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25 February 2021

Racism, the arts world & me

Dolly Sen
Featured in our new report, this article by artist Dolly Sen is a powerful testimony to the toll of racism on mental health and a call to action to the arts world to address racism and lack of representation.

Dolly is a writer, filmmaker, artist, performer and activist (more about Dolly’s work below). Dolly wrote this article for our new report – Creatively Minded and Ethnically Diverse – and it is a brilliant introduction to it and a call to action for the creative and cultural sector.

It was a spring morning, approaching Easter. The sun was out, and the air bright but cool. I was about four years old. We had just moved into a new house but we weren’t allowed to go into the garden because of previous wet or cold weather. My mum went into the garden to set up a washing line and took me and my sister with her. My sister and I slide down the washing line pole as if we were firefighters and then made siren noises as we ran around the garden. Suddenly I felt something wet on me. I looked up to see a man with a moustache, who lived next door, leaning over the fence. “Shut up, you dirty brown mongrels!” And he spat on me again.

This was my first experience of racism, although I didn’t really understand it as such at the time. I just thought I was a thing to be disgusted by, and as I was already having that message from my abusive father, I took it on as truth. Move forward a year or two, I am at school. Most kids are ok. One or two call me ‘Paki’ and tell me to go back to where I come from. No teacher tells them off. This thing called racism is a hard thing to understand as a child, but what you do understand is that you are the other, the alien, there is something about you that people hate when all you wanted to do was play with some toys. Aged about ten, I am visiting Brick Lane in the East End with my dad. He and the friend he was visiting sat down for a drink. His friend ushered his kids out the house and told them to take me with them. His son and daughter showed me around their neighbourhood and as we turned a corner we were confronted by a gang of white children and teenagers. The daughter dragged me by the arm and shouted “Run!” I did what she said as the gang of white kids began to chase after us, threatening to “kick our paki heads in”. We managed to jump into a tower block lift and watch the doors slide dramatically closed as they got to a few inches of the lift. Why did they hate us, what did I do? What was wrong with me?

This was my first experience of racism, although I didn’t really understand it as such at the time. I just thought I was a thing to be disgusted by.

One night in 1981 the whole family were travelling on an old routemaster bus coming back to Streatham from an Easter party organised by social services for Deaf people and their families. The bus did not take its usual route home. It went a very displaced route; instead of going through Brixton, it went around the town. My dad asked the bus conductor what was going on. “There’s some trouble in Brixton.” Once home, we put the news on. There were images of Brixton burning, parts that I walked with my mum when we went shopping. People on TV talked about criminal elements and poor moral attitudes of the rioters. But living near Brixton I also heard the other side, of people fed up of police harassment and being badly treated by authorities, and being spat at because of their colour. My dad had his own racism, calling the rioting looters ‘black thieving bastards’ even though he went to Brixton shops the next day to see if there was anything else worth nicking. All this is confusing for a child. My dad made me scared of Black people as a child. But from our 3rd floor flat overlooking the main road, I also saw police stop Black people for no reason, and use physical violence on young Black men who were not physically threatening, just vocal in their anger. Who to believe about the safety of the world? Who could offer it to me? No one at that point.

These were overt examples of racism, but there were covert examples too. At school we learnt that the British Empire and Christian missionaries civilised the ‘primitive’ worlds of Africa and Asia because white people were superior and more ‘advanced’. When cowboys and Indians were discussed, the cowboys were the heroes, even though they were invaders to the land and partly responsible for the genocide of the Native Americans. We had to cheer on the cowboys.

My mum was Scots-Irish and my dad was Indian. My dad was also largely an absent parent due to his alcoholism, so I learnt about the world through my white mother. She was also profoundly Deaf so could not hear the name-calling I was the recipient of. But one thing she did do, probably very unconsciously, was assimilate us into British culture. We spoke only English; we wore western clothes; our favourite books, TV and music were Western. Apart from hearing my dad speak Urdu to his friends or having a lot of Indian dishes for meals, we acted like white British children. This made our lives a bit easier than those who wore Indian clothes, had darker skin, and whose first language wasn’t English. But even then, I felt we were not entirely accepted. I didn’t fit in anywhere. I was the jigsaw piece that didn’t fit into the picture of the world around me.

On the hospital ward it was Black people who were controlled and restrained more than everyone else.

I did not have only one form of trauma growing up. What I learned from my abusive father was that I was worthless, that there was something wrong with me. When I experienced auditory hallucinations from the age of 14, most of the content of my voices was derogatory and brutal, telling me I should kill myself because I shouldn’t be around, that nobody liked me. The voices echoed my abusers’ words, so whenever I experienced racism, I had that sense of being unaccepted, hated, demonised, and defective, all this giving fuel to the voices. Racism is part of the ‘shitty committee’ that holds conversations in my head and breaks my heart continually. Not only that, it fed the thinking that I was an alien from out of space which led me to being hospitalised for the first time on a psychiatric ward. On the hospital ward it was Black people who were controlled and restrained more than everyone else. It seemed like they were being punished purely for the colour of their skin, which to me was insanity. How crazy-making it is when the institution that professes to be the figurehead of sanity is acting in such a delusional and unsound way.

While I was lost in my psychotic world, I had no friends. When my mental health improved, I wanted friends. The mental health arts world is how I entered the world in general. I went to creative activity groups and then became part of a few mental health arts organisations. I made friends, but not many deep friendships. What you realise when you are different from the people around you, is that no one has your back. When someone makes a joke about your ethnicity and most of the people around you laugh, the hurt is so deep and the silence you must keep harrowing and tortuous. You can’t have rage about all this though, lest you get labelled a troublemaker or mentally ill.

It is hard to live or fit into a world that doesn’t love you, that wants to erase you, sometimes wants to hurt you, wants to spit on you. That kind of loneliness is devastating, it kills you slowly. We need to feel connected to people around us, constant rejection is agonising. No wonder people can’t live in their own head with that world around them. Be of the understanding if that a person has experienced racism, this is an injury to their mental health.

Be of the understanding if that a person has experienced racism, this is an injury to their mental health.

I remember one time I was part of an arts steering group and also the only person of colour. They were discussing what to do for a music gig for that year’s Black History Month. I couldn’t believe it when one person suggested a whole host of white acts. I looked at the people around me, and they were nodding their heads in agreement. I couldn’t keep my silence any longer and blurted out, “But they are white! We need Black acts”. An awkward silence followed before the subject was quickly changed. I was not invited back to the next steering meeting. I can list many similar examples. Nothing changes because defensiveness builds a wall, another wall to go with the countless walls around us. I think one thing we need is to accept we can get upset discussing racism but that we should also have the space and time to have difficult and challenging conversations about it for the greater good of everybody.

When I first got interested in art, I began going to art events, especially exhibitions. Places like the National Gallery and Tate Modern had lots of visitors of different ethnicities but most of the work on the wall featured only one shade of human being, or were mostly made by that one shade of the world. That is not to say the work wasn’t beautiful, it was, but the right to beauty belongs to us all. The right to art and making art belongs to us all. Diversity does seem a meaninglessly confusing word sometimes. I think it is better to think about representation. Any public-funded arts should reflect the world around them. Racist trolls on social media moan when there is a person of colour, or LGBT+ person, or disabled person on their favourite TV soap or drama, as if these people are not in the world around them. They want to take an eraser and remove human souls that have the absolute right to be visible.

Any public-funded arts should reflect the world around them.

I also went to local smaller exhibitions or private views. Do you know how hard it is to step through the doors into a room when everyone does not look like you, especially if when you do, you get ignored or looked down at. Or when the people in charge are mostly white and people of colour are incorrectly assumed to be the catering staff?

I want to be part of the arts world that doesn’t break my heart. Sometimes I don’t go to exhibitions because I am not strong enough to go. I admit I have to laugh bitterly when organisations complain that some racialised communities don’t engage with them. You are heartbreakers, that’s why…

It is only until recently that the high rates of Black people being pathologised, sectioned, and controlled and restrained in the mental health system have been attributed to the inherent racism in psychiatry and psychology, and that racism contributes to the high levels of distress racialised communities experience. Suman Fernando’s book Institutional Racism in Psychiatry and Clinical Psychology is a useful text to inform how this came to be. Definitely a recommended read. But the subject is not academic when the area I used to live in South London has dead Black men with mental health issues in the ground, like Sean Rigg and Seni Lewis. We have our own homegrown versions of ‘I can’t breathe’.

We have our own homegrown versions of ‘I can’t breathe’.

We are living in a world where the game is rigged to suit a certain kind of person, namely white, male, heterosexual, non-disabled, middle or upper class. Those people who are not in this elite group are expected not to complain if the pack of cards they are given holds no aces, and not to get angry or upset if they are told they are not winning due to their own defects and not because of the cards they are given.

Intersectionality can’t be ignored either. Being part of a racialised community is usually being part of a poor working class community. Being more likely to be poor, how can you pay for materials, studio space, equipment, how can you take on an unpaid internship if there is no money to pay the rent? Throw in other things like disability, gender and sexuality, and the road becomes even harder.

I stopped working full time for creative organisations many years ago. I now work freelance and that power allows me to challenge inequality when I see it, knowing I won’t be with that organisation for long.

Racism used to hurt me, but aged 50 I am angered by it or bored by it. Nothing changes except expressions of tokenism, or fashions in mental health that always skirt around the issue of racism and other forms of oppression. The Recovery Model was one of the last big things in mental health. The expectation of recovery was for the individual, but where is the expectation of recovery for the sickness of racism in mental health systems and organisations?

I think the first thing any arts organisation can do is say: ‘No More. Racism can’t happen anymore within our organisation. We can’t be part of the world that hurts people. We can’t add any weight to the shoulders that lean on the necks and steal the breaths of human beings’.

This is what I would like to see happen in the creative sector.

  • Grassroots support/networking/mutual aid/skill sharing/peer support/mentoring/solidarity systems for people of colour, funded properly.
  • Black & Brown-run spaces where people can meet to talk/create work together/conduct research.
  • A resource library that hosts materials about history/politics/critical studies/people’s stories/non-white art/self-help, etc.
  • Exploration and research into where the cultural blockages are in your organisation. Are you able to look at yourself critically? Can you hold uncomfortable conversations?
  • More People of Colour as trustees.
  • Funding for a major exhibition exploring racism.
  • Organisations having stringent racism policies.
  • Education for people working for arts organisations on how systems are built toward maintaining white supremacy and what they can do to dismantle ‘the master’s house’.
  • The arts being used to challenge and change institutional racism.
  • More People of Colour in senior and leadership roles in the arts sector.
  • Funded scholarships/placements for People of Colour to go to arts school or take on internships.

Since the death of George Floyd, it has become a necessary subject to discuss. Some arts organisations are beginning to, but already I am seeing tokenism. Only a couple of arts organisations that I know have immediately abdicated some power to Black and Brown people. There is no point putting a ‘Black Lives Matter’ poster on a wall of a structure built on white supremacy and racism.

I have seen racism turn a town into an inferno, have seen it kill mentally distressed black people, I have seen it break my heart time after time, I have seen it whitewash the arts world. How much harder do I have to argue that the arts world needs more colour?

How much harder do I have to argue that the arts world needs more colour?

About the author

As a child, Dolly Sen was an alien in Empire Strikes Back. She knew then she would never know normal life. She is a writer, filmmaker, artist, performer and activist. She has exhibited as an artist and performed internationally, and her films have been shown worldwide, including at the Barbican in London. Her journey as a creative has taken her up a tree in Regent’s Park, to California’s Death Row, to Tower Bridge and the Royal Academy, Trafalgar Square, and up a ladder to screw a lightbulb into the sky. More recently she has been working on her Section 136 project. Section 136 is a radical mental health art-action programme where madness is questioned, and institutional monsters are confronted using art, love, rage and sheep. Read more about it at Her personal website is  Twitter @dozzyangel Instagram: dollysen70