Black History Month: My best friend was a racist, but she didn't know it and neither did I

29 Oct 2020

In the final blog marking the University of Winchester's Decolonising the Curriculum event during Black History Month, Tasnim Husain Curtis, Senior Lecturer in the University's Institute of Education, shares a highly personal account of experiencing prejudice at a young age and the far-reaching and long-lasting effects it can have on a young mind.

You never forget your first... racist remark

Mine happened on my way home from school, it was 1980, in inner city Manchester, and I was 12 years old. In a split second, who I thought I was changed, and it affected me from the inside out-forever.

Hurrying onto the bus with my friend Evette and some others from my year, I felt a little nervous as I didn't often get the bus. Usually my father would pick me up from school on his way home from his afternoon surgery, following a similar routine in the morning. Today my father was on call, so I had to be like everyone else.

Of course, I knew how to get the bus, but it was more complicated than simply getting on and sitting down. First, I had to fight through the crush of bodies, girls of all shapes and sizes, mostly bigger and taller than me. Next, I had to work out where to sit. Would it be at the back with the white girls or at the front with the 'Asian' girls? I had friends in both cliques, although one of my 'best' friends was Evette.

Evette, who was white, stood by me obviously pleased that I was with her, and that we had this rare opportunity to go home together. I did not want to let her down, after all she liked me and for a few moments I felt I was part of the 'cool girls' gang.' I appreciated then and still do today the importance of family, tribe and belonging.

I jumped up onto the bus, grabbing the pole to haul myself up following Evette closely. I didn't want to lose her in the melée. She tugged on my arm and said loudly and confidently: "Hurry up before the Pakis take all the seats at the back."

'Paki' was a derogatory term to Evette. She didn't know its true meaning of 'pure.' Evette must have seen the confused, hurt expression on my face, reflecting how I felt inside, and followed it up with a quick: "Oh, of course I don't mean you Tas".

And there it was, that punch in the guts, that moment I knew that I was an outsider, allowed in through someone else's largesse, allowed as an exception. I knew then that I could never truly belong, belong. In one frozen moment I had so many emotions, panic, anger, hurt, disappointment, shame, embarrassment and confusion.

Evette was my friend. I had known her since nursery school. We were close, hanging out together at the weekends and evenings after school. To now hear her verbalise her prejudice was shocking, almost unbelievable. What I heard was: "You do not belong, except because I choose to include you and I decide you are worthy". I felt like a lesser being.

Despite this I forced a pathetic smile and made my 12-year-old self's decision. We pushed our way past the Asian girls and sat ourselves down towards the back of the bus. I joined in with the banter and chatter with Evette and my friends willing, the discomfort and uneasiness to subside. These were my friends and they accepted me, I thought. They must, because I was sitting with them, laughing and talking. I fit in. That is what I told myself, but in my heart, I did not believe it. I felt like a traitor to the girls who looked like me and a fraud with Evette and the rest of her group.

This is the moment when harsh reality forced its way into my life. The lingering effects? Imposter syndrome: the constant feeling of wondering if I can ever belong in this society, questioning whether or not kindness, friendship and acceptance is truly genuine, or is it pity, a condescension? This is my story of how a tiny, almost non-event can have far reaching and long-lasting effects on a young mind.

Imagining my 12-year-old self now and looking back, I understand why for me this was so complicated, yet at the same time for most a straightforward situation. I looked like the white girls, I wore a grey skirt, had a bob haircut and spoke with a broad Mancunian accent.

However, these were the cultural choices that I made, enabled by my liberal parents who came to England to work. They tried to assimilate into British society, whilst at the same time trying to maintain their identity, religious and cultural heritage. However, my brown skin told them (and me) that I was not really like them at all. The difficulty for me was that I was not like the 'Asian' girls either. Unlike them I wore a skirt with no trousers underneath. I did not wear my hair long in braids, and although I am a Muslim I came from India, not Pakistan.

I never thought of myself as oppressed. The word itself conjured images of chains and cages, but I was. Perhaps this kind of obsequious oppression is the most pernicious. I am not a victim. In fact, I was as culpable as Evette was. I could have chosen to answer back, call it out or make a different choice, no matter how uncomfortable. I did not. Moreover, I spent the next 40 years doing the same as I did when I was 12, sitting silently on the side lines and desperately trying to fit in. This is no longer acceptable.

So, there are two sides to this story and two sets of accountability and responsibility. I must now be responsible. It is never too late to stand up and take part. I am compelled to vehemently add my voice to the many voices, who call for understanding and acceptance, and to seek to eradicate the prejudices and biases that the young might have today.

My commitment is to stand up and call it out when I or others like me do not feel heard. I will no longer allow myself to be invisible. I will not change who I am or how I look to simply fit in.

I am Tasnim Husain Curtis. Accept me or not...

About the author

Head and shoulders of woman in blue top smiling
Tasnim is a Senior Lecturer in the Institute of Education in the University of Winchester. She has worked in Education for 23 years as a secondary school science teacher in the South East of England, a Teaching and Learning Adviser for Southampton Local Authority and as a Senior Leader in Southampton. She has a passion for developing the expertise of young teachers and promoting excellence through continuing professional development. Her research interests are coaching and anti-racist education.

Decolonising the Curriculum at the University of Winchester
As we celebrate Black History Month, the University of Winchester's How Do We "Decolonise the Curriculum"? series of events brings together and gives a platform to the important and wide-ranging decolonising work and research that our colleagues and students are engaged in across the institution. It asks: 'what does it mean to decolonise?' and intends to provide a space in which we, as a University community, can learn, explore and reflect upon decolonising practice together.

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