Tinu Cornish on her experiences of racism at school
In this episode of Our Voices, we hear about Tinu’s experiences of institutionalised racism at school. We also hear how Tinu came to recognise that a former teacher, who could have been her role model, fundamentally let her down.
Tinu was raised in Norfolk in the 1960s. She is mixed race. Her mother was white British and her father was black Nigerian. As Tinu was growing up, racial oppression was rife within society.
But Tinu never felt as if she could talk to her parents about the discrimination she would experience. “It was still part of the era where children are to be seen and not heard. You didn’t talk to your parents about anything because you’d get in trouble.”
A place of sanctuary
Racism at school, just as in other walks of life, was a common occurrence. Yet, Tinu did find a place of sanctuary in a particular group. She was an avid student of science and she found a group of kindred spirits in her physics classes. The person who really stood out for her during these classes was her teacher, Mr Brown.
“He actually had a full brown beard. If you’ve ever seen pictures of Abraham Lincoln, that’s what he looked like.” What particularly struck Tinu about her teacher, however, was his sense of humour.
A genuinely decent person
An example of this could be seen in his attitude to classroom pranks. It became something of a feature of his classes that students would tamper with his experiments. One example was when Tinu added washing-up powder to a liquid when Mr Brown wasn’t looking. His surface tension experiment was consequently ruined.
Talking about her teacher’s reactions to these pranks, Tinu says “He never got angry at us … He would just take it in good humour. I think he was a genuinely decent person who loved teaching us.”
Racism at school
Even though Tinu was the only person of colour in her science group, she always felt accepted there. This was in contrast to the racism at school she experienced more generally. The school was a massive building within which were large, open corridors.
Comparing her experience to that seen in American movies where the nerdy kids would be intimidated and jostled by the school jocks, Tinu describes the terrifying daily ordeal she would face. “We would be running a gauntlet of white kids who are calling out racist epithets.”
Yet there was a difference between her experience and that seen in the movies. “No one did do the thing, which occasionally they do in American movies; where one of the teachers will come out and intervene and stop it all happening.”
Tinu did not just witness racism at school, she saw it being tolerated by society more generally. No-one in Tinu’s family would discuss race, while racist comedians such as Bernard Manning were mainstream entertainers.
Tinu’s parents and grand-parents would even gather around the television to watch black and white minstrel shows. Her grandparents were both racist and misogynistic. Yet most people seemed to find this content funny. In Tinu’s words: “That was the culture.”
The only person Tinu was exposed to who was challenging and confronting racism was Bob Marley. Through his music, Tinu finally heard someone talking about fighting back. “That was the only thing that reached Great Yarmouth. And he was the one who was talking about racism… talking about standing up for your rights.”
A sombre reunion
Thirty years after leaving the school, Tinu came to learn that there would be a final reunion. Tinu had never attended any of the previous ones. She decided that she would go to this one in order to see the man who had been her favourite teacher.
When thinking about Mr Brown’s classes, she had always regarded them as a safe haven from the constant experiences of racism at school. It was, therefore, with unfortunate surprise that she saw Mr Brown’s face fall upon seeing her. “He looked at me and he said, ‘I can’t believe you’re here, because they were so horrible to you.’”
Mr Brown’s reaction shocked Tinu into silence. It forced her to reflect on the reality of what had really been happening during her time at school.
“It’s the moment where everything you thought you knew about something completely changes. They say when you’re dying that your life flashes in front of your eyes. It’s that sort of experience in reverse where basically you sort of unwind a whole history, a whole narrative.”
Turning a blind eye
Tinu had always regarded her teacher as having protected her from racist abuse. But the truth was that, while he had never been actively complicit in racism towards her, his inactivity had contributed to normalising the racism at school. “I suddenly realised that they all knew exactly what was going on, and did nothing to stop it.”
Referencing the famous TV personality who was posthumously exposed as being a child abuser, Tinu refers to her teachers as being part of the “Jimmy Savile generation. They did nothing to protect children.”
It was this experience which helped Tinu realise the importance of not just being non-racist but anti-racist. This means taking an active stance against racism. “So a lot of people go around being non racist, and think that that’s fine, as long as they don’t say or do anything, but they’re not being anti.”
Fighting for racial equality in the workplace
Tinu believes that, even today, cultural and societal structures make it difficult for individuals to be anti-racist. As a result, she has dedicated herself to promoting anti-racism in her work as an organisational psychologist at SEA-Change Consultancy. Her focus is on improving racial equality in the workplace by providing education on racism and how to work against it.
“I work with organisations that are doing research to try and improve by making sure that more black, Asian and ethnic minority people are engaged in what they’re doing, that they’re improving their experience at work, that they’re helping to ensure people not only come into organisations, but once they’re there, that they thrive and flourish, that they get promoted in proportionate numbers. So you could say that my whole career really is about fighting for racial justice in our organisations.”
“They did what they could”
Tinu is helping to take the battle for equality to the next level. This is where previous generations of good-intentioned people have failed. Yet, when she looks back on her time at school, there is still a part of her that appreciates what people like Mr Brown were able to do and the way in which she has prospered as a result.
“I will always feel immense gratitude as well, that they did what they could within the limits of themselves as individuals and this society that they were in, and their understanding of what was going on.”