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Growing-Up Black in White Situations #WeDefineUs

Updated: Sep 20, 2018

Those moments when you’ve been asked those black questions by white people. If you’ve grown up black or a minority ethnic in a lot of white situations, you’ll probably be able to relate to my tales. Some stories are laughable and others cringe-worthy.

My secondary Grammar school memories are, by far, my most vivid and memorable. It wasn’t a rough school on the contrary the school down the road had organised fights whilst we had organised football.

However, just because it wasn’t rough doesn’t mean it wasn’t challenging. I think it was intellectually ‘rough’ meaning words were thrown about that challenged your own ethics, about race, about women (I went to an all boys school), about elitism (I went to a grammar school, which gave some of my peers a superiority complex) and about disability (a fellow pupil had a hearing impairment and a consequent speech impediment).

I remember being one of three black kids in school for most of my school life from age 11 to 18. At one point, there were four (imagine four of us!) but I think Daniel got expelled.

Interestingly, I recall Daniel having a dispute in front of the class with our white South African maths teacher, Mr Smit. Daniel and I were the only black pupils in the class. When Mr Smit asked Daniel to leave the classroom, Daniel refused so Mr Smit dragged and pushed him out of the classroom door. He didn’t have grounds to expel me from his post-apartheid classroom regime.

Jeez, so many, what I call checking-your-blackness, questions.

“Can you break dance?”

Back at secondary school, in year 11, a white guy from a lower year, in the above-mentioned school down the road (he lived in my village too), probed me several times about break dancing.“I bet you can you break dance, can’t you? Go on, do the six-step in the sports hall when no one’s looking. I’ll watch you through the window.” I declined. Though I did have break dancing aspiration, I’m not anyone’s entertainment show and the assumption that I can do it well was a little overblown.

“Can you rap for me?” “Do you like Tupac or Biggie?”

A ‘chap’ in my year, would walk past my friend, Peter and I hanging around the common room listening to music. He’d walk by with an embarrassing strut, spurt out “yeah, yeah, yeah man” in a terrible American accent and do some weird street hand gestures. I felt mocked. My white friend (he was cool) would say “stop being a dick Robbo.” All we could do is laugh.

‘Are you good at basketball?’

I remember being asked if I was good at basketball more than any other sport. Weirdly, I thought I then had to reach a certain skill level because I didn’t want to disappoint them. Looking back I was conforming to their (and my own) stereotypes. I did like basketball.

‘You’re black.’ ‘No, he’s not black.’

I was leaving my morning form period, for my next lesson, two peers from my class were discussing my racial identity. One friend said something like “Oli’s black” and another friend replied, “no, he’s not black.” What am I then? I (and clearly they didn’t) didn’t have the vocab, other than “half-caste”, which I rejected. There’s nothing more disorientating than feeling like an outsider to your own narrative. I felt like Stretch Armstrong being pulled at the arms by two squabblers.

‘Can I call you the N-word?’

Walking to my school, two guys (again from the above mentioned school down the road) who were friends, on separate occasions, each asked me similar questions. They asked, “can I call you a nigga? Obviously not in, bad way, I’m not a racist. In the same way, rappers say it, so it can’t be racist.” It can and it is with their lack of understanding of the history behind the word.

Checking my hair texture?

Sitting in class and having wet paper, scrunched up and spat at your hair through a straw by your white classmates because of my textured hair, was by far the worst racial check on my ‘black’ hair. Although my afros were loose.

These are all very real, uncomfortable and confusing situations. Especially confusing as a mix-d, black teenage (being a teenager AND a minority is more of challenge). It’s like the world’s trying to put us in a box before some of us have figured out for ourselves which box we feel we belong in.

For instance, my partner and I were at a nursery to sign-up our 2-year-old son. We were asked to identify his ethnicity: argh all the boxes! Is he black or mixed or white or both or other or… There was a pause and then we described our backgrounds (E: Polish and ME: Kenyan, Irish, English and ?) so she asked a quick, closed question “dual heritage?” Wrote it down and that was that. It felt helpful at the time, yet limiting on reflection because his heritage is obviously more than dual.

Oh, not forgetting the time when a white co-worker said to me, “you’re so white, I’m more black than you.” How is that possible? What he thinks is black isn’t.

Always remember guys and girls of colour, Niellah Arboine a writer at Gal Dem, a blog by women of colour wrote in her piece ‘Letter to Her Younger Self,’ “…that there’s no right way to be black, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

I’ve discovered some black self-esteem statements that help build me up when the world is pulling me down. Here’s one (I find its better when I say it aloud and scare white people… I’m kidding, I do it alone):

I am worthy. The colour of my skin is not definitive of where I belong in this world and no one will be allowed to disregard my presence or silence my voice, based on the colour of my flesh.

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