Channelling his frustration and fury over the insidious undercurrent of racism still prevalent in our society into a new film, Leon Oldstrong shares his personal account of the devastating impact of that prejudice, which included a brutal attack on his younger brother that almost cost him his life
I used to be half cast - I was born in the 80’s before it was cool to be of dual heritage, so I wasn’t mixed-race. White mum, black dad. I never had any concerns about starting secondary school, other than the fact that none of my friends were going to the same school as me.
It wasn’t long into my first year that I realised I was black. I remember a sixth former telling me to “go back to the jungle” when I was 11-years-old. It’s worth noting that this was a private school, there weren’t many black students at all; I was one of six in my year. I could deal with the explicit racism, but this was to be the beginning of my life with subtle racism. I was questioned whenever I did well in an exam or produced a piece of work to a high standard. I was accused of cheating when I got the highest mark (in the school) in a maths competition. My Latin teacher stood over me during an exam, rather than circulating the room as she should have done. Not surprisingly my grades began to suffer.
Fast forward to 2013, where I’m working as a teacher; subtle racism raises its head again, in the form of white tears. It happens time and time again. There’s an exchange between me and a white female member of staff, it doesn’t go her way, she feels upset, and consequently she accuses me of being aggressive or intimidating. She refers this incident to senior management who are viewing me through the same racist lenses, all of a sudden all of my prior conduct, relationships with children and staff goes out the window; the scary black man is scaring the white damsel. My side of the story is irrelevant.
Or how about when the white female deputy head came into the school in black face, I mean it was for a good cause; dress up and pay a pound for charity, I guess that makes it ok, right? Of course I challenged it only to then be accused of being late all the time and not marking the work – only a few weeks before, the head teacher had told me I was precisely what the school needed. You see she was upset and had to be protected, forget the fact that the majority of the children in this school were black. I remember there were a lot of little boys dressed as Superman that day, consider the idea of their parents 'perfecting' their costumes by whitening their faces.
What has this got to do with my film, That’s Not Ours? Everything. Ethan, my little brother, 18 years my junior, is the subject of the film. I watched him grow up full of energy, always happy, so when he got to 14 and I had to have the conversation with him about racism, and the things he is going to experience, it broke my heart; it felt like I was robbing him of his innocence but I wanted him to be prepared so that it didn’t take him by surprise.
When it did start happening to him, he was in disbelief, maybe I shouldn’t have tried to prepare him but let him hold onto his innocence just a little longer. It’s like having your first child, no matter what anyone tells you, you have to experience it for yourself to really understand. It’s so hard for young people to deal with; I mean it’s hard for anyone to deal with, but for young people trying to shape and discover their identities, adjust to their adult bodies and find their direction in life, it’s particularly hard. For the most part they don’t have the tools to deal with being treated unfairly due to the colour of their skin. Why should they even have to?
Nobody would help me
April 2017. I’m in bed, on standby, my eyes are closed but I’m not really asleep. It’s a little after 1am. My mobile rings …‘Mummy’
“Ethan’s been stabbed, he’s at Kings!”
I don’t remember the rest of the conversation. I don’t remember getting in my car. I just remember walking into the hospital and seeing my baby brother lying on a blood stained bed. His body violated. A tube in his side draining blood (I later found out) from his lung. I had flashbacks to the first time I ever saw him. There had been difficulties with his birth so he was in intensive care being fed through a tube; I had thought at the time, “When he’s my age I’ll be 36”.
Almost 18 years later there I was, stood by his side in a hospital again, possibly at the end of his life. He was struggling to speak, I told him not to, but he kept repeating “Nobody would help me, nobody would help me.” With one lung slowly being emptied every breath was a struggle yet he kept saying it.
Less than 24 hours later he was out of danger, imagine my horror, no my anger upon returning to the hospital for him to tell me that a nurse had told him it was his fault that he had been attacked by group of boys that he didn’t know. It was his fault because of the way he looks and dresses.
The negative stereotypes of young black men and boys are so prevalent, so widespread that the white majority population believe that black youth exists almost exclusively in violent spaces; that violence is a part of black culture. We grow up seeing our fathers, uncles, older brothers suffer racism. The police don’t protect us, they don’t enforce the law for us...without sufficient media attention; education doesn’t elevate us above racism, age doesn’t make our children exempt, gentrification has robbed us of the safe spaces that were allocated to us before we made them ‘cool’.
My brother’s attackers are still free; there’s been no after care, no follow up from the hospital, nor the police. He may yet succumb to PTSD which is caused by ‘very stressful, frightening or distressing events.’ I’d say being attacked for no reason by a group of strangers with knives qualifies as all of the above. Why hasn’t he been assessed? What about my mum? She nearly lost her youngest son, her baby. Why are our lives worth so little? In this age of information, social media and video phones can (white) people really be so ignorant to the constant injustice; to our pain, or has the media been so successful at dehumanizing us and desensitizing you to our suffering?
The title of the film refers to this stereotype perpetuated by the white mainstream media, I’m letting everyone know ‘that’s not ours’.
The film was made to start the conversation, to let black youth know that someone hears their cries, to channel my anger and to let my little brother know “I’ve got you”.
A former teacher, father and a passionate campaigner against racism, his debut documentary film That’s Not Ours demonstrates his drive to capture the realities of modern Britain. Leon has an unapologetic approach to exploring issues of race that the mainstream media often neglects and perverts. Highly perceptive and intuitive, Leon has an ability to produce narratives in his films that connect emotionally with audiences.