I usually don’t talk about racism on this blog, but I was prompted to by the recent Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests which were triggered by the killing of George Floyd. My purpose in giving my perspective on this situation is to inspire change and initiate healing, but not to cause more arguments or division. I’ve had enough of that in the past few weeks.
For my non-black friends reading this post, I want you to know that I am not attacking you or assuming that you are racist – this is not my heart at all. I understand that the Black Lives Matter movement may have seemed to come out of nowhere and you are being accused of having a privilege that you may have been unaware of, and this probably feels very unfair. My goal is to share a perspective that might be different from your own, and to help you to understand that we are allies when it comes to eliminating racism not enemies.
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A brief snapshot of my experience
As a black female who has lived a privileged life, I have experienced racism but I know that what I’ve experienced is quite mild when I compare it to what other black people have endured. Nonetheless, I will share some of my experiences to give you guys tangible examples.
I left Nigeria and moved to Australia with my family when I was 7 years old and I lived there for about 10 years. We initially lived in Perth for a year and then we moved to Toowoomba. We were the first black African family to ever arrive in Toowoomba. I recall turning up on my first day of primary school with 2 of my siblings. The other kids didn’t play with us for weeks. One day I was playing with a group of my new ‘friends’. There were 3 boys and 3 girls and it was decided by someone in the group that we would play Catch & Kiss. The boys would kiss the white girls when they were caught, but for me the rules were different. The boys would give me a gentle kick on one of my legs. Although I didn’t have a full comprehension of what was happening back then, I knew that there was a hierarchy and I was clearly at the bottom. I knew that because I was black I wasn’t beautiful enough, and therefore not deserving of a kiss. I was a child desperate for acceptance and approval with no framework of how to deal with racism and no support system at school, so I played the game with those ‘friends’ and stuck with the rules.
Fast forward many years later and I was about 20 years old. One of my best friends at the time was white. She was planning her wedding, but things didn’t go well with her fiancé and they broke up. My friend confided in me that one of her arguments with her ex-fiancé was that his parents refused to come to the wedding when they found out that I would be one of her bridesmaids. His parents were self-confessed white supremists; they believed they were the superior race and associating with me was far beneath them.
On a more trivial note, I recently decided to do a makeup look featuring only drug store makeup products. It’s 2020 and I live in a world that Martin Luther King dreamed of, but when I went shopping I realised that I didn’t have the same range of choices as my white counterparts; I just had to make do. I know that it’s just makeup, but you can extrapolate this example to almost every sphere of life! Black people are forced to just ‘make do’ with inequalities which result from racism – both conscious and unconscious.
There are many reasons why George Floyd’s murder created such an uproar internationally. For me it unearthed all of my traumas with rejection and being mistreated over the last 30 odd years due to the colour of my skin. I saw myself, my family, my friends, and my ancestors in the anguished cries of George Floyd. When the BLM protests began, I was so upset one day that I just sat and stared out the window with no motivation to complete my to-do list for that day. In fact, for the rest of that week I felt like I was in a daze and I struggled to process all of my emotions.
I’m glad to say that although I have experienced a lot of racism, I have also experienced a greater amount of love from people who are not of my race. The good has far overwhelmed the bad and it has helped me not to label every non-black person I meet as being racist before I get to know them. I am comfortable walking into scenarios where I may be the only black person present because I grew up like this, and I learned that more people are usually for me than they are against me. Yes, people can be ignorant and say and do hurtful things out of their ignorance, but I’ve learned to look to the heart of that person and see the good. I try to focus on the things that we have in common instead of our differences and I find that regardless of colour we are more alike than we are different.
So, what’s the way forward? I don’t have all the answers, but here are my suggestions:
I recently had a conversation with a friend who said that she was considering sending her black child to a school where they would not be a minority and she asked me a question, “Given your experiences in Australia, would you make the same choice?” I quickly said no, because those early experiences shaped me into the person that I am today. My family and I were pioneers when we moved to Australia and we forever changed the perception and experience of black people in the town I grew up in. My father was probably the first black lecturer (who won several awards) that they had ever met. My mother was the first black female doctor that they had ever met. I was the first black friend that my school mates had ever had. Somebody had to be first and by being willing to be present we paved the way for integration and an acceptance of diversity. What if Barak Obama decided not to become the first black president of the USA because the majority of the people in the White house where white? What if Oprah Winfrey decided not to become a talk show host because all the other talk show hosts around her at the time where white? (N.B. if you are in a situation where you may be harmed or your life is in danger then please run for your life!)
Let me give you another example: I lived in Canada for four years and my sister and I were informally adopted by a lovely white Canadian couple. This couple came to Nigeria a few years ago and I introduced them to my grandmother. She greeted them warmly, as our culture has taught her to do, but then as we were walking out of the living room she shouted out to me in our native language, “Emaese, DON’T marry a white person!” My mouth hung open in shock that she had been so rude. My Canadian parents asked me what she had said and I could not bring myself to lie. They accepted my grandmother’s judgement with such grace. You see my grandmother grew up in Colonial times where the British colonists did all sorts of despicable things. She has lived in a village all of her life with only black people, so she has never formed deep relationships with white people, hence her view of them is full of mistrust.
If we live, work, and socialise in communities of people who look just like us then we will never break down the prejudices that fuel racism. Living and growing together helps us to see that we are more alike than we are different. And in areas where we are different this is an opportunity to grow, to enlarge and to celebrate our diversity. I do realise that in some parts of the world it may be difficult to interact daily with people from another race or culture; so in these scenarios I would encourage you to seek out books, films, or any other material that allows you to understand the perspectives of people who are different to you.
I confess that as a black African I didn’t fully comprehend the effect of slavery on the psyche of African Americans. I don’t have slavery as part of my heritage because my ancestors lived freely in Nigeria, so I didn’t quite understand what African-Americans went though and are still going through. Part of me wanted to say ‘just get over it’ when I heard them speak of their struggles. Since I’m not a bibliophile, I have been watching movies that deal with the topics of slavery and racial discrimination such as Harriet, Free State of Jones, and BlacKkKlansman (I’ll leave a list below for you to check out). These movies have moved me to tears and created a new level compassion that I didn’t have before. I was able to see things from the African American perspective and I realised that saying ‘just get over it’ was incredibly callous and ignorant; it trivialises the centuries of inhumane suffering and unspeakable horrors that they so graciously endured. These horrors continue in 2020 and George Floyd’s death is a reminder of the millions of African Americans that have never received any justice. And this is just in America! Therefore, apply this injustice to the entire world to get an idea of the scale of the problem.
So I, even as a black person, have my work to do in understanding racism and sitting in the place of people who have endured what I was spared. My next area to work on is to educate myself on the perspectives of non-black people so that I can be more compassionate. We all have our work to do regardless of the colour of our skin. You simply cannot attempt to solve a problem that you do not understand.
Embrace awkward conversations
I realise that I speak about race differently with my non-black friends compared to when I am with my black friends. I am more guarded. I don’t fully express my hurt emotions. I probably hold back on telling some stories because I’ve seen people stiffen and become very uncomfortable when the topic of race comes up. So, to avoid making anyone feel uncomfortable or looking like the ‘angry black woman’, I try to change the subject to more polite dinner-table-topics. But this is why a lot of non-black people have been shocked by the BLM protests because they felt that things must be OK, since black people haven’t been talking about it. So, I realise that I have to get more comfortable with being uncomfortable, and with making others feel uncomfortable. Because if we do not address the elephant in the room, we cannot grow or change. We just remain.
I had a non-black friend from Canada reach out to me a few weeks ago; she asked me how I was (in light of the BLM protests) and she apologised for not being more supportive of me in the past. She had been educating herself on racism since the protests began. I was truly lost for words because I was so deeply moved by her actions. It meant more to me than she will ever know. She had chosen to see the situation through my eyes and not her own. She chose to have the ‘awkward conversation’ and this is love in action. You see love enters in to uncomfortable scenarios, it is not scared about facing the truth, but love bravely walks in with an openness to instruction and to learn. I hope that I can extend this same love to others who are not of my race or who are different from me in some other way.
We do this together
Issues such as gender inequality and gender-based violence cannot be overcome by the work of only women; men have to be just as enraged about these issues and fight alongside women in order to achieve lasting change. Thus, racism cannot be fought just by black people or by anyone who is a minority. IT TAKES EVERYONE of EVERY skin colour to be enraged and to fight racism together. I was moved to tears by the numbers of non-black people who joined the protests in countries where I did not think that black issues mattered much – this is historic and this is how we end racism. Together!
Some educational media
N.B. Click on the titles and you will be redirected
Uncomfortable Conversations With A Black Man (YouTube)
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Systemic racism in America is a reality. Acknowledging this facts will be where to start the healing process. I applaud your tenacity. Thanks for speaking out
Thank you very much for your response Sir! I completely agree with you that healing begins when there is acknowledgement of a problem.