“Without truthful self-reflection, racial equality eludes us”
By Lauren Williams
“When Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, I didn’t go to work for the next three days. I knew that my boss would understand, and I took the time to mourn and process my thoughts. As an editor at Essence, the only magazine for black women in the US, I’d spent months covering the election – commissioning analyses and opinion editorials, appearing on cable news segments, speaking on political panels, urging our readers to head to the polls. It was exhaustive and exhausting.
There were many moments in the months leading up to the Presidential election in which I’d watched the humanity of black people, Mexicans, refugees and other immigrants be questioned and attacked. It was a direct backlash against eight years of a black president whose very existence challenged more than 400 years of institutionalised racism informed by white supremacy. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but still, I couldn’t believe what was happening.
Perhaps one of the most jarring experiences came when I found out that a dear friend I’d known for 17 years had decided that bigotry, racism, homophobia and xenophobia weren’t deal-breakers when it came to Presidential candidates. Realising that a woman I’d considered an ally since we were teenagers had voted for Trump shook me, and amplified what I already knew to be true: that honest conversations about race are few and far between. How could I, a staunch feminist and black-folk enthusiast, be completely in the dark about a close friend’s political leanings? When I confronted her, explaining how dangerous her vote would be for millions of people, our conversation crumbled within a few exchanges. Like so many other people in this country, she wasn’t up for the painful and arduous task of a self-reckoning about America’s history, rejecting a teachable moment about race in favour of a safer denial of this country’s ‘original sin’ and its far-reaching effects.
Back in December 2014, we were working on Essence’s ‘Black Lives Matter’ issue. We took the temperature of the political climate around us and decided, as a brand, to dedicate an entire issue to the movement and have the difficult conversations about matters that were pressing to us and to our audience. When we were developing the issue, our offices were located across from Rockefeller Center. For days, we’d seen and heard New Yorkers walking towards the Rockefeller Christmas tree to protest against the extrajudicial killings of black men, women and children by police. I’d taken part in several protests myself, interviewing marchers and bearing witness to the desperation, anger and power that informed their resistance. Those moments transformed me. I knew that my life’s work had to involve promoting the visibility of these stories and forcing my country to go through the self-reckoning it eschews generation after generation.
I became a journalist because I wanted to tell people’s stories. As my career progressed, I became obsessed with giving a platform to those without a voice, and educating the majority on the entire worlds that exist alongside them. Learning, working and living in mainstream spaces gave birth to my desire to do more for the people who look like me. It was no longer enough to be the black girl climbing up the editorial masthead, the one who had made it; heralding disenfranchised communities became paramount. I wanted the world to see us all. Of founding Ebony magazine in 1945, John H Johnson said he wanted to give black people ‘a new sense of somebody-ness’. And I carry those words with me every day.
But it’s not enough that black media tells black stories; the burden is not on us to right the wrongs of America’s slavery legacy. White Americans, and all white people, have to have honest conversations, in which they acknowledge the societal gains from which they have benefited at the expense of African-Americans. Until white people – even those who consider themselves allies to people of colour – are willing to sacrifice the privileges afforded to them by a centuries-old racist hierarchy, ‘freedom and justice for all’ will continue to be a lived experience for some, and an empty ideology for others.”
“My race is not ugly”
By Sagal Mohammed
“I was 14 when it first happened. A black woman started chatting to me at the bus stop, and said I reminded her of her niece. When she asked where I was from, I replied, ‘Somalia’.
She seemed shocked. ‘Really? Are both your parents Somali?’ I nodded. That’s when she met my gaze and said, ‘You’re very pretty… for a Somali girl.’ My body bristled. It was as if I was an exception to an ugly curse. I didn’t know how to respond, so I forced a smile and changed the subject.
That ‘compliment’ is one I’ve received all my life. It’s usually followed by, ‘Are you sure you’re not mixed?’ or, ‘You must have some white or Asian in you.’ I’d heard other stereotypes about Somalis – ‘pirates’, ‘big foreheads’, ‘malnourished’ – because at my school, insults regarding ethnicity were considered banter. But hearing an older woman say I was ‘pretty for a Somali girl’ made me realise that it wasn’t just puerile mockery. The underlying assumption is that Somali women are unattractive, and that if you are deemed ‘appealing’, you’re the exception. It’s an insult to a whole nation of people.
I grew up in south London, where most of my classmates were Caribbean or from other African countries, but I was the only Somali in my year. One boy wrote, ‘You’re the prettiest Somali girl I’ve ever seen’ in my yearbook, while someone else, explaining the definition of ‘oxymoron’, declared, ‘It’s like saying “attractive Somali”.’ I remember shrinking into my chair with embarrassment. In 2015, working in a bar with black colleagues, I was singled out because my skin wasn’t as dark as theirs: ‘You’re not black, you’re Somali.’ It stung to have my identity challenged but now, at 22, I’ve learnt not to mute my feelings. ‘What makes you think Somalis are unattractive?’ I’ll say, before asking them not to disrespect my ethnicity.
Sometimes their assumptions are to do with colourism – prejudice against people with a dark skintone. Sometimes it’s the ignorant and archaic view of light skin being superior to dark which, sadly, is the reason why skin-bleaching products, an industry worth $10billion, are so popular in the black beauty market. Whatever the reason, it highlights the same problem – that many still judge beauty based on race and ethnicity.
I’ve never felt ashamed of my background. In fact, I’m proud to be Somali. Calling one race more beautiful than another is no different, or less damaging, than any other manifestation of racism – and it has to stop. That’s why we need a more diverse representation of beauty
in the media and, most importantly, to call people out. Most of the time, they’re ignorant, not malicious. But by speaking up, it will permeate. Sadly, my teenage sister is subjected to the same racist comments, but unlike me at her age, she knows how to respond. She says, ‘I’m not pretty for a Somali girl. I’m just pretty.’”
“Stop seeing terror when you look at me”
By Amna Saleem
“Every morning at 7.17am, my alarm blares the instrumental music from Arab Strap’s New Birds. I fumble for my phone, open Twitter and check the news. Usually, it’s a garbled statement from Trump, but recently I’ve seen more Tweets calling for retribution against people like me.
I’m a young British Muslim woman who grew up just outside Glasgow with Pakistani parents, and to some people, my humanity is questionable. This year, I’ve received Tweets fuelled with racial hatred: ‘You are anti-British scum’; ‘Muslims are evil’; ‘Fuck off back to Muslim-land, I hope you get raped’. They see me through terrorist-tinted glasses when, really, my life revolves around the same memes and Netflix binges as most millennials. The biggest risk I pose? Accidentally spoiling the end of Riverdale.
That said, there were many times growing up when I wanted to be free from the burden of my brown skin and religious background. The time my dad briefed us on addressing authority figures, so we could protect ourselves. The time I wasn’t invited to Holly’s* birthday because her parents hated ‘P***s’. The time I was called a ‘brown bitch’ after accidentally breaking a neighbour’s window. Back then, being white seemed like a kinder life, and I wanted to hide everything that was ‘other’ about me.
But as I got older, I learnt to embrace my Pakistani and Glaswegian roots. When I unapologetically started to be myself, I realised that most people are decent, or at least well meaning. I had allowed the brash minority to have a louder voice than they deserved, and began to find it more amusing and less upsetting that my existence was so controversial for anyone small of mind.
Recently, I went to two weddings on the same day: a classic church service, followed by a traditional South Asian ceremony. As I stepped out of my A-line dress and into a deep green lengha, I thought about how naive I once was to think I had to ‘pick’ a side. My two worlds aren’t always easy to navigate – once I forgot the Punjabi word for spoon and I’ll never forget the hurt etched across my dad’s face. But as I swapped my pearls for heavy gold earrings for the evening wedding, I revelled in the contrasts of my life and how beautiful they are.
I love that my dad always gets the barbecue out, in whatever passes for a Scottish summer, to cook kebabs for the neighbourhood. And if my ma tells me off in English but slips into Punjabi, I know to make a quick escape. I’m lucky to have a friend who is an Ivy League-educated Pakistani writer, and another is a white whip-smart Scottish doctor who loves hill climbing. Panjabi MC sits next to Britney Spears on my Spotify playlist, and my pop-culture knowledge is lifted from every corner of my Scottish-South-Asian existence, making me a pretty good addition to any pub quiz team.
If being branded as the ‘enemy’ to an ignorant few is the price I have to pay for a life full of colour and love, then so be it. To only consider serving one culture is unthinkable, and I really wouldn’t have myself any other way. My duality makes me whole.
“We should surround ourselves with diversity”
By Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff
“How many black people do you think the average white person in the UK knows? And I mean knows. I’m a mixed-race black Caribbean and white woman living in London – one of the world’s most multicultural cities – yet I’m the only black friend many of my white friends have. I shouldn’t be frustrated by that, considering a poll found that 94% of white people in the UK have very few, if any, ethnic-minority friends. But I am, because surely this shouldn’t be the norm?
At school, I went through awkward racial phases, including describing myself as ‘mixed-race’ and insisting I wasn’t simply black. In my final year, I tried to reclaim my blackness and, as I do now, started using the descriptors intermittently. But my friends had recorded me – all high-pitched and frustrated – saying I wasn’t black, and would play it back to me whenever I said otherwise. To them, my accent and cello-playing ruled out the realities of my racial heritage. For my 18th birthday, they even bought me a satire book called Stuff White People Like – a checklist of questions that apparently proved my ‘whiteness’. They excitedly asked me: ‘Do you love a Starbucks?’ and ‘Do you only eat unseasoned chicken?’ and, in that moment, I realised that, to them, I was the ultimate ‘Oreo’. I may have been black-ish on the outside, but I was white and sugary-sweet on the inside. I tried so hard to be accepted that they found it bizarre when I fell into stereotypes associated with blackness.
In recent years, I’ve sought out more diverse friends. Fijian, Pakistani, South American and Nigerian heritages are all represented and embraced. This is, in part, thanks to living in London and Scotland, but also from working at gal-dem, an online magazine written and run by women of colour. While I don’t think it’s just down to people of colour to raise awareness, I do think my presence in my white friends’ lives has helped them to be more ‘woke’. For example, one of my closest friends – who comes from a Daily Mail-reading family – used to think that if a ‘foreigner’ committed a crime, they should be ‘sent back to where they came from’. When I pointed out that this would apply to one of our closest friends at the time, who was Asian, her views started to change.
So, while I might not be able to educate the guy who aggressively called me and my friends ‘d**kies’ in the street recently, I’d argue it’s important that we all have a wider, more diverse spectrum of friends, to help dissolve any preconceptions when it comes to minority groups. It can’t be a bad thing to actively try to empathise, engage and befriend people who don’t look, talk or sound like you do. That’s what society should look like, after all. I know it can work – these days my friends stick up for me, go out of their way to educate themselves and are open to examining some of their privileges.”
*Name has been changed
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