I hate talking about blackness.
[noun] blackness [blak-nis]
‘the quality or state of being Black. the quality or state of being a Black person. Negritude’
Not because it’s not important or because anti-blackness isn’t a real thing, but because I think it’s so nuanced that the more we try to comprehend it, the more it evades our understanding. Because we don’t truly understand it, the definition of blackness has been misrepresented severely by all kinds of people, producing standards that seemingly all we black people have to live up to.
I want to share my own personal ordeal with blackness, not so much as an educational or inspirational prose, but more so the let anyone out there who has a similar story to myself know, that they are by no means, alone.
I have spent most of my life living in Kent, just about one hour outside of London. Although pretty close, it was just far enough to present me with a seemingly alternate reality growing up. You see I was actually born back home in Nigeria, but I moved here with my parents at the age of 4. We did have a brief stint living in London, but I’ve been in Kent since the age of 6. As you can imagine, there was a huge culture clash. My English wasn’t very good and being the only black child, here I was surrounded by white children for the very first time. However, I was resilient, so I soon got a hang of things. At the end of that year, all of my classmates moved on to the primary section of the school whilst I was moved elsewhere. It took a little longer to make friends at first, but again, I adapted and soon I was accepted by the others.
Then came the 11+, I studied pretty hard, but I failed – much to my Mum’s disappointment. So, I ended up being shipped off to the best comprehensive school there was available in our area. For added context, there weren’t a lot of Black people living in Kent back then, so I was very pleased to rock up to secondary school to see that I was now one of 4 black people in my year. The school was still heavily White, with a handful of Asian students and East-European students. Although I was the minority, I didn’t really realise what that meant until much later on. My friends were white, and I was black, but we listened to the same music, dressed the same way, enjoyed the same things, and shared a lot of the same experiences because I spent so much time with them.
When I moved schools for Sixth Form, I was almost slapped in the face with the ‘sort’ of Black people I met there. There was now 6 of us, but the guys really reminded me of the of the black people I saw on TV – you know, loud, rowdy and you know, the ‘London-type’. It was weird because that was the first time I was clearly identifying other Black people in this way. What I failed to recognise back then was the negative perceptions of Black people that had unconsciously seeped into my brain. Whilst I was aware that I was Black, I didn’t fully understand the significance of that, and I saw myself just the same as my white peers. When I got to Uni, I had the truly had the biggest shock of my life.
For the first month or so I felt really uncomfortable. It feels terrible saying this now, but I truly felt intimidated being around so many Black people. I went to a University up North so there weren’t even that many Black people, but it truly felt like I was flooded. The more I spoke and interacted with them, the more troubled I got. For the first time in my life, I felt like an outsider. At first, I was doing it to myself- pondering why I was obsessed with Olly Murs and had never even heard of Afrobeats. Asking myself why I dressed the way that I did or why crackers and mayonnaise was my favourite snack in the world. Then I began getting it externally.
I don’t think people meant to, but they would start throwing these very same questions to me, “teaching me” how to dance and giving me the low-down on weaves. So, once again, I did what I knew best to do – adapt. I mean, I had to have some sort of social group and the other black people around me were ready to accept me just based off the colour of my skin – not knowing a single thing about me.
Within one semester, I transformed myself completely. Doing things I had never done before and acting like I had never done before – I actually thought it was character development, not realising that I was losing myself in the myriad of blackness. I started attending events and debates on issues surrounding the black community, and honestly it was overwhelming. Just hearing an array of terrible experiences growing up, racism, prejudice and microaggressions was really tough. A lot of these things I can honestly say that I wasn’t aware of back then, so I spent a lot of time just soaking things in.
What I’m about to say next is something that I’ve been scared to express, but it’s important that I do. Hearing the traumatic experiences of other black people, till this day makes me feel like an outcast more than anything else. Why? Because that trauma seems to be something that unites and connects the black community. It sounds really terrible to say out loud but as much as I can empathise with it, that trauma will never truly be mine. Again, forgive me, but at least when these traumatic experiences were being had, black people who grew up in areas like London, had other black people to share the trauma and work through it with.
Imagine only just learning at 18 that people touching your hair without your permission was not them just being rude but was actually a microaggression. Imagine being told at 18, that you listen to ‘white’ music. These were just not concepts that I was familiar with and so I just couldn’t process what everyone was so mad about and why I had to be mad about them too. I’m grateful that I didn’t experience anything particularly traumatising growing up, but on the flip side of things, I often find myself wishing that I had, just so I can feel part of it. I was at a virtual conference late last year, and the theme was around finding solutions for the Black community following the BLM protests earlier that summer.
I was excited to gain more insight and to hear how we could all move forward. However, following the initial keynote speaker, there was what I can only describe as a grieving session. All of the attendees were separated into breakout rooms of around 8 and the aim of the session was to the share traumatic experiences that people had had over the course of their lives as a result of them being black. I felt immensely uncomfortable. Not because of what I knew they would share, but because I didn’t have a tale to tell that was quite like theirs. I find myself in a lot of spaces like this which tend to leave me with such mixed feelings. It’s crazy to think that if I went to the school that was just down the hill from mine, that was full of black students, then maybe my experiences and exposure would have been so different.
What I now know that I didn’t know then, is that I was already black enough. You know that sentence actually doesn’t make sense, because who’s place is it to quantify blackness in the first place? No matter who you ask, nobody can accurately define what it means to be black. Some say its skin colour, but then of course we have black albinos and so defining blackness by the presence of pigment seems far too reductionist. Other say it’s the features, but we all know that cosmetic surgery is doing wonders for people of all skin tones in that department. Others say it’s the immersion and exposure to ‘black culture’, but then adoption means that any child could be raised anywhere by anyone.
If truly where and how you were raised is the core of blackness then why wouldn’t we call a white child raised by black people, in a black community, black? Yet, we’d happily call black people raised by white parents, white, without even thinking about it. This is a very complicated line of discussion. To make matters even more interesting, the media perpetuates a specific type of black – the ‘London Black’ if you will. All the shows depict blackness in a very similar way, so it’s hard to imagine anything outside of that as equating to ‘proper’ blackness.
I’m no longer ashamed to say that I feel like I’ve been playing catch-up ever since Uni and that often I don’t understand some of these deeper topics of conversation without taking time to really grasp them first. But what I still struggle with today is the shame I feel for not understanding them. My experiences, although different, are still very much valid and have shaped the ‘type’ of black that I am today. In preparation for this piece, I spoke to over 30 different black people who shared very similar sentiments, particularly on being made to feel like an outcast. Because I am black, I feel like I can’t ask questions, I should just know, right?
Sometimes it’s easier to just be who people expect me to be because the sting of being different, is just far too difficult to bother with. The thing is, I’m very aware of how this affects me even till today. I know how I switch up the lingo depending on who I’m speaking to or I’m careful not to bring up certain topics or crack certain jokes with certain people for fear of being ridiculed. Till this day I still get questions thrown at me based off my accent, the sort of music I enjoy and on the experiences I ‘should have had’ as a black person. It’s frustrating, it’s annoying and it’s destructive.
Admittedly, I also have to catch myself from time to time – we all do – from making comments or even questioning other people’s blackness. It truly is a form of othering. We are already demonised by the wider society, so it’s imperative that we don’t do it to ourselves. In some chilling and ironic way, when we need to stand together, we do just that, but when we don’t, we really don’t. This year I’m going to be doing what I’ve always been doing- learning more and doing more about the issues that affect people who look just like me.
This is just a small part of much wider conversation, but all I would ask from you is to accept my blackness in its totality, even if you don’t recognise it, so I truly feel like I have the freedom to be who I really am – black.
Written by Bolu Bello