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Why I had to organise Devon's Black Lives Matter demo

Landing in the countryside from London aged nine, MAIA THOMAS was suddenly aware of how far rural race relations needed to go — and has campaigned for greater diversity awareness ever since

HAVING to shape my identity and mould my personality to suit a society in which I will still inevitably face racial abuse and hardship due to my skin colour, something I cannot change, is something no-one should have to go through.

I should not have to protest for equal treatment and opportunity. I should not have to receive hundreds of hateful and racist messages for organising a protest to allow black individuals like myself to have their voices heard and share their experiences. But I did it and I am proud.

I moved to Devon from London when I was nine. The transition from an area so multicultural to a place where I stood out because of my skin colour was hard to comprehend. Growing up in Devon as a black woman I struggled to accept myself, my appearance and my personality.

Having my physical features constantly compared to animals and my natural hair being called “uncontrollable” and “wild” was an everyday occurrence. The memories of being called “aggressive,” “loud” and “outspoken” no matter what tone I chose to speak in, it always resulted in the same outcome.

It was hard being asked “Why is your hair like that?” “How do you afford to attend this school?” and “Why is your skin like that?” Questions no-one should ever be asked or be expected to answer. Imagine constantly worrying about your sibling, thinking: “Will my brother be OK walking home alone today?” or “will he be followed because we cannot live in an area like this?”

These experiences are just a few reasons why I had to organise a Black Lives Matter protest, develop the movement and educate people.

Organising a Black Lives Matter protest in rural Devon was always going to be challenging but it was necessary to create a platform for our voices to be heard. Approximately 1,000 people attended the educational, standstill protest in Exeter, which in itself was an amazing achievement.

It allowed a platform for black voices to be heard, stories shared and knowledge to be passed on about black history and how important education will always be. The day itself was extremely moving with queues of black and other ethnic minority individuals waiting to have a chance to share their own stories and finally have a safe platform where we knew we would be heard. There was comfort in knowing that we were not alone, we have each other and allies willing to join us in fighting this long battle we have ahead.

The aim of the protest was not to simply just chant but to educate everyone as to why we were chanting, why we were all gathered there and what we needed to achieve. No child is born racist, it either comes from the home environment or school — so therefore education is a starting point.

Since the protest I have been contacted by over 20 schools across Devon asking me to conduct workshops and educate children on black history, share my stories and speak about the Black Lives Matter movement. Although I am grateful for this, all schools need to be held accountable and apply a hard line against racism. All institutions need to be challenged for ignoring different minority voices and be made to enforce change.

The protest was not the end: it is just the beginning of the BLM Exeter. I have attended protests throughout Devon and Somerset, sharing my story and promoting my message about education.

I was also happy to support a fundraising event “Bakers Against Racism,” with Natalie Brereton and Vicky Willcock. The event raised over £2,600 for Devon Development Education which works with schools and communities to tackle racism and celebrates diversity and multiculturalism in schools. Black Lives Matter is not just a phase or a moment, it is a continuous worldwide movement.

Despite the success of the protests and fundraisers we still face an uphill battle. Following the protest, I have received several death threats and hateful messages telling me I should “use my looks not my voice” as I am “pretty for a black girl.”

I have been told many times that the “media loves a well-spoken black girl” and that “white supremacy rules” but “well done for trying.” Every day I am reminded of why I am speaking out; on the importance of the movement and our demands for a fundamental a change in attitudes and behaviour.

I want all black and other minorities to be able to love themselves for who they are, not believe that we have to adapt to fit into a society which is so flawed. It is essential that black history is told and celebrated — not silenced. I will not stop until this is achieved.

Maia Thomas is a Black Lives Matter activist in Exeter.

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