Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje remembers his first day of school like it was yesterday. The sun was shining, and the air was crisp. He particularly remembers how a policeman smiled at him before spitting in his face. It was the youngster’s first experience with institutionalized racism.
Adewale’s parents moved from Nigeria to the UK to study accountancy and law. When he was still a baby, they placed an ad in a newspaper looking for a foster family to take care of him while they hit the books. A white family took him into their home.
According to Adewale, placing a child with a distant relative or even a stranger is not unusual in Nigeria. His parents believed growing up in a white community would increase his opportunities in life.
Adewale’s foster family lived in Tilbury. In the 1970s, it was a fertile breeding ground for racism. As one of the few black faces in a white community, Adewale stood out like a sore thumb. Adewale’s foster parents reassured him he was equal to everyone else. Yet, his parents often used racist slurs in his presence.
Adewale would often be struck with bricks as he walked down the street. When he was beaten up, his foster father told him to fight back, or he’d beat him up himself.
Suffering from an identity crisis, Adewale tried to scrub at his skin to make it white. The attacks continued. Sick of being a victim, he decided if he couldn’t beat them, he’d join them. Adewale became a member of a racist skinhead gang who had once stripped him of his clothes and beat him in the street when he was younger.
The skinheads admired Adewale because of his strength. They saw him as a secret weapon to exploit. Adewale would beat up black sailors and other rival skinhead gangs to earn their approval. But he was never considered an equal.
Concerned he was going off the rails, Adewale’s foster mother got in touch with his birth family in Nigeria. Adewale’s dad was now a successful lawyer and sent his son to a boarding school in Surrey.
At first, Adewale hated his new environment. But with encouragement, he embraced education. He eventually graduated with a master’s degree in law from King’s College London.
Adewale would later make a career for himself in Hollywood. He has appeared in movies and TV shows such as Thor and Game of Thrones. He has also turned his life story into a film he directed called Farming.
Adewale is now a Buddhist and is philosophical about his experiences of racism. The 52-year-old said, “I was 16 when this happened. Hatred and anger have to have an expiry date, otherwise, you are at a dead end.”