Reflecting on Stephen Lawrence Day
22nd April 2022 | By: Natalie Merrett, who leads on the Anna Freud Centre’s anti-racism and mental health in schools work
On 22 April 1993, at the age of 18, Stephen Lawrence was murdered in an unprovoked racist attack. On Stephen Lawrence Day, Natalie Merrett reflects on the importance of today, how far we have come and how far we still need to go.
Picture credit: Sam Currie
Today, on Stephen Lawrence Day, it’s important that we reflect on the tragedy of his death, but also ensure that we learn from it and work towards being an actively anti-racist society. The horrific, racially motivated murder that happened almost 30 years ago is something that I still find incomprehensible and disturbing to this day. I was a toddler when it happened – too young to remember – however I grew up hearing about Stephen’s name and story. It particularly resonated with me as it happened so close to where I lived – and that was terrifying and upsetting as a child.
Some change did come out of the tragedy of Stephen’s murder – it led to the pivotal publication of the Macpherson Report and its recommendations, and the creation of the Stephen Lawrence Day Foundation, which is part of Stephen's legacy to inspire a more equal and inclusive society. We’ve also seen the development of equalities legislation, increased awareness of the racial inequality that exists, and greater understanding of racism and discrimination. Although some progress has been made in the UK, there is still a lot more work that needs to be done to ensure that we are all striving for racial equity, both individually and as institutions.
Recently, we saw the very distressing news which confirmed that systemic and institutional racism still happens in the UK. Child Q was a 15-year-old Black girl who was subjected to an intimate search at her school in 2020 by two female police officers, without an appropriate adult being present and without parental consent. Child Q’s case review concluded that, had Child Q not been Black, then her experiences are unlikely to have been the same. These types of traumatic experiences should never be endured, and they cause devastating mental health consequences. They should also not happen in vain. Indeed, they can spur us to action and be a catalyst for important conversations – and ongoing education – that we all need to have, especially with the younger generation.
At the Anna Freud Centre, we recently conducted a survey and focus groups with young people who told us there is still a high level of racism in schools, which is impacting their mental health. 88% of young people said racism affects mental health ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’, with only 2% answering ‘not at all’. Young people told us they want to see racism tackled, openly and in a way that ensures every student is valued and has a voice to influence change. What we have heard from students, since the start of this work, continues to inform us every step of the way.
Experiencing racism can have significant mental health consequences. For those children and young people who are on the receiving end of racism or discrimination, directly supporting them is a priority. As an organisation, we can now offer resources to help schools develop an anti-racist culture and ensure better mental health for racially minoritised students and staff. We developed the resources, and our upcoming e-learning, in collaboration with the Honourable Stuart Lawrence, Stephen’s brother. Stuart is a former teacher, campaigner, author and is the keynote speaker at our free event next week on building a whole school approach to anti-racism.
What has struck me from working with Stuart is that in spite of all that has happened to him and his family, he remains optimistic about seeing change. If we come together on this journey, then we can tackle racism, its negative impact and give hope to the next generation.
Change takes time. There is a lot for us to learn and we can all do more to make a difference. It doesn’t matter what background or culture you are from – we’re all on a continual learning process. We need to be more tolerant and understanding of one another, and work towards building safer, more supportive, anti-racist communities.
Our anti-racism and mental health in schools resources aim to help staff to build a whole-school approach to anti-racism. They have been developed in collaboration with the Honourable Stuart Lawrence and BLAM (Black Learning Achievement and Mental Health) UK.
Our free event on Thursday 28 April will be on building a whole school approach to anti-racism and the speakers include the Honourable Stuart Lawrence.