If you ask me where I am from or what I am? My first answer will always be ‘London, I am a Londoner.
I was born in the North Middlesex Hospital in Edmonton in 1971. I grew up in London, moving from Tottenham to Edmonton to Enfield to Barnet back to Tottenham (via Islington and York) before settling here in Tooting. My parents arrived in the UK in the 60s. My mum from Mauritius, my dad from Trinidad. They pitched up at the Manor Hospital in Epsom and trained as mental health nurses. Then they both got jobs in Friern Hospital and so I grew up in North London.
My childhood was both secure and joyous, my mum and dad worked hard, unconsciously and naturally demonstrating and instilling gender equality to me, splitting the childcare of me and my brother and the domestic labour pretty equally. My dad working nights, my mum days, including taking me on the bus and handing me over at the hospital gates.
My childhood was also confusing and clouded in things I couldn’t understand. It wasn’t until my early 30s, coincidentally not long after I became a parent myself, that I began to be able to place and bring into focus the subtext of my childhood. It was then that I gained an understanding of who I was, and importantly how my parents’ heritage and immigrant experience shaped how they navigated the world and so shaped me.
I read a life changing book, Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-racial Britain by Mike Philips and his more famous (and now controversial) brother Trevor. In this book they document the story of Britain’s first West Indian immigrants from 1948 through to the present day (early 90s). The mixture of personal reflections, British social history and looking at contemporary multi-racial Britain, gave me a frame of reference I had never had before (we didn’t even have the single Black History Month when I was growing up).
Reading the book, I better understood the hopes and expectations my parents had, in coming to the UK. It helped me understand the various barriers, hostility and challenges they faced. It made me consider why they tried to preserve their heritage and transmit the values they had grown up with, to me and my brother: values and ways of doing things that I had often fought against, overtly and covertly, in my own internal desire to be more like those around me. In my desire to be ‘normal’, to not have a house that smelt funny, or furniture wrapped in plastic, to crave fish fingers, to try scrubbing myself in the bath, to get rid of the brown. Significantly, I realised how much they had lived in fear, for themselves and for their children. That they were doing everything they knew how, to keep us safe, and make us successful, in a world that had misled, disillusioned and disappointed them. I resented their methods, their trying to keep us home, prevent us being in dangerous places, knowing ‘dodgy people’. The constant refrain of the need to work hard and to be ‘twice as good’. Like any teenager, I felt controlled and suffocated. I assumed they were out of touch. I reacted based on my deep-seated feeling that they were the ignorant ones and they were the problem.
As an arrogant and naïve teen, I had no real understanding of the dangers of the world just because I had a brown skin. The murder of Stephen Lawrence on 22 April 1993 has always been a punctuating mark in my life. I was 22, my brother 17 (almost the same age as Stephen). This racist, senseless murder and the joke that was the police investigation at the time, hit me like nothing else ever has or maybe ever will. This could have been any of my family. At that point I must have gained some clarity, but not understanding of my parent’s position. Years later reading the Phillips’ book, all the pieces of the puzzle started to fit together, how racism had impacted every part of my life. I felt so grateful to my parents but also so guilty about my attitude. I also realised I had to make a choice; one they probably didn’t have. I could be controlled by racism, be subjugated by it or I could fight and not let it define me or my life outcomes. I made that choice – to be positively Sarah Guerra, Londoner and a proud daughter of immigrants, part of the global majority.
Today, as, arguably, a firmly middle-class woman, a mother of dual-heritage children, and an EDI practitioner, I regularly recall my epiphany. In helping people tread the path to equality improvement, I carry with me the many years’ experience of ‘the fight’, of the anger and disappointment, but also the joy of hope and the energy that comes from making a difference. One of the challenges I and many others face is how to best parent mixed-race children in a blended family. This is hard and something I regularly reflect on. How to ensure that my daughters are prepared for the real world (in a way that I wasn’t)? Knowing that includes sexism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia and ablism and that they will inevitably face these in some way. How to prevent them having the same confusion and imposter syndrome that I have experienced? How to prepare them, without othering them or priming them to expect negativity? These reflections are many-layered and complicated, their experience is not mine, like mine wasn’t my parents. Martha, Flora, Kaela and Lyra’s heritage is different to mine. Kaela and Lyra are half white, their dad and their sisters look completely different to them. They are half ‘proper’ British. Yet can anyone ever be ‘proper British’ when they have coffee coloured skin? That certainly didn’t feel possible when I was growing up.
I’m not going to claim to have the answer. Just this question, how does structural inequality and everyday racism and sexism show up for this generation, where we have far more mixed heritages?
The seminal question we must answer to honour Stephen Lawrence and continue to give his death meaning, is how do we learn from the past and create a future for our children and their children where we have confidence in the fairness and justice of our society for all?