"It is because of this, by the way, that I am black. But I’m also mixed race, and that is not a contradiction."
"...the ideas, stereotypes and prejudices that are the load-bearing walls of racism are learned at an early age. And the only way that they can be torn down is through education, constructive conversation, sharing of experiences, understanding and love. "
The first time I was called a "nigger" was around the age of 10.
It was in my primary school playground, by a kid a year older than me. At the time, I had no idea what the word meant, and I don’t think the other kid did either. But even at 10, I knew something about the word wasn’t quite right; so, when I got home, I told my mum.
The next memory I have of the ‘incident’ was the kid apologising to me the following day with the assistance of one of the teachers. I can’t remember my mum’s reaction when I told her and I can’t remember if she marched up to the school and demanded to speak to the headteacher (knowing my mum, this was probably what happened); but I knew from that day on that she was willing to battle racism alongside me, it didn’t matter that we had different coloured skin (more about my wonderful mother another time).
I’ve experienced my fair share of other run-ins with racism. Most have been what you’d probably call ‘casual racism’; that is, ‘the less obvious perpetuation of negative stereotypes or prejudices about people based on race, colour or ethnicity and the constant reminder of their differences to the societal majority’.
The most common examples are jokes and off-handed comments. The most common ones I’ve heard are: "You don’t act black"; "you are being threatening", (as I speak in an everyday, inside voice); "look at my tan, I’m almost the same colour as you" (a classic); or when the lights go out in a room someone says, "where did Grant go?" (another classic).
You might be interested to know that I don’t walk around thinking in my head “I am black, I am black…”. During most of my waking hours, my race is rarely something that crosses my mind, but these encounters with ‘casual racism’ are constant reminders that I am different.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am very proud to be different, I am very proud to be black, I am very proud to be mixed race; and I believe we should celebrate and embrace our differences – but that has never been the case in any of these situations. I put ‘casual racism’ in quotation marks because there is, of course, nothing casual about racism. It can still marginalise, denigrate and humiliate. And it’s just fucking annoying.
There’s something I want to just expand on here though: I’m not sure whether to call it 'casual racism' or to call it ‘lacking racial privilege’, but there is this interesting phenomenon that if you are a minority, you represent your entire race. As a black person, you must be a good dancer, you must be athletic, you must like rap and hip-hop music (man, if I had a fiver for every time a white person whom I did not know walked up to me and started singing ‘Man’s Not Hot’ at me when it was popular…), you must speak a certain way…the list goes on. And of course, if we don’t fall in line with any one of the many stereotypes, we are often told that we "aren’t very black".
For some reason, we can’t just be individuals. For some reason, you see my blackness before you see me. For some reason, despite being mixed race you only ever see my blackness too. It is because of this, by the way, that I am black. But I’m also mixed race, and that is not a contradiction.
That kid on the playground all those years ago, despite not knowing the connotations of the word ‘nigger’, knew it was something you called a black person. To this day, I often question how a kid aged 11 learned a word like that, and learned who it referred to. Was it his parents? Was it his friends? Was it his friends’ parents? I don’t know. But what I do know is that the ideas, stereotypes and prejudices that are the load-bearing walls of racism are learned at an early age. And the only way they can be torn down is through education, constructive conversation, sharing of experiences, understanding and love. It is time we stood up to discrimination, and it is time we shone a light on the hidden enemy of systemic racism.
We can make change, I promise you that, but we need to do it together. It is why I created ‘We Can’t Breathe: UK’ – a place to engage, discuss, share, learn and grow. A place for all. A place where we can plant the seeds of change.