I’ve spent some time pensively considering life as a half-white British, half-black Caribbean man in these days following George Floyd’s murder.
I’ve always felt fortunate to have experienced limited racist abuse directly to my face; instead, most discriminatory experiences were non-malicious. But now, I’m coming to terms with the fact I’ve had to deal with bias at all. It’s wrong.
And it’s something I wouldn’t wish upon anyone else.
I’ve seen many discussions about “white privilege” recently, and how people realise they won’t be able to understand fully. ‘Fully’ is the key word here. I think it’s easier to explain something to someone when they can equate it to something they’ve experienced. So here’s my attempt, with some personal examples of innocuous and malicious racism from my own life.
I asked an old girlfriend of mine why she crossed the street in an unusual place once in a very safe neighbourhood. She told me it was because it was dark and someone was walking towards her. As a 6ft4 male, I just don’t think about a stranger on the street being a threat. That’s through my male privilege. But she did, and many women do daily.
Inversely, and in no way to belittle women’s experiences, women perhaps don’t consider how men may have to think about their presence around children. I’m great with kids, and kids love playing with me; a summer counselling at a camp in the U.S. does that. But a single dad taking photos of his kid in a park would be scrutinised more than a single mother. Not having to worry about that would be a female privilege.
So how does this tie to racism, and my life? Well, just as men and women make subconscious acts because of their gender, I’ve unknowingly accepted events in my life that may have unfolded differently if my skin wasn’t a darker pigmentation. Some may have been the same, some different, and some may never have occurred at all. The fact is, I have to wonder when a caucasian wouldn’t think twice. That is the white privilege I don’t enjoy.
I can’t even remember my first racist encounter; my mum told it to me. I was a kid at her work, perhaps 7 or 8 years old. Out of boredom, I was swinging on a gate of a neighbouring business when the owner shouted at me and called me a “nigger”. Maybe he would’ve yelled at anyone. Or perhaps he would’ve seen a kid playing and rolled his eyes.
When that word left his lips though, the situation becomes clouded. Would he have even 5% more tolerance if I was white? 10%? In any case, this event would’ve played out differently if I weren’t mixed-race.
I moved to Scotland when I was ten. For the following eight years, I was almost always the only ‘black’ person in my school. That’s the entire school, incidentally, not just my class. A primary school of 200 or so pupils, and a secondary school of 1,200. Thankfully racist remarks were never made to my face and stemmed from naivety and rather than malice.
This example is actually cute and shows misplaced good intentions. At primary school, the girls in my class were very excited for one of their friends to visit from out of town.
“You’ll really like her!”. “She’ll be your type”.
It turns out I didn’t much care for her. So why did they think I’d be into her?
“She looks like Mel B!”.
Yep, the childhood brains connected two dark people, with nothing more to it.
It wasn’t just the pupils with unconscious preconceptions though. My first teacher told my mum that she had initially been worried about a tall, mixed-race kid from a bigger city joining her class. But she instead thought I was “a delight to teach”.
It’s a nice end to the tale sure, but why did a 10-year-old have to prove himself where a new white student wouldn’t? Did I have to prove myself with every other teacher I had too? It’s not unlikely, is it?
At Christmas, the school did a play: A Christmas Carol. But ya know, a re-telling of it, because that’s what schools do. I was one of the few Year 6’s with a leading role, as the Year 7’s were older and presumably better at remembering lines. I was cast as the ‘Ghost of Christmas Present’ — but a modern, cool one… one that’s a rapper. I’m not anything like an actor, yet here I was ‘rapping’ for Christmas.
At 10, I thought nothing of it. At 32..? Yeh.
There was the time a couple of (mixed-race) friends came to visit from my hometown. Their trip to Scotland had one of them called “Sweet Like Chocolate Girl” and the other “Black Bastard”. Charming. The latter was a phrase hurled at me when I cycled past someone one night years later.
I informed the police. I never heard back.
One night I was out with friends. An older group of guys from the “rough” part of town were hanging around the neighbourhood for some reason. There were six of my mates, but one of these older guys wanted to antagonise just me. I got punched in the face “because I was looking at him funny”. Maybe he was looking for a fight with anyone, but I will always wonder if it was down to my skin colour.
And that’s where I don’t have a privilege others enjoy. I have to wonder if my skin colour affects all elements of my life? A job interview. Getting served at a bar. Dating. School grades. Finding a place to rent. Who’ll sit beside me on a bus.
I have it way easier than most. My imagination can’t comprehend how bad it must be for others.
And it will always be that way for others.
“Until the colour of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes.” -Bob Marley