Living with Racial Prejudice with Mark Esho
This week’s episode of Our Voices focuses on the challenges of dealing with racial prejudice and facing police misconduct. We introduce you to Mark Esho, a truly inspirational individual, serial entrepreneur and social activist. He talks about how he has found a way to remain positive amidst the discrimination he has faced as a black man with a disability.
Beating the odds
Mark was born to Nigerian parents in Leicester in the 1960s. However, from the age of 6-months old, he grew up with a foster family. He describes the family as being “very protective” and he remembers his early years as being relatively happy. But he had to face his first great challenge at the tender age of 5.
He contracted polio, which left him disabled from the neck down. He was given a 10% chance of survival. Mark went on to beat the odds and not only survived, but he also managed to regain partial mobility. He is now able to mobilise with the help of a wheelchair.
A charming upbringing
Talking about life in the small village where he grew up, Mark says that he did not experience any racial prejudice there as everyone in the village knew each other.
“So any time that I’d actually suffered any sort of racism that I can remember was from people outside of the village”.
When Mark suffered such abuse, he had his older foster brother to protect him.
Returning to the UK
Mark left the UK to go to Nigeria at the age of 9, but he returned to Leicester to study aged 18. He found that disabled access was severely lacking at his institution. Despite this, he was able to get his A-Levels and he also completed an MBA. It was upon moving to London in the 1980s that Mark experienced racial prejudice.
“You often felt like a second class citizen. And you’d try to avoid places where [it] was all white.” Mark describes the feeling of not being wanted by the wider community. This often took the form of active police misconduct. He talks about “constantly being stopped by the police for whatever reason. And the only crime was driving while black”.
Facing police misconduct
After experiencing police misconduct so often, Mark stopped reacting against it. “This is something that happens, on a regular basis, so you just tend to brush it off”. As much as it may seem as if Mark was giving in, essentially he was finding a way to maintain his dignity and sanity in the face of injustice.
“ If you let it affect you, it then impacts on everything else around you, it just makes you angry, makes you sad… I’ve learned over the years just to let certain things go because, otherwise, it can be damaging to your mental health”.
Racial prejudice next door
Yet, sometimes, the discrimination was so threatening that Mark was not able to distance himself from it. At the age of 20, he relocated to Barnet and was provided with social housing. One of his new neighbours was the very opposite of welcoming.
“[He] said to me that the likes of you are not wanted here. And I’m going to be keeping an eye on you”. The man was white and 6 foot 3, significantly taller than Mark. It also turned out that he was a part-time police officer. Two weeks later, the man repeated his threat. This time he had a shotgun on his shoulder. Despite the intimidation, Mark tried to ignore the man.
Two months after this, there was a knock on the door. It was the police who had come prepared with a search warrant due to reports of Mark dealing drugs. After the police’s inevitably unsuccessful search, Mark made his way to the police station to find out who had made the report. He naturally suspected that his threatening neighbour had had something to do with it. The police stated that they could not provide this information.
Mark then attempted to lodge a complaint, which the police refused to process. Once again, Mark found himself in a position in which there was nothing he could do to combat the intimidation and victimisation he was experiencing. This was compounded by the police misconduct, clearly, they were favouring one of their own over an innocent sufferer of racial prejudice. “Even today, [that] really annoys me and saddens me”.
A threatening encounter
Another example of this type of behaviour occurred in a pub in Edgware. Mark was meeting up for a drink with an old school friend from Nigeria called Doyin. He describes going to the bar and ordering drinks and noticing three white guys staring at him aggressively. They tried to ignore the men and to focus on drinking their drinks. But they could feel the men’s eyes on them: “It was a very hostile environment”.
Mark and Doyin attempted to drink their drinks faster so that they could leave the pub but they would only have time to take a couple of sips before being roughly grabbed by their collars.
One of the men said “are you guys ok? We said yeah, we’re okay thanks. No, he said, really? Are you really okay? Yeah yeah, we’re fine. And he said, No, I don’t think you heard me. Are you really, really ok? I think you need to go now. And I think that’s when we got the message. Mark and his friend would leave the pub without finishing their drinks.
Reflecting on the experience, Mark talks about how frustrating he had found it that no one had come to their aid. The pub landlord had seen the way Mark and Doyin had been treated and he’d simply walked away. None of the other people in the pub had intervened either.
Learning to live with prejudice
One could forgive Mark for feeling bitter and resentful as a result of the racial prejudice he’d experienced but, surprisingly, his reaction was to laugh.
“We just thought he was so funny… we joked to people that we inadvertently walked into a National Front meeting”. Explaining his reaction, Mark says “It just helped us release the tension and remove the pain of the experience”.
Again, Mark was able to show how adept he is at maintaining his sanity when experiencing threatening, racist behaviour just as he’d had to learn how to deal with facing institutional racism previously.
Yet the impact of such events does live on. Mark talks about how is now constantly wary about going to new pubs, especially those in all-white areas. His reservations are echoed by many racial minorities, who still often feel on-edge and unsafe in particular environments due to the racial prejudice they’re experienced.
Campaigning for a better future
Mark’s story provides an example of how much effort a person of colour often has to go to maintain a sense of dignity and grace in a world that can often be threatening and insecure. Instances of police misconduct and a sense that the system is working against you only makes things worse.
Mark is campaigning to make the world a safer place for both black and disabled people so that life doesn’t have to be as hard for future generations. To learn more about Mark’s incredible story and charity work, read his book “I Can, I Will”.