I’m sure this won’t come as a surprise but over the past week I have been having numerous conversations about race. The current situation has stirred up a lot of thoughts and emotions, so many that I can’t honestly express them all adequately.
The media has been filled with images of wide reaching demonstrations as a direct response to 401 years of systemic and institutional oppression of Black people. However the situation reached a boiling point 2 weeks ago following the unjust murder of yet another Black man in America which was the straw that broke the camels back and became the catalyst for these most recent protests.
My social media feed is teeming with posts related to #BlackLivesMatter and I’ve also been listening to and reading the experiences of various Black people. Some are famous, some are influencers, some are everyday people. Do you know what the saddest thing they have in common is? Every single one of them has stories about times they’ve encountered racism.
Hearing the experiences of others who on the surface have no more in common with me than the colour of my skin has prompted me to recall instances of racism, bias, prejudice, ignorance and microaggressions I’ve had to endure throughout my life.
Some of these memories I had in fact repressed, however reading others stories prompted a surge of recollections and emotions I’d long since buried.
Previously, when asked the question about my personal experiences of racism my default response has always been ‘I haven’t experienced, that much’. Interrogating my own feelings now I realise my response to this question has been this way for a number of reasons
- Growing up Black you hear several horror stories not unlike that of George Floyd. Stories of Black people being pulled over, violently arrested, brutalised, and killed by the police. Of name calling, monkey chanting, and being chased through the streets by civilians. And while I count myself extremely fortunate I’ve never had to experience anything of this nature, it’s caused me to minimise my own negative experiences as you tell yourself they pale in comparison to what you could have been through.
- It can be incredibly painful to relive emotional, mental or verbal abuse and as I mentioned a part of me had repressed some of these memories in order to protect my mental equilibrium.
- There’s also a small part of me that wanted to put the well intentioned people who were asking this question at ease, so they didn’t have to feel the guilt that someone from their race had made me feel the sharp sting that a racial attack (and trust me no matter how inconsequential it may seem to you it feels like an attack) can cause.
However I’ve come to realise that my own silence has made me complicit in a system that I abhor and I’m of the opinion it’s well past time for change.
For this reason I’ve decided to share my own experiences of racism in action throughout my life.
- The earliest encounter I remember happened when I was about 9 or 10. I was at the local park with a White friend from school. (For context I think it’s important to let you know I grew up in a predominantly White area therefore the majority of my school friends were Caucasian). We were swinging on the swings and a little White girl who couldn’t have been more than 6 or 7 was playing near us. She then turned to my friend and said “Why are you playing with her, look at her skin, she’s dirty.” I was shocked, my friend was shocked. Neither of us knew quite what to say. Now I’m older I understand that little girl was just repeating what she’d heard but that didn’t stop my 9 or 10 year old self feeling upset and worthless. The next day when my friend saw me at school, obviously having been troubled by what had transpired she approached me and said “Sharniya I know that underneath, you’re no different to me and that you have blue eyes and blonde hair”. Obviously her intention was to make me feel better, but why was her response that in order for me to be acceptable I had to have blue eyes and blonde hair underneath? The most interesting part of the statement she made was that this particular friend had brown hair and eyes. When you grow up Black in a White society you’re continually exposed to messaging that white skin, pale hair and light eyes is right. So how can you expect people who are the complete opposite of that not to feel as if society is telling them that they are ‘wrong’?
- What happens when you stick your hand in a bag of jelly babies? The black one steals your watch. I was at secondary school when one of my fellow students quite cavalierly told this joke right in front of me. I didn’t have the confidence or the vocabulary to challenge this at the time but it was a slap to the face that someone I considered a friend could tell a joke that implies that Black people are thieves. Some may say it’s only a joke, but aren’t jokes supposed to make people laugh? I certainly couldn’t find this one funny.
- When I started college, for the first time in my academic career I was surrounded by other people of colour and I felt more comfortable than I had at school. I became really close friends with a number of Asian girls and from a cultural perspective we had more in common than I had with my previous school friends. So it was definitely an unpleasant surprise when one day my friend said to me “You’re pretty ‘for a Black girl”. Being older and a little more comfortable to challenge these sorts of things I expressed my dissatisfaction at the ‘for a Black girl’ addition. Another Asian friend responded to this ‘What do you mean, it’s a compliment, she said you’re pretty’. If you, like her, can’t see what the issue is here let me explain it to you. By saying ‘for a Black girl’ she implied that Black girls aren’t generally pretty. To me it’s similar to saying you’re ‘the best of a bad bunch’. It also implies that as I’m pretty ‘for a Black girl’ I’m definitely not as pretty as someone from another race. I don’t know what you think but I certainly didn’t feel complimented.
- I had various instances being friends with these girls that made me realise that Black people were viewed as lesser by this group too. Using the words ‘Kala’ or ‘Black’ as a way to insult each other. Of course it made me think, if you use that as an insult for each other what must you really think of me. It also solidified that in society Black people are viewed as being at the bottom of the totem pole.
- At university I moved into student halls and shared with five other freshers. Three boys and another two girls. I got on very well with the majority of my flatmates (who, by the way, were all White) but there was one guy in particular, that I always seemed to clash with. In all honestly he was quite an obnoxious individual and I’ll admit I was definitely starting to discover my inner sassiness so I challenged his disrespectful behaviour more than the others. However he quite obviously treated me differently to our other flatmates and I could feel that he had an issue with me personally. After months of feeling on edge around him it all came to a head at the end of a night out. I must again give context that being university students we were both quite drunk when what I’m about to tell you transpired. Myself and the other two girls had been out together and we came back to find he and his friends had thrown Smash flakes (for those who don’t know Smash is powdered instant potato, you add water to it to make mashed potato) all around the flat. I confronted him as he was the messiest flatmate and of course he very rarely cleaned. Our argument escalated to the point he got so angry that he slammed our front door in such a violent manner it broke the lock. While I will stand up for myself I’m not a naturally confrontational person and I admit, that display frightened me. So I grabbed my quilt from my bed and went to another friends flat to stay over. Some time later there was a knock at the door and it was him. He asked if we could talk and he apologised for his behaviour and admitted that he knew he’d gone too far. He then went on to say that he’d never spent time with any Black people before and his Dad’s views had coloured (forgive the pun) his own and that he himself did have negative opinions. He told me that he knew I didn’t deserve his intolerance and that he hoped I felt comfortable enough to return to our flat. As many hostile emotions as I had about him before that I can honestly say I’ve never witnessed anyone having such a moment of self-awareness and following that night things did improve between us.
- A couple of years later I went on a night out for a friend’s birthday in Putney, after which she decided we would all go back to her house. We were in a taxi with two of her White male friends. I cannot remember what we were discussing but I was blindsided when one of them used the N word. I think I said “Don’t say that word”, their response “Why not, rappers use it in songs”. I argued back that I didn’t use the word and they shouldn’t either. They continued to contradict me until my friend shouted that we should all shut up. I’ll admit that exchange really hurt me, particularly as I expected my friend to defend me knowing how inappropriate it is to use the word in general but especially in front of me. Why they chose that moment to use it I’ll never know but it felt as though they were purposefully trying to antagonise me. Or perhaps they got a kick out of upsetting me, thankfully that was the first and last time I ever met them. But it’s just yet another example of how you can go from having a fun night, to your mental peace being taken away by others who seek to put you in your place, simply for existing.
- A few years ago I’d been on a team day out with some colleagues to Southend. We’d had a lovely day eating chips on the beach and going to the arcade and bowling. One of my colleagues kindly offered to drive me back to North London and on our way out of Southend we happened behind a car that had Golliwogs taped up in the back window. For those who may not be aware a Golliwog is an anti-Black caricature, “with very dark, often jet-black skin, large white-rimmed eyes, red or white clown lips, and wild, frizzy hair”. It is a crude and incredibly offensive depiction of those of African descent and is assumed to be the origin of the racial slur ‘wog’. So imagine my horror when, in 2018 I saw these racially triggering dolls strung up in the back of someone’s car.
- That same year I visited Dublin for the first time for my cousins 21st with various members of our family. We attempted to visit a bar which admittedly did look crowded and were told that we wouldn’t be able to enter as they were full. Our group moved to the side to discuss where to go next, and less than two minutes later another group that was roughly the same size as ours headed to the door and were admitted with no delay. The most obvious difference between their group and ours? They weren’t black. Understandably my Auntie who was incensed at this confronted the bouncers on the door and they didn’t even try to make an adequate excuse.
- And just yesterday as I was scrolling through my feed one of my Facebook “friends” (a girl I met on holiday a few years ago) had posted a status with her views on the riots, culminating in a sentence that essentially said Black people should ‘be grateful’ that we’re free from slavery. As though asking to be treated equally in a society that has committed atrocity after atrocity against us for over 400 years is asking for far too much!
I’ve written all the specific incidents that I can remember but there are other smaller incidences that while they may not seem that impactful, happen so often that they chip away at you over time and reinforce that you’re different and that you don’t belong, such as:
- Being asked countless times, where I’m from, or whether I was born here. I am a third generation Caribbean immigrant, my grandparents have lived in England longer than they ever did in the places they were born. I myself have only visited the Caribbean a handful of times yet I’m forced to answer that I’m from a place I barely know. Please don’t think of this as me distancing myself from my heritage, as that’s not my intention but I often wonder if my children or their children will have to live their lives being asked this same question. How many generations have to live in a country before you can be classed as being ‘from’ there? Or will their skin colour mean that they can never truly belong?
- People who’ve known me for years (however casually) not taking the time to learn how to pronounce my name. Orange is the new black star Uzo Aduba said it best “If they can learn to say ‘Tchaikovsky’ and ‘Michealangelo’ and Dostoyevsky’…” then you’d think Sharniya would be a walk in the park. Yet if I had a pound for every time my name had been mangled in the mouths of others I probably could have retired by now.
- Walking into a shop and as if by magic finding a member of staff hovering near me. Perhaps this happens to White individuals too but somehow I doubt it.
- Going abroad and being stared at because the inhabitants of that country have never seen a black person in real life before. Going to certain places in England and receiving the same treatment.
- Hearing a White person recount something that happened and when they’re talking about another White person colour is never mentioned but when talking about a person of colour, their race is specified every single time. Yet these same individuals claim they ‘don’t see colour’. This reinforces the fact that White is viewed as the default and everything else is “abnormal”.
Whether the intention was to hurt, or due to ignorance or curiosity these instances have had an impact on me emotionally. I haven’t written this post for sympathy or to make anyone feel bad but I just want to highlight the fact that even for someone who doesn’t feel like they’ve felt the full brutal force of racism there are still many anecdotes I can call on which have affected me and which have caused hurt and embarrassment.
So please stop believing that racism doesn’t exist, and denying the experiences of those who have felt it because this can be just as mentally harmful as racism itself. Please stop thinking and using the phrase ‘playing the race card’ because believe me, whether you can relate or not, I can guarantee that if it is indeed a card, it’s not one we wish to have in our deck!
Thank you for reading and if any of this has triggered something for you or brought up any emotions, then I am here heart open and ready to listen.