountering a gang of white youths who found his mere presence so offensive that they spontaneously set upon him and stabbed him to death.
In the five years between Lawrence’s murder and the end of my time at boarding-school, I was grateful for the sanctuary of Eton. West Drayton, for that period, endured a surge of racism apparently at odds with the normal torpor of this suburb. The British National Party, oblivious to the fact that black people lived in our particular cul-de-sac, posted campaign fliers through our door. Studying at the local library, I found National Front logos carved into one of the desks. Heading towards the train station, I found stickers bearing considerate advice for foreigners. “West London Pakis beware”, they read. “Combat 18 in the area.”
And there, next to Yiewsley Methodist Church and along a wall thirty metres across by ten metres high, you could find graffitied every form of white power insignia you could imagine. The one I remember best was a burgundy Ku Klux Klan logo, lovingly stencilled inside a star: it looked like the kind of thing a sponsor might emblazon across a football shirt. Once, a man waited for my sister and me to emerge from the local opticians, and then, seeing that we had crossed the street to avoid him, opened his leather jacket to reveal a patchwork of swastikas of various different shades and sizes. Multiracial racism, if you will.
Eton taught me some vital things about people and their judgments. One was that I could not change some of my peer’s perceptions of black people merely by being as hardworking and as agreeable as possible; I merely became the exception that proved their rule. I realised this when having a pub meal with a friend. Out of nowhere, he launched into an astonishing rant against migrants, and, when I pointed out that my parents and I were no different from those he was denigrating, he told me that “I don’t see you as a migrant, Musa. I see you as a friend”.
Even the calling-card of being an Etonian was not enough to shield me from prejudice in the upper-class world. I will never forget the time when, just after my A-levels, I went to stay at a friend’s flat in West London. His stepfather had not been at home when I had dropped off my bag earlier that afternoon. When I returned that evening, though, the stepfather took one look at me and asked me to leave, not even allowing me to enter the house. It was a quarter-to-midnight as my friend shamefacedly handed me my bag on his doorstep, and stepped back into his home.
I only really started being myself when I was twenty-two, a year after I left university. During my three years at Oxford, where there were fewer than a 100 black students of African or Caribbean descent out of a total 15,000, I still felt I had ambassadorial responsibility. I was used to being part of an ethnic minority by now.
I started being myself at twenty-two, because that’s when I had my first drop of alcohol. I don’t mean to say that drink liberated me, in some profoundly spiritual way: I simply mean that I felt comfortable enough to get drunk. Because, until my friend passed me that first fateful shot of tequila, I had tried my very best to keep control. As ridiculous as it might seem, I believed that since my white peers had grown up seeing so many negative stereotypes of black people their entire lives, I had a duty to counteract as many of them as possible. That meant never getting drunk, never getting that Afro I had long wanted, never taking the joint when it was offered. And, in truth, I was a little scared about what my intoxication might reveal. I was afraid that, beneath my straight-laced veneer of the Good Immigrant, there seethed a boorish, brutal womaniser.
And, of course, no such monster emerged. I was merely a slightly louder, slightly merrier version of my sober self. And I saw then, after several years, that I had absorbed many of the racial stereotypes that I had feared others would see in me. Raised without a father, lacking many black male role models – most of whom were probably quietly struggling away just like me – I was left only with media portrayals of what black men were, and most of those were overwhelmingly negative. What’s more, twenty-two was also the age when I realised that I was attracted to men as well as women: an experience that was traumatic at the time, but for which I am now thankful. It was so life-altering an event that it forced me no longer to see myself as some sort of diplomat for my people, but instead to live for myself. London was a place where identity did not matter nearly so much as it had until that point in my life. Surrounded by Turks, Kiwis, Poles, Nigerians and many more, there was no need to worry further about who I was, but simply to get on with the business of being.
I thought I would never again see anti-immigration feeling as strong as I did in my teens, and so when UKIP’s votes started to rise rapidly I was taken by surprise. By the 2015 general election, they found themselves walking away with 6,346 votes, over a quarter of those claimed by the winner of the seat for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, one Boris Johnson. In hindsight, though, UKIP’s progress makes total sense. A sprinkling of foreign-looking people here and there was all very well, but the arrival of many of us at once bewildered locals who were not accustomed to such swift cultural change. That was to say nothing of white working-class people who found themselves undercut by labourers from the EU and beyond who were prepared to work for far less. To some of them, it must have felt like looting.
And here’s the problem. There’s only so much you can do to convince your fellow citizens that a multiracial society is a Good Thing, especially when they perceive that it’s hitting them too hard in their pockets. It’s remarkable how so many of the country’s economic problems were blamed not on the misfiring calculations of the financial sector and instead on the ills of mass immigration. The momentum was probably building from around 2005, when Michael Howard’s Conservative Party put out a billboard campaign I saw each day on my way into work. “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” it said. And just in case you weren’t sure, it gave you the punchline: “It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration.” That second sentence always made me pause. It wasn’t inherently racist to impose limits on admission – after all, if a nightclub is full, it’s not racist to say that no-one else can come in. What is racist is when you begin denying admission to people purely on the basis of their race and culture – which, incidentally enough, is something that has been happening in London nightclubs for years.
There’s nothing new about a country wanting to cherry-pick the best of all the foreigners who want to come over. Some might even argue that there’s nothing wrong with it. But as I got older, I began to notice more and more that the very moment immigrants were seen as contributing anything less than wholesomely to the national effort, they were viewed with contempt. It was as if, even though we had been born here, we were still seen as guests, our social acceptance only conditional upon our very best behaviour. I began to have less tolerance for this infantilising outlook, particularly when I looked at how much of the capital’s and indeed the country’s lowest-paid work was being done by immigrants with very little complaint. If there was anyone ungrateful about their presence in the country, it wasn’t them, it was Britain.
And this, I think, is what I hoped to see in the media coverage of the immigration discourse – a recognition of what people like my parents brought to the country, both economically and culturally. But that nuance was often absent, and took a Daily Mail-esque tone.
I remember, during the 2012 Olympic Games, The Mail, having taken offence at a scene from the opening ceremony which featured a happily-married mixed race couple, wrote the next day that “[the ceremony] was supposed to be a representation of modern life in England but it is likely to be a challenge for the organisers to find an educated white middle-aged mother and black father living together with a happy family in such a set-up.” And to my surprise, because I am normally a fairly temperate soul, I lost it.
I think I lost it because the Mail, presumably read with approval by millions, had finally exploded the lie that had been comforting so many of us for so long – that even if you lived a decent, law-abiding life, there were countless communities in this country that might never accept you, merely because of how you looked. The thought that a black man somewhere in the UK might somehow have infiltrated the affections of a white woman apparently filled the Mail with disgust. Perhaps this story affected me so much because the Mail said what I feared so many white middle-and-upper-class parents silently believed: that someone like me would never be good enough.
By now, I was in my mid-thirties, and travelling abroad with work. During these short trips, I would occasionally check back in with the British press, and the anti-immigrant anger in its pages struck me time and again. These days, though, I was increasingly greeting that fury not with fury but exhaustion. I was tired, as one of the few black journalists writing with reasonable frequency for some of the country’s main publications, of being summoned by the media to defend the basic dignity of black people: of being called upon every single time a public figure said something flagrantly bigoted, or, as they or many of their softly-cackling fans might put it, “provocative”. It felt more like bear-baiting than how the news ought to work. I was better than this: black people were better than this.
Since my schooldays I hoped that the quality of my writing might one day speak for itself: now, though, I was becoming The Race Commentator. It was all that some news editors would come to me for. For a period of several months, I turned down every single media invitation to debate or write about race, even as they increased in frequency. Let others discuss it among themselves, I thought. Let others sit and reflect on just how low the discourse has fallen.
Here’s the truth of the matter. I find racism boring – really dull. I wish it didn’t exist, and have spent most of my life trying to help to counteract most of its worst effects in society. Contrary to the belief of some of the digital pitch-forkers who jab away at the bottom of each of my blogs, I genuinely wish that I never had to write about it again. Unfortunately, however, that is a luxury that I do not have. Because even though we’re well into the second decade of the 21st century, young black people are still being shot on sight in the USA because they are regarded as inherently criminal due to their skin colour; black people are dying unexplained at police hands; black people are having disproportionate trouble renting apartments in the world’s most cosmopolitan cities or even getting job interviews because of the foreign-looking names on their CVs.
I had just grown tired of all of this. More pertinently, on a personal level, I had grown tired of spending my time fighting those battles in the country of my birth. Naively wishful as it seems, I had thought that there would by now have been a better public understanding of why so many immigrants seek to come to the United Kingdom. I had thought that there would be a greater level of awareness about the British Empire and its historical role in shaping the world as we see it today. But I was wrong, and to that extent I had to admit some form of defeat.
I decided to leave the United Kingdom. The decision was heartbreaking. I never thought it was something I could do. I had long since realised that if there was greatness in Britain, then it lay in its everyday citizens, and not in its institutions. Britain was not great because of its papers and politicians who relentlessly denigrated us, it was great in spite of them. Britain was great because of the spontaneous community spirit you saw as soon as a small town was flooded, because of the volunteers who turned out in their tens of thousands to act as stewards for the Olympic Games. But that wasn’t a spirit that I felt my country was doing nearly enough to nurture.
I quietly shuffled off to Germany. It wasn’t lost on me that the very advice that racists in the UK had long spat at foreigners – “if you don’t like it, then go ahead and leave” – was that which I took. I suppose; in that sense, they won. I had my new home of Berlin to look forward to – one which, though not without racial issues of its own, had shown a great willingness to embrace newcomers from all quarters. A year or so after my arrival, this city of misfits greeted thousands of Syrians, fleeing war in their homeland. A cluster of supremely grateful immigrants, they were looking just as my parents had done to make a new life, to form part of a greater and hopefully more glorious whole: and, in their welcome, I saw confirmation that a town this generous was the perfect place to start again.
This essay is from ‘The Good Immigrant’, edited by Nikesh Shukla, which is out now (Unbound, £8.99)