Preface: GUEST POST by my dearest friend “cousin Michael” The world seems to be waking up to racism against black people, I urge you to read this powerful piece.
This has become one of the most corrosive and toxic questions in the western world. Despite speaking with an Estuary London accent, I have been asked it countless times and the inquirer rarely meant which part of London or the UK I came from. But I will come back to this shortly.
I was wondering what is the best way to answer the question, ‘what does it feel like to be black in the West?’ For me specifically that would be London and for the last 4 years, Oslo, Norway. It is the only context I have as I haven’t experienced being black anywhere else.
The first thing to share is the statelessness you feel. I have no doubts about my identity but I don’t feel like I belong. The incessant question, “where are you from” over the course of a quarter of a century saw to that. When you return a quizzical look, you get the, “where are you really from? “or “where are your parents from?”
There is nothing wrong with a question about heritage except the accumulation of the question implies you aren’t as British as the inquirer, who is invariably Caucasian. Having emigrated from London to Oslo 4 years ago I wondered if there would be clear differences in my experience that would render subtle but nuanced descriptions to be drawn…. And the sad thing is that there isn’t really, it’s just a matter of degrees.
In Norway, a country of 5.2m people, with a relatively recent tradition of black or brown immigration, the differences are less pernicious and more superficial than Great Britain with its colonial and imperialist past. I happen to live on the west side of town which is pre-dominantly white and more affluent than the East, as is common in most European cities. In my suburb and surrounding areas I can walk around for 4 or 5 days and not see another black person, unless it’s the cleaner of my apartment block or one of the carers for the nursing home a few minutes away.
So, I notice the undisguised and lingering looks I get from people but especially from 2 particular ends of the spectrum: the old age pensioners and the under 10s. It becomes so clear that so many of these children and toddlers have rarely seen a black person, not really on TV and probably not in mum and dad’s social circles, so no brown and black friends. While the black community isn’t some great monolith, as is so often blithely referenced, I think the tragedy of racism as a black person in the West is that there doesn’t seem to be a kaleidoscope of experiences. Different contexts and varying degrees but uniformly similar situations that are dealt with.
There are so many ways to talk about race but I’d like to distil it in a few examples. Being a black man is being invited to a stag do in a foreign country and having to research whether it’s a potentially hostile environment for people of your skin colour. Being a black man is having to not walk tall in certain circumstances, shrinking yourself physically so as not to intimidate or frighten white people. Being a black man is having to summon the mental strength to enter designer boutiques knowing full well you will be followed because the 1st thought is ‘he can’t afford to shop here.’ The warped thing is it happens in Primark or Uniqlo too!! No one thinks you can afford to be there, unless you are on TV kicking a football or performing at the Brits of course. Being a black man is walking into an interview or meeting with a person who is utterly surprised because you sounded so eloquent and well spoken so the assumption was you had to be white.
Being a black man is having to grapple with the asinine question of whether to wear a black tracksuit with a hood because it’s more likely to have you racially profiled depending on who you are with, in which part of town you go to and which shops you choose to enter.
Being a black man is having to choose when to have one of those talks with your child. Is it the one where you tell them they have to be twice as good as his/her white peer to get as half as much? Or is it the one where you tell them if they are stopped by a policeman they have to use the word “sir” as much as possible and not to make any sudden movements, and answer any question despite having no legal obligation to do so.
Being a black man is having to deal with people staring at you because you are at the opera or Wimbledon tennis championships or the horse racing at Ascot because these are ‘white spaces’. Being a black man is knowing that when you drive an expensive car you are more likely to be pulled over by the Police and have to remain calm in the face of the intimation that you are driving it due to nefarious activities. As Dave Chappelle once joked, he never called the Police when he was burgled because his house was too nice. Too nice for him.
Being a black child is understanding that your childhood is shorter than your white friend’s and you are designated a young adult much earlier, and therefore present a potential threat to society. The culmination of this loss of innocence and benefit of the doubt are the deaths of Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice
Being black is carrying the burden of centuries of oppression, being treated as an inferior being and, in many cases, internalising that inferiority. Without a strong network and people to infuse you with knowledge and identity, growing up and being black here in the West is often a harrowing experience that leads to for example the disproportionately high levels of mental health issues among young black people, men especially, in the UK for example. The global protests caused by the murder of one man by people who are charged with protecting us all has changed everything.
Long may the revolution continue!