I Wish My Blackness Didn’t Matter.
My colour is not my identity.
I was the second black student ever to attend my school. The first was my sister five years earlier. I was told that this was important but I couldn’t quite understand why it mattered.
This trend continued throughout my education. I was the second black pupil my piano teacher ever had. The first was my sister. I was the second black child to attend elocution lessons at the home of a nice old lady named Mrs Thompson. The first was my sister. My dad had insisted that we go so that we would speak English properly. He didn’t want us to be treated differently because of the colour of my skin. I couldn’t quite understand why it matters when I spoke the same way that all my friends did.
I was, believe it or not, the only black sprinter in the local athletics club. My sister wasn’t much of a sprinter so in this case, I was also the first. I grew up in a fast-growing, prosperous town in the South West of England with a population of around 150,000 people, and the only people I saw who looked like me were my family. It didn’t occur to me that this was remarkable until it was suggested to me years later.
Growing up I watched cartoons about giant robots and muscular white men who fought aliens and other giant robots. I spent hours every weekend watching their adventures. I only remember one of those characters being black but it didn’t matter to me. I watched the A-Team, and though I liked B. A. Baracus, my favourite character was “Face” because he was cool and had a nice car. I liked David Hasselhoff in Knight Rider for the same reason.
I was around 7 years old when the colour of my skin became an issue for the first time. A couple of kids in my school year walked up to me and called me “blackie”. There was no build-up to it. We didn’t know each other or have any feelings towards each other one way or another. There didn’t even seem to be any ill will. It was as if they were doing it on a dare.
After they said it, they just kind of stood there, awkwardly waiting to see how I’d react. I understood that I was supposed to be angry or hurt by their words but I honestly couldn’t understand why they mattered. I knew that people referred to people who looked like me as black, even though my skin was clearly brown, and the addition of “ie” to the word didn’t make me feel anything at all. The kids, apparently disappointed by my lack of reaction eventually slunk away. I was one of the bigger kids in my school so I guess they decided not to press the issue. That was the last time anyone at school tried to pick on me because of the colour of my skin.
When I got home from school I told my mum about what had happened and she got very upset. She asked me if I was okay and if I wanted to talk about what had happened. She asked if I’d spoken to a teacher about it or if I was worried that the boys might bother me again in future. I said no, but it didn’t seem to calm her down. I tried to understand why it mattered but I couldn’t.
I’m well aware that my experience isn’t typical of all black people. This, of course, should go without saying. It would be very difficult to arrive at a description of life that could be considered typical for all black people. I can’t say whether my ambivalence about the colour of my skin is a product of growing up in an all-white environment, or of the fact that there weren’t any people back then telling me that there should be more people who looked like me, but to this day, I still don’t understand why the colour of my skin matters.
That’s not to say that I don’t care about issues that affect people with my skin colour. I care very much. I hate the fact that racism exists. I hate knowing that there are people in the world who despise people who look like me for the colour of their skin. I hate seeing us dehumanise and villify each other over something so insignificant.
This is why it bothers me so much that today’s children are being taught over and over and over again, in all kinds of subtle and not so subtle ways, that the colour of their skin isn’t insignificant. They’re not only taught that it matters, they’re taught that it will define their identity for as long as they live. That their skin will make them racists or underdogs, privileged or oppressed, tyrants or revolutionaries. Racism is something children learn, and they learn it from us.
I hope with every fibre of my being that they don’t absorb these lessons. Instead, I hope that they manage to grow up considering the colour of their skin to be as irrelevant as the colour of their eyes. I hope that they look back and see our society’s obsession with skin colour as an oddity. A curious relic of a time that has thankfully passed. Something that, try as they might, they can’t quite understand why any of it mattered.