I was struck by the imagery of this cover of Time magazine from 2015. Maybe it was because I was born in 1968 and I was struck by how there was so much anger during what was the civic rights movement in America – or maybe it was because back in 2015 similar events were happening. Fast forward five years to 2020 and NOTHING has changed. It is soul destroying.
While we in the UK are collectively arguing about two white men that make the laws, where one of them has broken the law but he is adamant that he hasn’t – and let’s not forget that the most important white man is strongly backing up the other law breaking white man – a black man was unlawfully killed by a white man in the US. And it CONTINUES to happen. We get outraged, sign petitions, demonstrate, rant and rave. But nothing else much happens to change the fate of black people.
There have been many books and papers written on the oppression of black people. So much has happened for the advancement of black people during the past four hundred years. Sometimes, when I am feeling reflective, I think about my life and how different it was for my grandmother, who I never met as she died the year before I was born, but I was named after her. She looked after my half-brothers (one of my brothers sadly died before I was born) and half-sisters in Ghana in one room while my mum was living and working in London – she had left to try and start again to have a better life for my half siblings and for me and my sisters that were born in London. My grandmother told one of my half-sister’s that she prayed that we would all live in London one day and that we would all be successful. By God’s grace this has come to pass – but it still makes me shudder to know that it all could have been so different – and in some ways the progress made by me and my family (and thousands of others) is negated by events like the Floyd killing in Minneapolis.
My belief is that black people have been marginalised for so long that our sense of belonging is now distorted. There are periods when everything seems ‘great’ – but invariably it is not. Why? Why are people so threatened by us? Are they threatened?
My own journey of wanting to belong is, as it is for many BAME people, complex. Growing up in an area that was predominately Caucasian, I learned from an early age that I needed to ‘fit in’. I loved that I spoke English to my parents, but my parents spoke to me in Twi and I understood everything that they said. It was a secret language!!! And I loved West African food – fufu, gari and plantain – but I also adored fish and chips and roly poly pudding with custard! I felt like a double agent and it was fun – until access to one of the worlds – the white world – began to feel more exclusive and did not want my membership.
My first tangible experience of racism occurred when I applied for Saturday jobs. I would walk into a shop and ask if there were any vacant positions, and I was told that there was nothing. My white counterparts literally had a choice of what they were offered with regards to Saturday jobs. They were encouraging me to continue to apply – but they were not aware of the side glances or the whispers that took place as you asked the manager if there were any positions. It really upset me, and I never forgot the feeling. I have experienced it in my professional life, but the challenges have been subtle – at times not so subtle. My drive to be better and to represent has driven me forward.
The comedian and actor, Lenny Henry was speaking with Louis Theroux in a radio interview and discussed how his childhood was punctuated with racist episodes/name calling and his rise to fame included his involvement with ‘The Black and White Minstrel Show’. The show was a variety show that involved songs sung by white men in blackface. Lenny told jokes before the songs were sung and was advised to be involved as it would be ‘good for him to learn his craft’ – and it commanded a large TV audience. Lenny obeyed his manager – although he had misgivings. When I heard this interview, I recognised this conflict in my own life as a black professional woman. I wanted to be recognised for my uniqueness – not that I knew what that was when I started my career- but it was always going to be at a cost. The cost was ‘selling out’ – or something akin to this. Like Lenny, I allowed it to happen. And like Lenny – it got to the stage where there was a reckoning – recognising that there was no need to give away my integrity. To allow the banter to continue even though I bristled when I heard it. I could and do live my life in celebration of my uniqueness and ‘Otherness’ without feeling ashamed.
The world is in turmoil – Covid-19 is ensuring, whether we like it or not – that we all review and reset. Covid-19 has also claimed more BAME lives than our white counterparts and the reasons why this has occurred are still unclear and will no doubt become clearer over time. We have had to adapt to belong, but we do not need to sell out. We have and continue to tolerate so much oppression – and I know that our forefathers endured much – but they would be horrified and saddened to know that things have not changed.