In collaboration with Facing History UK, educator Sanum Khan recently interviewed 18-year-old Kam Lambert about his experiences of growing up as a mixed-race young man in Britain, and how the events of recent months have impacted him. His insights and experiences send several powerful messages to us all within and beyond Britain. Facing History UK is an entity of Facing History and Ourselves, and Sanum Khan is a Facing History teacher and Specialist Leader of Education for Religious Studies and Personal, Social and Health Education in Buckinghamshire.
SK: Tell us a bit about your experience as a mixed race young man in Britain.
KL: Growing up mixed race, my heritage is half white, quarter Caribbean and quarter Chinese. I have experienced a rich depth of culture from all angles which is great. However, it also comes with an added identity crisis. When I was in primary school, I hated being different - I was one of two black kids in my school. I hated everything about how I looked, I hated the colour of my skin, I hated how my hair curled. I had no role models in my school setting that looked like me. In year 5 when I grew my hair out and embraced my curls, I started thinking that I loved everything that is different about me, whether it was having darker skin than my peers or eating chicken chow-mein and Caribbean stewed chicken on a Sunday rather than roast! I resent the fact that I hated who I was for so long and wanted to be a white boy with blue eyes. But now I love who I am.
Nowadays, I think my race is assigned to me by the people around me. Something I came to grips with about a month ago. What I mean is, it is convenient for people to see me as ‘white’ at certain times...when I am achieving things my race is never mentioned. However, as soon as they resent me or people perceive me negatively, my race is mentioned. It’s not just about my black heritage, but also because of my Chinese heritage. Because of my name, people know. And as soon as coronavirus came up, people would cover their mouth when they came near me or say “don’t cough on me, Kam-Cheung”...
SK: You attended one of the protest marches. Can you share why you chose to do this and what the experience was like?
KL: It was incredible, it was one of the most beautiful and moving displays of humanity that I have had the honour of being part of. I think it is very rare in someone’s lifetime that so many people can get behind the same issue. It is such a universal issue. This is not just a black issue - this is something everyone needs to care about. I didn’t just see Caribbean and African faces - I saw all ethnicities... Historically race rights have been a ‘black’ issue. Now I think the amount of people who care makes it powerful - and the amount of people who care have the ability to change it.
SK: How have you engaged with peers on this topic recently and has living in partial lockdown helped or hindered the conversations?
KL: The fact that it happened during lockdown has benefited the movement even though people are not...encouraged to go out and be activists. It has given people time to think on things that affect others more than themselves. I do get phone calls from friends to talk about the issue of racism in the country; white friends as well. It isn’t an issue that directly affects them so they probably wouldn’t think about it before. They should care about it but probably didn’t actively think about it. We are, as a generation, having time to reflect on this and that is important. We are the future leaders and the ones who can affect systemic racism in the future.
SK: You've previously mentioned the idea that you believe we have a martyr rather than a leader of this movement right now. Why do you think that matters?
KL: I was referring to the fact that, in the past, movements have been led actively by leaders like MLK, Rosa Parks, Mandela, and the Black Panthers. Now, George Floyd is the leader of this movement – an unknowing martyr.
But there not being one leader distributes responsibility for driving change. People in education are thinking about how they can affect change within education, people within politics are thinking about how they can affect change within politics, people in entertainment are thinking about how they can affect change within the entertainment industry.
Just as Greta is the face for climate change, George Floyd is the face for the BLM right now but there are a thousand faces that could be on the poster. I hope it doesn’t need to be fuelled by more death. There shouldn’t be more faces to add. This is enough. No more deaths.
SK: How do you feel about the idea that 'all lives matter'?
KL: All lives should matter but, currently, all lives don’t seem to matter. This is about affording the group who don’t have the same rights equality. With peers, I explain to them “you are implying that it’s the same, that a white guy walking down the street has to worry that his neck will be knelt on until he dies just because of the colour of his skin. We are not asking to be superior - we just want to be on a level”.
If you are having discussions with black people, or in your peer group, and it makes you feel uncomfortable then that is good. It should be uncomfortable to be talking about the murder of black people. Revel in the fact that you are uncomfortable because hopefully you will use that to educate yourself to drive change.
SK: What are your thoughts on the removal of the Colston statue in Bristol?
KL: The removal of the Colston statue was symbolic of the change that is occurring in this country right now. We don’t have to celebrate the ‘heroes’ of yesterday when we look at them through today’s standards. …I don’t think you can control people’s reactions to symbols of hate. That is what they are, symbols of hate to black people. Petitions did not succeed to get it removed, but the people took it down.
SK: What else do you think people need to hear?
KL: White people can be racist to people of colour but people of colour cannot be racist to white people - they can be prejudiced but they can’t be racist. The idea of racism leans on the systemic power imbalance that exists within this country. So, when a white person is prejudiced towards a person of colour, they are flexing that pre-existing systemic power imbalance. It is a system built by them for them, therefore white people have the power to change it.
This time will be different because it has to be. People are too fed up to keep living in a world where they have to face discrimination on a daily basis. Giving us a voice is going to create change.
Facing History and Ourselves is taking on the challenging but important task of informing educators and kids of today on the issues that the world faces. The work that Facing History is doing will help to create a more understanding and socially conscious generation that will hopefully go on to change the world!
As part of our effort to support teachers and their students in having conversations about these issues we have created two Teaching Ideas which are available and free to use for all teachers:
- Seeking Justice: George Floyd’s Death and Structural Racism in the UK
- Reflecting on Statues and the UK’s Colonial Past
IMAGE: Interviewee Kam Lambert