Is that just stating the obvious? I’m not sure. Maybe to some people it is, and we will get back to that later don’t you worry, but strangely enough, to me this wasn’t always so clear cut. Now, this isn’t going to be a torrid tale of growing up blind, nor am I about to tell you that for the first 21 years of my life I lived in a place which had a state enforced ban on reflective surfaces. In reality, it’s actually much more complicated than that.
I was born in Auckland, New Zealand, to two English parents. However, my father just so happens to be West African, Sierra Leonean specifically. Think Idris Elba, he looks exactly like that, trust me. When he decided that being a dad wasn’t really his scene I was still a baby. When he left, my mother (who is white) and I promptly moved back to England, but not to the glorious melting pot which is London, in which case this story would 100% be about how Stormzy is my best friend, but instead we moved to a place called Jersey.
Now I know you’re confused and are back to seriously considering the blind/no reflective surfaces thing again, but no I swear that’s not the case. The population of Jersey? 300% Caucasian and the family that I grew up with were all also 150% white. So as far as I was concerned I was the same particularly because they largely subscribed to colour-blind ideology. I don’t think it was necessarily an intentional attempt to marginalise the other half of my ethnic make-up, more just a matter of circumstance. How can they authentically expose me to African culture or the reality of being black, when they are not black and the African people in my life abandoned me? They were just doing their best to raise me whilst remaining blissfully unaware of the future identity crisis that this was brewing. Honestly though, at the time this wasn’t exactly a big issue. I was loved, happy and no one was picking on me. Really the whole situation seemed pretty ideal. But alas this certainly did not last.
In the early 2000s, when I was nearly 6, my mum decided that we were going to move back to New Zealand. This move I believe was spurred by a desire for me to see what paddocks and sheep look or something other similarly rubbish logic. We settle initially in Nelson. Great place. Really sunny.
Loads of cool places to hang out as a child particularly when you’re the leader of a bike ‘gang’. As it turns out, it was also very racist. I mean like, super racist. My best friend was white as paper Irish and they hated her and her family too. For years I guess I thought of this move and the subsequent events it catalysed as the beginning of the end. But in retrospect it was merely the beginning of a very important journey. The story goes, I was minding my own business, walking home from school, like the strong independent 9 year old I was, when two boys decide to bail me up in some bushes and call me a “fucking nigger”. That’s right, with a hard ‘er’ not an ‘a’. I’ll be honest, there’s not a lot of humour that can be thrown at this. They pushed me around and threatened to kill me, before I managed to escape and leg it home. I’m pretty sure I didn’t know what the word meant, but I remember I knew that I had never heard any of my all white friends called that. Long story short, things got progressively uglier. Eventually I had to be pulled out of school for my own safety and we ended up going back to England for the rest of the year because New Zealand was looking pretty uncool.
This particular trip back to England, for some reason, father decided to a) reappear and b) insist I come to visit him and all of his family/ collection of ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’. At this stage, I’m already pretty traumatised, plus I’m extremely confused because, not to brag but I’d always been a pretty popular kid (leader of the bike gang remember?), so for my ‘friends’ to suddenly start bullying me in this way felt like a very peculiar occurrence.
I’m not going to lie, the number of non white people I knew at this point in my life could be easily counted twice over on one hand. So, walking into that house was quite the experience. You know that white guy blinking meme, that was me for the entire night. I am dazed, I am confused.
I am not understanding what is going on. But what slowly begins to dawn on me, somewhere in between an ‘aunty’ bemoaning how dark I was, how my hair was in need of taming, which she then forcibly proceeded to have braided and someone trying to make me eat goat feet, was that I am somehow the same as these people who I am finding so alien. It’s not that I’m just working some kind of deep tan, there is an integral part of my identity that is something entirely different to the people that I consider my family. And then I start to get this niggling feeling that perhaps the reason those kids had started bullying me had something to do with this. I leave that night and I’m not feeling great. I’m not feeling like I’ve been made whole through being introduced to this side of me that I had previously been missing. Rather the opposite. I’m mad. I hate this other side. This other thing that people see has lost me my friends, has meant I have to move to the other end of the country, means that people look at me and see something bad. Now realistically, I’m only 9 so I wasn’t that angsty, and this trip ended in us going to Tenerife where we spent most of our time at a sick water park, so I probably rather promptly compartmentalised, read ‘forgot’, this and went on my merry way. But the seed had definitely been planted and by the time we were on the plane back to Auckland and back to school, this seed was beginning to sprout.
My wilful ignorance as a result of living such a sheltered existence was being gradually and mercilessly shredded into tiny pieces. This meant that I was faced with a making an important choice. Pretend I wasn’t privy to this new knowledge and just move on with my life attempting to enshroud myself in ignorance again or overthink it and let it ruin my life for the next 12+ years. Which one do you think I chose? If you chose the former… hi you must be new to this whole human thing, because the answer was most definitely the latter.
As time went on, I have been fortunate to never experience racism again like I did when I was a kid. However, I have been plagued by microaggressions – hair touching, being told I talk or act white, being singled out and asked what I think I’m doing in the extension classes at high school, being told by the career counsellor I should really just consider a sports career, being called sassy or loud or rowdy if I speak my mind, wondering if the boy I like is into brown girls, the list goes on- which collectively have arguably just as if not the most damaging. Interestingly it wasn’t that this onslaught was constant, rather the digs would come out of the blue at times when I was least expecting it. This meant that I always had to be on guard as I was always anticipating and dreading that something would be said.
This edginess made it so that I was always having to be hyper aware of my otherness within the spaces that I occupied and caused me to constantly try to monitor and alter how I was acting to mitigate any potential incidences. I was beginning to fully understand how black obviously equalled bad. Simple math really. Everything that I saw in the media riddled with stereotypes of black people served to confirm these feelings. It made for a simple solution really. Just reject anything I saw as black, I’m looking at you specifically hip-hop music and natural hair. Hard pass.
This was always complicated by the fact that I was aware that I still hold certain privileges that sheltered me from the worst. I went to a ‘good’ school, came from a ‘good’ home. My name, which was Anglicised as a child at my mother’s request, never raised a potential employee’s eyebrow when written in bold at the top of my CV. Plus my ‘not too brown’ skin and general “but you’re not that BLACK”-ness on account of being raised in a European family – read acting and speaking white- means I am all too aware that I’m nestled right in that sweet spot of that ‘kind’ of black person that white people are generally pretty comfortable around. Sometimes a little too comfortable…
honestly Janice if you try and engage in a conversation with me one more time about how “THOSE kind of people” just need to follow the law, I will hurt you. But it’s not just white people I get this from, it’s from other black people too. A classic case of too black to be white and too white to be black.
However, as I gradually got tired, or bored of the confusion and self-hatred, and decided I needed to work out how to express and embrace my particular kind of blackness, I found that this decision in itself was challenging. Immensely so. I can’t change how I was brought up and quite frankly I don’t know if I want or really need to. But in asserting that, this isn’t me trying to act white, be white or pander to white people, it’s just simply who I am. And this doesn’t make me any less black. Because black culture isn’t a monolith. It has been encouraging to witness social media, which was once one of my greatest enemies in terms of accepting my full identity, becoming one of the richest sources for helping to dismantle that one-dimensional representation of black culture. Much of what is represented and then most oft emulated, is African American culture which is a thing unto itself, stemming from a deep history and context which I feel is not my own and as there are a lot of shared experiences within the black community that I will never be able to truly relate to by virtue of my upbringing. This journey is an ongoing one and I still struggle with many things, chief of which is navigating what parts of black culture I feel I am entitled to, just by virtue of the pigment of my skin and the way that people around me perceive me. If no longer banished hip hop music is playing am I allowed to say nigga? What does the way I wear my hair mean? I am still constantly vexed by how to balance other’s expectations and how to do so in ways that aren’t just co-signing stereotypes.