‘Racism starts at home’ – Wolverhampton gran who became symbol of 2011 riots
“I met someone recently who didn’t like me because the colour of my skin. But then they got to know me and now they love me.”
Britain has come a long way over recent decades, says Louise Johnson, but her experiences prove bigoted attitudes remain ingrained in some people – and she believes those attitudes start at home.
The grandmother unwittingly became a symbol of the 2011 riots in Wolverhampton when she stood up to the thugs attempting to raid her city centre salon.
She witnessed society disintegrating around her during those dark few days 10 years ago when she battled to save her beloved business she had worked so hard for.
She was pictured standing up to the threatening hooded youths, arms outstretched blocking their path, as she desperately tried to protect her business on historic Queen Street, in one of the defining images of the Midlands riots.
It was a battle she won, as the rioters listened and left her alone after she went “completely berserk” and told them they were not having her shop in an instinctive act of bravery, but Ms Johnson says there is still a long way to go in the fight for equality.
She does, however, believe things have improved since trust in law and order crumbled a decade ago.
Shops were trashed and cars torched as youths ran amok in Wolverhampton, West Bromwich and Birmingham in copycat riots sparked by chaos on the streets of London.
Looking back, Mrs Johnson said: “I think it was just my nature. My salon had not long opened, it had been open for two years and to have them destroy it… I just thought ‘you’re not having this place’.”
The business owner, 62, who grew up in Heath Town, one of the poorer areas of Wolverhampton, spoke to Black Country Live as part of a series of articles for Black History Month.
Mrs Johnson, whose parents moved to Britain from Jamaica, tells a story of not being allowed inside a white friend’s house when she was a teenager and having to wait outside.
Today’s black children “have it easy” compared to what she went through, she says. But she recognises the challenges and inequalities which still exist, with Brexit, populist politics and symbolic acts such as footballers taking the knee creating divisions.
“Of course it’s changed,” Ms Johnson says. “It’s much better than it was. Today’s generation can learn in the same way as other kids, they have the opportunities.
“My daughter is a hairdresser. She had the opportunity and she took it. My kids were from a single parent household. It’s no excuse. I taught them to have manners, it comes from home.”
But while much has changed, prehistoric attitudes still exist, as proved by a recent experience she had.
“Someone recently didn’t like me because of the colour of my skin. But I said I’m not going anywhere. They got to know me and now they love me.”
Mrs Johnson has developed a thick skin over the years and insists being pre-judged in that way doesn’t bother her but she understands the impact it has on so many others.
The grandmother said she was not surprised by the barrage of racist abuse towards black England players Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka following the Euro 2020 final and has resigned herself to believing some people are so set in their ways they will never change, no matter how many attempts are made to educate them.
Footballers have also faced criticism from some quarters for choosing to take the knee to highlight racial injustice.
“You are always going to get that, these people saying monkeys and the rest of it. It is the person themselves who has to change. They will never change,” Mrs Johnson says.
“The media have a lot to do with it. Look at what they did to Meghan (Duchess of Sussex). Look at what he’s driving, look at they way he lives.
“I was with someone once who saw someone driving a nice car and said ‘I bet it’s drugs’. It was a social worker I knew.”
But Mrs Johnson does have hope for future generations. She is a grandmother to 14 and hopes they and their children will grow up in a much more tolerant society.
And she believes that is possible because the strides that have been made over recent decades. She says among people she knows, there are hardly any complaints about racism which she sees as a sign of progress.
There’s also been no repeat of the riots which almost took away her business 10 years ago.
Mrs Johnson said: “The next generation, I think kids are going to be different. Racism starts at home and if attitudes change kids will listen.
“My eight-year-old grandchildren said someone said she had chocolate skin. Eight years old. Where does that come from? Home. It’s sad.
“For my grandchildren I hope to god things will change for them.”