28 Oct 2021
The Black Experience: a paradox of identity
The Black Experience: a paradox of identity
James Baldwin once said that to be black and relatively conscious is “to be in a constant state of anger almost, almost all of the time”.
For me – if not just angry - being black is to be perpetually aware that your appearance governs how people interact with you. Ambiguous rejections from job applications simply scratch the surface of a myriad of exclusionary practices.
To fully understand where this feeling comes from, we must first understand that - until recently - it’s been the ‘white’ perspective that decides how black people are defined. My school education displayed two narratives of black people: exceptional individuals – usually accompanied by the phrase ‘the first black [insert profession]’; or an impoverished collective whose history only seemed to start upon it’s encounter with white Europeans. Therefore, during these crucial early years of development, you become conditioned to believe that to escape the reputation of the latter, it is imperative to achieve exceptional success and puts forth the notion that this is the only way to be valued. This harmful rhetoric perpetuates the underlying narrative that Black people are only acceptable in society as long as they are exceptional. From a young age, you are burdened with these heavy expectations.
Growing up as one of the few black people in my area helped cement this paranoia within me. This familiar feeling emerged from, and was reinforced by, events when my skin colour became the subject of either ridicule, curiosity, or indeed both. One memory indicative of this was as an 11-year-old in a Citizenship lesson. A white student was telling the teacher that black people are ‘naturally more violent’. The teacher responded by asking me how I felt about this. I wanted to disappear.
Incidents such as these are not rare and have a serious long-term impact, not only on your self-perspective but also on the way that you are seen by your white peers. You become a mouthpiece for an entire race and your every gesture and phrase is scrutinised as representative of this. To be exceptional, to be appreciated as an individual identity, you must learn to go against every black stereotype, also known as a ‘code switch’. Speak more eloquently to seem educated, you learn. Be slow to anger and minimise your gestures to seem less aggressive, you remind yourself. This constant revision of character is incredibly mentally taxing, and it makes it even more difficult to define and develope your authentic self.
If one grows up in these conditions, racism in all of its forms (systematic, microaggression, prejudice etc.) becomes something to be expected as part of your everyday. We see this in the actions of those who came before us. The unspoken conversations with parents and relatives who’ve had their own more severe experiences of racism, but rarely bring them up because of the pain and embarrassment that it caused.
Racism today means knowing that when asked “where you’re from”, an answer of any location in Britain is not a credible enough response. This means researching what the racial climate is like in a potential holiday destination. This means wondering why communication has ‘fallen away’ between a potential housemate or landlord after a face-to-face meeting. This means being overly polite to new encounters (regardless of whether this politeness is reciprocated) to disarm them of any preconceptions they may have about what your skin represents. This means seeing the only other black face at an event and debating whether acknowledging their presence will reassure them that they are not the only one who feels isolated.
This paranoia can have adverse effects. It can have you replaying and questioning multiple scenarios, such as why the bouncer only asked for your ID within a group of white friends; why colleagues seem to interact differently with you and whether anyone else can hear their tone of condescension. The same paranoia, seeped with internalised racism, can trickle into personal relationships. Questioning a potential partner’s intentions with you is borne out of an instinct for self-preservation, but it can also ward off people whose intentions are blameless.
While aspects of ‘black identity’ are still widely and openly discriminated against, there is an accompanying ‘fetishisation’ of ‘black culture’. From music to hairstyles to speech, black culture seems to have gained a certain popularity with little reflection on its origins. This paradox creates a dichotomy of perceptions for black people to navigate.
In mind of the origins with which I began this piece, of learning to dilute and modify my identity to appease white people, we’re now in a situation where white people are taking parts of the black identity for themselves. More recently, incidents of ‘blackfishing’, meaning white people adopting the aesthetics of Blackness, have been called out. Kim Kardashian, Rita Ora, and more recently Jesy Nelson have all borrowed or benefited from black culture in some form today. All have been accused of “cherry-picking” the visual elements of Blackness without the intricate lived experience of literal Blackness. As Wanna Thompson explains it - the woman who coined the term ‘blackfishing’ - “Black is cool, unless you’re actually black.”
One wishes there could be a simple solution to the pervasive and sustained psychological effects of racism. That being conditioned into this borderline paranoid state can be cured by a few months of protests or the rightful conviction of a police officer. However, to achieve this first requires us all to acknowledge that racism actually exists, let alone affects us. What I hope to be alive for is a day when our colour doesn’t require us to think so much; a time when the colour of one’s skin will be as insignificant as the colour of one’s eyes.