What's the Matter? An interview with Esther Lawson

Show Racism the Red Card were recently sent a copy of Esther Lawson’s book ‘What’s the Matter?’, which details the author’s experience of being a mixed-race girl growing up in post-World War II Britain.

The book recounts many experiences of racism and brings home the amount of discrimination that existed in British Society in the 1960s and 1970s. It is hard-hitting and often shocking.

We had the opportunity to interview Esther about her book, the experience of writing it and what drove her to share her story originally.

Esther Lawson-FC #resize.jpg

SRtRC - Thank you for taking the time to speak to SRtRC Esther about your book ‘What’s the Matter?’ The book is about your life and recounts some terrible experiences with racism, even at a very young age. What gave you the impetus to write the book?

EL - “The reason why I wrote the book was because I noticed that racism was on the rise and I thought that if I was to share my experiences of racism as a child and to show people how hurtful it is and how damaging it is, I thought that yes, I need to write my book and let people know what happened to me in the 1960s. I hoped that people would engage with that and maybe even change the way that they look at people of colour and different cultures.”

SRtRC - Your early childhood was traumatic, to say the least and you mention in the first chapter that the writing of the book was quite painful for your Mam, having to revisit some of these experiences. It must have been difficult for you as well?

EL - “Well I didn’t think it would be as painful re-visiting; but writing the book it uncovered past-memories that I had forgotten about, so I had to face them and go through the pain all over again, whilst I was writing certain pieces in the book. It was challenging, but the greatest thing to me was that I was giving information to people in order for them to step back and to be able to see and feel the pain that this kind of behaviour causes people of colour and different races. I wrote it with the hope that it would invoke change in how people think.”   

SRtRC - In the sixties and seventies when you were at school, racism was a constant spectre in your life. Are you hopeful that schools have better strategies to deal with the issue now?

EL - “Yes, I’m very hopeful in what schools were doing and the most important thing that there is now zero tolerance of any kind of racist abuse, including differences between different cultures. Children are now able to report it to their teachers and know that something is going to be done about it, to nip it in the bud, so they can carry on enjoying their school lives.”

SRtRC - Sometimes, when you experienced racism as a child you didn’t tell your Mum about it, or the full extent. Why was that and what would you say now to a child experiencing racism at school?

EL - “The first thing that I would say is that they’re ignorant and don’t really realise how damaging and how hurtful the abuse is. Always stand proud, don’t be ashamed of who you are and just ignore them.

“The reason why I didn’t tell my Mum is because I didn’t want her to be upset. For my mother, as a mother, trying to protect her children, she was rendered absolutely helpless, as she was going through the same thing herself, there was nothing she could do. So I thought that it’s best I just keep it to myself and try and deal with it myself, rather than put an extra burden on to my mother, who was helpless.”

SRtRC - Quite often at Infant and Junior school, you would be on your own at break-time as a way of protecting yourself. Was the level of exclusion you experienced as bad as physical or verbal attacks?

EL - “It was bad, and I remember thinking to myself many times from the exclusion, ‘where do I belong?’ ‘I’ve got nowhere to belong and I’m not part of anything’ and because I wasn’t part of anything that made me feel bad and ashamed about myself.”

SRtRC - Show Racism the Red Card often explore the phrase “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” with young people. You mention in the book that it’s not true, how powerful are words?

EL - “No, it’s not true. At the end of the day physical attacks, bruises, they heal, they go, it’s over and done with and it’s gone, but words stay in the mind. They get stored in the mind and also can change the make up of the person because of the damage they have done.”

SRtRC - Music is very important to you and you worked hard to be able to have singing lessons and do recordings. Is music a good way to escape and do you think it can be a force for positive change in people?

EL - “Well I can only speak for myself and my passion for music and it was an escape for me, I didn’t have to think about what was happening in my current life, what was happening in society against me. Yes, it was an escape route for me, it might not be an escape route for others, it all depends on the individual person and what things they can find that can help them escape the trauma, the stresses of what they’re going through in their life. Music for me was a way that I could express myself, was the only way that I could express myself.”

SRtRC - That’s really important, are you still singing now?

EL - “No unfortunately I don’t sing anymore due to ill health and gastric disease has attacked my vocals and so that’s very upsetting for me. Singing, I used to breathe it, think about it, it’s part of me and unfortunately, I feel that it is something that has been taken away from me. I believe that I have been given a different direction in life with writing my book so that people can read it and understand what it actually does to a child, how it affects a child and also to show that there is no bitterness in me, I’m not bitter towards anybody, all I want to do now is to get the word out, to try and invoke some change with what racism does to people.”

SRtRC - Will you write a follow up to ‘What’s the Matter?’

EL - “Absolutely.”

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SRtRC recommend ‘What’s the Matter?’ to all who are interested in how racism could be a persistent feature in the life of a young person in the 60s and 70s and the long-term effect it can have on an individual. It is a powerful and moving story. We will look forward to the follow-up.

What’s the Matter? Is available from Austin Macauley Publishers.