From as young as seven, student Malaika Gangooly can remember being picked on by fellow children, both physically and verbally.
Now, aged 19 and spearheading the Chelmsford BLM marches, she faces the same verbal abuse – but from grown men and women across our county.
It wasn’t just name-calling Malaika remembers on the playground, horrifyingly, she said a group of girls used to try and ‘suffocate’ her at playtime too.
But she said she never realised it was because of the colour of her skin until she was older.
She says the bullying started at her first primary school in the small seaside town of Felixstowe, where she spent the first 11 years of her life before moving to Chelmsford.
“I was the only person of colour in my first primary school and I suffered from bullying there a lot,” Malaika explained.
“I must have been about seven or eight and I never really realised it was due to my race or my surname.
“When you are that young you have such a thick skin you just don’t realise.
“I used to be called ‘brownie’ and ‘blackie’ because of my name, I was called ‘poo face’ too.”
Malaika added: “I remember quite distinctly these girls would always come up to me in the playground and they would try to suffocate me.
“They closed my mouth with their hands and would pinch my nose at the same time. It’s crazy to talk about really, I never told anyone about it at the time – I don’t even know if I told my parents.
“If that happened to me now, it wouldn’t be something I would brush off, I would go to the police.
“I don’t think I told anyone, I just never thought it was to do with my race or I just thought it was something I would always have to deal with.”
“Microaggressions from teachers”
Malaika said she dealt with comments and racist name-calling from students on a daily basis, until she happened to move to a different primary school.
Her experience among students was more positive at secondary school, where she attended Chelmsford County High School for Girls, explaining that it was very diverse.
But Malaika claimed she and other students experienced numerous incidents of racist microaggressions from teachers. She said since George Floyd’s death people have spoken up against the school, saying it has received a backlash about some of the staff and that students of colour said they had experienced issues of microaggressions from teachers
Malaika said she never felt like their school cared about issues of racism or microaggressions – only their reputation and grades.
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Moving to Moulsham High School for sixth form, things changed again.
Malaika said: “It was really different at Sixth form, I went to comprehensive school and I was the only person of colour pretty much in the whole year, there were only two or three people.
“It was such a culture shock going from a grammar school where it is ethnically diverse to a comprehensive and being the only person of colour in the year.
“It did annoy me a lot on a regular basis that people just weren’t educated at all on other cultures. It was all based on a stereotype.
“When I walked in a classroom, everyone thought I was a Muslim, and thought ‘she can’t have a boyfriend’ or she can’t do this and that.
“It weirded me out. They are all amazing, lovely people but just not at all educated on black people or Asian people.”
“They had been waiting for this for so long”
Along with the world, the death of George Floyd on May 25 this year deeply affected Malaika.
It gave her the motivation to spearhead the Black Lives Matter protests in Chelmsford, alongside three other friends.
“I think the reason it affected me and everyone else in such a horrific way was because it was filmed,” she said.
“Everyone knows that stuff goes on globally every day, but because it is always hidden no one really talked about it.
“As soon as that video came out, it showed him being murdered so brutally and sent global shock waves so people could see clearly what goes on every day.”
With the threat of the pandemic particularly rife in London, Malaika decided to organise a peaceful protest for her hometown.
Malaika, Molly Foskett, Shope Fashade and Tia Shilito-Radicic, all 19-years-old, came together to organise the first and second BLM marches in the city.
“There was no reason why we couldn’t create one in Chelmsford,” she said.
“I feel Essex is a particularly racist county too and so it felt like a good idea.
“I have always been into activism and equal rights and I would like to say I would have done something like this in the future but this was a really big moment.
“So many black people were there proper crying, saying they had been waiting for this for so long in Chelmsford.
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“When we got to the end of the demonstration, we hadn’t really planned what would happen next so we said everyone kneel for eight and a half minutes.
“It was a beautiful moment. There were about 3,000 of us in silence and it was such a beautiful moment.
“You could hear black people crying, feeling so emotional, having waited so long for this.
“Obviously we did get some racist people at the protests shouting from us in pubs, telling us to go back to our own countries or fight racism somewhere else, but it didn’t deter from the really peaceful day.”
“‘She should be deported'”
Speaking with the BBC and ITV about the protests, Malaika also received a barrage of racist comments on social media – but she says it just motivates her more.
“As a person of colour creating this protest, I was bound to face so much backlash,” she said.
“When I had interviews with ITV and BBC, I got so much backlash from people saying ‘she should fight for this in her own country’, ‘she should be deported’ – they were calling me racist because I have red hair saying I am culturally appropriating Celtic people!
“I don’t even get angry, I just have to laugh at it because it’s ridiculous and rubbish.
“These 50-year-old men and women are so uneducated and trying to put down a 19-year-old girl who is trying to make the world a nicer place to live in.”
The BLM protests in Chelmsford were the biggest in Essex since the 1940s and it has already made a big impact.
“I think it was incredibly important,” Malaika said.
“I know it’s made a difference because the mayor came up to me that day and said we want you to be one of our representatives for our new anti-racism campaign and I know it wouldn’t have been created if it wasn’t for this.”
She is also working with the council to help improve education in schools around black history, including her old sixth form Moulsham High School.
Malaika said: “Every school has a black history month which basically consists of one assembly and that’s it.
“The whole history being taught is about colonialism and it’s so white-washed. It’s never taught about what black people have gone through brown people have gone through.
“It just leaves people so uneducated going into the real world. That’s why me and the other organisers are in the process of creating more resources and going to schools, talking to kids and creating resources.”
Aspiring in journalism
Malaika is also speaking with a number of black businesses about how racism has affected them and their companies.
“One woman said how black men and women have to work ten times harder than the average person,” she said.
“She’s got about 2,000 followers on her Facebook page and she said ‘if I was white it would probably be at least 10k now’.”
This is something Malaika has felt herself – constantly wondering if she is being judged or discriminated against on the colour of her skin.
She is currently studying a degree in journalism at City of London University, where she hopes she will go on and become a broadcaster.
She said: “If I don’t get a job, is it because of who I am or because of my race? It’s something you always second guess – are they racist of did they not just like me?
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“If they see the name, they are just going to think this person can’t speak proper English or doesn’t know how to talk properly.
“I’m scared of working towards being a journalist and not knowing any brown female journalists.
“It does scare me that I’m going to be someone fighting for that position with so many white people who have the job. That is daunting.”
Malaika intends to organise a BLM protest every year in Chelmsford, as well as continue to push for change and equality.
She said: “What I expect is that this at least sparks up a conversation across the generations of people. So kids speaking to grandparents, or parents speaking to their kids about racism and the brutality in our world.
“It can hurt to admit that your country, city or home is racist, but that doesn’t hurt anywhere near as much as being racially abused.”
“We acknowledge that we still have work to do”
Stephen Lawlor, Headteacher of Chelmsford County High School for Girls (CCHS), said: “Any allegations of racism at CCHS would be taken extremely seriously. Complaints of this nature would be vigorously investigated by the School. Like any school or organisation, we acknowledge that we still have work to do in educating and empowering our students when it comes to fighting racism.
“We are one of the most diverse schools in the area and we are very proud of this. We know that we are responsible for educating the leaders of tomorrow during their seven-year journey at the School and we take this duty very seriously. CCHS is a safe space and community for students.
“We have always been proud of our progressive and inclusive culture and since the death of George Floyd we have launched our change@cchs initiative. This is an initiative which involves the whole School community. A programme of work is already underway and the School has engaged with experts to create a framework of activity that will include external speakers, training, reviewing our curriculum and PSHE provision.
“We have had a great response to our change@cchs initiative, with people reaching out to share their experiences, their insights and their suggestions of things we could be doing. This engagement has come from students, staff, parents, governors and alumnae.
“We are grateful to everyone who has engaged so far and encourage people to follow this work through our updates, which will appear on our School website and Facebook pages.”
The Chelmsford Mayor, Councillor Jude Deakin, chaired the first anti-racism action group on June 11, joined by a variety of the city’s minority community groups, across varying age groups and differing backgrounds.
Cllr Deakin opened the focus group by acknowledging her own white privilege: “I have never been asked to chair a meeting solely due to my race, and likely never would”.
The group discussed in detail the Black Lives Matter movement, hate crime statistics and the current interactions in the world, but the conversation closed by talking about how lives in Chelmsford can be enriched by using arts and culture to reflect and celebrate the diverse, beautiful aspects within all our community groups. This is now a starting point for where changes can be made.
When the group reconvenes in 4-5 weeks, they will discuss in more detail their ideas for improving Chelmsford’s cultural offer with ways it can be approached differently to share stories from other communities.
Chelmsford Museum already has plans to explore how it can use and improve its collections to share the backgrounds and history from a wider selection of people in the community. The festival scene, including Fling Festival, 3foot People Festival and MelFest, has plenty of scope to increase its offering of worldwide food and dance and which will help to get even more people to participate. The theatres can more regularly show and share stories from across the world, such as the Chinese New Year Gala held earlier this year and embrace the many different cultures.
There are a number of ideas that will focus on engaging and exciting people through the joy in our differences and the next focus group will bring everyone together to explore this in more detail.
On June 11, an anti-racism group was set up for Chelmsford, chaired by the Mayor Councillor Jude Deakin.
Supporting the group is council leader Stephen Robinson, who said at the time: “It is a tragedy that racism is still rife in society – in Britain and elsewhere, not just in America. The recent protests highlight the fact that too many people are hurting. Black lives matter and real change is overdue.
“Chelmsford City Council aims to treat everyone with dignity and respect, irrespective of their background, ethnicity or any other part of their identity. That is a human right. If we ever fail to do that, we want you to let us know.
“Every one of us has a role to play in seeking to eliminate racism and hatred, but especially elected authorities and public services.
“Fairness is something we often talk about at Chelmsford City Council and we try to make it part of everything we do. But we believe we can do more. We will listen to our residents, particularly from minority communities, to help us shape our future actions and policies.
“Banishing systemic racism and prejudice isn’t going to happen overnight; it is something we must all fight for every day. There is hard work to be done and it will take time. We don’t have all of the answers now, but we will listen. We want our actions to reflect our commitment to equality and encourage change in our city.”
Moulsham High School were approached for comment.