Ipswich-born CBeebies presenter shares his experiences of racism in viral video
Ben Cajee’s story has been watched 1.4 million times on Twitter alone. He tells us more, including how he hopes to inspire future generations.
Ipswich-born CBeebies presenter Ben Cajee, 33, recently went viral on Twitter with a short clip from CBeebies House, in which he shared his of experiences of being a mixed race person, and what life has been like for him growing up.
Born at Ipswich Hospital in 1987 to Fiona and Yacob, Ben spent his pivotal years growing up in various locations, from Somerset to Devon and the Midlands. “We moved around a lot, due to my dad’s job in local government, so we lived in Ipswich until I was around 18 months old. I don’t remember much of my time in Ipswich, but we have got photos of us all as a family at Flatford Mill and in Brantham,” he explained.
Growing up in the 1990s and 2000s, Ben recalls some of the racist incidents he remembers experiencing back in primary and secondary school, and how those have stuck with him.
“From five years old at primary school, I got called every word you could imagine to describe a black or mixed race person. As an example, people would say ‘go back to your own country’, and I wouldn’t know what that meant. I was born in Ipswich and this is my home, I didn’t go abroad until I was nine. I had to go home and tell my mum that this had happened or I’d been called this. As no one in my family had described me as those things before, I hadn’t heard those words before. But you know how things are expressed to you, I could tell it wasn’t said in a nice or affectionate way.”
As many others will know, these experiences don’t just stop in the playground – with Ben recalling certain incidents carrying on well into his teens and adulthood.
“I got chased down Exeter High Street when I was 13, and I’ve been followed after a night out, with people singing horrific racist songs at me in Exmouth. I’ve been pinned against the wall in a nightclub back when I was at university.
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“It happens a lot less now, because hopefully we’ve moved on, but also I’m in an environment where it’s less likely to happen, at the BBC offices and in the studio. It doesn’t mean it’s not there - I’ll go to the football and hear it in the terraces. You only have to be on social media for two minutes and you can see it, and it still hurts.”
Following a career working for the International Cricket Club in London, it was by total chance that Ben later ended up working in children’s television. A CBeebies executive had seen a previous audition tape he’d done for another project, and asked if he’d be interested in doing a screentest in Manchester. “I didn’t have a showreel, it’s all something that just kind of happened. I went up to Media City and did the screentest, and had to wait over Christmas before I found out in early January. I started that April and I’ve been with CBeebies for just over five and a half years now.”
Ben’s long-running career on CBeebies has since seen him have successes on other shows, including presenting on Blue Peter and Match of the Day Kickabout. But it’s his time on CBeebies that has really enabled him to reach an audience and share a message of positivity, acceptance and equality.
“CBeebies as a channel, its ethos is that everyone is welcome, and we’re all about serving all of our audience. There needs to be representation across all forms of the channel, which I think is important – not just in terms of race, but all forms and levels of equality.”
It’s Ben’s strive to uphold that ethos that led him to write and film his viral video clip.
“At CBeebies, we feel it’s important to serve all of our audience and talk about different things, and I’d spoken with the other presenters about the sorts of things we can do in order to create content around kindness, and a little bit about heritage. We then thought it might be powerful for me to do something about me being mixed race and that’s how the link came about.
“Links are the videos we film that are shown in between the different shows on CBeebies – and there’s lots of different ones. It could be me reading out someone’s birthday card, there’s ones of us dressed up where we could be singing or dancing, and we link all of them to the shows we’re about to broadcast. In the past, we’ve done links about sport, music, art, and history. Every year since I’ve been here, we’ve done Black History Month links, but obviously now there’s a big focus for it, and it’s definitely gotten more traction.”
Ben’s video has been met with a majority positive response - but it’s the negative ones which have shown why there’s still such a need for race, equality and acceptance to be taught to children at a young age.
“You only need to look at some of those messages and replies. It’s been overwhelming, and while the vast majority of the response has been positive, there’s still been some negativity. But that unfortunately that comes with the territory. If you stand for something you believe in, I guess you’ll have to deal with certain backlash and I hope the overriding sense is that I’m doing something positive.
“I’m 33 years old now, and hopefully some of these kids who are watching me now, when they’re 33 (and maybe at that point they’ll have young children of their own), we’re still not having to talk about the same stuff. It’s a lot better than it was, and things aren’t as bad for me as they were for my grandparents who moved here in the 50s, or compared to my parents when they got together in the 70s as a mixed couple, or how things were for my dad in the workplace. Things are improving, but like with most things, they can always get better. In all forms, if people can have more empathy and be kind to each other, then surely that’s a good thing - a fairer, better and more just society for the next generation of kids. A better world for them to grow up in. That’s the hope.”