CW: racism, police brutality
In all honesty, I don’t think I speak about race all that often with my friends…which is actually pretty surprising given that majority of my friends are white and I am always in the minority in my various friendship groups. Growing up I always used to say, “Oh I don’t think about race that much, I don’t mind being in the minority at school- everyone’s nice so it isn’t a big deal”. Looking back now I think all I was trying to do was make myself feel better, and create this fantasy world in my mind where race wasn’t a major issue in life, where I was equal to everyone else and was viewed in the same way as my peers. But the reality is so far from this. For as long as I can remember, my parents have always told my siblings and I: “You need to work harder than everyone else. You need to get better results than everyone else. You must always be polite. Don’t be too loud, don’t let them say you’re aggressive. Make sure your hair is neat, make sure your lips aren’t dry, make sure your uniform is clean and tidy- don’t let them look down upon you because you’re black. Things in life are different for us.”
I will never forget the feeling of being in assembly in prep school and it was Black History Month. “Today marks the beginning of Black History Month,” our headmistress announced, and almost automatically all eyes that were around me turned to look at me- the only black girl in my year. I remember feeling alone, there was no one else in my year I could talk to about this, no one would understand how it felt to suddenly feel different from all the other girls around you. Girls with whom only moments ago you were discussing trivial things and engaging in normal seven-year-old conversation. Now a barrier had been put up. Now you suddenly remember, “Oh yes, I’m not just Morayo…I’m Morayo and I’m also black. I’m different than all these people around me and I always will be different because this is the colour of my skin and there’s nothing I can do about it.” But soon enough somebody nearby would have cracked a joke about something, maybe what the headmistress was wearing that day and everyone would laugh quietly so as not to be told off. And that deep, sinking feeling you were feeling a few moments quickly dissipates and you shove it to the back of your mind. “So long as no one talks about it, you don’t have to think about it and then you won’t have to think about how you’re black,” is what you repeatedly tell yourself. One of the girls in the older years who is also black catches you after the assembly. “Don’t worry about people looking at you. You’ll get used to it, just laugh at them.”
“Don’t talk about race with people who aren’t black,” my mum always used to say, “You’re wasting your time and they won’t get it. They’ll think you’re being aggressive or rude. You need to have tough skin.” “You need to have tough skin” or variants of this is something that most black children will have been told at some point in life. For most of my time at prep school and in secondary school I just tried my best not to think about my race and pretend like I was colourless. But of course I wasn’t, and I was inherently different to most of the other girls. I was lucky enough that even though I was in the minority at school, there were other girls who were POC as well who I was friends with so I didn’t feel totally alien all the time. And I had white friends too! Lots, and when I would hang out with my friends I would never think: “Okay these three are white, she is Indian, she is Chinese and I am black”. It was “Oh what have you done for the history homework? Did you watch that movie? What did you think of this song?”- just regular conversation, because to me, I did not go through every day at school thinking “I’m different from these people.” From prep school I learned not to think about that, and I have been super lucky that I’ve never experienced overt racism either from other students or from teachers at school. Of course I would always feel slightly uncomfortable when the topic of slavery or colonialism would come up in class but once the class was over I would forget it. That’s what a lot of school was like: something a bit uncomfortable happened, I would feel a bit uncomfortable and remember that I’m different and then quickly forget it.
Things got a bit different after moving to Oxford for uni. I still had friends from different races sure, but I also met a lot of people who had never met a black person before. No fault of their own, especially if they grew up in towns that were predominantly white. But it was so strange to me having grown up in London which is such a melting pot. I was again one of two black girls in my year and no black boys. Usual from the usual, I don’t think I even noticed until someone pointed it out. It had been like that my whole life. Again I found I didn’t meet with any overt racism from people in my college or from my teachers, and so I was really lucky. Uncomfortable moments happened again, sure. There’s nothing like walking into your faculty building and having staff look at you as if you shouldn’t be there. I always keep my bod card in my hand when I go into the Classics faculty in case someone thinks I’m not meant to be there. Walking around Oxford is far different than walking around London: there’s not that many black people in Oxford and there are many more older people. Whenever I wait at a bus stop, I’m always stared at by older people. I’ve had bus drivers be so warm to passengers in front of me and then have a change of tune when it’s my time to buy a ticket. Some of you may be thinking, “Well maybe they just know those people and they don’t know you?” which is a fair suggestion. But I’ve been treated differently countless times in shops, in restaurants and on public transport to know that it is unfortunately most likely not the case. There’s nothing like walking into a store with your headphones in to have a quick browse. You’re aimlessly making your way through the different clothes when you realise that the shop attendant has been standing near you and watching you this whole time. Maybe you’re just being paranoid so you move to another section and there they are again. Fun times!
I went on a few dates with this guy in First Year and I was talking to a friend about how they were going. “Yeah he’s nice etc. But I’m worried if this continues that he’s going to have to introduce me to his parents.” “So what?” my friend asked. I didn’t quite know how to say it so I just said: “What are they going to think when they find out I’m black? What if they don’t want their son to go out with a black girl?” My friend was so shocked that this was a consideration for me, but to me it was second nature. The same thing happened again in Hilary of Second Year with a different guy. I wondered what would happen if things got serious and I had to meet his parents. I even said to a friend: “I just don’t understand why he wants to go out with a black girl?” I always joke about how no one fancied me in school and how I’m going to be forever alone. I always used to wonder if it was a coincidence that all my other non-black friends had lots of guys who were interested in them and yet I didn’t. I concluded that I was probably just less attractive than them and so eventually I’d just find someone in my league. I told my mum about it once when she picked me up from the station, and she told me “I’m so sorry Morayo but the reality is many of the guys might not even consider you or look at you in that way because you’re black. Black girls are generally not viewed as pretty, especially not dark-skinned black girls.” I remember feeling so dejected. It’s not like I could change my skin colour so what was I meant to do? Just accept that because I was black I was immediately unattractive? But that’s not every non-black person’s way of thinking and there are definitely non-black people out there who are attracted to all races. It still sucks to think, though, that some people could immediately just see me as ‘not pretty’ because I’m black. Some of you may be thinking, “But that’s just people’s preference, it’s not racist.” But isn’t funny how whenever dating studies occur it’s always the black race that is least preferred by everyone? Even black people themselves! And do you know what’s so sad, I too was guilty of this when I was younger. I would tell my friends “I don’t find black boys fit and I don’t think I will go out with a black boy”. I was so desperate to disassociate myself from my race. Thank God that I’m older now and know different. It is so crazy to me when people say they just aren’t attracted to a certain race. How can you not be attracted to A WHOLE RACE? Do you know how different people can look within one race? No two people of the same race look the same unless they’re twins or one of each other’s seven doppelgängers lol. I’ve been told before that “you’re pretty for a black girl” and when I got upset about it, I was told I should be happy because it’s a compliment. What’s funny is a lot of black girls have heard this before- could it possibly be the case that black girls are just pretty? Like every other race? And do you know what sometimes I don’t even blame people for not considering black people to be attractive because the first attraction you normally feel is when you have childhood celebrity crushes right? Given that media representation of black people is far less than most other races and is often in a negative light, it’s no wonder that some people grow up never considering a black person as a prospective partner. There’s the opposite end of this where black men and women are over-sexualised and fetishised. I have seen so many people on social media talk about how they want to marry a black man so they can have ‘cute mixed race babies’. I mean, come on! Is that the only reason you want to marry a black man? Are you prepared for the baggage that will come along with marrying a black man though, the funny looks you might get from other people because you’re an interracial couple, or knowing that your husband could be stopped and searched ‘at random’ and possibly even killed. No, it’s just about the cute mixed race baby isn’t it. I’ve made fun of a lot of the messages I’ve received before on my finsta, but there is something particularly degrading about receiving messages like “I’ve never been up a black girl before” and “I’ve heard black girls are the best in bed” and “Once you go black you never go back”. Black girls aren’t just good for the bed, there’s a million and one other great qualities about black girls and it’s a problem if the first thing guys think of when they see or meet a black girl is “she should be good in bed”.
When my brother got into his secondary school at 13+ my family were overjoyed. I remember when our family from Nigeria called to say congrats. “Congrats Matthew, but the hard work doesn’t stop here,” they said, “You will need to continue to work hard, you need to get the best results in the class so you can succeed. You are going to have to put in extra effort.” About a year after being at this year my brother was invited to a concert in central London, which all Music Scholars had been invited to. At the end of the concert on his way home my brother called my mum, almost in tears. “What happened?”
“When I got to the venue, I came in with my friend (a fellow Music Scholar) and he went in first. I was right behind him and he was allowed through to the seating and was handed a programme by the lady at the doors. She then looked at me and didn’t offer me a pamphlet. Instead she asked me what I was doing there. I explained that I was there for the concert and she asked me if I was sure I was meant to be here. My friend then told her I was with him, and I was in his class at school. She then let me through. This happened in front of so many people Mummy, I was so embarrassed.”
“Don’t worry about her, Matthew, what she sows she will reap. Thank God you got into the concert, and don’t worry about all the people who were looking at you. Good luck to them, they can’t control your destiny.”
When my brother was awarded the Music Scholarship, there was a ceremony held at the school to congratulate all those who had been successful. As always, my mum had dressed my sister and I very well and made sure we were very neat. “We can’t look scruffy,” she always told us, and what’s so funny is I always remember that during school other parents constantly told my mum how neat and presentable her kids were. Their compliments were said with a bit of surprise, hmm maybe they thought that’s not what black kids were like- I’m not sure. I had been so excited to go to the ceremony, to go to my brother’s school and see what the big deal was and why everyone made so much of a fuss about it, and I was so proud that my brother was a scholar! As soon as we arrived in the Great Hall for the ceremony, all that excitement quickly went away to be replaced with extreme embarrassment. I was so self conscious. We were the only black family there and all the other families were white. No one spoke to us for a while, I couldn’t eat my food because I was so desperate to leave. “I feel so uncomfortable because we’re the only black people here,” I told my mum. “Never feel uncomfortable for being who you are Morayo. Matthew got this scholarship the same way all of their sons did.” Eventually I’m sure, we must have spoken to other people, I can’t quite remember. But what I do remember is that painstakingly slow first hour where I felt so displaced and embarrassed that we were there at the school.
When we would go on holiday abroad, that’s when it would be the worst. I found people blatantly staring at my family and I with disgust or disapproval. We once walked into a restaurant in Dubai and a lady said very loudly “What are they doing here? How can they afford this?” I begged my mum to let us go to a different restaurant, I didn’t want to sit in a place where everyone around us was staring at us while all we wanted to do was eat some lunch and chat. But my mum has always been firm about these things and she refused to change restaurants. “We deserve to be here as much as anyone else Morayo, take your time with your food and enjoy it. Who cares about these other people, are we not eating the same food as them? Did we not pay for this food the same as them? So go on, enjoy.” I would keep my eyes firmly on my family alone and would try to blur out all the people around us that were staring.
Once whilst in Westminster, I went with some friends to buy something from a truck outside the school. My friends were in front of me and paid with card. When it was my turn the cashier told me that they didn’t accept card when I brought mine forward. I protested that my other friends had paid with card and then she told me the card machine was now broken and do I want to pay with cash or not. I left whatever it was that I wanted to buy there- as if I was going to give her money after that.
As we got older, my brother and I realised that the friends we had in Sunday school had started to act differently towards us. “Why do you guys sound white?” we were asked multiple times, “Why are you guys trying to be white? Who do you think you are? You think you’re so great because you go to private school.” After a while we only had a few friends left at Sunday school and eventually stopped going altogether. I would be so confused and frustrated. “What is sounding white or being white?” I would often ask myself “How can I be more black? What should I do and say so that I can fit in? Why do they think I think I’m great because I go to private school?” But of course what would make me ‘fit in’ at Sunday school wouldn’t necessarily make me ‘fit in’ at school during the week. I have been told blatantly before “How you look doesn’t match how you speak”. Great, thanks. Guess I’ll go away and change the way I’ve always spoken to suit the way you think I’m meant to speak because I’m black- because all black people sound the same don’t we?
The comment about me going to private school used to irk me the most. I don’t think and never have thought I was better than anyone else because I went to private school. “Why have you sent your kids to private schools that are so far away and cost so much?” My parents would hear. “If you didn’t pay fees then you could move away from this area and live somewhere nice. They’ll never fit in. Black kids aren’t meant to go to private school, just send them to Harris like the rest of the kids in South Norwood.” That comment has always stuck with me. “Black kids aren’t meant to go to private school.” It’s not true, obviously, but hearing things like that when you’re young is damaging. I don’t think I knew it whilst I was at school but now I realise how much pressure I used to put myself under, subconsciously. Any of my home friends will know how much I used to stress about tests, even in prep school lol, because I would always be scared of being in trouble with my parents for not doing well. Subconsciously I would tell myself “You have to work harder, you have to be smarter or you won’t get there and you need to make Mummy and Daddy proud. They’ve sacrificed everything for you to go to private school. You need to prove to your teachers that you are clever even though you’re black. You need to show everyone that you’re no different, you need to prove that you’re just as good.” And if I’m honest, this train of thought has never left me. I still always feel the need to work harder, to be smarter and to prove to everyone and to myself that I’m just as good, even if I am black. People joke about how I’m overly organised and can be uptight and fussy which I definitely am hahaha. But I think it’s also as a result of this mantra I’ve been taught since I was young, in a way always striving to be ‘the perfect black girl’. I never used to understand why my parents would make such a fuss about everything and why I always had to be on my best behaviour and look neat and be polite and follow this list of endless rules. Now that I’m older I realise that my parents understood what it meant for me to be the only black girl in my year at prep school. They didn’t want me to stand out unless it was for good things, they didn’t want to give anyone the opportunity to think I was unintelligent or scruffy. They never wanted my brother to wear hoodies outside of the house and we thought they were ridiculous but we soon understood why.
The reason why I say all of this is because it’s bad right? It’s uncomfortable to read I’m sure, but I definitely don’t apologise if it is uncomfortable to read because it’s even more uncomfortable to live it. This post isn’t meant to be some self-pitying sob story. The situation that black people face in this world is far past pity – it requires actual change and action. Yes, some of the things I’ve gone through in life (and I haven’t even listed them all here) have been difficult, but I haven’t mentioned once that I was ever scared for my life. Scared that I was going to be shot or kneeled on because of my skin colour. I’m so lucky to not have worried about that myself…yet. There are black people out there who have endured WAY WORSE than me on a daily basis. The things that I have gone through don’t even compare. Just like many of the other stories I’ve seen about black people being killed in the US, the story of George Floyd has really shook me to my core and I can’t stop thinking about it. I can’t stop thinking about his friends and family. I think about my brother and my dad and how I would feel if I found out one day that they’d been murdered by police. I know my brother and my dad- they’re good people. They both work incredibly hard, they’re both intelligent and funny and love football. They’re normal people, just like millions of other black men out there. There’s nothing wrong with black men and there’s nothing wrong with black people. We have families and friends and the same emotions that all other humans have. Yet in America, and not just America mind you, this fact is totally disregarded. I don’t think George Floyd’s family would’ve crossed the mind of Derek Chauvin once whilst he knelt on his neck. I don’t think George Floyd’s dreams and the things he would’ve wanted to achieve in life would’ve crossed his mind once. The fact that George Floyd was a human being just like him wouldn’t have crossed his mind. I just cannot see how he could have continued to kneel on Floyd’s neck if it had.
I never thought I would make a post like this or speak much about this at all, and I never really have done, as I said at the beginning. The reason why I’ve felt compelled to make a post about this is because I’ve always thought that racism was something that came from older people and it was the backward thinking of older people. I always used to think that people in my generation weren’t bothered by race and weren’t themselves racist. But I have been so despondent these last few days as I’ve seen some of the black people I know repost messages they’ve received on their stories of people our own age sending extremely ignorant and quite frankly racist messages to them. The point is that racism is as alive and as rife as ever. So I’m making this post to really beg all of my non-black friends out there to please please please educate yourselves and learn about the struggles of black people, even if it does make you uncomfortable. Even if you think that it’s not your problem and you’ll never have to deal with these things, please still make the effort to know about it and to help practically in any way you can. Call out things that you see that aren’t right and stand up for people that are discriminated against. There’s nothing more black people can do at this point and we need help.
This was the caption alongside the post:
I was hesitant to write all of this down and post this. A) because I was worried about coming across as the stereotypical ‘angry black woman’ and then I thought I don’t care! Black women do have things to be angry about so yes we’re angry! Amongst a whole bunch of other emotions. B) because this is not something I’ve ever really spoken to my friends, either at uni or at home, about in such depth. The feelings and memories that I’ve expressed here are ones that I’ve always tried to forget about or just tell myself ‘it wasn’t that big a deal, move on’. But you know what it is a big deal. It is a big deal that some people in this world have to constantly think about their skin colour, which they were born with, and think about how other people are perceiving them and how it makes the people around them feel. When I was having a conversation with a friend the other day about race, she told me that in all fairness she had never really thought about her race much. I didn’t hate her or feel angry at her, all I could think was ‘she’s so lucky’. I can’t imagine a life where I didn’t think about my skin colour and that’s really really sad. Life is so hard. But it’s even harder when you’re discriminated against or treated differently over something that you didn’t choose and over something you can’t control: your skin colour. It’s just a colour!!!! So what! It doesn’t say anything about a person apart from that they have that colour skin. It doesn’t tell you about their morals or beliefs. You can only know that by talking and getting to know someone. I hated being black growing up and I’ve never said that out loud to anyone but I’m saying it now because it’s the sad reality of a lot of black kids. You don’t see yourself a lot on TV or in films that much, unless they’re dedicated black films or black TV shows where everyone’s black. It’s not that common to see dolls that look like you. People will always ask you where you’re really from. You’ll be told you sound white or speak weird if you don’t use that much slang when you speak.
You’ll feel embarrassed when friends come over and try to stifle a laugh at the way your parents pronounce things. You’ll dread that moment in registration when you have a new teacher that won’t know how to say your name and after being told will probably never get it right and so you’ll just settle for some variant of your name, so as not to make a fuss. You never want to make a fuss. You never want to cause trouble and be a trouble maker because that’s what black people are known for and you don’t want to be like that. But then you get older and you realise that black really is beautiful. You start to appreciate your skin and how it glows in summer. You smile when people tell you that they’re jealous you don’t get sun burnt. You’ll be happy about the fact that ‘black don’t crack’ and you won’t look old when you are old. Slowly but surely you begin to love yourself and be proud that you’re black. You feel lucky to have such a rich culture, great music and food. Slowly but surely you begin to deal with the trauma you’ve gone through as a child, and yes I’m using the word trauma, and try to begin to unlearn some of the teachings that have been instilled in you to always work harder, to be smarter, to be presentable and approachable. But then the sad realisation hits that you can’t unlearn these things because the world is no different than when you were younger. You still have to work harder, be smarter, be polite and not intimidating, be neat and not cause any trouble in order to succeed. And all the while, some of these things will have never crossed the minds of other people. Not once.
A massive thank you to all my non-BAME friends who have really stepped up in the last few days since the murder of George Floyd and are intentionally trying to make a change and also trying to educate themselves on what it means to be black and what you can do to help. It means a lot. This post has been so cathartic for me and I never thought I’d be able to say these things out loud, that I’ve been holding in for such a long time.
The following links have been included at the request of the author:
Artwork by Francesca Nava