“Race doesn’t really exist for you because it has never been a barrier. Black folks don’t have that choice.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah
When I think back to the strange world of Lockdown we all suddenly found ourselves in, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is at the forefront of my mind. It is like the world was forced to quieten down and Black people could finally have their voices heard.
People all over the internet were having discussions – actual conversations about what we had all seen. It felt like so many White people had suddenly opened their eyes. They could no longer be blind to police brutality in the USA and were prompted to question how racism affects people in the UK too, with some only just realising that the UK is not as tolerant as they once thought.
Growing up as a mixed-race girl, I always questioned what it meant to be mixed-race, always asking myself questions like ‘how do I fit in?’, ‘how do people see me?’ and ‘how do I see myself?”. I remember asking my mum (who is White English) why I could not call myself White, but I could be Black. My child self could not comprehend why I could not be in the middle or be both.
As you grow up in a society like ours, you very quickly learn that you cannot be both. You cannot be White, especially with 4a textured Afro hair standing out in a room full of mostly White children, and you often feel like you do not fit into being “Black” either.
The BLM protests being broadcast on mainstream news channels encouraged White people to start talking about race and privilege. This gave me hope and a newfound courage to speak up when I felt uncomfortable, or to at least gather my thoughts and let people know afterwards.
I attended two BLM protests, one in London and one in Watford, and found the experience incredibly powerful. Seeing such a diverse mix of people at both felt like a change for good. White people were starting to see racism as a problem for them to fix, an issue that affects everyone.
But how do we go from feeling comfortable having these conversations with our Black friends and allies, to feeling strong enough to be able to say “no, you can’t touch my hair” to an ignorant or racist non-Black person? How do we ask our bosses “when are we going to talk about underrepresentation in our organisation?” How do we gain a sense of self whilst always being othered? How do we muster up the energy to have that conversation at a New Year’s Eve party when someone says “is that your real hair? I just want to scrunch it!” or when someone asks you, the only Black person at the party, if you’re “doing the catering” (real ‘Get Out’ moment!). Whose responsibility is it if there are no allies around? These are just a few of the questions I have been asking myself during Lockdown.
Instagram infographics were flashing up every time I unlocked my phone, stuff we had all been saying for years, finally in the mainstream, finally being read by real life White people! Real life White people who I had heard be racist before, in real life! Those same people sharing catchy slogans about race, sharing a heartfelt Black square on their timeline! I felt like I was in a pot, being stirred around in a sticky mixture of anger, exhaustion, sadness but also hope and motivation.
Do not get me wrong, I think it is great that individuals are looking inwards, and workplaces are starting to question their equality, diversity, and representation, and acknowledging that they can be more inclusive. But how many companies are taking the next steps? Who is not only looking at their management teams, but actively changing them and the way they work? Who has set up regular meetings to tackle these issues head-on?
For the few who care enough to actively make steps towards being anti-racist and creating an anti-racist environment in their workplace, this will be a long journey and mistakes will be made. However, it is better to start driving on a long road than to say, “we should take a road trip one day”. For us as Black people, this is not a fun campaign that we can opt in or out of, these are our lives. Our brothers, sisters, ancestors, and descendants’ lives. Many of us do not feel we have the choice to sit back – and if we do sit back, we are still affected in ways which are difficult to even begin to explain.
I have been making a conscious effort to not just internally scream and murmur “here we go again” at the microaggressions I experience and the things that are said carelessly by non-Black people. It is really hard and sometimes you are left shocked and speechless, especially being a young woman, when people already belittle you or seem unable to take you seriously. Despite this, I have found that stepping away from the situation, then going back to that person and saying what I actually feel in a non-confrontational way has helped and resulted in some awkward but rewarding conversations.
The first time I did that, my heart was racing, and my hands were shaking. I was on a Zoom call with five White people, but I knew I had to say something, because if I did not, nothing would have changed. White people who are not used to talking about race may not know how to approach certain topics or may even be worried about calling someone Black. As draining as it is for us Black folk, the fact that they have actually begun thinking, even for a brief moment, about the role they play in society, their privilege and how this manifests in their lives and inhibits Black people, is a step in the right direction. The more we all have these conversations, the more they will have to think, because if they say or do something that is not right, it will be questioned. Silence no longer feels like an option. We cannot let comments “just slide” because people are too old or too this or that and I am tired of hearing excuses and justifications for people contributing to the racism that many Black people experience every day in the UK.
We all need to stop prioritising someone’s momentary discomfort over Black people’s lifelong, generations-long oppression. Allies need to start doing the work in everyday life, relaying what those beautiful Instagram infographics tell them and challenging peoples’ prejudices. It is time to find the courage to speak up when you experience or witness racism, regardless of whether there are no other Black people around. We need to show our circles and beyond that these conversations are here to stay. Harmful jokes, tick-boxing and tokenism will not be accepted – enough is actually enough.
If, as a White person, you have read this article and thought to yourself, ‘White was mentioned a few too many times and made me feel uncomfortable, separate and different’, imagine how Black people feel all the time.
Ije Amaechi is a 24-year-old singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist from Watford with Nigerian and English heritage. She studied Music and Development Studies at SOAS, University of London and released her first two singles, ‘Loved and Lost’ and ‘Breathe’ earlier this year, out on all major platforms.
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