October is Black History Month in the UK but Jazmin Sawyers feels like there is still a lot of work to be done in terms of changing attitudes.
Jazmin Sawyers has been one of Britain’s top long jumpers for 10 years. She is a two-time Olympian, has Commonwealth and European Championships medals to her name and even rounded her outdoor season off by defeating Olympic champion Malaika Mihambo at the ISTAF meeting in Berlin.
Her talents extend beyond sport, too. The 27-year-old is also an accomplished singer and musician who experienced national TV exposure during her appearance on The Voice UK back in 2017.
And yet still there are shopping trips where she will find herself being viewed with suspicion and followed by security guards. Still there are functions she will attend but have to face assumptions that she is a member of the waiting staff rather than a guest. Still she sees the abusive comments posted on social media under images of Great Britain’s 4x100m women’s relay team.
While so much has moved on in so many respects, sadly Sawyers can point to a number of personal and wider experiences which suggest matters have in fact regressed when it comes to attitudes towards skin colour and race.
In Britain, October represents Black History Month – an opportunity to share, celebrate and understand the impact of black heritage and culture. Its very existence points towards progress but Sawyers is not so sure.
“I don’t know how much progress were actually making when you see the racial abuse the England footballers got during the European Championships [after England lost on penalties in the final],” she says. “Black people can be national heroes but, once they do anything wrong, the racist abuse comes out.
“It seems you have to earn the right not to be racially abused. You sometimes think progress is being made but an incident like the Euros shows you that a lot of people’s views are still the same and I don’t know how you change that.
“I’ve had people, who are clearly racist, say to me ‘but you’re all right’. But I don’t want to be an exception, I’m a person. Everyone is a person who should be taken at face value. If some sections of the media tend to blame a certain type of person for particular problems and you keep hearing black people being blamed, you might start thinking that that is true.”
She adds: “I have never had any issues with fellow athletes but there are issues in sport. Every time a picture of our women’s relay team is tweeted there is racial abuse underneath it, like ‘when are we going to get some real British sprinters?’ In distance events you often hear commentators referring to ‘the white athletes’ who are running against ‘the Africans’.
“But, referring to European athletes, you simply wouldn’t say that. We also seem to get really excited about sprinters who are not black. I have been asked why I don’t compete for Jamaica and there is the implication that because I’m black I’m not really British. But I grew up in Britain; it’s where I’m from.”
Then there are the everyday indignities. “Being followed around a shop by a security guard is a weekly experience,” adds Sawyers. “I was surprised people didn’t know that that happens. I go to functions and people assume that I’m working at it and ask me to do things. That has happened over and over and over again.
“I was once flying business class and someone said to me: ‘You know this is the business class queue?’. Sometimes I think I go on about it too much but then I am constantly meeting people who either don’t believe it or are totally shocked by it.
“When people say they don’t think there are any issues with race in Britain it must be because they don’t know that things like this are happening day to day. It is appalling but it’s also normal – not good but normal.”
Sawyers splits her year between Britain and Florida, where she trains under coach Lance Brauman alongside athletes such as Gina Lückenkemper, Kelly-Ann Baptiste, Noah Lyles, Kimberley Williams and Maicel Uibo.
“It is different in America partly because the history of race relations in America is so different,” she says. “I think the politics in America makes it different. In England walking around with my boyfriend, [800m runner Guy Learmonth] is a non-event. In the US you get looks ‘what are you two doing together?’ which surprised me at first.”