Saturday, 18 September 2010

How I Feel About Being Black...

Allow me to waffle away for a little while. I'm currently in my new flat, shared with three of the nicest guys you could ever hope to meet, wasting the days away contentedly until Uni starts up again. Life is slow, idle, and just the way I like it.

But no, I'm here to talk about race. Namely mine, straight-up Black-African. Ethnic minorities are no small thing in the UK, yet 92% of everyone in the country is white. Unsurprising, certainly to be expected. This includes all the white minorities, be they European, American, what have you. I am part of a far less sizable 2% of the population who are black; and as I'm not from the Caribbean or West Africa (read: Nigeria), I am of an even smaller subsection of the population. To the point where I think my parents know all the Zimbabweans in the country by now.

The UK, when broad strokes are applied liberally, is socially structured via the infamous class-system, which divides the country's citizens into various social strata for easier classification (see how the word "classification" has "class" within it? This is social science at work). Essentially there's the working, middle and upper classes; working class being the folks behind the counter, middle class being the folks buying Happy Meals for their kids, and the upper class pulling into the drive-thru in their Bentleys and asking for medium-rare steaks. Generalisation, sure, but we all know where to place ourselves.

Myself, I fit neatly into the middle-class. I have attended both state and private schools, I have been educated abroad as well as in the UK, I abhor rap music and have a penchant for the oldies. My favourite film is Blade Runner. My favourite musician is Bob Dylan. If I had a white man's hair, it'd be long and scraggly. I took a pseudo-gap year in which I did nothing. I am studying the humanities. And yet I'm black.

Before y'all start kicking off about how it is who I am that defines me, let me be perfectly clear that I too think this should be the case, and in a perfect world I wouldn't feel like writing this because it'd just be a whole lot of fuss about nothing. But it does matter, as I am an anomaly because of something I can do nothing about. I find myself partially defined by something I go against most of my waking hours, and have no barometer upon which to measure my social activity. I am anxious, frustrated, with nary a sense of why or against whom. It's a matter of perception, not how I perceive myself, but how society has trained people to perceive me. I am unable to exude an accurate image of who I am through what I look like alone. Sure, once you get to know me perhaps it is hard to think of me in any other way, but to the uninitiated, I'm just another black guy walking down the street. Even I get uncomfortable around black people, but luckily that's OK, because I'm one of them.

Allow me to stereotype for a moment.

British society's present image of the average black youth currently revolves around mugshots and headlines. There are twice as many black people in prison than there are in university. The people we have to look up to, who have succeeded in life despite the colour of their skin are those in the music business (constantly glorifying the perks of violence, substances and the nonstop party climate that, in reality, merely results in further dismay) and the sporting world (where the only thing you need to do in life to succeed is to kick a ball rather well, or run faster than everyone else). I read something recently somewhere that sums up what I'm trying to say: "Young black people don't want to be middle class: they want to be rich." Now.

Obama has stepped in as the de-facto role model of the day, despite his dipping approval ratings and rather lacklustre spectacle once he actually became president (at least for us in the UK; then again, I have no idea who any black British politicians are). And yet it was naive to think that by having a black person somewhere attain the highest office in his country, that we would see a new era dawning for black people everywhere. Wishful thinking, perhaps.

As my rampant stereotyping and generalisation have hinted, black people are increasingly defined by what we see and hear about ourselves in the media. Young black Brits are rude boys and gangstas, whether they truly aspire to that image or not. Peer pressure discourages those who wish to become their own person, insisting on a status quo of posturing. There are not enough of us to decide what we want to do, so we merely distort the American image of the pushers and the pimps to our own ends, substitute the guns for knives, and let it all kick off. For just about 2% of the population, we certainly find ourselves in a hefty amount of mugshots. If Raoul Moat had been a nineteen year old black boy from North London, no-one would have batted an eye. You walk the streets in the outskirts of the City and count the shrines to murdered relatives, friends, gang members. A lot of trouble for not-a-lot of people.

And so here I stand. No black people make the music I like to listen to. No black actors portray people like myself. No black people speak like I do. I have no black friends apart from relatives and those I knew in Zimbabwe. I can't run, I can't rap, I can't dance. Yet I get stop-searched more than probably necessary, people look uncomfortable if I am walking near them at night, my sense of humour is increasingly defined by my ethnicity, and I find myself venting in words. I don't like how I sweat more than my friends, how I can't grow a proper beard, how my hair is so monotonous, how I could never reasonably portray any president except Obama in a hit Hollywood movie.

I am physically black, sociologically white, and unable to reconcile these hemispheres. I am involuntarily black middle-class.

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