I took a sort of hiatus from writing because I had so much to say and I didn’t want to rant, or write without thinking or write something terrible. With it being Black History Month, I have been thinking so much more about what it means to be black, what ‘the black experience’ is and the struggles that come with being black. It is easy to disregard these things especially as a Black British person (a label which I am still coming to grips with.)
Debates about race in Britain often result in people pitting Britain against racism in America, just to remind everyone that we’re not as bad as America; we don’t have guns, there’s no problem, we’re all friends. You’re black? No way, I never realised. Actually, let’s forget all this chit-chat Britain is basically colour blind now.
I came to the sudden realisation that when talking about or acknowledging the black experience as a young British person, I am conflicted between accepting and rejecting the ideas mentioned above. I struggled with the idea that Britain is free from racism and racial prejudices, and struggled with the tendency for Brits to compare our country and level of racism with America’s, ignoring the problems that do exist.
Let me start by saying; comparing Britain to America when talking about race, does not give you extra brownie points or ANY brownie points; in fact it gives you minus points (if that’s even I thing, I was never a Brownie). It’s like saying it doesn’t matter that I stole that one sweet because a million miles away in another country someone is stealing five sweets, so my theft is completely fine. NOOOOOOO you are a thief, being a thief is bad, and if you continue bad things will happen OK (making sure all your moral compasses are on point, so that you return that one sweet before reading on.)
As a child, all my black role models were from my West African family, the surrounding black community and also from American TV shows. There weren’t really any black British people that I looked up to, apart from on CBBC, thank you Reggie Yates, Angelica Bell, Ade Adepitan and Ore Oduba. I also felt a shared experience with that of black American females, such as Oprah, Raven Symone, the Mowry twins and the Banks and Kyle family. I looked up to them and believed that they represented me and my struggles as a black female.
By latching on to the African-American experience represented in the media, we are also ignoring the fact that it is not represented diversely in the media, business and positions of power in British society. We are saying that America is responsible for validating every Black Brit and it shouldn’t be that way.
Although there are similarities between the transatlantic black experience, there are also stark differences, which has taken me a while to accept. Although I can empathise with the black struggle in the US, I cannot claim it as my own or fully understand it because I am British.
Black History Month sparked the race talk because the topic is often overlooked or not addressed properly. Without my conscious effort to follow proud Black Brits on Twitter, I think that Black History Month, and my black experience in general, would feel completely alien because nothing in my everyday life seems to be commenting on or acknowledging it. In some ways it was this realisation, plus the fact that I have been doing major fan-girling over Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (who are amazing women, that address the complexity of the black experience) that made me see that this lack of sufficient acknowledgment about the black story is what causes my hesitance with accepting a Black British identity.
I was talking to one of my friends, who is Asian, and she said that she would never call herself British and it was strange having someone voice something I have always felt but never thought I could say aloud. We both agreed that we viewed being British as being white and because we aren’t white, despite living Britain, we don’t feel like we should, can, or even want to say that we are British.
I didn’t see this as a problem until I watched the BBC Three documentary, ‘Is Britain Racist.’ Presenter Mona Chalabi asserts her British identity, to a white man who strongly disagrees because of her race. From my perspective, I tell people I am Nigerian when they ask where I am from. I struggle to tick Black British on any nationality tick box, but for Chalabi, there is no question that she identifies as British.
How can I work to embrace my black experience, when I am consciously disregarding a huge element of it? How can I be a tool to educate others about the Black British experience, when I am not whole heartedly accepting that label? I live in a country, which needs to have a greater understanding of the black experience, and the experience of all its ethnic minorities, in all its nuances, but how can I get people to understand what it is like to be Black British, when I don’t accept that I am Black British?
A lot of problems with race in this country is spurred on through ignorance, which can only be overcome through education and through being open about what it is like to be Black British. By being open about struggles faced because of my race, I can be a part of those educating people, because how can you expect people to empathise with your experiences when they don’t even know what’s really happening? It’s like intersectionality in feminist ideology. Until people start explaining that, despite some common threads, the struggles faced are not exactly the same for all, there was ignorance clouding the whole movement. I believe a similar thing needs to be done when discussing race issues, there needs to be a more diverse awareness of different racial experiences.
Progress has been made in the UK, but more needs to be done. By being both educated and educators about and of different racial experiences, we can combat ignorance, prejudice and make great steps in the fight for racial equality.
Is there anything that you can relate to? Are you an ethnic minority who struggles to claim ‘British’ as part of your identity? Or are you more than happy to claim the British part of your identity?
Share your thoughts and feelings in the comment section below.
Click here to read Let’s Talk about Race: Part One
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