Photography: James Bell
It remains a sad fact that in these enlightened times of British Values which are concerned with Mutual respect and following the rule of law that people of colour are bullied and lose their self-esteem. As a photographer I was commissioned by a mother of two where the brief was to produce images that celebrated their cultural heritage. It seemed like a standard job however in discussing why mum wanted the pictures she revealed that one of the children was introverted and that issues at school made her a target of bullying resulting in her eldest daughter losing her confidence and wearing dark clothes and hoodies to hide herself from prying eyes. Her mother whose parents are from Guadeloupe, was born and raised in France and later migrated to South London in 2007. I guessed that the eldest daughter whom we shall refer to as Kaye, was targeted because of her French accent. It was only until I asked the children to recall the issues they faced that I found that the bullying was more complex and I fully understood why mum chose to have their photographs taken along an Afro-centric theme so that they can be proud of their heritage.
Kaye:When I was in primary school, I used to cover up my hands and legs because I had eczema. Back then, my eczema was bad, and my skin was very hard. When I moved to a new primary school in South London I started to get bullied by kids and teachers. The teachers would avoid touching me and did not do much to stop other kids from bullying me. They would call me names and were always picking on me; I never had any friends. A few years later, the bullying got worse at High School. Children would say “If you touch her, you'll get bad luck for the rest of your life" and "Crusty Hands"; the gossiping spread through the school until eventually I was targeted by a girl who physically assaulted me. I was pushed down the stairs at school and punched several times while I was laying on the floor. When I reported this to the teachers, they did nothing. The bullying continued and as I went home the same girl and her friends followed me to the tram station, they started beating me again, laughing and filming it. No-one intervened; they only stopped when the tram arrived. I did not talk to my mum about it as I was so ashamed; she later noticed something was wrong and then I told her asking her not to do anything. Mum emailed the school straight away, then she called the police. The school head of year emailed her and informed her that their investigations found that I was the one who started the fight because I talked back to my bullies! I saw my mum getting angrier. So, the complaint was escalated to the Head of Department and the Principal which made me worry about the consequences. After a while the bully's best friend came to me alone and told me that my mum should better not call the police. I said to the girl that I didn't even know my mum was coming to school or what she had in mind. Everything got better at school since this incident and even if I still had dirty looks and name calling, it was less than I had experienced before. My mum explained to me that they realised that I am not as isolated as they thought so they don’t target me anymore. As time went by, I started making new friends, I was glad that my eczema was not a problem for them which made me more confident.
Photography: James Bell
James: Do you still cover up and wear Dark clothing? Kaye: Talking about fashion, I noticed how my cousins were comfortable in their clothes, but I wasn't in mine. I was desperate to copy them, but I wasn't confident enough, so I stayed hiding in my loose clothes and hoodies. When I went out with my mum, she said I was making her feel hot, complaining that it was ”100 degrees outside” and I had my hood on and hands in my pockets! My mother and my younger sister have helped me gain more confidence asking me to try new clothes when shopping. It worked, and I got rid of a lot of clothes to replace with better outfits. James: Do you ever get targeted because of your skin colour? Kaye: I had my first experience of racism when I was on my way to piano school. I was in the bus with my keyboard waiting for my stop when an older Asian lady got in, I offered her my seat even though the keyboard was heavy. The woman gave me a dirty look and walked off to sit next to someone else. This experience was nothing compared to some stories I have heard but it was the first time I experienced discrimination. My mum explained to me that my skin condition was a problem for people but, now it is my skin colour. There will always be something people will pick on, so I have been encouraged not to worry as we are not here to please people. Instead of feeling uncomfortable with other people’s behaviour, I want to show that I don't care about what they think. We all come from different countries and have different backgrounds, let's be proud and wear clothes that identify who we are. Mum has bought us more ethnic/African/Statement clothes and accessories, she told us more about our backgrounds and cooked more soul food so that we can be proud of our heritage. Today I am proud of wearing my clothes linked to my African-Caribbean heritage.
James: What cultural music do you listen to and who are you influenced by? Kaye: I listen to Maitre Gims and Lindsey Stirlings because I like them. I also listen to Stromae, Prince and Lauryn Hill because they have a unique style. I also listen to Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder Nina Simone.
Interview By: James Bell
Photography: James Bell