Interview: Baroness Lawrence

Doreen Lawrence, a Baroness since October 2013, gave a speech at the Oxford Union on the 20th of May. Baroness Lawrence has spent over two decades campaigning for justice and police transparency in the wake of her son’s racially aggravated murder in 1993. Her efforts led to the eventual conviction of two of her son’s murderers, which marked a huge step forward in British race-relations, and also caused an internal reform of the police service. She now sits as a Labour peer in the House of Lords whilst promoting racial equality and maintaining the Stephen Lawrence Trust, which she founded in memory of her son.

Baroness Lawrence has previously admitted that she does not consider herself a natural speaker, and her speech is not that of a career politician – it is not created for effect or glory, but out of sheer necessity to see and perpetuate real change within our society. After her speech, I’m able to ask her a few questions about racism in the UK.

A topic that the Baroness mentioned in her speech was education. She believes that British students of colour are denied access to education about their history in the current curriculum. When asked whether she thinks this should be changed alongside the current governments other educational reforms, she responds, “It should be.” She answers firmly, before clarifying that she doesn’t believe these requirements are being met in Michael Gove’s plans.

“[It is] one of the things I’ve been campaigning about. After the enquiry, one of the things I wanted was about the history. When I challenged the fact that they hadn’t put that within [the reforms] and spoke to the schools minister, it was that [there’s] not enough people. You need more people to complain and say, ‘This is what we want.’ But I believe the government should make sure, because if you’re the government of a country, there [are] so many people within the society, and each of us needs to have some element of our background represented – currently that’s not there. The schools are not doing anything about it, so we’re looking to have an educational standard where we begin to challenge some of these things. To make sure that in schools, from primary going up, these things are taught.”

“There’s a way of introducing history. Because within primary school, many times, kids don’t think about whether, ‘That person’s black or white.’ They think about who their friends are. But by the time that they get to secondary school, that changes and they begin to develop that, ‘It’s them and us’ type stuff – and that shouldn’t happen. So we need to start very young, so that by the time they get to secondary school, it doesn’t become a problem, because I think sometimes, that’s where it stems from. So once you get to secondary school, the whole thing changes – and you’re not seeing your black friends as a friend – you’re seeing them as black first, rather than a friend first. We need to change that.”

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I tell her that neither I, nor any of my friends who have been through the state school curriculum and who I have spoken to, were taught about British colonialism or our role in slavery. When asked whether she was surprised by this, she answered firmly “No – because I think Britain wants to deny their role in slavery.”

She continues by telling me of a discovery within her own family.
“I found out that even within my family, two have Scottish [history]. So you have somebody from the Scots who was a plantation owner, who would have raped one of their slaves.” She stops to explain that, “If you look in Jamaica there is this mixture of the skin colour, and I presume Jamaica’s not the only African-Caribbean country where slaves were raped – and none of those things were acknowledged.

“My grandmother’s name was Donaldson, which is a take on a slave name, which is part Scottish. So I would like to find out exactly where it is that my family originate from, that part of the family, and then to go back to Africa to see where that part starts from. I think we all need to know that, because if you look at the Chinese and even the Indians they can trace their ancestry back so far – I could never do that.”

I put it to the Baroness that it’s a possibility that without proper education, some people will be in danger of believing that we are living in a society where racism is a thing of the past.

“I think a lot of people believe that,” the Baroness acknowledges, “but then, if you’re people of colour, you don’t believe that. Because you face it on a daily basis, you don’t believe that. There are people in society that believe that racism is a thing of the past though. ‘Why do we need to talk about it? Why do we need to address it? Because we accept everybody – I’ve got a black friend.’ And I suppose they can say, ‘I’ve got a black neighbour.’ – as far as they’re concerned, that’s saying ‘I’m not racist’.”

Baroness Lawrence is adamant that we need to talk about race more – she feels as though there is a lack of open and frank discussion. However, she is at least optimistic about the mix of ethnicities of people who identify and speak out against racism.“When I think about what happened around Stephen’s case and I think about the enquiry and the letters I received from people, they’ll write to me and they felt that they’d need to mention, ‘I’m a white woman of 80 and I’m disgusted about what happened to your son.’ People do want to talk about it – and it’s not just within the black race that they want to talk about it. There’s so many people out there that want to see an equal society, but it’s very difficult to have. And I think the more people talk about it, whether you’re black or white or whatever, you just need to be able to talk openly about it.”

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She recalls the support she has found through her campaign, telling of an event earlier in the day when she arrived in Oxford. “I’ve come from Paddington station. People were touching me on the arm and saying to me, ‘I think you’ve been doing great work and it’s really nice to see you,’ – and so it’s not just people of colour who are doing that – everybody who would meet me was saying that. And so people are out there who feel that they want to do more.”

I wonder though, if in a predominantly white House of Lords, she still feels the same support? “One of the Baronesses wanted to talk about young Caribbean boys’ exclusion rate in school, and unemployment. So I was asked whether I wanted to say something, which I did, but… Oral questions last about 30, 35 minutes, sometimes probably 40 minutes, so it’s not very long to have a discussion about issues like that. And people come up and say to me, I think we should look to put a debate together, so we can discuss it openly – and that’s not just black people, black Lords that are saying that – there are white Baronesses and Lords saying that we need to have a discussion.

“Also having me there brings more to their attention; that this is a discussion that they need to have and it doesn’t matter what side of the house they sit on. Everybody says to me, ‘I’m really pleased that you’re here, you will make a difference.’

“For me it’s a big thing – I want to make a difference, I want to be able to have a voice that speaks out. Not just to say that I’m speaking about people of colour but for everybody’s sake. At the end of the day, we live in a society. All of us are here, so there’s no point in me saying, ‘I only want to talk about black issues.’ We have to talk about everyone.”