I’ve been a black person for a long time. Thirty six years to be precise. And when you have been a certain way for so long, you get so used to who you are that often you forget the very qualities that make up who you are as a person. Personally, the fact that I am black is quite boring. I have so many more interesting things about me; I speak two and a half languages (the half is really a third but half sounds better), I dance really well, I sing really badly (we’re not all Beyonces, unfortunately). I’m a great cook. I can still do the splits. I can scuba dive. I’m a doting mother, an amazing wife (ha ha!), a really good netballer and not a bad knitter.
Being black is not something I think about often (my heritage? yes, my skin colour? no), until someone else makes me think about being black, as though there is some special consideration needed for it. I am so used to being black, that I forget that my blackness might make people treat me differently. Not horribly or disrespectfully, but just differently.
When I was seven, a boy at school licked my arm. He could tell from my look what my verbal question would have been and so in response he said he wanted to know what black skin tasted like. By the way, I hold this episode in my memory as such a sweet and lovely thing that only children are capable of and don’t think of it negatively in any way. I was more disgusted with his spit on my arm, than why he had actually done it.
When I got home. I asked my mum if I was black and she confirmed I was, not before laughing her head off hysterically. She only stopped when she realised that a) I was deadly serious and b) that I genuinely did not have a clue about my skin colour.
Our next door neighbour at the time worked in a car factory and I remember my mum using him in her brilliant explanation (which until now, I never quite appreciated). She told me that Terry made cars and that all of them were identical. The wheels were the same, the engines were the same, the doors were the same, even the buttons for the radio were the same. But some of the cars Terry painted one colour and some he painted in another. (Terry clearly did everything in this car factory!)
And that was that. My seven year old self understood what my mum was saying with total clarity. So it baffles me now why people don’t get this as adults.
I had a business meeting the other day. I was early and so waited for the clients. The agent who was bringing them – the person who had made the introduction – called me on her car phone speaker system to say they were running late. She did not hear that I had answered the call and so she continued talking to the clients as though the phone was still ringing. I heard her ask the clients:
‘You do realise she is black, don’t you?’ They responded that they did. Almost a little bemused (I hope that’s what it was).
I cleared my throat as loud as I could and said “hello” so that they knew I was on the line. I don’t know whether they knew if I had heard or not. I was actually hoping they didn’t, as I didn’t want them to be embarrassed. Some people, eh? I still to this day don’t really get what the point of her question was. Why did she need to make them aware of my skin colour? So they could be prepared in case my blackness might, say, blind them? Rub off on them? What exactly?
I am a lucky black person. This is generally as bad as it gets for me (of what I know). I am not a black footballer who has monkey noises made at him, nor am I someone whose colour gets in the way of their successes.
But what I do come across is the very casual, silly issue of making an issue where there is none. And this, perhaps, is even more annoying than the outright, in-your-face racism. Here I’m talking about:
- Arriving at a party and within five minutes a Bob Marley song is being played. This has happened to me too many times to be a coincidence!!! I do find this hilarious and, in some ways, sweet. The hosts only want to make me feel comfortable, as though giving me a nice drink, some lovely nibbles and great conversation isn’t enough – I need some BM to feel more in my comfort zone! Sorry to disappoint, I like BM but his albums are probably bought and listened to by more white, middle class folks than black ones.
- People asking me where I am from and being disappointed that my answer is a nondescript, English home county. That is where I am from. If you would like to know where my parents are from the question is ‘Where are your parents from?’ I’m not being harsh here. If you heard me speak, I seriously sound like the Queen (probably a little less so than I think I do) and so there is no mistaking that my place of birth is anywhere other than the UK.
- Being the cultural reference point for everything and anything black. I do not know what African rice is called because I’ve never had it. I do not know who the president of Liberia is because I wouldn’t even find it on a map and have quite woeful knowledge of international politics. But I do know that Stevie Wonder is really called Stevland Morris because I love music, not because I am black.
- The assumption that I can sing, do a great West Indian accent or that I like reggae music. I can’t and I don’t.
Friends (because we have discussed this at length) have said to me that some people don’t mix with black people very often and so don’t know how to be when they are around us. “How to be?”!! Why does one need to know how to be? What is it about me that is so radically different? You should be more wary of me being an opinionated, bossy woman than me being black.
I must point out by the way that I am talking about the minority of people that I come across (thank goodness). And as that is the case, you might be wondering why I’m even mentioning it. I guess it’s just that most normal people make less of an impact because it’s always the crazies and the strange people who stand out more! You wouldn’t notice a street full of people dressed in jeans and a t-shirt but you would notice the one man amongst that group wearing a toga.
To conclude, because I’m even starting to bore myself on this subject, I am me and you are you. We are not colours, we are not types, we’re just human beings, every single one of us and that really is the crux of it, at its simplest.
And so I am really hoping that I won’t need to tell my son the story of the car factory when he’s a bit older because by that time colour will never be an issue. But I also I know I’m going to need a fair bit of hope.