I feel myself privileged to be part of a generation, born in the sixties and raised in Britain’s urban, multi-racial inner-cities. For me and many people like me, this upbringing and the challenges and blessings that ensued, are the making of us.
But I’m not here to tell you that it was some kind of multi-cultural utopia. That would be a disservice to the challenges we now face as a country in the wake of growing awareness of our own systemic racial inequality.
Thanks to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement we have been given an incredible opportunity and we mustn’t waste it. It’s not going to be easy, in many ways it will be painful. But we have no choice, we have to be honest, brutally honest.
My generation were forced to find a new identity in, what at times, was overwhelming racial and social tension, exacerbated by the bedfellows of poverty, ignorance and fear.
Who were we? Who were we supposed to be? Our parents were those who had survived the Blitz, members of the Windrush generation, Holocaust survivors and those who had lived through the partition of India. Many of us considered Churchill an inspirational leader and a symbol of our courage and fortitude in the fight against Nazi Germany but others saw his negligence and undeniable belief in white supremacy as a major cause of the Bengal Famine and the death of their grandparents....And they had to keep quiet about it, until now.
We had to go to school together, date each other’s brother and sisters, go to the same night clubs, play on the same teams, all the while dealing with contradictory cultural narratives and generational trauma.
I would see my Sisters dance to lover’s rock with my black friends, whilst I summoned up the courage to ask black girls to dance but got nothing in return but sucked teeth and dirty looks. And the next morning my father would berate my Sisters and tell them that black men were sexual deviants who could never be trusted. I went to school and saw the map of the British Empire and felt a sense of national pride. But, on the bookshelves of my Pakistani or Bengali friends were books that told another story, of British atrocities.
When I was seven or eight, I saw a group of Asian men beaten to within an inch of their lives because they dared to go on the bumper cars at the Weaver’s Fields fairground. A field that was built for Huguenot immigrants. But Perry, with the wedge head and Terry with the bulldog tattoo didn’t know where they were standing, didn’t understand the cultural history of the manor they were defending. All they saw were P*kis having the audacity to enjoy themselves around white people.
At times there was no difference between Mississippi and the East End. Violence, racism and a celebration of ignorance.
I saw members of the NF throw bottles at my black friends’ houses. When someone was mugged, the first question you heard was, “what, was he black?”
When I was a teenager, coming out of a night club in Hackney, my friend Raymond and I were waiting for some girls by the entrance to the car park. Suddenly a car pulled up beside Raymond and the back window wound down and someone grabbed his jumper. They then shouted, “you black bastard,” dragging Raymond along the road. I grabbed his feet to hold him back and we were both pulled along the slip road, leading to a dual carriageway that now holds the London Stadium. Thankfully, they let go of Raymond before they reached the dual carriage way but not before the car reached around twenty-five to thirty miles an hour. We bounced off the road. Luckily there were no broken bones, we were just badly bruised and cut.
I fucking hate racist pricks.
When I was eighteen and walking through Brick Lane with my black girlfriend (finally someone didn’t suck their teeth when I asked them to dance) a black guy said something derogatory to her. We got into a scuffle, and I nutted him. It felt great.
The racist prick.
I used to work in a menswear store in Bethnal Green and a Jewish salesman was in the store selling us a range of shirts. My girlfriend came in to get our front door key. The Jewish salesman saw her first and said, “she pretty for a schvartzer". He nearly died of shame when he realised she was with me.
The racist prick.
At secondary school I got into a fight with a black boy who eventually went on to become a Chippendale. As he was throwing me around like a rag doll, I called him a black bastard.
One thing I’ve realised, growing up in this environment, is that human beings are both prejudicial and tribal by nature. When I speak of our prejudicial nature, I’m not only referring to that which inflicts harm or injury to a race of people or a minority. I mean human beings instinctively pre-judge everything based on their desires or purposes.
We constantly live by calculated guesses. Before we enter a room, we see a version of it in our minds, we pre-judge it. And once we enter, we are either pleasantly surprised or disappointed. As an actor my job is to dig a hole with my character’s prejudices and purposes, and then sit in it and be surprised.
One of our main purposes is the need to belong, in order to survive. Invariably this means belonging to a larger group. We need to feel that we are not alone, that there are people like us.
But what is this “us?” How is it defined?
This, I believe is the essence of racism, the essence of all forms of prejudice. Racism is tribalism based on crude and ignorant definitions. This was the challenge my generation faced on the council estates in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. To find a new definition of “us.”
We had lots of tools to help us, many things to help grease the wheels. Music, Football, Films, and fashion. But the biggest thing of all was familiarity. Human contact. In the vast majority of cases, it didn’t breed contempt. Enoch Powell was wrong. There weren’t ‘rivers of blood,’ there were rivers of love. The highest percentage of inter-racial marriage is between immigrants and the white working class. Many of the brothers and sisters of those men who march with Tommy Robinson and give Nazi salutes on their way to protecting Winston Churchill’s statue, have mixed race children. And they’ve been arguing over the kitchen table with their racist siblings all their lives.
In Buddhism they say that there is no fixed, eternal ‘self.’ That human beings are always in a state of flux, a work in progress. As a country we have to accept this with regards to our own ‘national identity.’
For many years I found it hard to define what I was. Born into the white working class but because of my parent’s volatile marriage I took refuge in the bosom of an immigrant family and was shown incredible love and support. Then I became an actor and worked with people from different classes and levels of education. After many years of struggle, I realised what my tribe was. It was open minded, kind, benevolent, curious people. It wasn’t based on race, religion, class or sexuality. It was based on character and shared values.
I portray human beings for a living and I often think of consciousness or our ‘soul’ if you are that way inclined, as being a young child in room with no doors or windows, that is slowly filling with water.
If we refuse to believe those walls can move, if they are fixed for eternity, then the child will drown. But if we allow those walls to collapse, then the child will survive and find itself floating on the water in a room twice as big. The water will keep pouring in and eventually it will fill the larger room, and we will be faced with the same dilemma. We must always allow the walls to collapse.
The Government, commerce, the police, the judiciary, the arts and academia were all established when there was only one accepted definition of a complete human being... a white, Christian, heterosexual, affluent, male. These institutions are still representations of our inequality rather than our diversity.
We have to allow the walls to collapse and find a new definition of ‘US,’ one that is based on shared values rather than false definitions of humanity.
Eddie Marsan . Black Lives Matter.
Eddie Marsan is a prolific actor whose career spans across TV, film and theatre. He has collaborated with some of the industries best directors and writers, including Mike Leigh, Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann & Steven Spielberg. Films include Happy-Go-Lucky, Deadpool, Concussion, and most recently portraying Terry Donovan in Ray Donovan.