'I wanted to fight against racism'

Tim, Rose and Len

Tim Oshinaike (left), Rosa Hui and Len Shillingford all came to the UK from overseas. Some of their expectations were met and at other times they were surprised at what they found life to be like. 

They share with us their personal journeys and the experiences of their communities.

What brought you to the UK?

I came here to study in 1964 when I was about 17. I was born in China.

I came to join the armed forces when I was 18, in 1960. I was born in Dominica, a small island in the eastern Caribbean.

I came here to study in 1956 to study law. I was born in Nigeria. I think I was about 21.

What did you expect it to be like?

I used to study everything about England. I came in March and it was bitterly cold compared to Hong Kong. The first impression I had was how many churches there were! Every street I walked past had a church!

One of the beauties of coming from a British colony is that, technically-speaking, you are British, only with more spice.  On films and TV there was always fog in London, so I was amazed to actually witness these foggy days.

When we got to Liverpool, my first impression was that it was all black and dirty. I thought, ‘I’m sure the rest of England won’t be like this’, because the image of the UK they sold was Bond Street, with everything shining. But when I got to London, Euston was just the same: black!

How was life for the BME community in the 50s and 60s?

I was involved with the first attempt at race relations in 1965. When West Indians and Africans came to Britain in the early days especially to serve England during the Second World War, as they came down Euston Street the crowd would come and kiss their hands and say ‘welcome’.

But after the war, the same people were asked, 'where are your tails? Are you going back in the trees?’ So you see there were prejudices which prompted a number of us to set out to make a difference.

I stayed and found lodging in an Italian family, and they treated me very well. But because I didn’t seem to belong to the white or the black groups, I found myself very isolated.

In 1967, I lost my brother. That was the first time I found out about discrimination because it turned out that his doctor was very racist. I realised I am not the same and there is discrimination but it was very hidden. That made a great impact on me. I wanted to fight against racism.

I came in the 50s, and the black people here especially from Africa were regarded as strange in the way we dressed and everything. People would even stop their cars to touch us and our clothes.

The British Council was looking after us, so accommodation was not a problem. But we did read stories, of when a black person goes to knock at the door to rent a flat, they told him it’s gone, and ‘no dogs, no blacks’.

I was involved in the very first racial riot in London, which was in 1958, in Notting Hill Gate. Then, when I started working, I found racism at work. You had to be 10 times better than an English or white person to get the same opportunity.

Have things got any better?

I think there’s a lot of tolerance now. That tolerance is institutionalised from government; basically we have political correctness.

But these days a man might say to me, ‘Hello Len’, shake my hand, then stab me in the back. Whereas in the olden days, they’d say to your face, ‘Sorry, I don’t like black people.’

I think people have to comply with the laws and policies that are set by the government. But telling people ‘they can’t do this, they can’t do that’ creates a kind of a frustration. So with all this economic downturn, it’s an opportunity for people to say how they really feel.

Jobs are scarce and the frustration’s coming out, which is a reason why the BNP is so popular now, even in Bristol.

Because you are different you are treated differently. And this happens all the time. It still happens although you tend not to notice it, or not to let it knock you back. And sometimes it is so subtle that you do not realise it’s happening, until it hits you.

And what are the key issues?

I think people overlook how lonely some older Chinese people are, how desperate they are. And because of our culture, we don’t ask for help, because asking for help is seen as weakness. A lot of elderly can’t even sign their own name in the Chinese language let alone understand English.

When it comes to inequalities in service provision to diverse communities, we’re told it’s because we’re ‘hard to reach’. That’s an excuse. When you want to collect my tax, you know where I am. So I’m not hard to reach.

Transport is also an issue, because if you look at the English day centres, everybody who has a car will help to rally people back to the centre. Now if you look at the BME ones, we don’t do that. We depend on either public transport or either the Lottery giving us money to buy a minibus to run and collect people.

What do you see as the solution?

The only way you can make change is to involve directly the people who you are trying to serve, they know what they need. And we have to treat older people as individuals.

Unless you complain, no one will do anything about it. My great-uncle used to say, ‘if you don’t say you are, nobody will say thou art’.

Which contributions to British culture are you proud of?

The economy. The Chinese are a hard-working people, and we don’t like going for hand-outs.

For a start, you’re wearing a nice bright shirt [talking to Richard, the interviewer]. Before West Indians came to Britain you wouldn’t have worn that, you probably would’ve worn a white or a grey shirt.

We brought change in almost everything. Your food, housing, you name it. Multi-cultural society, carnivals, enjoyment! Because in the days before the 50s and the 60s, British people were more or less inward-looking people. Now they’re out-going. You can’t keep them quiet!

In a nutshell, what does Black History Month mean to you?

We should celebrate the diversity. I think that is what my comment is.

Well, celebrating diversity and respecting and recognising the input which the diverse communities have brought to the United Kingdom.

And to me, it’s celebrating the human spirit for freedom.


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