‘Race and racism is a reality that so many of us grow up learning to just deal with. But if we ever hope to move past it, it can’t just be on people of color to deal with it. It is up to all of us – Black, white, everyone – no matter how well-meaning we think we might be, to do the honest, uncomfortable work of rooting it out.’ – Michelle Obama.
I have battled with the idea of writing this. I am writing as a mixed-race woman, half white Slovakian and half black Nigerian, and with the knowledge that I am privileged because I have never had to navigate life with the extremity of discrimination that targets those whose skin is darker than my own. I was worried that, being mixed-race, I’m not perceived as ‘black enough’ and that mine is not a story of crushing experiences formed out of racial abuse because it often seems that people have to be shocked into activism. It took continuous reassurance from my closest friends to persuade me that mine are the type of voices they want to hear more from. Though it isn’t as powerful and thought-provoking a read as some of the incredible reading list items I’ve seen circulating over the past few weeks, I hope it’ll make you reflect on some of the things you may have done and to learn from them. Take from this what you will; I write only with the intention to share in the hope it adds even a small amount to the education that so many are undertaking right now.
I often wonder if racism hasn’t been squashed out because people are so afraid of change that they would rather fight tooth and nail against basic human rights. I still think people are scared of what’s perceived as ‘different’, but I’m finding that this fear of change goes much deeper. It’s as if, by acknowledging that things must change in order to wipe out systemic racism within the structure of our society, white people will be acknowledging the fact that there was indeed something to change in the first place and that they have lived their lives complacent with the treatment of black people and people of colour. It’s why race and racism are always difficult to talk about in groups because people will easily get defensive. Nobody wants to be called out for getting facts wrong, for not using the appropriate terms or for saying something that will make them seem racist. To avoid this, white people would rather just not talk about race at all. The rhetoric of this entire campaign on anti-racism has been to read, to listen, to watch and to educate oneself on the issues we have turned a blind eye to previously. Now is the time to have these conversations, to ask and to question, to get things wrong and make mistakes so that we can be corrected and educate ourselves. It is not enough to be a passive supporter, we cannot be complacent.
In the aftermath of events happening across the world following the horrific death of George Floyd, I’ve been reading so many articles and accounts of different people’s stories, black or mixed-race, and the effect these had on them whether minor or life changing. It made me look back and question things that have happened in my own life that I have never given that much thought to but that seem prominent now. I think it says a lot that, until very recently, I didn’t even know there were specific terms for some things I have experienced or that so many others have been through it too. I have been lucky in that I have not experienced what I perceive to be intentional discrimination, either physical or verbal, based on the colour of my skin. Although ‘lucky’ seems misplaced in such a sentence seeing as this should be a basic human right. I want to talk instead of experiences that made me feel “Other” and of an embedded ignorance to race that caused this.
My frizzy hair has always been a great source of interest. When I was much younger, my mum would style my hair for me in a way that would best showcase and benefit my afro-style tight curls, whether that meant cornrows or space buns or something far more extravagant. During primary school, we moved from multicultural London to various predominantly middle-class white countryside areas where I was usually the only non-white person at school. At such a young age, I didn’t notice skin colour. What I did notice was hair and that mine was nothing like those around me who wore neat ponytails or tidy plaits. Nobody likes being bullied and I wanted to fit in. So, I no longer wanted my mum doing my hair the way it made it stand out. Instead, I plaited it, adorned it with flower clips or colourful headbands from Claire’s or combed it into as tight and neat a bun as I possibly could. Those who know me know my hair doesn’t like to be tamed. It looked bulky and awkward and I’d have to buy new hair bobbles all the time because the ones I used would stretch beyond use while trying to restrain my curls. I never wore my hair down. Looking back, it’s hard to know whether these years were me being scared of being made fun of because my hair was ‘different’ or if these were just the years of any other girl trying to find her style and worrying too much what people would think of her. What I do know for sure is that had there been other black or mixed-race kids at my school who did wear African hairstyles, I would’ve been more inclined to do the same instead of adhering to Eurocentric beauty standards that didn’t suit me. But safety shouldn’t come in numbers, it should be a given.
I first noticed the hair fascination at secondary school. I’d be sitting in class and those on desks behind me would stick various bits of stationery in my bun because it was a great source of amusement to watch pens stand in my hair which was dense enough to hold them up. I’d get others ‘bopping’ my hair in lunch queues or during breaktimes because they liked the feel of smacking it. Someone else enjoyed referring to it as ‘a weasel’s nest’. None of these experiences harmed me at the time nor do I hold a grudge or feel anger towards those who treated my hair that way years ago. However, what it did often do is make me feel uncomfortable and other, like I was something to be stared at and played with for the enjoyment of others. I also realise that I am relatively thick-skinned and the issue here is that another mixed-race or black girl in my place may not have been able to shrug away this unwanted attention so easily. These types of experiences, so mild in manner when compared to the acts of violence against black people we see frequently online, are still damaging to someone else’s self-esteem. What’s the big deal, it’s just hair, right? But this hair is a feature of our race that we have no control over, just the same as our skin colour, and to be made to feel other for something so natural is, in my mind, a small cruelty in itself worsened by the fact it is also an easily avoidable cruelty. I may be thick-skinned, yet it still took me years to wear my hair down. I thought that if it attracted that much attention up then I’d have nowhere to hide when it was down.
My hair is just my hair, the same way we’re not ‘exotic’ because our skin is darker or because our lips are fuller; this is just the way we are. There’s a difference between accepting and fetishizing. My boyfriend describes my skin as caramel and to be honest, I love it. It makes me feel beautiful. But I understand that this is so heavily context based. I love it because he is fully seeing and acknowledging me, my brown skin, my race, and correlating it to something he loves and matches my skin tone. This is love and acceptance. What is problematic is when white people fixate on skin colour as if it is the feature that defines you most, ‘I’ve never been with a black person before’ or ‘I love me a nice chocolate (wo)man’, when it is something that cannot be changed. All I ask is that you weigh the appropriateness of your comment and how it will make this person feel about themselves.
I’ve been told before that I’m like a white girl trapped inside a black girl’s body. Apparently, because I don’t rap, I’m not a hip-hop dancer, I’m not sassy or a diva and I don’t twerk, I have white girl features. Again, my reaction to this was so muted at the time that I even remember laughing. The person who said this meant no harm and it was a joke so what’s not to like? What I see reflected in that comment now is racial stereotyping rather than a joke. Since when did one group possess exactly the same physical attributes and personal qualities across the board? A love of contemporary dancing and a lack of sassy attitude doesn’t make me any less black. And although this is one of the mildest examples I’ve come across, it worries me that other people may think this way but more menacingly. What’s to stop an employer not hiring a black person because ‘black people are lazy’?
It’s for reasons like these that I believe ‘think before you act’ is so important. It’s a simple notion that’s plastered on posters at primary school and preached about in assemblies but it’s one that we apparently forget so easily. I love it when people compliment my hair. It may have taken a few years but I’m proud of my unruly curls and I won’t bat an eyelid before wearing them down anymore. I also don’t mind discussion about my skin tone. In fact, it’s great when someone really takes an interest in where I’m from because my brown skin is part of who I am and to pretend to not see it is to not see my race and my culture. What I do mind is obsessive touching and squeezing and an unhealthy fixation which comes close to racial fetishizing.
But despite the above examples leading to potential harm, I think those instances show the most capacity for change. It’s a simple case of updating vocabulary and wanting to learn and understand the correct way to address race. What saddens me is the amount of rage, opposition or blatant ignorance to this existing racism which appears in overwhelming form on social media. It’s difficult to stay positive about progress in the face of what seem to be endless racist posts, shares and comments that try to belittle those making a stand. Every time another person misjudges the aims of the Black Lives Matter movement or disrespects a person of colour, a little part of me wilts because it highlights the enormity of this movement, the scale of the people we are going to have to get through to in order to make real, long-lasting change.
However, social media is just one avenue of activism. We will not be able to combat every single comment or post or like and just because you may have an account that looks inactive at this time, doesn’t mean you aren’t making change elsewhere. Social media is such an incredible platform to learn and share and I for one have been grateful for the resources some people have shared, but the work does not stop here; it is not virtual change we need to see. What’s more, we shouldn’t be fighting those with equally anti-racist sentiment who might not show it the same way we do. I saw countless posts condemning black-square posters on Blackout Tuesday for their ‘pointless’ contributions to the movement. I don’t think clapping for the NHS every week is magically saving lives or generating more income for hospitals but nor do I think it’s pointless. It’s showing solidarity, acknowledgment and appreciation for a worthy cause. While some may have used the black square for performative activism with no further action, I know many people who posted a black square and then spent their day reading, watching, learning about black lives and black history, signing petitions, donating, thinking deeply, only to come back to their phones to be reprimanded for accidentally using the wrong hashtag. Our fight is not with each other but for racial equality in the world.
I acknowledge that I am in a position of privilege in that I am able to voice my opinions where others may not have the means to. I’ve also not had to experience discrimination in the way that countless black people have and so I want to reiterate that what I’ve written here is for furthering the discussion, not summarising it in my words. It’s the responsibility of us all to speak out now so that we see drastic change.
To those advocating for ‘All Lives Matter’ right now, I almost don’t have the words. Almost. This is one of the most insensitive phrases I’ve seen. The only conclusion I can come to is that you wrongly believe people are saying ‘Black Lives Matter More’. This is not about supremacy. This is about equality. This is about a racially oppressed group saying, ‘our lives matter too’ and what’s more, we need your help. Of course all lives matter, nobody is saying otherwise. What you fail to notice is that by saying this right now, you overlook an entire oppressed group’s history and plea for equality by responding with a sweeping statement that you fail to even demonstrate in your everyday lives. All lives matter? Prove it. All lives cannot matter until black lives matter too. Do the work. Do the research. Learn your facts. Listen.
To all the people finding excuses and ways to discredit the Black Lives Matter movement or people involved, I wish you would put the same enthusiasm and energy into supporting human rights and racial equality. You also need to stop pointing the finger at the US and look for change a little closer to home. You are, of course, entitled to your own opinion and we are not taking away your freedom of speech. However, I want you to know that your efforts are wasted because we will not stop fighting these injustices. I hope, sooner rather than later, you will open yourselves up to overdue change and fight with us.
To all the black and mixed-race people who have spoken out or shared their stories- you are so brave. You have never been voiceless, it’s just that we haven’t listened hard enough to what you have to say. But the voices are amplified now. We hear you, every single one of you, and we stand by your side.
Featured Image Source: Megan Shepherd