Growing up, I didn’t know anybody who looked like me.
We lived in Bristol, which is a fairly diverse city, but it’s also very segregated along socio-economic and ethnic lines. I went to a public school and I was the only girl of colour in my year group.
I did well at school and I had many friends, but I always felt a bit different, like I was looking into a world I wasn’t really part of. My grandfather’s Ghanaian but the rest of my family is white British, so I’m mixed race.
Let me say upfront: I’m extremely lucky to have had the education and opportunities that I had growing up. I’m aware of the need to check my privilege.
But I remember developing an acute awareness that I was different to my friends around the age of 12 or 13. There were a couple of incidents around that time that caused this. First, I was teased by boys in my year for having ‘strange’ hair. As a young teenage girl this made me self-conscious and suddenly very aware that I looked different from my friends. Second, my best friend at the time said to me: ‘I would never marry someone who’s black. Because then my children wouldn’t look anything like me and I wouldn’t want that.’ My 12-year-old brain found this hard to process - does that mean I don’t look like my dad? Does that bother him? Do I really look that different? And if I do is that a bad thing?
I had high hopes for university, and imagined it would be a diverse place where I would meet all sorts of different people. I did make a couple of black and mixed-race friends and found it liberating to find others who’d had similar experiences as me growing up. But as recent research has shown, British universities are increasingly segregated along ethnic lines, and my university was not a diverse one.
After university, I moved back to the same part of south London where my parents met 30 years ago and I found myself surrounded by people from all different races. It’s true that London is becoming increasingly segregated. But, for the first time, I walked down the street and saw lots of people who looked like me, and lots of couples who looked like my parents. For the first time, I didn’t feel my difference - because I was surrounded by all sorts of different people.
I worked as a mentor on our National Citizen Service programme a few years ago and saw young people from different backgrounds working together and becoming friends. I wish I’d had the opportunity to do the same.
Getting to know people from different walks of life help us understand what shapes our identities and beliefs. We learn to understand and appreciate differences and, importantly, to recognise that we are all not quite as different as we’d imagined.
Social integration matters to me because no one should grow up in this wonderfully diverse country feeling that they don’t belong in their own school or neighbourhood. We need areas and spaces that enable people from all sorts of different backgrounds to meet, mix and develop meaningful relationships.
Grace Annan-Callcott @GAnnanCallcott
Digital Brand Manager