I’ve been thinking a lot about stereotypes lately. Just a few days ago, I stumbled on this brilliant article on race that really went to town on some hard truths. It left the ballsy-yet-somewhat-safe zone of the usual content I would share and rocketed into uncharted territory.
Cool, I thought. Gritty, I thought. I went to click ‘Share’.
In those few short seconds of hesitation (played out in Hollywood-style slow mo) whilst deciding whether To Share or Not To Share, I realised an unsettling truth: I didn’t want to be That Girl.
That Girl who disrupts a perfectly comfortable day of funny cat videos and snarky political memes with posts that inadvertently start to make you feel defensive about your own race.That Girl who ‘posts too much’ about ‘black issues’. That Girl edging dangerously close to being labelled The Angry Black Woman.
And therein lay the problem.
I didn’t want to be The Angry Black Woman.
Much like a reflex, it was automatic. Instantaneous. I abhorred the idea.
But I came to realise that this was entirely because, somewhere along the line, I’d bought into the stereotype. I was only seeing the single story. And the problem with stereotypes, as the ever-wise Ms. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once famously said, isn’t that they’re untrue, but incomplete.
Because what actually is The Angry Black Woman when you begin to break it down? Any loud, outspoken black woman? Any opinionated black woman? Any passionate black woman who chooses to speak on important issues unapologetically? Any black woman who seeks to challenge the comfortable, safe, regressive routine of silence and inaction by encouraging conversation on difficult topics that need to continue being highlighted for the smallest hope of real change? Any black woman who gets ticked off at the existence of white privilege and the resulting denial of said privilege by the privileged themselves, further highlighting its existence?
If this is what the ‘Angry Black Woman’ is, then make haste and sign me up. Because I couldn’t be prouder to be anything else.
I think it needs to be noted that there’s a beautiful thing that’s been happening in recent months; it no longer feels like preaching to the choir. It’s not just black people talking to other black people about the plight of black people and the reality of racism. It’s not only a large majority of black people listening, challenging, getting angry. A short while ago, wonderful articles like I, Racist – the most honest and perfectly articulated account of the black experience and the complex nature of white privilege I have ever read – were being circulated all over my newsfeed. For the most part, by my non-black friends. It’s not easy. It’s not comfortable. But the racism conversation feels like it’s finally, truly beginning. And it’s a brilliant thing to behold.
Of course, there are still moments in conversations about race – even with some of my dearest and kindest friends – when the immediate reaction is defensive; when the immediate reaction isn’t to listen and engage with perspectives formed by experiences vastly different to your own; when it isn’t to understand the complex ways in which the society we live in is so heavily dictated by race.
Say you were reading this post now, and your reflex response was defensive – I could understand that. But I would also implore you to challenge it; take a few seconds and look beyond that. Because in the tiny space of those few seconds – though it may not seem like much – I truly believe that in that space is where empathy comes into existence. And honestly? That’s all we need.
I started to think about my own experiences with racial stereotypes throughout the years. Some were comical. Some were sad. But all drilled in the strong reminder not to ever let anyone else dictate your story.
Being a child of the diaspora, I would say I had a pretty unique, culturally diverse childhood. I lived in three continents, grew up in four countries. Four starkly different countries (my confused accent will attest to this). It sometimes felt like my identity mirrored my changing lifestyles, constantly transforming, being built up, broken down, reinvented. Once we eventually settled, it took a little time for my mind to do the same. But once it did – once I’d tracked down this person I was happy to be for the rest of my life – that’s probably around the time I would say I began to really become aware of race. Aware of my ‘blackness’.
Thinking back to early education, I was that kid who got really excited at the prospect of starting at a new school. After that initial bout of nervousness wore off (remember that temporarily crippling feeling of nausea clenching your stomach muscles tightly together from your fear of the unknown? Yup. That’s the one), I saw only new adventures and revelled in being the new kid. I thought the attention was great. The intrigue, the fascination everyone would have with all aspects of my former life. Soaked it right up.
And then I would notice the surprised faces. Surprise at my fluent english. Surprise at my articulacy. Surprise that I was good at maths. Surprise that I was creative. Surprise that I cracked jokes. Surprise that I had “such bright, white teeth”.
There was nothing particularly alarming in this, I first thought. In fact, I loved it. I thought either I was truly some type of child genius and didn’t know it, or everyone had mistaken me for one, and the joke was on them. Then one day, I remember one girl coming up to me and posing this question:
“When you lived in Africa, did you live in a house?”
I remember being so incredibly amused by this. Amused by ‘Africa’ being some vague distant land where people spoke ‘African’ (a legitimate question I was also once asked) as opposed to a vast continent made up of several different countries and languages. I was so amused by the question itself, I remember thinking, surely, this was just a joke I had to come up with a semi-witty, tongue-in-cheek response to. Which was:
“No, we lived in the trees with the birds and the monkeys.”
“Whoa, really?” She asked, eyes lighting up as if, finally, things made sense again. “I bet you’re happy to finally have a house, now.”
I looked at her.
My smile faltered.
It was then that I realised two things:
- I needed to make a new friend. Clearly.
- More importantly, this was reflective of a bigger problem with the education system and society as a whole. An oversight to educate children from a young age about other cultures. To educate them about the true history and way of life of people in continents outside of Europe and America that wasn’t just limited to a short chapter on poverty, AIDS and ‘countless savage wars’. To educate them on the true nature of colonisation; the true extent of the slave trade; the resilient spirit of the African people and the vibrancy of African cultures in order to raise worldly young adults who weren’t surprised by meeting someone that didn’t fit a false and incomplete stereotype. (Heck, I’d probably be happy if kids were just being taught that ‘African’ isn’t a language spoken by anyone, anywhere in the world, ever. Education Sec, make it happen?).
It’s not okay to be ignorant. Ever. And yet in our society, many seem to flaunt this reckless ‘as long as everyone else knows about us, it doesn’t really matter if we know that much about them’ attitude. At its most basic, there needs to be at least a foundation set in place in early education; one which will encourage kids to want to seek knowledge of cultures outside of their own.
When I got a little older, I remember constantly being asked why I’d moved around so much.
“My dad got a better job.”
This was always met with a slightly deflated “Oh,” as if I’d deprived my waiting audience of a scandalous, tragic yet ultimately uplifting story of defying the odds.
“Aren’t you a refugee, though?”
Something I later became acutely aware of, whether I wanted to or not, was this automatic assumption. I became aware of how this once normal word had been dragged through the mud, flushed down the toilet and bathed in sewage water until it was as dirty as it could possibly be.
On the subject of refugees, I’ll briefly say that, yes, there may be some people who abuse the system, but it breaks my heart that those escaping some of the worst conflicts and seeking refuge are relentlessly demonised for a situation they have no control over.
But I began to quickly realise that the idea that Africans could migrate to a western country – not because they were escaping a terrifying war or seeking refuge from persecution, or using illegal documents, but simply because they were educated, intelligent, ambitious people chasing exciting opportunities – seemed a hard pill to swallow for some. I think it’s safe to say that no one would blink an eye at the average individual who migrates from Australia, or Canada, or Italy to the UK for career prospects.
And yet, here we were. Which goes back to the public’s perception of the average ‘black’ or ‘African’ individual. If the basics that you were taught at school, that you see in the media, read in the paper, is about famine, poverty and war, then how would you be easily open to the idea of the successful, intelligent, ambitious black man who migrated with his family for better opportunities? I guess you wouldn’t. And that’s a real tragedy.
A while back, there was one occasion, which, at the time seemed fleeting and inconsequential, but luckily my over-analytical Virgo brain thought otherwise and stored it for future analysis (thanks, pal). One of my close friends told me she’d found out some elusive guy that no one really knew anything about liked me. I remember she’d concluded, “He must be really into black girls, then.”
At the time, I couldn’t put my finger on why that bugged me. It certainly wasn’t meant maliciously; it was said in passing, maybe even as a kind of compliment, and I knew she’d forgotten about it as soon as she’d said it.
And yet, it bugged me.
Perhaps it was in the way it had been oversimplified. The fact that I’d suddenly been boxed into this vague category – ‘Black Girls’ – that didn’t seem to leave any room for personality or individuality. The fact that my race is neither the definitive nor the most interesting thing about me, but in that moment, I felt reduced to just that. But I think what bugged me most of all, in that moment, was the resounding knowledge that it could be the only thing some people would ever allow themselves to see.
And truly, that was a shame.
(Really. I wear ever-changing themed outfits to work, and the fact that some people in the world will never allow themselves to find this out about me, makes me weep).
On the subject of blackness, there have been too any times that I’ve been told by various people, both white and black, that I wasn’t ‘black enough’ for The Generic Black Male, but luckily wasn’t ‘too black’ for The Generic White Male.
Let’s talk about that.
Who passes the bill on ‘blackness’? Who decides what’s ‘too black’, ‘not black enough’ or ‘just the right amount of black’?
Who decides for all of your life experiences to be brushed aside and your black identity measured solely on how well you followed convention? On how well you fit this preconceived idea of what ‘black’ is?
There are black women I know, personally and professionally, who are some of the most brilliant minds I have ever encountered. Interestingly, these are also some of the same women I would hear occasionally being referred to in the same way, as ‘not black enough’. As black people, what did that say about our own opinion of what ‘black’ was?
And what did that say about our opinion of The Generic Black Male? That the GBM couldn’t handle forward-thinking, intelligent women? That the GBM only went for a certain type of black woman whose blackness was validated by fitting a stereotype?
Let’s try and break it down. On what grounds was I ‘not black enough?’ Was it because I was articulate? Because I participated in the arts? Engaged in politics? Identified as a feminist? Watched Richard Linklater movies? (And enjoyed them?)
Frankly, if all of the above could ever be looked at and concluded to be ‘not black enough’, then there is a problem with the way we identify as black. Because, of course, there is no rule that dictates that the definitive version of the black woman has to be some ‘sassy’, curvaceous, gum-popping, hooped-earring wearing, overtly-confrontational, head-swinging, finger-wiggling ‘urban’ chick with a side-bun and a heck of a right hook. Because she is the stereotype – the single story that may exist in some form somewhere in the world, but she is not the complete story, and to dismiss all other stories as ‘not black enough’ is to wholly dismiss the complete story.
To see intelligence, to see eccentricity, to see uniqueness as something that is ‘other’, something that is far removed from our own acceptance of ‘black’, is a dangerous mentality to hold.
Phrases like “you’re not black enough” – even said in jest by friends and family – need to be looked at more closely. Because the truth of the matter is: it’s insulting. It’s regressive. And it’s downright just not true.
I often think of how my nephew, who is biracial, is growing up in an environment where Black/African and White/British collide to form his single understanding of “family”. I’ve observed him through the years, as his young mind begins to navigate through the differences between both whilst remaining open to how both cultures form his identity.
I’m left in awe. At the ease. The simplicity. At the way he readily accepts the differences. The way he opens his heart and his mind to absorbing information from both cultures. The way he’s piecing together aspects of his history to form his future.
I watch him and I hope that when he gets older, he won’t ever be forced to choose between the two cultures. That he won’t ever be forced to validate his “blackness” or “whiteness”. That he will hold fast in the knowledge that no one else can dictate his identity.
Because stereotypes are incomplete. And people are so much more.
The Angry Black Woman.