“I, too, am Oxford” is a project based on the “I, too, am Harvard” initiative aimed at raising awareness of the sense of “other” that students at the university often feel and the micro-aggressions that they often suffer.
While looking through the pictures on those pages, I realised that even in the last year, I too have been subject of similar strange and thoughtless micro-aggressive and macro-aggressive comments which perpetuate stereotypes of my particular ethnic background(s). Last year this time, I decided to catalogue some of the comments which usually go over my head, but which really show that society still has a long way to go before we achieve full social equality and stop stereotyping, objectifying and exoticising non-white people.
Often, I just meekly accepted the stereotype or wasn’t quick-minded enough to give a witty response, but I have noted in brackets what I probably should have said in hindsight (WIWTS = what I wanted to say).
So without further ado, here is my list of noteable comments from 2014:
Him: Whats’s your family name?
Him: But you’re black, why do you have a Scottish name?
Me: My paternal great-grandfather was Scottish.
(WIWTS: It’s a slave-name. All 4 of my grandparents have Scottish names: “McLean”, “Powell”, “Donaldson” and “Johnson”. Scotland was an integral part of ruling elite in the British Empire. Surnames weren’t universal, even in Britain, until the 17th century, so some of my ancestors who were slaves took the names of their slave masters, the vast majority of whom were Scottish and Irish. My McLean surname was acquired through blood, but the other 3 surnames of my grandparents were likely acquired through such a process of slave-name acquisition).
Work colleague: Do you know James? He’s black.
Me: Is he really?
(WIWTS: This is the 21st century and we’re in the United Kingdom. Why did you feel it was necessary to point out his skin colour to me?).
Him: Do you speak Jamaican?
Me: Umm, yeah a little, but it’s more of an accent than a language.
(WIWTS: They speak English in Jamaica, there is no language called “Jamaican”, but there are three main levels of dialect called the acrolect, mesolect and basilect. The acrolect is just standard English with a slight accent, the basilect is a full-blown English-based creole spoken in rural areas with influences from French, Spanish, Portuguese, Hindi, Arawak and West African diasporic substrate languages such Twi, Igbo and Yoruba. The mesolect is in-between the two. Since I was born in England, I struggle to speak the basilect even though I understand most of it due to speaking with my grandparents. However, I can get by in the mesolect).
Random black guy on streets of Hastings: You’re such a bounty* with your posh accent and your punk-ass round glasses.
Me: *look of death*
(WIWTS: So education makes a black person white inside? Is that really the case? So let me take your reasoning to another extreme: a working-class or uneducated white person is actually “black” inside? Why do you feel the need to define anything positive as ‘white’ and anything negative as ‘black’?)
* For my North American audience, a “Bounty” (or “coconut”) is the British slang equivalent of the American slur “Oreo”, and is a chocolate-covered coconut bar similar to Hershey’s Mounds.
A black guy on a first (and only) date: You’re a black man who doesn’t believe in God? Pffff!
Me: Nope, *nervous laugh*
(WIWTS: My skin colour doesn’t have any bearing on the truth or falsehood of God’s existence. In any case, Protestant Christianity is a European version of Christianity imposed on Africa, the Caribbean and other members of the African diaspora by Western European colonialists, so if anything, I should be asking you why you’re not a member of the ancient Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church).
A relative: You’re a vegetarian? But you’re black. We black people love our chicken.
Me: Yeah, *nervous laugh*
(WIWTS: Ever heard of Rastafarians? You know, the ones that have dreadlocks and eat VEGAN “ital” food, just like OUR UNCLE who’s standing over there not eating meat?)
Him: I don’t see you as black.
Me: Huh, what do you see me as then?
Him: well, err, I didn’t mean, umm, yeah, just like, you’re just you know, just normal.
Me: *look of death*
Interviewer: I didn’t realise you were black when you were on the phone
Me: *Nervous laugh*
(WIWTS: Oh my god, what century do you live in? And you could see my skin during that call? I had no idea it was it a video phone call! I was totally naked in my room during that call! How embarrassing!)
You speak Japanese?! Why didn’t you learn an African language?
Me: *Stare at him in shock* Umm… because I like culture and linguistics in general.
(WIWTS: First of all, I lived in Japan for several years. Secondly, I’m not African. Thirdly, I may not speak an African language, but I am interested in all languages and although I don’t speak it well, I have actually studied Swahili in detail during my undergraduate university course in Linguistics. Lastly, why the hell should I have to speak an African language just because of my skin colour?).
Online dating guy: Where are you from?
Me: South London
Him: No I mean your origins
Me: Yeah, I’m from Lewis ham
Him: No, I mean your ancestry.
Me: Oh, Jamaica
(WIWTS: What does it matter? I’ve been to Jamaica once on holiday and I’ve never been to Africa. What relevance is that to you? My birth mother was born in Walthamstow, East London, my father in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica. My maternal grandfather is half Indian and half Bajan with Arawak (native Caribbean) blood, and the mitochondrial DNA of my maternal line was recently found to be Japanese which is probably why I have an unpronounced epicanthic fold. My paternal line through y-chromosome DNA is Scottish, which stems from my paternal great grandfather who was a Scot. My step-mother is half-Jamaican and half-Filipino. I call myself “English” because I was born and raised here, so don’t make assumptions about my origins just because I’m not white).
Internet dating guy: I luv blakk guys, ethnics r so exotic
Me: *ignore and block*
(WIWTS: Everyone is part of an ethnic group, including ethnically English people. So surely if you like “ethnic guys”, you like all guys. Stop objectifying me with your post-colonial exoticism).
Online dating guy: Fucking n***** pretending to be a Japanese samurai. Go back to fucking Africa, catch AIDS and die.
Internet dating guy: Do you have a big black #%!?
Me: A “hello” would have been nice.
(WIWTS: Yes my #%!? is absolutely enormous, but you won’t be getting any of it any time soon you racist, post-colonial exoticist arsehole)
Norwegian online guy: Hi im man from oslo… are looking for african friends… are u a ghanian
Me: No, I’m not Ghanaian, I’m English with mixed Caribbean ancestry.
Him: wow… sorry for misunderstanding… one pic u look so much of a ghanian… i have many black friends but not even one gay… lol
Him: i was in ghana last year in cape coast and learnt abt the slavery and the transportation to different parts of the world
Me: good for you
Him: i had ghanian boyfriend b4 but stopped long time ago bcos of cheating
Me: that’s a shame.
Him: r u here for visit or more permanent?
Me: as I said, I’m English.
Him: hehehe… ok… what’s ur name?
Me: I’m Ste.
Him: is that twi language? its pronounced like #haw are u# in ghanian twi
Me: are you serious?
Now, you have to be careful when you talk about race issues as people often misunderstand. Whenever I talk about what I’ve experienced as a black person, and put it down to “white defaultism” people often think I’m criticising them personally as a white person or saying that “all white people are like this or that”. The recent #blacklivesmatter hashtag was greeted with #whitelivesmattertoo as if saying that black loves matter was people of colour taking a pop at white people. Some people have even been accused of hating white people simply because they don’t want to be oppressed because of their darker skin colour. This is like those who say “but what about Straight Pride?” or how an LGBTQ person is suddenly said to ‘hate’ straight/cis people when they want to raise awareness of how their sexuality affects the way they are treated. This is simply not the case.
Wanting the same social, civil and legal rights as another group doesn’t mean that you hate them or want to strip them of the rights that they already have. Suffragettes who wanted the vote didn’t hate men or want to take the vote from men, Oludah Equiano who campaigned for the end of slavery didn’t hate white people or want to enslave them, Sylvia Rivera who had a huge part to play in Stonewall didn’t hate straight or cis people.
Admittedly, sometimes the fight for rights can get hateful, but you need to remember that people are going through hell every day of their lives and it’s not surprising that people are angry. If you suffer seemingly unimportant and harmless comments everyday, the harm that can be done is enormous. It’s not helpful to derail conversations about the rights of underprivileged groups, disagree with their experiences or generally try to explain away everything they experience as an “over-reaction”, especially if you’ve never experienced what they have.
A recent cartoon featuring a trans person debating which bathroom to use was accused of labelling all men as violent rapists for portraying a genuine fear that many trans people fear every day of their life. For daring to comment on the picture to explain that it wasn’t saying all men were rapists, I was called an “SJW twat”. Such people fail to see the bigger picture, only seeing things from their own limited perspective. Because they may never have experienced racism or sexism or homophobia or transphobia first hand, they tacitly deny its existence.
I had a Facebook friend say that it’s not about black vs. white. His argument was that he is white and he is also is a victim of the system because of his social class and education. With this latter point I totally agreed, but I also added the caveat that you are not less privileged because of being white. You actually enjoy certain privileges from your light skin colour, your heterosexuality and your male cis-genderness but on the other hand, you are denied certain social privileges from your lower social class and lack education. The reason you are a victim of the system is not because you are white, so this doesn’t negate the fact that racism still exists. It doesn’t make racism more serious than class inequality, but it does mean that we should work together to end it, rather than trying to engage in oneupmanship or self-flagellation.
This complex interweaving set of privileges and lack thereof is called “intersectionality”. The blogger DB Devon explained it nicely: “there can be instances where a person is oppressed in one way, but has freedoms in others”. Intersectionality is illustrated in this diagram.
Another caveat is that, although white defaultism is the main reason for many of the comments I have received, it’s not just white people who fall victim to it. The old question “can black people be racist?” is firmly answered in the affirmative according to my ‘research’. The word “racism” is by definition institutionalised prejudice and since there is no institutionalised prejudice against white people, any individual attacks on white people by people of colour is more accurately termed “racial prejudice”. Again, it doesn’t mean “racial prejudice” is any better than “racism” or any less serious or excusable in ANY way, it’s just a fact that “racism” is by definition institutionalised and that term used in an academic sense is not accurate for the kind of racial prejudice that an individual Person of Colour may commit against a white person. Again, I repeat, just because some people may prefer to be semantically strict and use the term “racism” in a very specific way, doesn’t mean that they think it’s ok to attack white people.
Strangely though, it is possible for black people to be racist (even in the strict academic sense) to other black people or people of colour who may fall victim to the institutionalised nature of racism. Many of the examples below are from non-white people and show that we too often feel the need to lean on damaging stereotypes in order to truly be viewed as or classed as part of our ethnicity. We often glorify ‘white’ cultural norms and subconsciously view our own history and culture as subordinate (a view which is born more of ignorance than cultural inferiority).
The idea of white defaultism is that white people can be absolutely whatever they want as individuals, but non-white people have to like certain music, speak certain languages, walk or talk a certain way, have certain names, believe in certain religions, eat certain foods, have a certain level of education, love certain people or other traits that severely limit our personal development. We are not seen and we do not see ourselves as individuals, but as walking stereotypes. If we go against those stereotypes in any way, it is a matter of abject surprise that we could “break away” from the perceived limitations of our ethnic background. Many of the comments I received throughout 2014 were based on these assumptions.
The issues are many and complex and often cause vicious arguments from people who claim to be “colour-blind”, who believe that pretending that racism doesn’t exist will automatically eliminate it. These people mean well, but I personally believe that it can be a way of avoiding the issues and detracts from the experience of those who have suffered it.