You’re Going to Turn White
“And I’d get all these parcels with little dolls and bits and pieces from England and then I was told I was coming to England.”
Four years after Heather’s mother left Jamaica she had saved enough money to bring over two of her children, Heather and her son from her first marriage. When people knew Heather was going to London they warned she would change. “Everybody said, ‘You’re going to turn white.’ ‘Am I?’ They said, ‘Yes, you turn white when you go there’”.
Heather recalls the bus journey to Kingston to collect her passport, memorable because she rarely left the countryside to visit the capital. “….and I remember seeing blue sea, I still dream of it… but I also remember there must have been oranges or tangerines on the tree …it was one of the most beautiful things I ever saw.”
Heather’s mother had paid to make sure her daughter had a good education. When Heather got to the UK airport she remembers the immigration officers questioning her. “I was able to read and write quite well and do joined up writing. And when I came to the passport control they didn’t believe that it was me that had signed my passport [laughs].”
Heather remembers very little about how she felt to be leaving Jamaica.“ I don’t remember any sadness. I don’t remember any joy. I don’t remember anything really.” She remembers her first flight on an aeroplane but nothing special about it. She does remember her mother meeting her at the airport in London.
Heather settled in with her mother in a one room flat in a multi-occupational house in Tottenham. School was not easy. “I had a very thick Caribbean accent and I was laughed at in class so I consciously switched and changed. I had to, to survive really. I wish I had kept my Caribbean accent ‘cause when I hear it I think, oh it’s so rich, there’s a lovely twang, there’s a lovely sound to it – I was the only black face in the class.”
Heather found it difficult to make friends.“We had no use of a garden but I’d overlook the garden and there was a child next door and I’d play with her from the window… we connected and made friends ….I was never invited in to her house or anything like that.”
Even the names of food were deceptive. “I remember potatoes and I thought they used to taste awful …. I spat it out! Irish potato they used to call it… and I thought what is this insipid thing? ‘Cause I was used to sweet potatoes.”
Heather and her mother moved from Tottenham to Hackney, moving 8 times over 8 years to multi-occupational houses, usually with shared bathrooms and heated by calor gas. Heather soon learned to help around the house until her mother returned from work. “ I had my own key to let myself in and I’d do the cooking, do the clearing up, do some of the chores.”
When Heather attended Gayhurst School, near London Fields, they teased her with such taunts as, ‘ Heather, feather, leather rubber lips.’ She comforted herself that Mick Jagger, who was white, also had rubber lips. A fellow boy pupil reacted badly to such racism. He tried to scrub himself white with bleach. The rumour was that he died.
When Heather lived near her primary school she made friends with a white middle class girl who lived in a detached house nearby. “ And I would go there and they would never allow me in the house but we were very good friends, and I couldn’t understand why her parents would never allow me in the house…….. I didn’t ever really think it was my colour. I always thought I was ugly.”
In Jamaica Heather had loved the sense of space in the countryside. She climbed trees, teased her dogs and cats and played with her brothers near the river at the back of their house. England was a shock. “So the difference is just astounding that I could be in one country where I was just normal and then another country where I just felt completely alien. I wanted to die sometimes, not just die but you know, be somewhere else. I just didn’t feel I belonged here but I couldn’t put my finger on why.”
When Heather was 10 or 11 she adopted an important role model. “ It was the time of Black Power with Angela Davis… and I had my hair out. And my mum was crazy, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Cause I used to have plaits before… and I was wearing these trainers, white plimsolls with power written on it, and I used to make long maxi skirts [laughs], and wear these frameless glasses and go to the library [laughs] and come home with books under my arm and people must have been laughing at me because there …was no glass in the frame. [laughs].”
Heather went to a secondary school in Hackney. She did well at most subjects but was particularly encouraged by her clothesmaking, art and dance teachers. Heather was accepted by London College of Fashion but dropped out to a take a job in accountancy, a decision she regrets. At 18 she had her son. She became a lone parent.
Heather’s adult life has been full of accomplishments. She took up women’s weightlifting and was soon being placed in national and international competitions. “I done really well at it. I’ve been British champion many times.” Heather was placed third in Europe and sixth in the world and became captain of the British women’s weightlifting team. Under her captaincy, the team was placed first in the EEC, and twice placed second in the European Championships.
Heather has been a manager in adult and further education and is now studying for a Professional Directorate in the educational and social experiences of lone parents in higher education. It is something close to her heart. “And I thought of my mother, and I thought how do women actually manage and cope, you know, having children as well as having to deal with everyday stuff and study?”
She showed no enthusiasm for returning to Jamaica as a child or even as a young adult. “When I left Jamaica I never made contact with anybody again. It’s unbelievable how much I regret that and it’s about survival. My mother went back but I never went with her. And my grandmother, she died at 103 and I hated myself for never going back to see her, or to get that history from her. And I just thought, you silly, silly woman.”
Heather did eventually go back in and just in time for one important reunion. “Then I met my dad before he died, so I saw him and saw other people that knew me.”
Heather reflects on her achievements.“My determination may be coming from the fact that …my early years in the UK were so wasted.” She never turned white, as predicted when she left Jamaica, but now interprets that warning differently.“ The guy at the door (caretaker of Hackney adult education service) used to say to me, ‘A white, you white, you’re white,’ and I’ve had that expression before. So when they said that to me (in Jamaica) I was thinking skin colour. I wasn’t thinking about the things I’ve adopted – my whole persona and the way I am,the way I dress my house and everything. I’ve always moved quite a lot in the white world. I can see that actually.”
You can hear Heather and excerpts from her story below and on Soundcloud