During my formative years growing up in the suburbs or Nottinghamshire, I never really thought of my race to be anything of issue. I had a strong group of friends, I was never bullied, and I always did well in school. Looking back on it, however, I can think of a number of instances that most likely were internalised by my younger and less self-assured self which caused or exacerbated many problems with confidence and shyness. Unlike other cities such as London or Birmingham, the leafy county of Nottinghamshire wasn’t so much a cultural melting pot. To see other people who looked like me, with my wide nose and afro hair, I had to travel into town to the inner city neighbourhoods. Living my entire life in white spaces I had never truly experienced black companionship other than my immediate family, or when we made momentus and exciting trips down to London to see our extended family. I didn’t have anybody I could relate to. I always felt different. My blackness was rarely something I was made to feel uncomfortable about or a basis to maliciously single me out for, yet I could always see that it did make some people uncomfortable or unsure about how to read me as a person.
We were the first black family to move into the distinctly middle class area. The community was pretty tight knit; we knew everybody and everybody knew us. The five of us children had at least one common teacher experience which seemed to result in the teachers thinking that if they knew one of us, the knew all of us. In my experience, a lot of teachers failed to see the differences between us and would paint us with the same brush (and these were usually quite stereotypical…we were assumed to be good at sports, we were all loud-mouthed/mischievous and we would ’all look the same’). When a teacher had taught one of ’the five’ that they assumed knew us each inside out. It wasn’t uncommon for me to hear at parent’s evenings “you’re not as outspoken as xxx was when I taught them!” Apparently this was something of note – something that I internalised as a fault of my own – deemed necessary to inform my own mother of as if she didn’t know!
I would absolutely dread the summer months at school because it would lead to me being used as a benchmark for the subject of tanning. Was the brown of my skin something to aspire to as a result of the summer holiday sunning of my peers? Worse than people grabbing my arm and shoving it next to theirs to compare melanin levels, were the social media status’ in which people proclaimed how “black” they had become through unhealthy amounts of time spent in the sun wearing little-to-no SPF to achieve that summer glow (which conveniently fades away after a few weeks and means you won’t be subject to institutional racism, discrimination and prejudice I would be). Sure, they were lighthearted comments from people looking for likes, but when you equate my blackness as something laughable, it’s hard to see the humour in it.
One moment that sticks in my mind was my friends elderly grandma commenting on how I didn’t/wouldn’t/shouldn’t want to go out in the sun during summer because I was “dark enough”. Did my darkness – did me living in my own skin offend her? I was only about 16 at the time and was caught off guard at this gross outpour and I just let is slide. I couldn’t, however, help re-running the incident over and over again in my mind and the frustration with my friend (who was present!) for justifying her words because she was old and didn’t know any better; aka she was allowed to make racist remarks because of her age. Incidents like these reminded me of how ’other’ people can make you feel without even realising. Most people are aware that insulting someone based on their skin colour is unacceptable, yet are unaware that it’s just as damaging to create a situation whereby I am something different or exotic to compare to what they see as standard, or worse, normal.
Something else that’s been touched on a lot (literally) is my hair. I remember in year four my sister and I started getting our hair canerowed (we had to travel to the other side of Nottingham to find a black salon!). I distinctly remember people lambasting us for having copied David Beckham’s hairstyle. Yep, Beckham was such a huge influeunce on us and we wanted to look just like him. We’ll just ignore that as people of African descent, we’ve been canerowing and braiding our hair for millenia, because Becks, and more recently Kim Kardashian have made made these styles trendy.
“Is that your real hair or is it horse hair?…Errr, you’ve got a dead person’s hair on your head!…Why is it so frizzy?…Why isn’t your hair straight?…Why doesn’t it grow?…Can I touch it? (that’s if they even ask)”. Just a few questions/comments I was be bombarded with from a lot of my peers. The lack of understanding was insane. Even to this day, there’s nothing that makes me feel more “other” than having to explain my hair to a white person. That’s not to say, if you ask me a question about my hair I’m going to be offended. Just think about what you’re actually asking – is it necessary? Is it offensive? Is it obvious what the answer is with a little common sense? The subject of hair has been a bone of contention and source of insecurity for many black people – black women especially for a number of reasons so depricating or trivilalising questions probably aren’t the best way to open such discussions. Despite the growing “natural hair movement” in the black community (the fact that wearing our hair how it grows from our heads has to be a movement is telling) and hair relaxer sales have dropped over 25% over the last 5 years, black hair is always under scrutiny. Try Googling ’unprofessional hair’ or counting the number of students/employees who have been sent home because their natural hairstyles were unacceptable to understand why some black women feel obliged to straighten their hair in corporate/professional environments.
And why did I let a lot of these issues go unchallenged? Why did I not tell them that what they were doing was offensive or making me uncomfortable? Because I didn’t want to rock the boat. I didn’t want to flag up the fact that their actions or words were the cause of my discomfort. I think it’s a thing a lot of us did – when we were younger – we hadn’t developed the tools to articulate just why it made us feel the way it did. We just wanted to fit in and be like everyone else. What I think made it worse was that I had nobody outside of my family I could share these experiences and feelings with. No black best friend to vent to without judgment or misunderstanding. This companionship is something I couldn’t live without now (shout out to my gals!) and I’m articulate and self-assured enough to question or call someone out on their potentially offensive microaggressions. Having come full circle and moved back to my parents’ stomping ground of London, I feel so happy when I see a crowd full of various shades of brown! Strangely I think that without these experiences in my earlier years, I would have been less equipped to recognise them now – which can only be a good thing on my journey of self-discovery!