📸 Photo by Elle
Last week was heavy. The black community across the world is feeling the weight of the horrific murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd (and so many others) and the ongoing terrorism and trauma inflicted by racism on a daily basis in the USA, UK and around the world.
I’ve been thinking about how I can use what I’m good at to try and help impact positive change.
As well as our shared fury and pain, the black community is also full of so much love and power right now. The incredible resilience of my ancestors and my people fuels me with confidence to share things I’ve written in the past, that I haven’t had the courage to share before.
I wrote the majority of this piece below, entitled ‘Stop Asking’, at some point last year (2019).
CW: Racism, fetishism
“Have you ever experienced racism in the UK?”
It’s the question I wish people would stop asking black people. Each time this is asked it exposes ignorance about the racist structures that our country is built on, the rising hate crime figures buried in the news and the staggering inequalities still present in many aspects of everyday life. For most black and brown people, racism is a daily presence in our lives and in light of the political madness of recent years, it is only getting worse.
I have had the same people asking again and again, somehow not hearing my response. It’s usually the people who consider themselves “left” and “woke” and aware of social justice issues that repeatedly utter “what, even in Brighton?” Shocked that even the liberal city we live in is not immune.
Yes, there is racism in Brighton.
I’ve lived in a few places in the UK, and I can confidently say that racism is alive and well all over the country. It just comes in different sizes and disguises in different areas.
In Cornwall, where I grew up, it was a steady background hum. So normalised that you could almost miss it, especially as a young, thoughtful child with no concept of race or ‘isms. What else could you assume other than there was something wrong with you? That you must be somehow wrong, that you must deserve to be treated differently.
It’s my oldest Cornish friends, however, who are the most natural allies. They don’t need to ask these questions because they see it every day; it’s often not hidden or shamed at all – especially if there’s no brown people in the room, which there usually isn’t. These friends have seen the isolation in my eyes, felt the constant misunderstandings with me, and as teenagers they often called out racism that I didn’t even react to – being in the midst of the numbness I’d developed to survive.
When I lived in Manchester and worked in the surrounding small towns, I found that people were constantly trying to put me in a box, to find my section – the area in which I should live, the places in which I should shop. I was once recommended to a particular shop to find “mixed-race food” by a shop assistant (and, no, I hadn’t enquired). Sweeping generalisations and knowing someone who knows someone who supports some right-wing maniac or other is everyday.
Whilst living in the Manchester area, I was also in a romantic relationship with a racist. Not the obvious kind of racist you might be thinking of, more like the “cheeky chappy” that just happens to make regular sweeping statements about “the Asians” and “black families” and how I just wasn’t genetically equipped to be a good swimmer. It makes me cringe to write this but I had sex with that man for months. I let him grab my ass and make comments about Jamaica. If I wasn’t living in a society which constantly made me question my existence and silence my pain, I can’t help but think my self-worth may not have ever dipped so low.
In Brighton, where I have lived on and off for several years, people pretend racism doesn’t exist, that they are living in a Green haven where everybody is accepting of each other. It’s this smug complacency that leads to statements like: “As far as I see it, Brighton welcomes everyone, whether they are black, white, gay, trans, straight or anywhere in between” by a local music journalist after a woman of colour – and musician visiting the city – called out members of her audience and said she felt uncomfortable at her own show. He even went as far as to describe her statement as ‘unnecessary’, completely denying her experiences – which played out before his eyes.
In Brighton, people seem to think it’s okay that they constantly mistake you for the other brown person in your friendship circle (or assume your other brown friends are your relatives) because they went to a refugee fundraiser at the weekend and they’ll apologise using Non-violent Communication methods. They try so hard to be good and yet they still absent-mindedly joke over brunch about how their toast with two different coloured toppings on is “half-caste”. In Brighton, racism lurks in the shadows and comes out in confrontational outbursts in people’s homes, at their places of work and from strangers on the street.
Racism is everywhere.
Besides opening your eyes and ears, reading the news or observing the dynamics and casting of any “reality” TV show, the evidence of racism is just a few clicks away in countless facts and figures on inequality in the UK – in employment, education, criminal justice, living standards, health care, media… the list goes on. In a country where a black woman is five times more likely to die in childbirth than a white woman, how can anyone question whether those black women (or their children or grandchildren) have “ever experienced racism”?
“But what kind of racism have you had?”
Each time people are asked “Really? Like what?” it feels like being put on trial to give evidence in court. You ask us to recount traumatic events in casual conversation and then you go about your day while we are left with a bad taste and a heavy weight on our very existence.
I find myself jumping to respond before I have even realised what I am doing. Where does this willingness to put your education above my comfort come from? Is it the teenager in me who was told “you’re not really black though” or “you’re the whitest black person I know” (as if it was a compliment) desperate to prove that I’m black enough to be affected by racism? Or is it because if I refuse to answer, or don’t list enough varied examples, you might take away that racism isn’t a thing and that you can still pat yourself on the back for having a brown friend?
Or is it that we’ve all learned, myself and other black and brown people included, whether consciously or not, that a brown person’s feelings matter less than a white person’s curiosity?
If you enjoyed reading this or learnt something or you’re just able and kind… please consider donating to Black Minds Matter – an organisation pairing black people with black therapists for free courses of talking therapy.
Thank you for reading 🖤