Letter to My Younger Self

'Educate, don't retaliate'

Letter to My Younger Self

'Educate, don't retaliate'

Demi Stokes

Dear eight-year-old Demi,

I want to talk to you about something – something that’s about to happen, and something you’ll remember for the rest of your life.

It’s your very first match, playing for a proper football team, but sadly, it’s not going to be remembered for the right reasons because it’s also going to be your first experience of racial abuse on the pitch.

I can see now that you’re excited. What started out as a kick-about with the lads on the street has led to this: playing for a girls’ team in a boys’ league! You’d played for the boys’ team in school, shouldered the taunts... but you would show them: you’ve been made captain.

Your teacher noticed your potential, putting your name down for a girls’ team. You had trials, it blossomed from there and here you are: wearing the colours of Sunderland 24/7, ready to make your debut.

I’m sorry to say your debut won’t be the great experience you hope it will be. I’d love to say it will be remembered for a match-winning goal, incredible comeback or a perfectly-timed tackle, but it won’t. It will be remembered for the awful events which unfolded when you went up for a corner.

You’re waiting for the delivery and you hear one of the lads on the opposition side shout: “I’ll mark the P*ki.”

That word. That horrible word. It comes as a shock. You look around, thinking: ‘Who is he even talking about?’ and then you realise: he’s talking about you.

You’re not exactly a stranger to racial abuse. Though born in Birmingham, you grew up in South Shields, as part of the first mixed race family on the estate where you lived.

Your mum is white and your dad is Black. You have white brothers. People have always been curious and whenever you saw another mixed race family in town, you’d be curious too. You’d eyeball each other and think: ‘It’s someone new! Where are they from? Why are they here?’

On the estate, you’d end up fighting. You’d be called a ‘Black b*****d’. You’d get so angry and didn’t know what else to say or do, so you’d hit them.

‘You’ve hurt me so I’m going to hurt you’… but standing here on the pitch, in this situation, you have other options.

What you’re about to do is exactly what you should do. Address it – but in the right way. You could physically react but that’s not the right way to solve it. If you were to lash out, you could be sent off and you have to think about how that would affect your teammates and your Club.

On the pitch, you’re in a controlled environment. You can go up to the ref and tell him and you can report it to the FA. Maybe you would react differently if it happened in the streets but here on the pitch, you have support and you have the chance to educate someone, which is the best thing you can do.

Don’t be disheartened. What that boy said to you says more about him than it does you. He’s narrow-minded and uneducated. It’s strange that people use someone’s skin colour to try and offend them.

For some, it’s the easiest thing to use because it’s the only thing they see – he knows he can use that to rile you. You are Black – that’s obvious: ‘Thanks for pointing that out!’ – but it’s the intent to insult that hurts.

So, when it happens, you do exactly the right thing: you walk up to the ref and tell him what’s happened. The referee takes action and speaks to the opposition coach, who takes the player off immediately. You can see he knows he’s done wrong and by the end of the game, he’s crying and he comes over to apologise – and it’s genuine. His lesson has been learned.

Today, you’re seen as quite a chilled person and even back then, you accept the apology and look to move on. You don’t dwell on it – it happened, he said ‘sorry’ and in your eyes, that’s enough. It’s a mindset you follow throughout life: ‘It’s happened. Time to move on.’ If you can try and change it, try – but don’t sit dwelling on it.

I am happy to say: you will never be racially abused again. You’ll get opposition parents shouting: “Kick her!” or the like – but learning to rise above all of these experiences makes you robust, and the person you are today: the person who plays football professionally with Manchester City and her country.

You’ll represent England at the World Cup, win trophies and titles, and you’ll be a role model to young people – not just girls; not just Black people: everyone.

You’ll have a platform to inspire and you can use it to aid change – whether that’s by doing an interview for Black History Month and telling your story, or explaining to your neighbour that the term she just used may offend some people.

While you won’t experience it again yourself, you will meet people in the women’s game who have also been racially abused – people who have just walked down the street and had something said to them.

You remember a time in school when you wore your hair out as an afro for the first time – and how everyone was touching it in the corridor. You found it really annoying but accepted that was just their way of being inquisitive so you were okay about it. People are curious but they just have to ask – have conversations, be inquisitive, read a book, ask. It doesn’t have to end in an argument.

Not everyone is comfortable speaking about racism but you don’t have to be Black to speak about Black topics. It feels like this year, something is starting to change.

People are talking more, posting more, showing support for Black communities, educating themselves… Everyone is doing their bit to help. I have to play my part as well – I’m still learning. I’m Black but I don’t know everything there is to know about being Black. It’s okay to say that but learning is important.

Admittedly, I don’t know a lot about my family history but I’m learning. I know my dad’s side of the family are Jamaican and that my grandparents came over to England for a better life. I still have some family there and I have some family in Birmingham.

I know the basics. I try to embrace my Jamaican side and learn about it. Everyone says I’m relaxed and chilled and I always joke: “That must be my Jamaican side!”

I’ve never really been made to feel different but it’s important to speak about things that are happening or have happened. Personally, I can’t comprehend or relate to what’s happening in America because it hasn’t happened to me and it isn’t like that here in England – but the conversations still need to take place if we’re to reach a turning point.

People need to accept that it’s happening and that this is how people are feeling. Black people need everyone’s help, whether that affects you or not. It’s the same if white people needed help – we should all come together and tackle it.

We have to think about how we keep the ball rolling. How can we move forward? In terms of women’s football, the game is in a better place. It’s bigger in profile and people are speaking out, supporting people. We have Show Racism the Red Card, Kick It Out, No Room for Racism… there are things in place to help to educate people and tackle discrimination.

These movements are not about treating your Black friends differently. Everyone should be treated the same and nothing should change between friends. Just be normal – that’s how it should be. Support your friends by just being the good friend you always have been.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re Black or white. It comes down to what’s morally right and wrong. Look at the games when players have walked off the pitch due to racist abuse...

Some players probably felt uncomfortable because they can’t relate but it’s not about that – it’s about the connection with your teammates. ‘My teammate is upset so that upsets me.’ If someone insulted any player in that way, we’d all be upset by the fact they’d upset her.

If it happened to me and I was to respond in the wrong way with a physical reaction, I know 100% my teammates would support me – but it’s not the right way to deal with it. When you’re angry, it’s hard to think: ‘Okay, I’m going to take two minutes to educate this person’ but that’s the constructive thing to do.

Those are the stepping stones to take if you want to make real change. As a kid, you weren’t always calm and collected but the action you took was the adult thing to do.

Until you’re in that position, it’s hard to know how anyone will react but I just want to say that 20 years later, I would have done exactly the same.

Educate, don’t retaliate.