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“Where are you really from?” & other racial slights

June 25, 2020 10:00 AM
Originally published by UK Liberal Democrats

It's been a month since the murder of George Floyd. His death has sparked a global conversation about the discrimination faced by black people every day.

Other times, you struggle to find words to explain the deep hurt, so you stay silent.

Black women have had to deal with both gender and racial discrimination all their lives. To us, the current discussion is nothing new; it is our everyday experience, often only discussed when amongst your black friends. These forums are where we talk about the constant policing and judgement of everything from our hair, our clothes, our body and of course, the tone of our voice. Dealing with microaggressions (covert, subtle slights which demean, belittle and ridicule marginalised groups) is normal for us. The list is endless; from being mistaken for another black woman at work and at Party Conference, to being told "you're pretty... for a dark-skinned woman" or that you should stand for election in a posh area because "you speak quite well".

These everyday slights are hard to call out, they are more difficult to discuss with the perpetrators who often take offense, immediately becoming dismissive of your hurt. Other times, you struggle to find words to explain the deep hurt, so you stay silent.

While it's impossible to identify every microaggression, I want to give five examples of the most common I encounter.

1. No, where are you really from?

Last year I was racially attacked by two white men on a train who asked where I was from. They clearly disapproved when I replied "London". The situation very quickly led to them unleashing a torrent of abuse, including insults on my intelligence and taking it in turn to guess which part of Africa I actually belonged to. On this occasion, I fought back only because other, non-black people spoke up in my defence and protected me. This support also gave me the courage to report the crime. The two men were later charged.

As a black person, questions about your background are common. There are no limits to when or where you could be asked this question; usually by strangers, at work, out partying, walking the streets, on public transport and so on.

When people interrogate you on your heritage, the implicit message is that you don't belong, you're not British, you'll always be an outsider. Probing my background leaves me and many like me feeling like an "other" in a country we were born and raised in.

2. Can I touch your hair?

Touching someone's hair, while not as traumatic as being called a racial slur, can be equally unsettling and dehumanising.

Black hair is beautiful, so I can appreciate it when people tell me they love my hair. But what I don't appreciate is people who seem obsessed with examining my hair or even touching it without permission. Black people have mastered the art of ducking when a hand randomly makes its way towards your hair. I've had people grab my afro on public transport, I've had my braids pulled in the middle of a date by a stranger walking past our table, I've had people question whether I wash my hair and if so how often. People have even been offended when I didn't allow them to touch my hair.

To say you don't see colour means you don't see the discrimination and oppression faced by marginalised groups.

The need to touch my hair unsolicited is not only an invasion of my personal space but a deeply patronising act. It leaves black women feeling like animals in a zoo; there to be gazed upon, analysed, and studied in a way not too dissimilar to the treatment of Sarah Baartman, a black woman who was exhibited at freak show attractions across Europe in the 19th-century.

3. You're so sassy/there's no need to get aggressive

The angry black woman trope is an all too familiar narrative women like me have had to deal with most of our lives. When I speak my mind, often with the same passion and intensity as my white counterparts I'm labelled "sassy", "aggressive" even "threatening".

Why say sassy instead of passionate? Why aggressive instead of direct? And why threatening over authoritative?

This narrative tends to only be used to dismiss a black woman's experience of being treated differently to others and to mask the mistreatment of black women, usually in the workplace. This is what I call gaslighting 101. Labelling black women as aggressive can have a major effect on black women's mental health. And how could it not be when you spend every day navigating an environment that mistreats you, whilst trying your best not to come across as angry

4. I don't see colour

This is normally something said with the best of intentions to show that someone isn't racist. However, it can be damaging. To say you don't see colour means you don't see the discrimination and oppression faced by marginalised groups. Microinvalidations like this also diminish and belittle the racist experiences faced by black people. If none of us saw race how could we combat racism

5. Are you sure that's what happened?

When someone tells you they experienced something racist, believe them. Don't question them; instead, listen with sincerity and a genuine desire to understand.

So often when a black person describes a racist experience they are met with: "are you sure that's what happened? and "I'm sure they didn't mean it like that". These are all ways of invalidating and denying someone's lived experience. When someone tells you they experienced something racist, believe them. Don't question them; instead, listen with sincerity and a genuine desire to understand.

Whilst these microaggressions may seem insignificant, having to constantly deal with them is exhausting. Over time, these everyday slights take their toll on your mental wellbeing. Often people are unaware that they have even said anything offensive which is why educating yourself is so important. Before you say something, think about the impact it could have on someone else. If you are called out, don't be defensive, use the opportunity to learn so you can do better in the future. And if you're not black, remember it's not the job of black people to educate you, you need to do the work yourself.

Cllr Julia Ogiehor, Muswell Hill Ward and Opposition Crime, the Community and Equalities Spokesperson; Chair of Haringey Lib Dems