In this episode of Our Voices, we learn about Andy’s experience of racist abuse while growing up in Northern Ireland, the effects of racism in his life and how he found a way to stand up to racism.
Growing up with the effects of racism
Andy is a police officer of both Malaysian and Northern Irish heritage. He is also a father of three children and president of the National Black Police Association, an organisation that represents police officers from ethnic minorities across the UK. In many ways, it is Andy’s experiences while growing up which have influenced his desire to stand up to racism as part of his profession.
Andy talks about the challenges he faced as one of only three non-white families in his entire town. The first incident which made him aware of how others perceived him occurred when he was just six years old. He was at the circus with his older cousin and he was a fun-loving, confident youngster.
A tragic childhood memory
So, when a performing clown asked for volunteers, he didn’t hesitate to raise his hand and soon found himself on-stage with two other children in front of 200 spectators. The clown proceeded to ask each of the children their names. When the clown asked the first two children, each of the spectators began to cheer.
“Then it comes to me and there was this kind of pregnant pause. The clown leaned down, asked what my name was, and I obviously replied Andy. And the next thing he stood up, again another bit of a pause, a couple of seconds. And, all of a sudden, he announced to everybody that this is sausage.”
This extremely traumatic racist abuse would later play an important role in teaching Andy to stand up to racism
Andy’s first reaction was confusion. Why did he call me sausage? Andy thought. But he noticed that the spectators were now howling with laughter. That was when he understood the joke. He had been called sausage because he was brown in the same way that sausages are brown. It was at this moment that Andy began to see himself as different to others
“I felt tiny… I felt like the whole tent was closing in on me. The heart beating like mad, almost wanting to run off. That was my immediate feeling, I want to get out of here. I want to leave.”
Racism in school
The impact of this experience didn’t just ruin this one evening for Andy. The effects of racism stayed with him for many years. “I had issues around confidence after that, I had issues around public speaking. I probably held back quite a bit as well, because I didn’t want to stand out, I didn’t want to be in the limelight again like that.”
A young confident child had been humiliated and shamed into not wanting to draw attention to himself. This is what the effects of racism can lead to. Once someone’s difference has been highlighted and exploited, it can make the individual want to hide the part of themselves that has caused that reaction. In the case of race, hiding this is the equivalent to hiding your entire self.
The situation Andy experienced was compounded by growing up in a sectarian society in the 1980s. The society Andy lived in was already characterised by division, therefore, people were attuned to focusing on difference. The discrimination he first experienced at the circus also became apparent in the form of racism in school. Children constantly asked him: “where are you from? Then, where are you really from? And I’m like: I’m really from Northern Ireland.” In Andy’s words:
“What racism and racist abuse is telling you a lot of the time is that you have no place in this society at all. You should go home, you don’t belong here, all of these things that people like me have been told numerous times throughout my life.”
Andy had to deal with the trauma of being bullied and beaten up because of his racial background. He describes people sneering and pointing at him in his town because there wasn’t anybody else who looked like him.
Learning to stand up to racism
Experiences such as facing racism in school either break an individual or force him to find extra resilience just to survive. Andy was fortunate in that he was able to achieve the latter and he found a way to stand up to racism. As he got older he found that he was bigger than most of the other kids in his age group. As a result, he was able to fight off the bullies and stand up for himself. On top of this, he would stand up for other kids that experienced bullying too:
“I always had a big thing about what was right and what was wrong. Growing up and seeing others getting bullied at school, I would always be the person that would step forward.”
This natural inclination to justice has played a significant role in Andy’s choice of career. As a police officer, he has experienced great success. He has risen from the ranks of constable to becoming a Detective Inspector. He has also been commended twice and won numerous awards. Yet, throughout all of this, Andy has continued to experience racist abuse.
A tragic victim of racism
Not everyone in Andy’s family has been able to forge a positive path in the face of this abuse. He grew up with a sister who, just like him, experienced racism. As a response to this, she would often describe herself using racial epithets. Andy says that this was a coping mechanism.
Describing his sister as a loving individual who just wanted to help others, he feels that the rejection she experienced due to her skin colour was too much for her to bear and she developed issues with alcohol and drug abuse as she grew up. One day, after not having heard from her for a few days, Andy went round to his sister’s house to check in on her. Tragically, he would discover that she had taken her own life.
Joining the National Black Police Association
Andy believes that the reason his sister took her life was due to the effects of racism. It was what motivated him to join the National Black Police Association in 2016. In his words:
“I could use my position to help others. There was no point in my sister having taken her own life and some of the experiences I’ve had if I don’t try to make things better for the next generation”.
It’s this sense of mission that has driven Andy so far in his life. He has been able to take traumatic experiences and use them as fuel to improve the world for others. But, just as Andy says, why should individuals have to go through such heart-breaking experiences just because of looking different? If the majority of the population knew how devastating the impact of othering those of a different race was, surely they would think twice before doing it.
If you have been impacted by any of the themes in this article and you need support, please click on the following link: Racism and mental health.