When I was 8 years old I told my mother I wished I was white. Growing up in the 1960s in London, many of us saw prejudice and discrimination and accepted it as part of life. I was called a golliwog and monkey at school by my white classmates. They made fun of my plaited hair squares, saying they can play hopscotch on my head.
I had a white friend in class who lived near me, and we would walk home together after school. One day her mother saw us walking together. The following day my friend told me that she is not allowed to walk with me anymore.
At 8 years old I knew exactly why, and that is why I wished I was white with blond hair and blue eyes. I didn’t like how black people were being portrayed (we were called “colored” in those days, by the way). But as I got older I learned to truly love my blackness, and I developed a burning desire to be faster, smarter and better than my white peers. I wanted to be so darn good that I could not be ignored. So I worked hard to achieve those goals. I never wanted to feel inferior again the way I felt as an 8-year-old.
When I applied for a banking job in the British Virgin Islands I was hired only because my typing and shorthand skills were so exemplary that I could not be ignored. At that time only lighter-skinned blacks were employed by banks. Back then, and perhaps even now, there was skin-color discrimination even from our own people.
It was also not uncommon for boys to chase after light-skinned girls over darker-skinned ones. Some parents even told their children not to marry a dark-skinned person because they wanted “fair-skinned” grandchildren. Discrimination and prejudice among our own must have been a horrible thing, but my confidence (not arrogance) didn’t allow it to bother me. Besides, my job was more important than building a meaningful relationship with any man. I had a goal to work hard and support my mother and siblings, so I remained focused.
I look back now and smile when back in the day I would hear the things some people said about me. Remarks such as, “She is black but beautiful” or “She’s quite attractive … for a black girl.”
Whenever I was on a conference call with all men, or in a boardroom with all men, I was never intimidated because I was always prepared, and yes, always that little voice in my head saying, “Be so darn good that I cannot be ignored.”
I’ve sat at dinner tables with dignitaries, royalty, TV personalities and prominent politicians, and it never unnerved me. I always said to myself, “They put on their underwear the same way I do, one foot at a time — they are no better than me.” In fact whenever I entered a room, I strutted like a peacock, head high, with an air of confidence and pride, always the center of attention and never a wallflower.
To my young people, remember Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” The massive protests we have seen following the tragic death of George Floyd are inspiring. So many of our people who were activists back in the day have horrific stories to tell, and many, like me, at one time accepted racism as the norm. Can you imagine what our people could have achieved if not for all those 400 years of bondage and oppression?
I am proud of today’s young people — black, Latino, Asian and white — for taking up the mantle and fighting for the cause of justice and equality. But protest must be followed by perseverance.
Remember my advice: Be so darn good at what you do, that you could never be ignored.