Immigrant. Thief. Alien.
Other type of shit.
Black-British. Convoluted. Hybrid. Substitute identity.
What did you say?
Sits uncomfortably on my tongue.
Oyinbo. White girl. Fake.
She is no longer ours. You can keep her.
Sierra Leonean. War. Blood diamonds. Ebola.
When last did you visit?
Africa. Dirty. Emaciated. Backwards. Pity. Shame.
Child of the rising sun.
Person of colour.
Or just coloured to some.
Brown/ Caramel/ Biscuit/ Oreo/ Coconut/ Milky Way/ Tasty
Edible type of shit.
Of mixed heritage
But not mixed race, I’m black
(Extract of ‘You Can Call Me Black’, from Elephant)
The word of 2015 was ‘identity’. Many of the year’s biggest stories focused on the way in which individuals or members of a group are perceived, understood, accepted or excluded. According to Dictionary.com, the year saw spikes in lookups for words related to racial identity, gender identity and sexual identity. The editors noted the impact of stories like former NAACP chapter president Rachel Dolezal – the white woman who took appropriation and Black face to new, extraordinary levels – and the announcement of Caitlyn Jenner’s transition. People learned of and fought over the meanings of words like transracial, and gender expression. In 2016 continuous atrocities of the world raised questions about our collective identity. When is an immigrant a refugee? Who gets to be an ‘expat’? Who should be allowed to buy a gun and what does it say about the people of North America that mass shootings continue to happen there with such tragic and ferocious regularity? Who wins when we forget our humanity and that of our neighbour?
In 2017 the question of identity still weighs heavy. An orange menace now sits in the seat of power and has openly and relentlessly waged war on minorities, women, and the poor – anybody who isn’t a filthy rich white man. Fascism has been normalised. The far-right have been emboldened.
Those of us who inhabit Black and Brown skin are not welcome in the West. We are the “Other”, ostracised and scapegoated by a white majority who have made their message clear through widespread hostile white-lash. Since time inmemorial, from the era of slavery to the rise of Trump, wealthy elites have always manipulated and preyed on the loyalty and concerns of poor white people. What is it about a flamboyant billionaire that appeals to poor white conservatives? Why do they believe a Trump presidency would amplify their voices? Beyond white skin, what do they really have in common? The sorry truth is that in every society, when the chips are down the oppressed look sideways and not up. Those on society’s lower rungs scramble for the scraps left behind by the wealthy, powerful, and more often than not, white, on society’s upper strata. It’s much easier to blame the Muslim woman walking down the street in her hijab for your misfortune. It’s easy to convince yourself the Black boy “must have deserved” to lose his life at the violent hands of racist police. It’s the default to blame the Polish migrant for “taking all the jobs” – the very jobs you think you are better than in the first place. It’s the done thing to brand the black woman a “benefit queen” because she’s been left to head the family as a single-mother.
“Acceptance” in Western societies is something that is given and taken at whim. People of colour are expected to be barely seen, and certainly never heard; we are expected to play the good immigrant; to serve; to submit to white supremacy; to bend to the will of our “host countries”; to not ever raise the issue of our oppression for fear of white fragility; to never call a spade a spade or risk being framed as “angry” and “hysterical”. (Im)migrants and children of such are never afforded full, nuanced, individual identities. We rarely belong. We are the stereotypes, the news headlines, the “them”, the statistics out of context, the aliens, the perpetual “Other”. We can never be “English”; we can just about be “British”; because of the brutality of British empirical ambition, we find ourselves in limbo, no matter if we are first, second, or third generation migrants.
Black-British. Convoluted. Hybrid. Substitute identity.
A hyphenated identity imposed upon a person is really no identity at all. Although Black communities have certainly reclaimed such terms as “Black-British”, making them feel more like ours, this hyphenated, convoluted, amalgamated identity is a substitute for something which was violently snatched away. For young Black British millennials like myself, our search for identity is continuous – I’m not sure there is a destination in fact, or a finite end point. I was born in Freetown, Sierra Leone, on 16th of September 1991. Not long after my second birthday, I made the journey of a lifetime across land, sea, and sky with my mother to join my father in London.
I often debate with myself over whether I am a first generation or second generation immigrant. The lines feel more blurred the older I become. Only in my twenties did I begin to find solace and pride in my West African identity. Prior to that I was consumed with a desire to be accepted as British and nothing else. I was labelled a “coconut”, “milky way” bar, “Oreo” in my school years – black on the outside and white on the inside. I internalised these claims and distanced myself from my Black identity. It was only at university that I finally confronted my own deep anti-black sentiment as a result of being simultaneously hyper-visible and invisible. Where do we go when we lose ourselves? What happens when we deny our own humanity?
Even in my “lost” years, I always felt a sense of belonging nowhere. My mother made sure I knew about my culture and where we come from, but of course she, like other West African parents, had to battle against constant negative images perpetuated by the media, homogenising a vast continent, reducing it to a tired, sad, downtrodden stereotype. How could we, children of that soil, find a sense of pride in that? Then and now, the only identity that seemed to fit with ease was and is my localised identity as a South Londoner. Having never been back to Sierra Leone since leaving over two decades ago, the sense of home is something I’ve had to imagine and re-imagine.
When last did you visit?
A loaded question – often necessitating the opening of a Pandora’s box of secrets and explanation, from outlining the very real financial pressures and constraints a single Black mother will encounter as she raises three children alone; to explaining the tangible sense of distance and not belonging – the land which birthed you changes in two decades just as you do. The familiarity of my South London upbringing brings comfort, despite that familiarity being damaged by gentrification and social cleansing – more weapons formed to push aside and push out those deemed as “Other” and “alien”.
Londoner. South East.
The only thing that fits.
Global citizen. Child of the universe.
If the cap will fit.
Like Black women and women of colour before me, I navigate questions of home, identity, and belonging through writing about it – my chosen form of expression being poetry. Kenyan author, playwright, and activist, Micere Githae Mugo, said: “Writing can be a lifeline, especially when your existence has been denied, especially when you have been left on the margins, especially when your life and process of growth have been subjected to attempts at strangulation”.
Black and brown people have been taught to strangle our identities and choke on the very sound of who we are. Often we exist outside our own bodies as stereotypes, metaphors, and shortcuts to motifs, stock images, and single-narratives to be consumed by whiteness and disposed of as whiteness dictates.
You can stop choking on the sound now
Stop biting down on the word so hard
Don’t be afraid to say it.
I’ll say it for you.
You heard me.
As you refuse to call me by my name –
You can call me black.
I’ve learnt to find ways to hold on to a sense of who I am whilst I keep asking more questions and find few answers – most of those ways involve writing. We write to remember and to immortalise, as well as to resist erasure, to document and to archive the struggles of our times. We write to cope. We write to question, as well as to find answers. We write to create homes out of blank pages and humble ink – to forge a new sense of what it means to belong. We write to survive existing in limbo. We write to say that despite it all, we are here.
This article first appeared in the spring ’17 edition of Consented’s quarterly print magazine which you can buy online now.