In her third column for The Press, the chair of York-based Inclusive Equal Rights UK (IERUK), Haddy Njie, talks about an encounter with an older person being unintentially racist and how she handled it.


“Coloured people are doing so well, look at you!”

This is what a well-intentioned man with racist ideas told me during a conversation about race, imperialism and how to eradicate hate. Five years ago, I would have been livid, and this charismatic elderly man would have received a different response because frankly, one can argue he did not deserve a gracious response.

As an advocate of therapy, I am fortunate to have at my disposal the tools to regulate my emotions and anger. The practice of self-awareness too helped me take a short pause and gave the man a reply I have not given before. By the way, I believe if one can afford it, seeking therapy is one of the best form of self-compassionate. I cannot describe how transformative it has been for me dealing with grief and trauma.

So, after a short pause, I gave this reply: “I am not doing as well as my parents, grandparents and great grandparents. When I was little, I lived in a massive house, a compound actually. We had over two cars, a driver, and a gardener". I proudly went on. I also enlightened him that if not all, most black people I know have torn down unimaginable barriers and they are exceedingly doing great things in spite of hate and harsh discrimination they continue to endure; casually and institutionally.

The lesson is that we may not be racist by nature, however we may hold racist ideologies and act in racist ways, sometimes unconsciously and unintentionally. We may have also believed what our parents and elders have told us about black people which must be questioned and challenged at all times because they are dangerous, divisive and none of it are true.

Throughout the man continued to incessantly nod his head, intensely looking at me, with a smile, in what I can only think was a shift of perception. But I wasn’t done.

One of the core principles of my upbringing was the respect I must give to my elders. “It doesn’t matter who, where or what they say, you must give respect to your elders” my mother tells me. All I could think of at that moment was how to compose my words and explain to him the offense he has caused.

Not only the term “coloured” is old-fashioned, but it is also a highly offensive racial slur that was used in the twentieth century. At the height of criminal and brutal racial treatment black people faced in the United Kingdom, the United States of America and other countries that participated in the premediated acts of slavery and colonisation, coloured people (that is, black people) were segregated from their white people counterparts and disallowed equal access to basic human rights such as sitting together, eating together, and sharing common educational facilities. Black people were referred to as coloured people. We were judged and thus treated as less than human beings.

As much as it is very hard to listen or read the explanation of the problematic use of the term “coloured”, you can understand how it makes me feel as a black woman being called coloured. This is precisely how I gracefully but firmly explained the issue to this man, old enough to be my grandfather. Not surprisingly, he understood.

His next question made me laugh. He asked: “Your accent is very northern, are you from Leeds or Huddersfield?” The conversation carried on.

If we are serious about being anti-racist or as others mildly name it as diversity. Either way, if we are serious about the matter, we need not give excuses or turn a blind eye when we see it or hear it. And if the incomprehensible argument is to move on because slavery, colonisation and all the rest of it were a thing of the past, then we must also move on and be respectful with how we view and label people, I mean black people.

Suggestion of the month – Think about the stories you were told of black people and question them.