What is race? – Part 2

Ellie continues to look back on October’s conversation at The Kickback, which focused on Concept of Race.

As I said in my previous post, the conversation at The Kickback on the 15th October was so insightful that I’ve split it into two parts. After speaking about what race is and the stereotypes that can come with race, Shaniqua asked, “What does it mean to act Black?”

Zhanai outlined the difference between the concept of blackness and the black individual: “If I saw Beyoncé and started acting like her, would I be acting Black or would I be acting like Beyoncé?” Shaniqua pointed out that we have a list of expectations when it comes to how someone of a certain race should look and act, which includes certain hairstyles and clothing.

Zhanai and Destini spoke of the problems that come with enjoying “White” culture and activities: weave isn’t for everyone; some people prefer Doc Martins over Nike trainers. The reverse also applies: just because someone likes to season their chicken, they are not quintessentially black.

But these social expectations don’t just boil down to how you’re treated in the street. They have permeated our homes and friendship groups too. Destini told us that she has had to justify having white friends at school – “Just because a white friend touches me doesn’t mean my melanin is rubbing off!” She would have to explain to her family and peers that having a diverse group around her only made her life richer.

Shaniqua too notes that at times, she feels she has to justify having multiracial friends. In travelling to European countries like Bosnia, which are predominantly white, she found a fellow group of artists and thinkers whom she now sees as a whole other family. Her ties to them – the love and respect they have for one another – don’t make her question her own identity. However, it is problematic that there is an assumption that by being part of a different racial group, or by association to one, you might lose something of your own.

We also talked about living in a society that is so scared of offending people that conversations like the ones we have at The Kickback are impossible in causal discourse.  Zhanai described choosing Rosa Parks for a Year 6 ‘dress as your hero’ day. Looking back on an innocent act, she fears that it would really offend people – ‘It was innocent and no one said anything. In my head I was changing my race to be the person who was my hero.’

We touched on how in our society, people don’t talk and prefer to feel angry and isolated, and white people are so worried about causing offence that they can’t even use the world black. On the other hand, the reverse applies in our grandparents’ generation having no racial diversity and as a result, saying incredibly racist things.

Shaniqua asked us to think of the terms ‘Black’ and ‘White’, and to consider what they mean to us. Zhanai pointed out that there are so many different shades of black. Her brother, who is the same mix of races as her but has blue eyes and brown hair, has been mistaken for white so often and during the first week of Year 7, he came home telling her that he was light-skinned. These words around race are passed around so nonchalantly, and have become so normalized. The terms often have no correlation to how people actually look (there are different shades of whiteness too), and serve to confuse people and create divisions.

It is a credit to Shaniqua’s ability as a leader that the conversation turned naturally from a place of introspection and bleakness to one of hope and positivity. Destini, when speaking of her work educating young children, described the dual necessity of acknowledging history and also moving past it. The way we are socialised very deliberately encourages diversity, yet certain nursery rhymes that segregate and insult black people are still sung. We are told that we can only achieve success by taking certain routes, and that there are only certain types of intelligence.

Zhanai told us that she was astounded when she found out, during her GCSE classes, that the Chinese are the race who, historically, have been used most as slaves. Yet there is no month dedicated to them. ‘Black and White’ struggles and oppression seem to be a narrative that we’ve weaved to fit our society, but so many other cultures with just as much right to their pride and anger are left voiceless.

It’s hard to be mindful of all of this. Destini admits that she used to be annoyed when people would talk about other – especially white – race’s struggles; “It took me a while to realise that every person’s struggle is just as valid.” She notes the necessity to move on, because anger just breeds division. Elisha agrees that by holding onto things from years ago, we create a kind of echo chamber of loaded speech.

This brought us neatly to the final question: How can we break down racial barriers?

Elisha remarked that while Black History Month is only a month, history is such a big thing and needs working on itself. The only way to move forward is to communicate with each other. Hearing other people’s voices; to keep talking, and keep listening.

“We don’t need to have silent or violent protests; we’re sitting here calmly expressing ourselves. My bloodline won’t be racist; I haven’t been indoctrinated into these stereotypes,” said Zhanai. Destini agreed: “Knowledge is power, but not everyone is as knowledgeable… We need more conversations like this.”

I was incredibly honoured to have been a part of this discussion. The passion and power of everyone’s words inspired and humbled me. I would like to close with a comment Shaniqua made at the beginning of the night that really stuck with me:

“The only thing that makes us the same is that we are all different.”

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