Colourism: An Interracial Perspective – Series 5/5

Article written by Jonathon Rhule

What’s Next? Partisan Politics, Racial Limbo, Code-Switching and a Promising Future. 

“If you had to pick, would you say you’re black or white?”

“Um… I don’t really know, to be honest, I couldn’t decide.”

“Yeah yeah yeah I get, but like if someoneput a gun to your head and was like: “choose”, what would you be?”

As a young brown man, this conversation was a common one growing up. If this interrogation didn’t come from someone else, it came from within, questioning where my allegiances indeed lied. If you asked 18yr old Jonnie this question, he would probably say, he was white. He would argue that the majority of his friends were white, his mannerisms were entirely white, and he had never really faced discrimination nor struggle. Jumping somewhat forward, if you would have asked me a year ago that very same question I would’ve wholeheartedly said black. After spending a summer in America and enduring racial abuse in Edinburgh, I believed that anything on the spectrum of my mix that wasn’t white is black. This binary, wholly flawed perspective allowed me to process the abuse I faced and push forward with my life and bathe in beautiful consequences such as the first all BAME student composed Warwick Arts Centre Show, and BAME Creatives. I must admit, I was at peace with this fallacy yet this tranquillity was somewhat disturbed by friends and fellow members of black community stating boldly and clearly, “You’re not black”. My soul lay for some time after this in racial limbo; unwanted by both sides. Such turmoil led me to pose the question within my first article as to whether my voice is invalidated. That feeling of invalidation has grown, but my turmoil quelled. How can this be you ask? Well, it’s complicated. 

In my last article, I made a point of stating that black is more than just a colour, it’s a people. This unparalleled bond within a race is as a result of history’s atrocities and gives the black community supposed union. This grouping, however, can be deeply harmful. Traits, characteristics and ideas become tied to the race. Bigoted notions, such as laziness, sexual deviance and danger obviously and unfortunately remain; however, other less obvious ones have an impact also. Growing up in South London and going to private school, we were taught to speak correctly, punished when crudely spoken and even reprimanded for not appropriately leaving our cutlery at the end of a meal. We were trained to be polite, but somewhere in Afro-British history, these traits have been tied to class and whiteness. Being white and upper class brings to mind eloquence, not slang, but black and/or working class is the opposite. As I mentioned in a previous article, my mum’s friends were surprised at my dad’s eloquence because of the colour of his skin, despite knowing he is a structural engineer- a well-regarded vocation. This surprise is a subliminal pre-conscious bias many people may have without realising. I must admit, I would be more surprised to hear a white boy speaking in colloquialisms like he’s a “roadman” than a black boy from a similar area doing the same. I feel as though many, even though they may not admit it, would share this view. This is not a demonic belief, and I won’t call you a racist for it (even though it’s undoubtedly microaggressive) because that’s how we have been conditioned by the upper economic classes to think. The pervasiveness of this stereotype can lead to a bi-directional effect, however, known as code-switching. 

People who may wish to succeed in traditionally well-regarded professions from underprivileged backgrounds or classes may change the way they speak to curb these stereotypes. As I delve deeper into the legal sector, I know that I must appear twice as eloquent, well-dressed, persuasive and charming than my white counterparts to be considered equally. Even in day to day life, I significantly changed the way I spoke at university to ensure that people didn’t associate my south London accent with a lower IQ, elongating of vowels and emphasising consonants. Let me be clear though- being eloquent and well-spoken is not the issue here, in fact, those are traits that will invariably improve communication, and prove vital within the workplace. The issue I take however is that members of classes and/or races, even those with a particular accent, are assumed to be less eloquent and hence have to bend over backwards to prove that they are. To progress, we need to help our young black and brown people to be articulate, yes, but also force society to see that race and the extent of your vocabulary are not linked. As previously mentioned, having been unconsciously indoctrinated with this belief led me to question my race-as if being privately educated and well-spoken were incongruent with being black. That not struggling economically nor being harassed by police called into question my heritage. Whilst this may seem ridiculous, the notion of “you haven’t really experienced struggle, so you’re not properly black.” is one held by many people in this country and was an argument legitimately raised to my mother by a member of her running group this summer. (plus, it’s not exactly like we originated from money- my parents and grandparents struggled so I didn’t have to, further defeating this bigoted counter-argument.)

In the recent wave of BLM protests (that now feel like a million years ago because this terrible year will never end), we were told this was a time of unprecedented change, of new conversations and a confrontation of a dark reality society could not avoid. Months later, it sure feels like nothing concrete has changed. When was the last time you saw an update regarding Jacob Blake’s recovery? When was the last time you heard the name “Ahmaud Arbery” spoken aloud? The government released their report regarding race relations in the UK last week, adding insult to injury by publishing at 1am in hopes that no-one would see it. The report can be summarised as such: yes, the UK is institutionally racist, the NHS is aware of its failings in the area and that the current administration is aware of the issue. The reason why nothing has changed? “It is hard to escape the conclusion that what has been lacking is the sustained political will over successive governments to prioritise implementation of recommendation.” This can be easily translated to: “not enough people care, for long enough about black people to do anything about it.” I now understand why when I held an event with Black transgender creative Michelle Kwan, they stated that that they questioned whether they even wanted to be British. Why would I wish to associate, boost and help better a society in which the government has ITSELF admitted it doesn’t have enough willpower to care about me? 

When my dad attended university, the Toxteth riots had just occurred in Liverpool. Toxteth is a district with a large port in Liverpool, in which slave ships often ferried workers in centuries past. Slave owners lived in housing in the harbour so they could watch over their vessels. As time went on, these houses became derelict and ended up being inhabited by members of the black community. Toxteth directly due to slavery became an impoverished, predominantly black area. Police relations with this community were terrible due to the blatant discrimination of stop and search targeting young, black men. In 1981, the “heavy-handed” arrest of Leroy Alphonse Cooper sparked outrage in the area, with riots and protests abundant. Under-trained officers fought back at protestors, driving cars into large crowds, battering anyone who came close and using military-level gas grenades to quell the protests. 468 police officers were injured, 500 people were arrested, and at least 70 buildings were damaged so severely by fire that they had to be demolished. These riots, therefore, meant that when my dad was racially abused by two white guys in halls, the dean was more aware of the issue and swiftly kicked them out, heavily discouraging them from trying to return. Now, fast-forward 39 years- does not all of the above not sound horrifyingly similar to what happened in Minneapolis after George’s passing? Or in Croydon after Mark Duggan? History is cyclical. If we had learnt from these past breaches of civil rights, these men and countless more might still be alive. But no, there isn’t “sustained political will” to protect the rights of millions. 

In primary school, my sister Kate was called a monkey by a classmate. Although not understanding the gravitas of the abuse, Kate, upset, told my mum and dad. Upon calling the school and informing them of this disgusting behaviour, the Head Mistress sat the entire student body down in assembly. She explained why it was simply unacceptable- a move that reassured my parents of Kate’s safety and made them comfortable enough to send myself and Charlotte to the same school a decade later. On the 29th of August this year, during a routine run through my village, a speeding Mercedes drove past me, with a passenger in the back screaming loudly at me “MONKEY!” terrifying me, and later, forcing me to weep into my sister’s lap in tears. 25 years separate these two events, yet things are still the same. Why? A lack of “sustained political will” to allow a brown citizen to run around his own neighbourhood without fear. 

We cannot blame governments and legislators solely for this, however. As Barack Obama explains in his latest book “The Promised Land” that the political polarisation of America, much of which can be related to the UK, stops parties from being able to compromise to force real change. To “60 minutes”, he explained “The media landscape has changed, as a consequence, voter’s perceptions have changed… voters have become more partisan… friends (in the Senate) would confess “Mr President I know you’re right, but if I vote with you on this I’m gonna get killed, I’ll lose my seat” because their voter base had soaked in so much information that it becomes very difficult for folks that even want to cooperate to cooperate.” The 44th President is right- whilst it is concerning those in these seats are more worried about their power than to compromise and push forward change, it is understandable. Would conservative MPs be inclined to push legislation toward stopping systemic racism if more rigid voters would re-elect them? Would they be more willing to stop the demonisation of those seeking asylum, spearheaded by Priti Patel, if their voter base hadn’t already been brainwashed into seeing immigrants as the greatest threat to our country? Whilst undoubtedly bigoted figures such as Patel are influential in this perspective, the fallacy of a democracy is that those that vote do not have to be correctly informed, they just have to believe they are. Only 6% of the American population voted for Abraham Lincoln in 1870- 19% voted for Trump in 2016- both men elected without winning the popular vote. Trump’s ability to wield and sculpt the perception of such a large percentage of the population naturally makes the country more partisan and hence, makes it harder to converge on issues such as healthcare and race. America is the leader of the free world. If they made a historic change, the world would listen. As Obama explained, however, compromise in this area is years away and hence change, unlikely. 

As I  explored in this series, colourism is not just from white people- it’s everyone. Whilst white people may have written the manual on how to discriminate based on skin-tone, people of colour around the world have read and handed down that same guide across many generations, with systemic circumstances. This has been shown with the pervasiveness of bleaching and caste systems in South-east and central Asia or even the conflict between West-Africans and Carribeans. Whilst society may continue to limit us politically, we must not restrict each other mentally. We must not pigeon-hole our black women, we must not stereotype our young boys, we must not let them divide us, as change can only be achieved through unity. Colourism is undoubtedly present in Western society, and the extent was not evident to me even when I started this series. I have been bullied, touched inappropriately against my will, racially abused and more, but the words that have lived in my head, rent-free are “you’re not black.” This one small sentence has caused more introspection and self-doubt than any of those experiences and halted my progression, by way of damaging my self-confidence, more than society has in my short life-span. I have been lucky enough, however, to explore these feelings, normalise them in both a narrow and global context, understand why I felt this way and find some inner peace. In order for us to develop as a people and make colourism a thing of the past, we must learn from our history and compromise politically, but not in our determination, to make this a reality. If you have this series, regardless of your heritage, your allyship in this journey and understanding of our steps to progression is already better than those whom make our country’s most consequential decisions. Use that knowledge, your voice and the power of democracy, to “sustain political will” and ensure that future young brown men such as myself, answer the headline question as such:

“If you had to pick, would you say you’re black or white?”

“I am proudly, and unequivocally, both.” 

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