The recent focus on the Black Lives Matter movement and the terrible murder of George Floyd in the USA has brought back memories of racial abuse, injustice and inequality.
My family were immigrants from Africa, and I grew up in Shooter Hill, South East London, a white London suburb. I played happily with friends from all backgrounds. My first girlfriend was a blonde girl with blue eyes called Charlotte. In 1982, at the age of 7, I was already a stand-out football player. I was popular at school, but everything changed one day in the playground, when the senior boys – my teammates – decided to remind me I was different and that the colour of my skin made me inadequate.
The words from the rhyme they made up haunt me to this day; they substituted the names of popular cereals – Ready Break and Corn Flakes – with racial slurs. A group of 15 boys surrounded me, and most of the other children laughed. No-one stood up for me. From that day, comments about my skin colour became worse. Charlotte and many of my white friends started to distance themselves from me. By 8 years old, my world had changed.
When I was 9, I moved to Boston, USA, to live with my aunt. My grandmother, who had been raising me until then, had decided to it would be best for me because of the opportunities there, and the growing racial tensions in south London. I arrived into a different world; Boston was a city on the Eastern US coast, and a melting pot of Black, white, Asian and Hispanic people. This was America in the 1990’s, the height of MTV culture, which was reflected in society there. Kids from various backgrounds hung out together. We wore the same clothes, listened to the same music, and got along well. Unlike in the UK, it seemed cool to be black. The racial tension that existed came from the police; I remember the first time they pulled me and my friends over as we returned from a basketball game. It was to be the first of many. I was only 13. I remember them having guns, pushing us around and scaring the hell out of us.
The racism in America was out in the open, but it felt different to racism in the UK. I knew it was there, but black people were empowered, and there was a sense of opportunity for us. In school we were taught black history, and celebrated black achievements and contributions to American society. There were role models that black kids could look up to. My friendship group was ethnically diverse – we all got on well and there were never any issues around race in school. At home, my aunt’s husband was white and although he came from a Republican part of Boston, he and his family welcomed me and my aunt. Life in America was amazing; I felt I belonged.
When I was 16, I returned to the UK to sign a professional contract with Leyton Orient Football Club. It was my dream, as during my time in America I had established myself as a top soccer player and had been in the Olympic development team for the USA. Despite scholarship offers from colleges across the United States, I chose to pursue a football career in England. I returned after 7 years away to find racism was still alive; to my shock, I encountered it in the world of professional football. In all my years of playing in America, I had never had one bad word said about the colour of my skin on the football pitch.
I was the only black kid on the youth team; there were only 4 other black players in the first team squad. The boys on the youth team made it known they didn’t want me there; they made jokes about the way I spoke, the colour of my skin and black players from the teams we played against. Despite all this I performed well, but the better I played the more my white team-mates picked on me. I will never know why, perhaps it was out of jealousy.
All I wanted was to be a professional player; I worked hard. I told the club what was happening and they said this sort of thing ‘just happens’ and told me I was over- reacting. In my second year I got injured and returned to the USA; to be honest, leaving England felt as though I was getting my life back. Today, I am sceptical when I see the Premier league and EFL talking about Black Lives Matter because the abuse I suffered was never dealt with. I am sure there are countless other black professional players who can recite similar stories.
It is now 2020 and I live in a village called Rowhedge on the borders of Essex and Suffolk. I am married to a white woman who grew up in Essex, and we have 3 children. My wife has been victimised for marrying a black man. My children have already been told their skin colour is a problem by pupils at their primary school; for me it’s deja vu. Their innocence has been taken away; they have already been labelled. My son didn’t want to go to school for weeks on end and we didn’t know why. My daughter would come back from school unhappy. Eventually they told us a boy was picking on them about the colour of their skin. They thought they had done something wrong, because they weren’t white like the rest of their peers. They decided to tolerate the abuse because they didn’t want other kids not to play with them. Can you imagine that pain: your child feeling guilty or bad because of their skin colour?
I have walked down the street and people have crossed the road. I joined the church and the first time I walked in there everyone looked at me as though I had stepped out of a spaceship. One parish member asked me if I was someone’s carer. For me, as a black man in England, nowhere is safe; you can’t escape racism. In cities, the police are racially profiling us because they can. As a man living in rural England the locals have made it clear I am not welcome. In spite of everything that’s happened in Boston around race, I felt more at home there.
Recently I realised that racial issues in the UK are simply covered up and cleverly disguised by the institutions that are meant to protect us: schools, churches, workplaces and the police. The Black Lives Matter movement and the conversations around this are long overdue: 37 years on from that playground in London, I am still waiting for change.
© Daniel Munyenya 2020
 Three of the boys involved in that incident went on to be involved in a high-profile racist murder. My childhood friend, Roland Adams, was sadly murdered in a racial attack similar to that of Stephen Lawrence, while he waited for a bus in Thamesmead.