I had always had a broad awareness that I was considered ‘black’ by society and the world, but I had never known what it really meant to be ‘black’. People often said it was the ‘colour of your skin’ but, on closer examination, this couldn’t be the case, since there is a huge diversity in the skin complexions of people who are considered ‘black’- many of whom are albino. I then wondered if it was a shared cultural heritage but again was left confused when studying the various ‘black’ cultures around the world. I found myself feeling culturally more ‘similar’ to other non-black British people than I did to African-American people or even, say, the Kalahari bushpeople. Lastly, I considered the idea that black people all had an African heritage. However, again I found this wasn’t completely true, because Aboriginal Australians and various indigenous people in Asia like the Jarawa are considered ‘black’ yet are indigenous to non-African parts of the world. Often in the UK, ‘black’ is simply a label used to describe non-white people in general. As part of our Black History Month series, Inaya Folarin describes her journey towards seeing herself as black and the difficulties in defining what being ‘black’ means.
“Like many other black people, for a long time I felt cheated. I felt that no matter how much I achieved and strived, I couldn’t escape the structural oppression associated with blackness”
I have now concluded that ‘blackness’ in and of itself is a socially constructed concept used to describe people based on a dubious combination of their appearance, culture and history. Yet, despite this, there is a feeling within me that draws me towards other black people around the world. Perhaps it’s the prevalence of systems around the world that have been designed to disadvantage people based on this combination of traits; maybe it is something deeper and of a spiritual nature.
Like many other black people, for a long time I felt cheated. I felt that no matter how much I achieved and strived, I couldn’t escape the structural oppression associated with blackness- and thus I resisted.
“blackness’ is a socially constructed concept used to describe people based on a dubious combination of their appearance, culture and history”
I am lucky to come from a middle-class Nigerian family. My mother went to boarding school in the UK and is highly educated. My mother wasn’t religious like most Nigerian parents are and she did a lot to ensure my sister and I succeeded. We travelled abroad frequently and we were sent to private schools. I was surrounded by successful, educated Nigerian people throughout my childhood and therefore my ‘normal’ for black people was success. My identity as a Nigerian was prioritised far higher than being black. I was aware of racism, slavery and oppression but never made a conscious connection between it and myself. I would read the statistics about black people and crime but didn’t understand how they related to me. This carried on to secondary school where I went to an International boarding school with people from different parts of the world including many African countries. As far as I was aware, I wasn’t made to feel like the ‘Other’, and I never felt the need to ponder on my blackness due to the school centring its ethos on diversity.
Everything changed when I became homesick at the school and decided to leave. My father knew the headteacher at a local school and it was agreed that I would go there temporarily. The school was made up of thirty-percent black students and was a very poor performing school. In a meeting with the headteacher on my first day, I asked if I could have a buddy to help me round the school and he responded with “there are plenty of black people here, don’t you worry”. I didn’t think anything of his comment until break-time, when I noticed that the students were clearly divided along racial lines. For the first time I was forced to become aware of my blackness in terms of what and who I am, and who I am meant to be associated with.
Was his comment a subtle way of telling me to stay with the other black kids?
Whilst attending this school, my personality and interests completely changed. I also became aware of issues that I had never come across before like colourism, grime culture, internalised racism and pride in a shared black identity. I was repeatedly told by other black students that I was ‘acting white’ because I was well spoken, and black people were often rewarded with popularity by conforming to stereotypes.
“For the first time I was forced to become aware of my blackness in terms of what and who I am, and who I am meant to be associated with”
Therefore, to fit in, I adopted many of these behaviours- despite having gone to a private school. I modelled my outfits on Nicki Minaj, spoke fluent slang, and adopted a ‘rude girl’ attitude. However, unlike many of my peers, because of my privilege, when it came to exam time, I could drop this persona and consequently go on to be accepted into a grammar school.
Again, my life rapidly changed. I was now one of the only black girls in the school which meant that micro-aggressions and alienation became a daily reality. I was told by one of the students who had got my name wrong “oh right, you’re the other black girl”. I was frequently made to be the spokesperson for all black people, and people often came to me only to talk about the latest Hip-Hop music.
In a group exercise in an American history class, I was put in the group that had to argue in favour of slavery to ensure that I ‘appreciate both perspectives’. Teachers and students constantly got my name wrong or mistook me for the only fellow black girl in my year, and I was even shouted at by a teacher and told to “teach the class then” just for saying that her characterisation of Malcolm X as a ‘white people hater’ was unfair.
I was met with a constant barrage of generalisations, stereotypes and assumptions that culminated in a strong feeling of loneliness and resentment. I was not judged based on my achievements, ambitions or contributions.
I was just the ‘other black girl’.
During this time, famous black people like Marcus Garvey, Huey P Newton and Angela Davis were who I held onto and studied in order to create a sense of self. But it wasn’t enough. I longed for acceptance.
“When I got to university, I found a wonderful and diverse group of friends who were willing to have frank conversations about race and racism, and I grew to accept institutionalised racism insofar as this is the reality of the society I live in”
By the end of sixth form, it was a long time since I had felt completely accepted. I began finding out a lot more about my Yoruba heritage and found pride and stability within it. When I got to university, I found a wonderful and diverse group of friends who were willing to have frank conversations about race and racism, and I grew to accept institutionalised racism insofar as this is the reality of the society I live in.
But I refuse to allow racism and race to define who I am and who I should be. It can often be disheartening, but I have grown to value ‘not fitting in’. I have found that both ‘sides’ can be conditioned to create environments that maintain structures of systemic racism. I recognise that my experiences of race and racism are far from horrific stories of violence, hate and discrimination, but they still demonstrate how invasive and absurd the system is.
And, on top of this, it shows that even relatively ‘privileged’ black people struggle to escape the constraints of racism. We are seen as being a skin colour, before we are being seen as a person.
[Images: The Root, FabAfriq]