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Being black British: Can it make you sick?

STRESS: Is it hard being black in the UK?

AT THE start of this year, I made a decision to approach life with a positive attitude. I was never an overly negative person, but I did have a tendency to be quite cynical, and even though I didn’t always verbalise my inner concerns, I was often a ‘glass half empty’ thinker.

Thankfully, my new approach has been effective, enabling me to stave off worries that previously would have burdened me. But recently, I’ve started wondering if having a positive mental disposition is becoming increasingly hard for black people in Britain. In fact, recent incidents have genuinely left me wondering if being black in Britain has the potential to make you emotionally unwell.

Having worked for The Voice for a number of years, I’d say I’ve become quite hardened to sad news stories affecting our community. But recent times in particular have left me feeling less nonchalant and far more worked up.

Take the case of 21-year old Mauro Demetrio. In case you missed the story: Demetrio, a young black man from east London, was arrested by police officers last August and secretly recorded the ordeal on his mobile phone. It was on this audio recording that PC Alex MacFarlane was heard telling Demetrio, "the problem with you is you will always be a n****r."

SAD STORIES: Wrongful arrests of black youths

The story emerged after the audio recording was posted on YouTube last month. And while the recording itself was sickening to hear, what was perhaps even more heart wrenching was the news that following an investigation from the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) had originally decided not to charge PC MacFarlane and two other officers who were allegedly involved, because – according to the CPS – the remarks did not cause Demetrio harassment, distress or alarm.

Well, this story pushed my emotions to breaking point. Even though the CPS later decided to review their original decision (only after Demetrio’s audio recording went public), I was incensed that they didn’t originally see fit to take serious action against the officer.

Having heard many tales of deaths of black men in police custody, racist murders, racism in football and general race-relate injustices, the Demetrio story caused something in me to snap. I couldn’t stop the anger from building inside me; I couldn’t stop the subsequent tears that welled up in my eyes; and even as the day progressed, I couldn’t shake the frustration that this story had sparked inside me.

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Hours later, with time and a calming peppermint tea allowing my vexation to simmer down (as my mum would say), I began to wonder: if I could feel so emotionally distressed just by reading a story of racial injustice, what kind of effect do such injustices have on black Brits who live them, sometimes day-to-day?

Student David Woode, 25, grew up in Basingstoke, and says he’s been stopped by the police approximately 25 times in the last nine years.

Recalling the first time he got stopped at the age of 16, he said: “I was walking to college with a female friend, when two plain clothes officers stopped me. One grabbed my arm and went on to tell me I matched the description of an assailant who had abducted a girl – and my friend matched the description of the girl that had been abducted. I couldn’t believe it – I thought it was a joke.”

Considering the effect this incident – and the subsequent times he was wrongly stopped by the police – had on him, Woode says the experiences left him feeling demoralised.

“Growing up in a predominantly white, middle class area, whenever trouble kicked off and they suspected a black youth to have been involved, chances were, I was gonna be pulled over if I was in the area. Not only is that frustrating, it’s embarrassing and demoralising, because onlookers just assume that you’re trouble and that’s how the stereotypes about young black men snowball."

“I was 16 when I was first stopped, but I can imagine how it must feel for even younger black boys when they are wrongly stopped by the police. When that kind of thing happens to you from a young age, and continues to happen, there’s no doubt it will shape your mindset and make you an angrier person. That constant anger and frustration is definitely unhealthy.”

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Anger is definitely the emotion that reared its head for British actor Danny Sapani when he attacked a police officer, two community support officers and a ticket inspector in a row over his bus fare in 2009. And in an exclusive interview with The Voice last month, the Misfits actor revealed that the incident – which resulted in him being jailed for six months – was probably the result of long-held resentment towards the police.

“My brother was beaten up by the police when I was 10-years-old and left on the door step,” he recalled. “At that time, Stoke Newington police was notorious for that sort of thing and it later went to court. He got compensation and stuff, but he was badly hurt.”

Considering his own attack on the police decades later, Sapani admits he had no motive to act the way he did, but believes that it was remembering what happened to his brother that stirred his rage.

“I was doing very well at the time,” he says. “I was very happy and secure in my life; there was no reason for that event to happen and it was a surprise that I should end up in that position.
“But then, this is perhaps the experience of black men growing up in this country. There is always, at any point, a demon from the past. The way things are, it is still more likely that black men will end up in a situation that leads to prison.”

Police injustice, sad statistics about black youth unemployment, media tales of ‘black-on-black crime’, high rates of mental health issues in the black community, being subjected to covert prejudice like being watched by security when browsing in high street stores – it’s all pretty depressing stuff. And if you find yourself surrounded regularly by this kind of negativity, surely it has to affect your well-being?

As I say, I always try to look on the bright side of life. But with negative tales concerning the black British experience rearing their head all too often, I’m always sure to keep well stocked up on my stress-relieving peppermint tea.

Tell us what you think. Can the frustrations of being black in Britain affect our health and emotional well-being? Email your thoughts to:

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