Confessions of A Pre-Woke Black Brit
It has been a difficult year. But more than that, it has been a difficult year to be black.
It genuinely feels like I have learned more about racism in 2020 than in all the years I’ve been alive.
The resurgence of the BLM movement following the death of George Floyd sent ripples across the world and it was only the beginning.
I will be honest, more honest than I would like to be about my ignorance and my complicity over my last twenty-something years on this planet. The depth of which I have kept my head in the sand, wanting to ignore the ‘race’ conversation and just do as well as I could with the cards I had been dealt.
If you are anything like me and you have had parents talk about racism when you were growing up, you may have ignored their warnings. After all, you have different types of friends in school. You have not experienced overt types of racism (yet) so you pass it off as hypersensitivity.
Eventually, through the years the veil slowly started to fall from my eyes and in the last few months, it was ripped away completely. Nowhere to hide. The truth, ugly and evident.
I recognise now that trying to avoid it was a losing game. It was always a losing game because I had always been aware of race. Even as a child.
I am not the only one to have heard the ‘pretty for a dark girl’ rhetoric.
I am not the only one to have heard the ‘pretty for a dark girl’ rhetoric. I remember an ‘aunt’ saying this not really to me but at me when I was younger. I wasn’t offended, I don’t think I even thought much of the statement at the time. I can’t remember if it was before this event or after, that I would think to myself ‘if only I was a few shades lighter’. This was my stream of consciousness as a child. It still surprises me that I would think this way or that I would have understood and absorbed society’s preference for certain skin tones and it then would affect how I saw myself.
Back to 2020, and everyone was talking about George Floyd’s death. I couldn’t bring myself to watch the video. I had no inclination to, which was understandable. However, in this day and age where everything is so shareable and clickable, it becomes a conscious decision to avoid that kind of trauma.
When the uprising came afterward, I confess that I was not as vocal as I would have liked to have been. It is super painful for me to admit. Somehow, I was at a loss for words.
This is a recurring cause of shame for me, the dichotomy between the person I wish I was: brave, bold, vocal in the face of injustice, and the me who withdraws into silence. Burying myself in my regret, my shame and my inaction.
In the midst of all this, I was dealing with my own personal fires. It didn’t feel like I could handle much more. 2020 had already taken it out of me. Surprisingly, being black is not the only battle that I had going on.
In addition to this, I was of the lucky few that still had a job that required me to show up every day, so each morning I focused on getting up and going to work. Commuting the two steps from my bed to my desk, and tiring myself in whatever task was set for the day.
This all sounds like an excuse. I suppose maybe it is.
The one thing that I did do was follow the story unfolding on Instagram and I watched as it grew. The power of the moment heightened by a society suddenly forced to slow down and experience humanity from their screens. There was no escaping the death of another black individual at the hands of law enforcement. And as social media took hold, the rest of the world watched America’s rage unfold. And it spread.
Posts were shared, protests began, campaigns were started. Because of course, it was not just George Floyd, it was Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Ahmaud Arbery and so many more.
As silly as it sounds a lot of my education came from those Instagram posts. I had a better appreciation for the meanings of phrases like micro-aggressions, white guilt, allyship, anti-racism.
Alongside this was an outpouring of people sharing their personal stories. The day to day grievances that seemed to be part of what it is to be a minority in Western society. In each story, I would find something to relate to. An understanding that it was not just me who had felt silenced, misunderstood, over monitored and overlooked.
Reading the accounts of others began conjuring memories I had not thought about in years.
And it kept happening.
Situations I had long forgotten, rising up to make themselves known. Altercations I experienced that I never even understood the significance of were now all awakening. In isolation, each could be ignored and set aside. Together, they all came together to create a picture of my experiences of being black in Britain.
Because whether or not I knew consciously that I was experiencing micro-aggressions or discrimination, subconsciously I did. Subconsciously, these memories were ones I had suppressed and ignored only to have them become undone years later.
Had I ever sat down to contemplate how it all affected me? Did it explain why I would carefully manoeuvre myself so as not to be the only ‘person of colour’ in a particular space? Why I passed up certain opportunities because I was not prepared to deal with the consequences. Why in my formative years I seemed to be more visible when it came to punishment but less visible when I needed help.
And as all of this grew and grew, I started to withdraw.
It was tiring. It was exhausting.
To top it all off was the burdening realisation of the ways that I had been complicit over the years.
I think I have lived so long with the notion that ignorance is bliss. Perhaps if I did not outwardly acknowledge anything was amiss, then I would not be too affected. I was wrong. Because I had been acknowledging it all. Those flashbacks were evident of the lengths I had gone to in order for me to pretend everything was okay.
As someone who can be compliant to a fault, I will often readily excuse the behaviours of others. Given any situation, I will come up with a thousand ‘maybe x, y, z’ reasons why something unfolded the way it did.
I would definitely not want to be seen to pull the ‘race card’.
The truth is a lot of the time I did not know when mistreatment was down to my race even if a part of me suspected it. And even if I thought something was amiss, would I even have had the courage to bring it up. Probably not. I often wonder what would it take?
I know now that racism is insidious and systematic, that it is part of the fabric of society and so tightly woven in that many are unable to see it.
And I am not alone in playing the ‘was that racist?’ game, I’ve watched countless panel discussions with members debating on whether a situation was racist. It seems that as a society we are only willing to acknowledge foul play if someone drops the ‘n word’. Only then could we be absolutely sure. Everything else before it, the grey area, is up for debate and negotiation. With so much negotiation and dismissal onscreen, is it any wonder I would grow up playing the mental version of this in my own personal encounters.
This awakening was bringing up more than I could handle at the time so I deleted the source of it all, I deleted Instagram.
Yes, that felt like another betrayal. I was not doing enough for the cause before and now I was doing even less. I realise that Instagram is not where the war for social justice will be won. It just felt like I had checked out of the conversation. I had deserted.
Part of me was jealous of all those that were fighting the good fight. Why could I not be like them? Why could I not be as articulate as them? I call myself a writer for goodness sake and yet at the time I could not use it for good.
I was not sure who to be and how to act. For some reason, the very topic robs me of the ability to express myself. I can not say what it is I want to say. I also do not want to say the wrong thing for fear of bringing the whole movement backwards as unlikely as that is.
This is why we should not expect every black person to be able to explain racism. I am case in point of someone who should know more but does not. In part because I have spent so much time tiptoeing its existence, hoping that by putting my head down it would somehow miss me. Yes, it would be laughable if it was not also damaging.
But truly acknowledging racism also feels just as damaging. Every day there is an opportunity for rage when you see the injustices, the big and the small. How does one become a functioning member of society by balancing what you know with the ignorance of those around you?
I realise now that it is not the black community’s responsibility to dismantle racism since this was not our creation but it looks like it will fall to us to do a lot of the heavy lifting.
I have made more efforts to learn about racism. Reading is my first point of call. And though I am gaining clarity, there is still so much I do not know or understand. There are times when I wonder why a particular issue is so contentious, but I become too embarrassed to ask my peers. So, I study in silence knowing that the road is long but even with small steps I make progress.