I AM A RECOVERING RACIST
It's 2020 and as progressive and forward thinking as we may feel we are, when it comes to racism, especially as white people or white passing people, we tend to be quite uninformed. Racism is such an uncomfortable subject, that we've tiptoed around it and brushed it under the carpet for so long, that most of us have no idea how racist our thinking actually is. Now when I refer to myself as a recovering racist I of course don't mean I am or have been intentionally racist, or rather I haven't been racist with the intent to be cruel, as I consider myself a well meaning person who wouldn't hurt a fly, oh and by the way I'm 1/4 black! When I refer to myself as a recovering racist, I mean that by nature of living in a society that prioritises white stories, white contributions to history, white narratives, white beauty standards and whiteness as the standard on a whole, I am not immune to racist thoughts, I am not immune to buying into the concept that white is superior, in other words: White Supremacy.
The UK is not innocent. We are not innocent. I am not innocent, which has become even more apparent to me through this time of educating myself about race and privilege. I am learning how much internalised racism that I have, which I have held against others as well as myself, racism that I have unknowingly acted on, even though I am mixed race myself. So think about it, if I as a mixed race person have the potential to harbour internalised racism, how much internalised racism do you think you have?
a person who shows or feels discrimination or prejudice against people of other races, or who believes that a particular race is superior to another. "I had a fear of being called a racist"
showing or feeling discrimination or prejudice against people of other races, or believing that a particular race is superior to another. "we are investigating complaints about racist abuse at a newsagents"
Of course none of us want to admit to our acts of racism, let alone consider the possibility of being racist, as most of us associate it with being an intentionally cruel, horrible or evil person. We believe racists to be ignorant, uneducated, rude and stuck in a dark past. But here's the thing, racism can also be a lot more subtle than that, racism can even be well intended, it can be something that we experience and do completely subconsciously, thinking we are actually being nice, not realising how harmful the effects of our words and actions can be. Sometimes it is absolutely possible to hurt someone and be completely unaware of it.
Now instead of speaking about racism in the style of self-righteous finger pointing, I thought I'd start the conversation by opening up about my own racism. In doing so, I hope to show you that it's possible to be "a good person" and "have a black friend" (heck, half my family is black) and still have internalised racism. I hope to encourage you that it's not only ok to admit to our internalised racism, it is in fact essential that we come to terms with it, because only by admitting there is a problem, are we in a position to address it and fix it. And let me reassure you, by addressing our racism we won't self destruct, we won't explode, yes we may feel uncomfortable at first, we may feel embarrassed or outraged, we may feel cheated by our media, our governments and our societies for misleading us, making us believe we are being good, upstanding, inclusive, forward thinking citizens, when we are not, believing our hurtful acts are acceptable and not racist, when they are. There is nothing pleasant about admitting to racism, trust me I know, but let me assure you, whatever discomfort and pain we may experience while exploring our own racism, will be extremely small compared to the pain and suffering our racism causes others on a daily basis.
Before I start talking about my own examples of racism, I thought it important to talk about how diverse I, my family and my surroundings are. I am 1/4 Black. I have a light complexion and more white facial features than black features, so when my hair is straightened or shaved off, I am mostly perceived as white, which means I am white passing, my dad is half black with more black features than white features, making him a black man, and my grandad was from Trinidad & Tobago and had a dark complexion, making him undeniably black. Here is a picture of me as a baby, a family portrait with my mixed race family and a picture of me as a grown woman with natural hair, although the curls were quite damaged by this point, after years of straightening my hair:
On top of coming from a mixed race family, my chosen family and my friends circle is also very diverse. My husband is black, four of my six best friends are black, my general circle are a mixture of Black, White, Asian, Arab, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, LGBTQ+ and so much more. So even I, someone who is exposed to so many different ways of thinking, so many different cultures, races, religions and more, whom I all celebrate and value, even I am not immune to harbouring racist beliefs.
So what are some of the beliefs I have internalised? I decided to put together a short list of some incidences from recent years. I feel sick writing these down, but I believe it is important to share, as an example of how we all have the potential to hold racist beliefs. AaAAaAAAGh!! The dread!! Ok here it goes:
I have seen a black man walk in my direction on the pavement or have noticed a black man stand behind me on the escalators and have held my bag more consciously or tighter.
I have been guilty of feeling scared and intimidated when seeing a group of black men walk in my direction, and I have caught myself playing out in my head how I might defend myself or escape should anything happen.
I have caught myself in a conversation with a black person where I assumed my opinion and viewpoint was more valid or more informed than the opinion and viewpoint of the black person, without even hearing their viewpoint or knowing anything about their background.
I have felt uncomfortable by a black friend's unapologetic passion when she was speaking on a matter that concerned her black experience, I felt uncomfortable and assumed the stereotype of her being an angry black woman.
After I knew my black friend well enough to know better I would still nervous laugh when she would get passionate, so white people nearby wouldn't feel threatened by her passion and wouldn't think I was in on it, that I was also a threat along with the angry black woman.
I have felt intimidated when walking into a barber shop. I would catch myself not knowing what to say or how to act, I would either be completely silent and nervously scroll through every app I could find or I would nervous smile, trying to overly compensate by being super friendly.
During Covid-19 when queuing for Sainsbury's with my black friend, after watching lots of white groups of friends be allowed into Sainsbury's together, when it was our turn, we were told only one of us was allowed in at a time. Not only did I not challenge the lady on this, I waltzed in first, assuming my white privilege, leaving my black friend to wait outside.
Whilst at lunch with a black friend, we were discussing the bad casting choice for a film based on Nina Simone, where they took a fair skinned Hollywood actress and black faced her to look darker. I remember adding to the conversation saying: "Also, she's not some pretty little fair skinned lady, she was BLACK". The second those words left my mouth, I realised exactly what I had done: the way I emphasised the word "black" it was not only clear that I implied that Nina Simone was not pretty, I implied that black was not pretty.
Before I even get into the different levels of how messed up that all is, let's start by fact checking. I have admitted to assuming someone is an Angry Black Woman, but have I ever been verbally abused by a black woman? No. Have I ever been attacked by a black woman? No. have I ever experienced anything traumatic involving a black woman? No. Drawing from my own personal experience though, I have been uplifted by many black women, I have had many black women share with me, laugh with me, create with me, pray with me, inspire me, amaze me, listen to me, care for me, physically and mentally, I have had some of the most wonderful, warm and blessed memories with black women. So why do I believe the stereotype of an angry black woman when it directly contradicts my own actual and factual experience?
I have admitted to situations where I have feared a black man, but what are my reasons? Have I ever been harmed by a black man? No. Have I ever been robbed by a black man? No. Have I ever been sexually assaulted by a black man? No. But I have so many incredible experiences with black men, from my own family to friends, my husband who is honest to God the most exceptional human being I have ever been privileged enough to meet. So where does this fear of a black man come from if not from my own experience?
In fact, during the Me Too movement I sat there at the table for a good couple hours and tried to remember as many moments of sexual assault that I had experienced, and I stopped counting after 55, because it just got too ridiculous. Bearing in mind grabbing a woman’s breast or behind without her consent is sexual assault and there were club nights, festivals and concerts where I experienced up to 5 assaults in one night alone. Not once did I turn around and see a black man in sight. In fact, when I did turn around, it was almost always exclusively white men standing behind me, and sometimes they even had the audacity to grin, to signify they were not only proud of their assault, but that they were all in on it, that I would never know exactly who it was that assaulted me, that I was outnumbered and that they knew they would get away with it. It was just a fun game they liked to play. Most women know exactly the type I am referring to.
What makes things even more twisted is that I have also been guilty of assuming a white man is good. I have been alone on a dark street, or alone on a train carriage, felt scared and unsafe as a woman, yet when a white man appears, I feel this sense of safety, I feel like the white man could protect me, that if I were in danger, the white man would come to my rescue. But this is a direct contradiction to my own actual and factual experience. According to the countless sexual assaults I have experienced at the literal hands of white men, surely I would be so traumatised by the white man, that the mere sight of him would spark deep fear and distress, so how the hell do I still associate white men with safety? How can I have almost exclusively positive experiences with black men, yet in some shape or form associate them with danger? And how can I as a part black woman look another black woman in the eye and make a remark which implies that black is not beautiful? That our heritage is not beautiful? Surely that is the definition of insanity or immense stupidity to completely dismiss our own actual experience to believe a narrative we have no proof of?
So how does this happen? The short answer is: If you hear something often enough, you start to believe it. For example: If every day your friends make little remarks or jokes about you being stupid, your employer and co workers join in, you turn on the TV and the people who are most like you are portrayed as stupid, and the world treats you as such, then eventually, no matter how intelligent you are or believe you are, you may believe what they say and doubt your own intelligence, at the very least, the people around you who may not have thought you were stupid may start to doubt your intelligence too. Now if you're always told how exceptional and talented you are, by your friends, your work colleagues, your employer, whenever you turn on the TV, the people who are most like you are referred to as exceptional and talented, even if you feel like your abilities are mediocre at best, you will start to believe this narrative, and you will operate from a place of assuming that you are what everyone says you are, you will operate from a place of superiority or at least value and respect yourself in some shape or form.
But how does this metaphor translate to racism? When we hear a racist narrative over and over again, we not only start to believe it, we start to normalise it. Now it's important to remember that racism holds power, when you are in a position of privilege, when society is more likely to represent people who look like you, prioritise stories similar to yours, when society is more likely to take your side, forgive you, understand your perspective, and racism also holds more power when the one you are prejudice towards is more likely to be judged harshly, less likely to be believed or taken seriously. Statistically, in our western society, whether we want to admit it or not, statistically life is undeniably easier for white or white passing people.
Let's just look at mainstream media and general education. Until very recent history, black people were almost exclusively represented on TV and media as thugs, drug dealers, villains, gangsters, as aggressive and violent, or as submissive serving roles like slaves, butlers, servants, janitors, cleaners, maids, etc but rarely was a black person shown as simply an average person, a family man, or a business woman. And if they were shown as such, then the script would need to justify their presence, relating back to the black struggle, coming from nothing, coming from "the hood". So if this is the only narrative we are fed by every movie ever, then of course this will have a fundamental impact on our perception. In addition, black people's contributions to civilisation are not talked about nearly enough, the incredible inventions, the advancements made in medicine, science and beyond, most of these contributions are completely skimmed over or even ignored by history books and education, even the countless black soldiers who travelled across the ocean to fight for the UK in the World Wars were practically eradicated from history books. I never once saw one single image of a black person pictured in a history book, I only ever saw white men. All of which just further reinforces a narrative that black people do not contribute to society. The only history we generally learn about involving black lives is slavery, which further reinforces a narrative that black lives are something that needs to be saved, like a charity case. Now where do I even start on how differently the news likes to portray the black man VS the white man. The young violent white criminal will more likely have his yearbook photo printed or shown in the news, whereas an innocent black man will more likely have his mugshot shown.
So what about the white man? The white man has traditionally been the lead figure in pretty much every film with the whole story centred around him, the white man is traditionally portrayed as the leader, the hero, the saviour, the good guy, the smartest, the bravest, the problem solver, the one who fights the bad guys and gets the girl, the one who everyone loves and wants to be loved by. When the white man is portrayed as a villain, he will still be a great villain, highly intelligent, powerful with infinite recourses and networks at his disposal, he is a super villain. Even if the white man is portrayed as a very average man, his presence never needs any justification or explanation in scripts. He just is. Then you open a history book and you can't get away from all the stories of white men doing incredible white man things, conquering and saving, civilising and dominating, leading and ruling. The way the white man is portrayed in the media is also with so much more dignity and humanity than any other race. Even serial killers and mass murderers receive a certain level of understanding and sympathy by having their mental health addressed, their family history explained, almost as to say it is not their fault alone they ended up on a bad track, that somewhere behind the predator there is still a fragile victim. A privilege denied to black men.
And in all of this the black woman is one of the most overlooked individual, as she not only deals with racism, she also deals with sexism. It is an undeniable fact that equality between the sexes has not yet been achieved, so when you through racism into the mix as well, it's a lot. Let's address beauty standards for example, seeing as many still today believe a woman's main role or asset is her beauty, not her intellect. A black woman's beauty has not been prioritised and still isn't enough, it took Rihanna to launch a makeup brand with 40 shades of foundation for the beauty industry to jump on the bandwagon. It has been and still is challenging for black women to find simple hair, skin and makeup products suitable for their complexion, hair and skin type. We as white and white passing people can just pop to the local shop to get what we need and we have a large variety of products to choose from. Black women on the other hand may only have a small selection of products, if that, and often they need to travel to get the right products. In addition to struggling to find suitable products, natural black hair or even well groomed black hairstyles are often criticised, even deemed as unprofessional in work environments. Their features are too often overlooked by beauty standards, and when they do hear a compliment, it is not uncommon to receive it in a backhanded way, for example "You're pretty for a black girl" which implies that black is not pretty, and that if you are pretty, you are an exception to the rule. And as you are aware, I have been guilty of this too.
In addition to being black, when you are also a member of the LGBTQ+ community, homophobia is additionally added into the mix, so the level of inequality and discrimination multiplies. Despite these odds, especially my black friends within the LGBTQ+ community are some of the most joyous, creative, fearless, strong and vibrant people I have even been privileged enough to know. Specifically the black trans woman or the black trans man is often left out of narratives completely. Even within this writing, I initially failed to include black trans lives, so it becomes apparent how much work I still have to do, to normalise trans lives within my own every day perception. One could argue my lack of awareness is the mainstream media's failing, as it continues to fail to normalise black trans lives by adequately including black trans lives in its narratives. But until this is resolves within society, I must take it upon myself to learn and educate myself properly.
It's also important to ask ourselves who is in control of these narratives, or lack of? Who owns the newspapers and the beauty magazines? Who owns the TV channels and the publishing houses of the history books? Who owns the production companies that produce the films and who are in charge of the contents of the school curriculum? Well, mainly white people. So if white people are consistently portraying themselves as much better than they possibly are, and white people are constantly portraying black people as much worse than they possibly are, what does this say about the white people making these decisions? And what does that say about us when we are so willing to dismiss our very own experience to believe this unbalanced narrative? That is insanity.
I remember from a very young age being teased about my afro/curly hair, told I looked like a troll, and this constant commentary about my hair didn't stop as I grew older. I remember during my modelling and presenting days constantly being asked by my agents to straighten my hair before going to castings or jobs, because the client would complain that my natural hair didn't look well groomed or looked after. I imported products from brazil, as there were no local products in Switzerland designed for my hair texture, and spent a lot of time and money constantly nourishing and grooming my hair. Still the client consistently complained about my curls, deeming them as not beautiful enough, so it became apparent it had nothing to do with my hair care, it had to do with my hair not looking white enough.
I stopped embracing my curls and would constantly straighten my hair, even on my days off, as I had learned to see my natural hair as something ugly and white hair as desirable. I sometimes question whether me shaving my hair today has anything to do with how conflicted I was lead to feel about my own hair texture. It would be naive to think it had nothing to do with it. Shortly before I shaved all my hair off the first time I remember associating hair with something I had to spend hours and huge amount of money on to please people other than myself. Today I love not spending a single minute worrying about what I should or shouldn't be doing with my hair.
So there it is, a portion of my shame, my internalised racism, my prejudice, my conditioning, my complicity, my imperfections and my reflections. Many of you may see yourselves in me, you may feel like "I've done that" or you may be asking yourselves "have I done that without realising?". I think it's important to ask ourselves in what ways we have been effected by racism, how deep it goes, in what ways we have been complicit in other peoples pain, in what ways we can do better, how we can better educate ourselves and how we can work together to make real changes within society. And in doing so it is important to remember that we, as people, make up society. It is important that we start with ourselves and have uncomfortable conversations in the mirror as well as with our loved ones.
When exploring and exposing our own internalised racism, we may feel this deep sense of dread and shame rise to the surface and it may be tempting to linger to there, in a sense of self pity, but don't. Don't get me wrong, acknowledging the weight of what we have done and what we are capable of doing is an important step, because only when we acknowledge our wrong doings are we in a position to learn and do better. But lingering in shame is not where we end up. It is not the destination. Because it is not about us. Feeling sorry for ourselves doesn't constructively help anyone, not even ourselves, and furthermore what self pity does, is it puts ourselves at the centre of the narrative and in a position of needing consolation and help from others. But it is not another persons responsibility to give as a pep talk right now, it is our responsibility to take ownership over our own minds and perceptions. It is our responsibility to learn and do better.
And do not allow feelings of guilt to evolve into sympathy for black people, because they are not a charity case. They know their value, they know how powerful and how beautiful they are, they know their strength, and have known it for a long time. They have carried this movement forward for centuries, it is only us that are just waking up to their greatness. This is not news to them. it is not our role in this to feel sorry for anyone, it is our role to to learn, to acknowledge, to respect and to do better. They deserve our actions, not our emotions, our emotions are for us to come to terms with, our emotions are our responsibility to sort through. Our actions is what is required from here on out.
I am not perfect, and I never will be, and I will not get everything right, heck, I've probably got a few things wrong in this blog post, as well meaning as it may be. Because remember: Just because we are well meaning, doesn't make us immune to making mistakes and getting it wrong. If you have read this blog post to this point, thank you, I know it's been a long one. But before you go, before you return back to your day, I would love for you read the following out loud with me and declare this with me:
"I declare that I am committed to learning and to further educating myself and those around me. I declare that I will embrace criticism and will not shy away from self reflection. I declare I will fight my urge for defensiveness and will instead listen. I declare I will listen wholeheartedly, even when it feels uncomfortable. I declare that I accept it as my responsibility to learn, to do the work and do better."