I know what you’re thinking; oh no, not another rant about race. If you’re thinking this, according to the film I watched last night, it means that you’re a racist. OK, so it’s really not that simple and that film (Dear White People) was actually a tongue-in-cheek, humorous but also very real depiction of the issue of race today. At least amongst America’s youth anyway.
And to be honest, films like these tend to educate even me, a twenty nine year old black woman living in the metropolis of London. I’ve always been interested in African American civil rights and the rich tapestry of it, but still don’t know half as much about it as I would like, mostly because I’m not a scholar or anything. Still, racism isn’t just about the civil rights movement obviously; it’s about lots of different things. Mostly ignorance and fear of change and difference, but these are broad subjects that many people have explored and I’m not going to bore you with today. Instead I’ll talk about the stuff that’s happened to me in terms of race.
I will say with hand-on-my-heart honesty, that well into my twenties, I was still sure I had experienced very little racism. Definitely none that I could point at and say with any certainty that yes, I was in a racially motivated attack that’s left me looking at the world differently. And I genuinely believed it to be true. I would even proudly tell people that I was fortunate enough to not even notice colour, and had to take a second to think whenever family members asked me what colour a particular friend was. Thinking about it now, I never stopped to even consider why they asked that; just accepting that they believed that the colour of someone’s skin could tell you something about who they were as a person.
Now, I don’t want you to confuse my colour blindness for ignorance, because it wasn’t. I had just never really been made to feel like colour was that important growing up. The things that I was told were important were having an understanding of your heritage and speaking your mother tongue (both of which I was failing at apparently). But when I went to school, I was in London and all my friends were first generation children with parents from Ghana, China, Japan, India, Pakistan, Jamaica, the West Indies, Nigeria, Ireland, Wales, etc. etc. etc. Our biggest concern was not race or who looked more like who, it was who was going to play Danny in our playground version of Grease, and who would get the coveted role of Sandy when she becomes a leather clad badass. We had more pressing matters to deal with, obviously.
My point is, I was fortunate because I lived in London, and in London everyone is from the same place; London. We have divides of course, and have lots of areas that are predominantly from one part of the world, like West African, Indian, Eastern European and so forth. But racism is not at the forefront of every conversation we have when we make a new friend, because everyone is obviously from somewhere else. That is until UKIP showed up and now it’s “immigration caused a traffic jam” and “immigration means I can’t get burgers from McDonalds anymore”. They’re idiots, obviously.
However, the issue of race is very different in America, for reasons I am now very aware of and understand more. I recently went there to visit family; and race and culture and “sticking with your own” were the predominant messages that I took from that trip. Family members could not seem to fathom how I could “have culture” when I wasn’t actively seeking out other Ghanaians and constantly eating Ghanaian food. And I equally could not explain to them that my culture or my experience of it was not based merely in my ethnic make-up, and instead had been shaped by the melting pot that was London.
*Side note: I don’t like the phrase Melting Pot because it implies that we’ve all mixed our ethnic traditions and cultures together to create a new culture, which I don’t think is true. I think we’ve all got our original traditions and such, and then London has its own quirks and kinks like any place, and they add to those we’ve already got. I guess I felt I needed to say this to explain that London is merely a combination of all the different experiences of the people who inhabit it, rather than something that dilutes the richness of the hundreds of nationalities that make it up. That’s all.*
So anyway, America is different, and race is just always current there because it has to be, and because racism is rife in the way I will probably never experience if I decide to stay in London for the rest of my life. However, it does exist here in the UK, and I’m going to give you three examples of my experience of times when my race has come into the frame that may seem subtle, but also massively opened my eyes and stopped me being colour blind. In a positive way hopefully.
When I was 16, we had a week of work experience and I was doing admin for what I now realise was a Care agency (I had put ‘wants to help people’ on my work experience form and apparently admin at a care agency was the closest thing they could find. Sad times.). Anyway, some days I got to shadow the support workers who visited elderly ladies at their home, and the two support assistants drove me home afterwards. They were white British women, probably in their late forties/ early fifties at the time, and as I was about to get out of the car, one of them took my hand and turned it palm-face up. Then she turned it over again and then palm-face up once more. I looked at her confused but not altogether bothered. (I don’t know why), and she looked at her colleague and said,
“Her palm looks the same as mine. I didn’t expect that they’d look the same as ours.”
Then she smiled at me and let me get out of the car. I just thought, OK that was weird. Of course, I must have thought something deeper than that because I never, ever forgot it. #Racism?
When I was 17 or 18, I was lying on the grass of our sixth form grounds with some friends. The sun was beating down on us and summer was almost here. We were being lazy and probably bunking a class or something, like everyone else out on the grass that day. A friend of mine – not a very close one – was trying to tan. I think she was White British, but was olive skinned so may have had a Mediterranean ancestor of some kind. Anyway, we were sat on the grass and she suddenly looked at me with a serious frown and said,
“You know when you tan? Do you get lighter?”
I believe I just looked at her with shock, like some other just as white faces around me and said “no” very calmly. The implications of this kind of comment are vast, as if the pigment of my skin indicates that I am a different species all together, where everything is opposite to those who are white. I wouldn’t be surprised if she also thought my blood was blue. #Racism?
Now for a more recent example. Not too long ago I had planned to do a PhD, about people in the helping professions and how they are affected by their work. I was very passionate about this piece of work, and wanted it to become something that was accessible and applicable to all in the profession, regardless of race or gender or any other category on those dreaded equality monitoring forms.
My proposal caught the eye of a professor who was interested but did not have specific expertise in the area. In order to apply for a PhD, you have to get your proposal right of course, so I worked with two professors on this for a few weeks. The lead professor was a white British man, over the age of 50 at least, and well known in his field. As I tried to shape this proposal and avoid it becoming about one population of people, because I wanted it to be accessible to all as I’ve just said, he wanted it to be more specific. We disagreed on this I think, but at the time, I was open to all suggestions, and his main suggestion/ qualm was this;
Wasn’t I more interested in the experiences of BLACK people in the helping professions, and how the work affects THEM in particular? And wasn’t it strange that he, as a white British male, was making this suggestion to me?
I think that I responded to this with a really heartfelt “You’ve given me a lot to think about” and “I’ll have to get back to you on that”, because what else do you say in that situation? Well, what I should have said was this:
“Yes, I am a black woman. Yes I am interested in the subject of race. But no, I do not, nor will I ever, want to pigeon-hole a particular race of people with a piece of research that would imply that they were affected by the helping professions in a particular way and others were not, all because of their ethnicity. In some cases, this might be appropriate, but that doesn’t mean that just because I’m black, I should want to do that.”
I didn’t say that of course. I just quit pursuing the PhD. #Racism?
My general point (and I genuinely have one today, shock horror) is that racism still exists. It’s not lynching and segregation anymore, but it’s still attitudes and behaviours, which unfortunately do affect how we are with each other. I’ve used those three examples because they highlight the kind born from ignorance and genuine curiosity/ misguided assumptions; the kind that can be challenged and even eradicated. I’ve got many more that are more subtle and just easier to ignore, but sharing them here wouldn’t have illustrated my point as well.
I see colours now, but I also see character and individuality and the general fallibility of humanity, so I’m fortunate enough to be able to see many different sides to people. I don’t believe that anyone is just the colour of their skin, but I can’t deny the fact that we’re all judged by it in one way or another. Is that #Racism? Discuss.
Image credit: Running by Stephen Borengasser from the Noun Project