Contemplating Blackness

I don’t just want this to be a sob story about how hard it has been to live as a black female.

I want to give you a taste of how my existence in relation to race changes and develops from a hindsight perspective, knowing what I know now from the bible, academia and from friends who have inspired me to celebrate God’s design. Whilst we are living through what many are calling a revolution, I want to talk about the ongoing revolution of thought occurring in my mind right now; I want to explain in uncomfortable detail how I became more than okay with being black, but grateful for the way that God has made me. This was and still is process, with peaks and pitfalls (really toxic pitfalls). Of course, I refer to sources I have now engaged with to help me make sense of my life, but at the time I didn’t fully understand everything as I began to acknowledge my race from the age of about 4. If I had to summarise this experience into phases, they would be phases of difference, inferiority, escape & conformity, acceptance & withdrawal, defiance & performance, and true becoming. I also want to round off by discussing what I think blackness will look like following this movement, and how dynamics will shift from my perspective.

Difference (4-7 years old)

From the age of 4, I began to realise I was darker than the other kids, but it didn’t really matter. I grew up in a predominantly white space both neighbourhood-wise and school-wise, which didn’t bother me at all because as far as I was concerned, they treated me like every other student, so I just thought that they either didn’t notice that I was darker or didn’t care. I think my awareness deepened through my parents. I’d come home from school and whilst “the talk” for other kids would be about crushes, dealing with bullies etc., our talk was my mom telling me to keep focussed in school and remember who I was – that I was different from the other kids and that I couldn’t afford to mess around in class ever because I didn’t have the same safety net as they did. Even then, I didn’t equate that to race but to being working class until more black people started to move to my town and had similar advice from their parents. What I didn’t know was that my mom was speaking from her disgusting experiences of racism as a black immigrant woman living in the UK – ones so mortifying that she only started speaking about them when I became an adult.

Inferiority (7-12 years old)

Ah, toxic pitfall number one.

Whilst one of the best things happened to me at this stage, a lot of my poor social skills stemmed from this part of my life and they took a lot of time with God and in the Word to get over them. Racial slurs started in primary school. We were discouraged from speaking other languages because they made the other students feel uncomfortable. From there, I started to see that being different wasn’t just a neutral fact – it made me a spectacle, which a child who didn’t do well socially struggled with. The slurs weren’t too hurtful, but I knew that the intent was supposed to be. This alongside advice to just focus in school and remember who I was made it feel impossible to connect with the others. Who even was I anyways? I did make lovely friends in those first few years of primary school, but I never knew what to say to them and didn’t know how far was classed as forgetting who I was and ‘clowning around’ in school. My first experience of black comraderie was when I met Mona (my best friend since the age of 7), we hated each other initially, but quickly put the dislike aside and formed a friendship to survive because even at 7 years old we could see it – we could understand that we were different. It was the one friendship in my life for the next 5 years where there was no such thing as too close. She was like me, and me her. I had white friends, but I didn’t know how to open up to them as much I wanted to.

Denial & Conformity (13-16 years old)

Toxic pitfall number two (often referred to as the ‘coconut’ mentality.)

You could count the black people in the school during my 7 years there and we knew them all to some extent (22 out of over 1000 students, including mixed heritage students). Considering the racial breakup of the town, this wasn’t shocking or such a scandalous thing anyways. The two black girls became four, but we didn’t actually stick together as tightly, and I started to prioritise white approval above keeping that circle tight – something I regret to be honest because those girls had my back no matter what. But I felt desperate to break out of my shell by year 9 and felt that I needed to forfeit my blackness to do that. And I would be lying if I said I didn’t know what I was doing. I went against my Mom’s age old advice and got too close. It also made me feel alienated from black spaces because they couldn’t relate to me, so I was referred to as a ‘coconut’ – a derogatory term for someone who is visibly black but internally ‘white’ (now understood more kindly as an alternative black person). Whilst I loved the people I was friends with and they did nothing to make me feel I didn’t belong, others made me feel like I didn’t look a part of their circle, so I started using relaxers (chemical hair straightening kits) and weaves, so I could be even just a little like them. I think I was frustrated with the fact that my best friend was so pretty but she was only “pretty for a black girl”, or that I was really trying with my own appearance but I felt invisible. At the same time as feeling unseen I felt like a circus act because we never went unnoticed and were always expected to be the funny, loud and rather eccentric ones. However, I didn’t think about race so much in my day to day life unless someone said a racial slur to me.

I wanted to break out of my shell from year 9 and felt I needed to forfeit my blackness to do that. But what I then thought was forfeiting blackness, was actually forging what I thought was whiteness. I was not and am not a white person. I have no understanding of the experience of being white, but I thought that all I had to do was try to look like my friends and act like everything I wasn’t. I started to do what my mum warned me of all those years ago and fooled around in school. It seeped into other aspects of my life like the people I was attracted to (only white guys, up until university). Understanding that through the lens of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks now, I can see it was a psychological want – my preference in friends and in guys was a result of a deeper pursuit of approval from those I’d grown up to see as above me. I hated my nose, my hair length and different things that made me not like them. It’s kind of sad, because looking back I don’t feel like my friends at the time ever knew me at all. So technically speaking, in the chase for friends my inferiority complex left me with no real friends at all.

Acceptance & Withdrawal

In sixth form, I was confronted with concepts I had never encountered before such as privilege. On the last English Language AS lesson of the year, we did a social experiment called the privilege walk and had to step forwards or backwards in response to a series of statements. And I found myself and Mona stepping so far back that we were touching the wall and couldn’t step further back for the last 7 statements or else we’d be in a different room. That for me was crushing – I felt like not only was I pushed to the edge as a black female, but I was being pushed out of the room and didn’t belong in that space. Mona and I couldn’t stop talking about it on the way home that day. I was tired of trying to keep up this act.

Out of all the unexpected things to happen to me, I became a Christian. Before becoming a Christian, I’d always assumed that white Christians were somewhat racist because I knew no white Christians, and all I could see from media outlets were bible-bashers pushing a colonial Christianity and it sickened me. I also equated blackness to going to church with your parents, but I never had that true relationship with Jesus at the time and quite frankly didn’t want it. And yet, when I eventually did feel the very real and very raw love of God, I still had so far to go and was still so insecure. I struggled from that point on to socialise. I was a Christian and the Christian life is not particularly what your classmates want to hear about during their lunch break, and I’d spent my whole secondary experience trying to break the race barrier by conforming to what I thought was their standards. So, I gave up trying to appease them. Mona was there, but we took some different subjects and had some different scheduled breaks – It was tough stuff. At this point, I had accepted myself as a black woman, but I hadn’t embraced myself as one. But my life felt so empty because I didn’t feel proud of anything and didn’t have any desire to identify with anything.

Defiance & Performance

Three is the magic number (unless we’re talking about toxic identity pitfalls, that is.)

The emptiness I felt in sixth form led me to do what I had done in secondary school, but in reverse. I started to defy the standards I once chased and started to forge blackness to be some sort of performance; I started engaging with black entertainment and thinking that this was all there was to it, not acknowledging how TV as whole can be sensationalised or overdone to serve its purpose. At this point however, I found that my race could not offer me stable and fixed identity because my blackness was always being ditched, reviewed, or merely tolerated at some point. In Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks (this is my favourite of his books because I’m not keen on his ideas of violence), he speaks of how the black man understands himself and how colonialism has stopped the black man to see him independently from the white man. I started to construct a false blackness because I thought that blackness had to be understood in relation to/ as opposed to whiteness, instead of asking God what my blackness should look like. People might read this and think “what’s wrong with this? Why can’t you just enjoy your blackness outside of God?” – when I became a Christian, it didn’t just become a part of my identity, but it directed my identity. I thought that black performance was true blackness for a while even after becoming Christian but God had me check my heart and realise that I was trying to be black when being black wasn’t something I had to actively perform, but a passive state of being grateful for the racial and cultural nature of my existence.

True Becoming 

The biggest epiphany I received in relation to my identity struggle was the realisation that I didn’t need to avoid white circles to affirm my blackness, which is an unhealthy mindset that a lot of people are still trying to get out of or are happily perched within due to bad experiences in white spaces. When I got to university and God led me to the Christian Union, Pensa Warwick and Elim Church in Coventry, it was the first time that I had ever been in spaces that weren’t predominantly white or predominantly black. They had people from all over the globe. I think I was fascinated by the different cultures and my preference in terms of friends and love interests consequently expanded to the point where race no longer dictated my social life and I surrounded by people that just felt right to have around. This has helped me to really be real and raw with my friends and cultivate meaningful friendships where I didn’t feel like there was such thing as too close anymore; I could go all in and be a good friend and relate to them. For the first time ever too, I got to know what white Christians were truly like, quickly realising that they weren’t what I saw on TV. My friends, both Christian and non-Christian, have been amazing at challenging my racialised self-hatred and have encouraged me to unlearn beliefs about my blackness, which has been quite a freeing experience. If I had to mention one person, it would be my housemate Precious, who took time to discuss race with me at the dinner table and on the way to lectures etc. Whilst my performative blackness was done away with quite quickly, more personal aspects of my blackness like my features still kept me insecure, but this process of being challenged and challenging led me to love my nose and my hair and my complexion (even where I experience hyperpigmentation.)

Another thing I learned through my relationship with God is that I am not in bondage to any man and I shouldn’t fear or bow down before any other human being – I don’t feel the need to appease either white or black people to affirm my blackness now. One thing that this did for me was give me the confidence to do things that I was told weren’t ‘black’ things to do. I’ve wanted to go vegan and dress more ethically for about 3 years due to health reasons and because I started to cultivate a love and appreciation for God’s creation, so I wanted to honour it with a sustainable diet and wardrobe but was afraid because of the standards forced on black people by black performativity to be meat-lovers, and how the ‘Sunday’s best’ mentality created by slavery reinforced the need for a flashy wardrobe. I read into the idea of Sunday’s best and it’s colonial origins and decided that I would defy this to please God, even if it meant I didn’t have the most expensive clothes or because I am not made inferior by that. And getting to this point in my journey, where I’m still identifying and dissolving false depictions of blackness in myself, I can now say I am black because I was born to two black parents and I will die black regardless of whatever regime of blackness someone tries to impose on me. This completely shifted my self-image and led me to discover who God designed me to be, leading me to start Pepper and love writing about how He changed my life.

By learning more about God’s character and grand plan, I found that I had a place in the kingdom of God, where there were people from every nation, tribe and language. My identity went from being an ever-changing variable to being an eternally fixed one. I re-centred my existence on Christ without having to forfeit my race. However, I found that people kept saying I couldn’t fully explore my blackness because I’m a Christian. But what is that even supposed to mean? Did I become a Christian because I wanted to be white or did I become a Christian because Jesus transformed my life? A lot of people assume I was raised in church so I automatically have always been one. But if you really ever knew me, you’d know that I defied Christianity for years, and made a choice to follow it when presented with new information from sources outside of my church and upon having my own very real experience. How can God be anti-black if he’s responsible for the very existence of black people? And how can my blackness mean anti-whiteness when I answer to God, who is also responsible for their existence? It wasn’t until I started mixing with my current social circles that I really reflected on what God wants His holy city to look like.

The Future of Blackness

Whilst currently, there is this unhealthy dichotomisation of blackness and alternative blackness in the black community, whereby you either fit the black characterisations or aren’t black, I know that in the face of recent events, this fixed criteria for blackness will have to die. I think that as blackness starts to be sifted out of the context of colonialism, the concept of one blackness will be replaced by a multiplicity of stories, helping us to understand what it means to be black for the individual, because I don’t believe that humanity’s collective understanding of race will ever be the same past this point. Escaping blackness cannot remain and neither can forged blackness. I think blackness will become more complex and there will no longer be such a thing as black and non-black hobbies, vernacular, belief systems and the like; I’m so excited for it because I’m excited for the normalisation of black freedom of being (being in the sense of the right to living itself, but being in the sense of opportunity to discover oneself outside of the clutches of colonialism.) To summarise, the current understanding of what it means to be black will be but a distant memory.

-Pepper

2 Comments

  1. Isobel Necessary

    Thank you so much for sharing this and being so open about your experience, especially in regards to faith.
    Going to school as a white girl in a very white area I don’t remember ever having a conversation about blackness, and I’m hopeful that this will change and there will be more opportunities (especially for children and young people) to talk about the role race plays in identity in a way which is inclusive and celebratory and doesn’t rely on following or breaking stereotypes. I’m hopeful for that different future too!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Pepper

      Thank you so much for taking time to read about my experiences! I’m really glad that I could also talk about how my faith has shaped my understanding of race too and I hope for a more inclusive space in black circles too!❤️

      Like

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