LONG READ: North-based author Olukemi Ogunyemi calls for need to raise awareness on racism after publishing her first book, Brown Girl in the Ring
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AN AUTHOR who moved to the Highlands to make a new start after facing racism in the central belt is calling for the need to raise awareness on racism in the region and in Scotland.
A body therapist by trade, Olukemi Ogunyemi grew up in Caldercruix near Glasgow, but moved to Nairn 16 years ago with her family to start a new life and escape the overwhelming racism she experienced there.
In her first book Brown Girl in The Ring the author, who now lives near Forres, shares her experience as a mixed-race child growing up in Scotland.
She said that, although she had always wanted to put her story in a book to share her point of view with her children, it was with in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd the backlash it had that she felt the need to write it down herself.
She said: “I believe something happened to us all then, whether we were in lockdown or not. I started hearing people who were not mixed race or black saying how terrible this had been and all these different stories were coming out, and white people were supporting it. I think that took the lid off something that I didn’t think would ever be able to be healed or talked about until that point in time I believed it was something that I would have to live with.
“Then Black Lives Matter dedicated one of their events to Trans Lives Matter – I have a transgender daughter and it’s very difficult for her in the black community, because it’s so religious, so my daughter doesn’t have a lot of support, so it was massive for our family, but there was no media coverage of that event which was so important for us.
“That put me in a spiral of distress and pain. So after some days of anguish, I just felt compelled to write about my experience.”
Born to a Scottish mother and a Nigerian father, Mrs Ogunyemi has experienced racist abuse and violence around her from a very young age when she moved to Caldercruix from London after her father was sent to jail.
“We were the first people of colour that Caldercruix had ever seen, and that was massive,” she said.
“For my mum and her family, looking back, they were just as affected as I was – they were rejected because of us. And their behaviour through it – they had to survive and nobody educated them on what happens when you have mixed-race children.
“As a child, I stopped telling people things that happened to me because I thought that people that weren’t racist to me just didn’t realise I was a mixed-race child.
“I think I was about eight when it started, but I didn’t understand why so many people hated me. I think I spent all of my younger years in survival mode, going from one traumatic event to the other.”
In the book, she tells of her issues with anorexia and several abusive relationships. After training and graduating as a body therapist and meeting her second husband, the family moved to Nairn, where they ran a business together, and for the first eight months the Highlands felt like a safe place to them.
She said: “The racism up here didn’t really start until the referendum.
“I think it has changed things for people that mainly do not understand what it is really about, and who are more ignorant. They saw it maybe as Scotland trying to get rid of anyone who wasn’t white and Scottish so the racism became really bad.
“It had never happened to me before, being shouted at on the street and in shops. It was a small element of the population, but which at that point in time became very loud.”
However, she added that the Highlands to her are a “much gentler part of Scotland” with a stronger sense of community.
“Although things have happened here, that’s nowhere near to the scale of what happened in the central belt.”
Nonetheless, she is very passionate about raising awareness on racism across institutions and schools, as she has seen the issues within the education system through her children’s eyes.
Her youngest teenage daughter, Tola, who has changed various schools in the local area, was interviewed in a recent BBC One Disclosure documentary.
Mrs Ogunyemi said: “It’s not just in mainstream school: there has not been a single environment of education where they weren’t challenged with racism. It can be unconscious but it changes children form such a young age.
“We culturally need to mix – and that’s parents, children, teachers...
“If we don’t mix then that’s a fertile ground for stereotypes, and these are very real and we have to respect that people feel that way and come from that way. To punish and condemn somebody that has belief structures and they don’t even realise it, they are going to go in defense mood.
“The institutional racism I have faced – fear is an issue, the uncomfortableness is what is stopping it from changing is the institutional element, it doesn’t allow you to say something is wrong.
“I have seen it with my children, going to school – the uncomfortableness of allowing it to be on the table.”
However, Mrs Ogunyemi said she is hopeful for the future: “I wouldn’t change anything, (being through what I experienced) has helped me understand people and myself far more than I would have had without that experience.
“I go to bed now being more content knowing that my grandchildren will be in a better world because people are talking about it! Things might look messy, but for somebody like me, nobody ever spoke about this before, and everybody is speaking about it, and that’s the change. People are opening their eyes and feeling shocked about it. Things are improving and will improve if things continue from this openness.”
Listen to the full interview on our literary podcast, Northern Bibliosphere, at the link above.