‘Uncomfortable conversations’ key to Black History Month, says Johnny Nelson

Former boxing champion Johnny Nelson has said people need to have “uncomfortable conversations” about race and history to make a positive change in society.

Speaking at the start of Black History Month – held in October each year – the former world cruiserweight champion, 55, said people were now “brave enough” to discuss the issues around race in the UK.

“Now it’s all coming to a head because people are brave enough to stand up and have a conversation, and those that are not used to that are feeling threatened, feeling dumb and feeling ignorant but this isn’t a bad thing,” he told the PA news agency.

Lycamobile British Ethnic Diversity Sports Awards – London
Johnny Nelson was speaking at the start of Black History Month (Doug Peters/PA)

“Of course, it’s an uncomfortable thing, but I will say education, education, education is the key.

“You’ve got to have these uncomfortable conversations to educate.”

The Sky Sports pundit said that Black History Month provided a platform for people to be able to open channels of dialogue about these issues.

Mr Nelson said he often told a story from his childhood about being asked to paint a doll representing baby Jesus for his school nativity. He said: “I picked up Jesus and started painting him brown.”

The boxer said he was slapped in the face by a teacher after a student had complained, saying Mr Nelson had “ruined” the baby Jesus.

“Now this teacher was in a position of responsibility to educate us all,” Mr Nelson said.

Johnny Nelson v Guillermo Jones – WBO cruiserweight
Mr Nelson is the longest-reigning world cruiserweight champion (Nick Potts/PA)

“But instead of using this opportunity to educate myself and the whole class, they chose the narrative of ignorance, and the narrative of not teaching the youth coming through that are the parents of today.

“This wasn’t a one-off incident, I’m sure this has happened on many occasions in different sets of circumstances in schools, where in schools they don’t use the opportunity to explore, and use common sense and change the narrative on education, which is why there’s so much ignorance in the world today.”

He said the incident was his first real memory of experiencing racism and that he hoped by sharing the story he would educate others.

“Black History Month to me is a chance for people to stand up and speak and actually tell their story to actually educate others to say ‘this is where we went wrong, this is where we can go right’,” Mr Nelson said.

“So then in 20 to 30 years, we won’t be telling the same stories to our kids.”

He added: “For young black men and women, it’s about having validation for oneself, it’s about being proud and understanding one’s own history.

Johnny Nelson v Guillermo Jones – WBO cruiserweight
The former boxer works promoting sports, diversity and inclusion (Nick Potts/PA)

“But you’ve got to start from grassroots, you’ve got to start from the ground up, and we’ve got to start with one another.”

He also highlighted the importance of representation in the media but said that skin colour should not be the reason for getting hired, competence should be.

“You want to turn the TV on, and you want to see somebody that reflects you, that looks like you and I don’t just mean just because I’m black,” he said.

“You want to see someone that knows he can do the job.

“I don’t think it’s right that you employ someone because of the colour of their skin.

“You give the same opportunities you would anybody, regardless of the colour of the skin.”

Mr Nelson is the longest-reigning world cruiserweight champion of all time, having held the WBO title from 1999 to 2005.

Boxing cruiserweight champion Johnny Nelson
Mr Nelson visits schools and prisons to deliver speeches on motivation and inclusion (Toby Melville/PA)

“I have earned the right to be here because I have been there and done the job,” he added.

“I have the experience, I’ve worn the T-shirt, so I can converse with anybody about any aspect of what I’ve done, because I’ve done it.”

Mr Nelson is active in his home community in Sheffield, where he works with young people to inspire them to get into sport.

The television pundit also visits prisons and delivers speeches in his hometown, with the aim of “creating conversation and understanding”.

“When I go into prisons, when I go into schools, in both black and white areas, what you’re doing is you are creating conversation and understanding,” he said.

“We all have a level of intelligence of being able to converse with one another, and we listen, but we don’t hear.

“So, when you’ve got somebody like myself that doesn’t come from a background of wealth, but comes from the same background as most of the people I speak to, it probably is more believable.”