The day I knew, as a mixed-race person, that Bishop's Stortford was not the place for me any more
David Jones is a married father of two, an advertising agency director and a former primary and secondary school pupil in Bishop's Stortford. Here he recalls his life growing up in the town as the son of a white father and a black mother...
In June, following the Black Lives Matter protests over the death in the USA of George Floyd, Munira Mirza – a woman who has previously rejected the existence of institutional racism and criticised the ‘culture of grievance’ among ethnic minorities – was controversially asked to establish a commission on racial inequalities.
I would like to share my upbringing in Bishop's Stortford with Indie readers as an alternative perspective. The events and occurrences are not dissimilar to those of other ethnic minorities in small towns outside London.
My earliest memory of racism is my Caribbean mother waiting in line at the former haberdashery stall in Stortford trying to get served in the mid-1980s in Thatcher’s Britain.
As she stood at the front, the only brown face, people behind were being chosen for their custom at her expense. When she decided to have the confidence to speak up, her accent was ridiculed by the proprietor with the accompanying suggestion that if she didn’t like it she could try somewhere else.
Casual racism was a regular norm for my mother – singled out for dirtier and tougher duties as a nurse, whether it was lifting or cleaning, and passed over for promotion, even though she was more qualified or experienced. This must have been frustrating, but is still very much a common occurrence today for many black or ethnic minority people.
Leaving my mother’s side didn’t get any better. I got called abusive names such as “Paki” and “blackie” during my school years and targeted by bullies for regular shake downs.
My mother instilled pride in me, so I never ran away, and also resilience so that I didn’t fight back and cause myself to get into a worse situation. This approach changed one day when I arrived home sporting a black eye.
My mother furiously marched me back into school to remonstrate with the headmaster that justice must be served, to which he replied: “If you don’t like it you can leave.” The joys of attending an all-boys school in the early 1990s.
Clubbing in Bishop's Stortford was an eye opener. Often I’d find myself encountering two types of girls in a club: those who didn’t see race and would just find you annoying or interesting, depending on your approach on the night, and those who viewed you with prejudice.
When I got talking to them as part of a larger group I’d be met with “I don’t really like Turkish guys” (I’d think to myself 'Is that a bad thing? The Ottomans brought culture to the world!') or “Are you Muslim?” (No – and is it a disadvantage in this situation to be?). I never took it personally as it was apparent it was a lack of education, as I knew I was good-looking and interesting as a result of the pride and confidence my mother had instilled in me.
When I was 26, I went to withdraw a small amount of money from my then Saffron Walden Herts & Essex Building Society account. The cashier took my ID, looked down, paused and then looked back at me, repeating this process three or four times. She then went over to her manager. They whispered to each other for about a minute, away from the glass, before she returned.
“I’m sorry, I can’t serve you,” she said matter of factly. When I asked why, she said that she could not verify who I was. She did not believe that the name printed in my bank book, 'David Jones', was me. I said that was ridiculous and politely asked that she hand back my bank book. At this point the manager came to the glass and refused my request to return my book.
Eventually, it took a phone call to my father to come down to the branch in person to verify my identity. The manager was shocked and apologetic. The cashier still looked sceptical but handed back my bank book.
My father wrote to the building society's headquarters that same night. I received a very sorry reply from one of their directors. Our family later withdrew our collective savings due to a loss of confidence.
The worst form of racism was in the Noughties. Walking home one night, I saw three white teenagers approach. I could see them excitedly conspiring with each other. I knew from experience that I was about to be jumped. I stuck out my chest, kept my head up, broadened my gait and rang my friend to speak probably the worst street slang in the world. However, it did the trick.
The yobs were spooked and as I fearlessly looked each one in the eye, talking aggressively on my phone, I passed them by unscathed – the fight went out of their eyes. I exhaled, but further up the road the familiar words I had come to expect started flowing from their mouths: “Keep walking, you black c***” and for the first time: “I’ll f***ing stab you – dead!”
Upon returning home, my father was furious and rang the police, who came to take a statement. The perpetrators were never found. I believe to this day had I crossed the road in fear or not taken the precautionary steps to alter my physical stance I’d most likely have been stabbed or murdered.
Today, in the workplace, I am met with a more discreet, under-the-table type of racism. My name in part gets me selected for an interview almost immediately: 'David Jones', the most British or Welsh name you can get.
On interview day I’d take great pleasure in watching the interviewer look around the reception area, calling out my name but glancing over me. When I decide to stop the poor soul’s suffering and put my hand up, the shock on their face is priceless. A case of the name not fitting the face, in their eyes?
Once you are past that barrier, getting promotion becomes the next challenge. My field advertising and media industry has only 5% black or ethnic minority people possessing the title of senior manager or higher. The colour of your skin should not matter yet does in a world where it is deemed fine for black people to sell trainers but not be on the executive board of the company.
I left Bishop's Stortford in 2013, but that decision was made in 2009.
Walking with my father to the Empire cinema, he suddenly fell. He was in the final six months of his life and tumbled over onto his backside, his bad leg bearing the brunt of the fall (he had polio as a child, damaging the bone and muscle mass in his left leg).
As I reached over to console him and help him up, a man came running over and said to my father “Are you okay?”, staring angrily at me, insinuating that I was harming this random white man.
My father angrily looked up and, in a heartbroken voice, said: “That is MY son.”
The man immediately looked blank, glancing between the both of us. He adjusted his tone and asked if he could help, now addressing me for the first time. When I returned home later that day I knew I’d had enough – Bishop's Stortford was not the place for me any more.
Years later, after I had left Stortford, my mother told me the “funny” story of she and my father walking home and a champagne bottle being thrown at their heads from a passing car. The punchline was: “They didn’t know if it was because she was black or because he was disabled!”
I have always felt the same as any other person. I was born with a white father telling me I was his son and no different to anyone else – I assumed that meant I was just like him. I felt entitled and privileged, as any white person would unconsciously feel.
I realised in my twenties though that as much as I might have felt entitled and believed I should enjoy the same privileges as everyone else, this wasn’t necessarily possible.
I have learnt that some people – anyone from the ticket clerk at a railway station to the person checking you into a hotel – do not care about your background, they see one thing: colour.
This is based on lack of education, assumptions, stereotyping and, in some cases, racism. These barriers to entry ensure that you are several steps behind the average white person.
Things are slowly changing, but will they completely change by the time my daughter and son enter the workplace in 20 years? I’m not so certain.
I hope that Munira Mirza's views have changed and that she will listen better and particularly act with empathy, as ethnic minorities in this country need that more than anything.
Who is David Jones?
David, who grew up and lived in Bishop's Stortford for almost 30 years, is the mixed-race son of a Welsh father and a Caribbean mother.
Aged 40, he is a creative director with Soho-based marketing and advertising agency TMW Unlimited and founder of fashion brand New Money Natives.
He is married to Anushka, 38, a project manager. They live in Bushey with their daughter Arabella, 5, and son William, 2.
David, who attended All Saints Primary School and then The Bishop's Stortford High School, lived in Edens Close, Bishop's Stortford with dad Andrew, mum Sandra and younger sister Jade.
He went on to have a career in taxation after university before changing career and becoming a designer.