• Amber Corbett

Don’t Touch My Hair: My Experience With Race

The time following the death of George Floyd has been an immensely difficult period of introspection; filled with trauma, deep reflection, and anger. I am angry at the outside world, but I've also felt anger towards myself and an inability to articulate this cruel disparity. A disconnect has brought me to the page and the healing process begins with connecting the dots of my experience. Whilst my ‘woke’ white friends are sharing, educating, making brilliant noise, and advocating for change... I sit here, silent, unable to utter a word. Whilst my Instagram feed is cluttered with tokenistic anti-racist gestures from white people who have never whispered a word of solidarity before this, I get angry and I get really sad but, still, I sit here... silent. Remember that whilst I am mourning the loss of all the beautiful and amazing black men and women who die every day at the hands of racism, I am also mourning the loss of friendships and white 'allies' I thought that I had. This time for any person of colour has been hard. It's an endless journey of emotions that I’m sure we have not all finished yet. I’ve been thinking long and hard about the ways in which I can make a change and how I can use my black voice to open some closed eyes. Writing this is how I intend to do that. Listen. Learn.

I am a mixed raced, Woman Of Colour who grew up in a predominately white community in the North West. I am speaking to my peers here as I address the sheltered community I grew up in. Your insulated mindsets must change. Whilst I can acknowledge that I am in a position of privilege: ‘light-skinned’, middle class. I have never been a victim of violent racism. However, this does not diminish my black voice and my pain.

I believe that awareness is evoked from an attempt to understand experiences, so learn to listen with an open heart and mind, and leave your prejudice at the door. Being ‘not racist’ is not good enough. Posting a black square is not good enough. Being heartbroken by the death of George Floyd is NOT good enough. Amplify and listen to black voices, educate yourself on the wrong-doings of your race in history, and how this has impacted a present, systemic racist system. Show your support through signing petitions, use your white voice to share educational resources, acknowledge your privilege, and learn to feel guilty. Your white guilt does not cure anything, but learning why you feel this way, is a good place to start. ONCE black lives matter, ALL lives will matter. So do not perpetuate the narrative of All Lives. It's unhelpful, ignorant, and quite frankly, dangerous rhetoric to push at this time.

My Dad, Dennis, a Consultant Paediatrician at Blackburn hospital. Born and raised in Hackney, London. My Mum, Lisa, a Physio at Accrington Pals. Born in Reading and raised in North Yorkshire.

I am British. I am a woman. I am a feminist. I am a socialist. I am a friend. I am a daughter. I am a sister. I am so many incredible things but on so many occasions all that is seen is my blackness. To many, I am just a black woman. A sassy, bossy, angry, hypersexual, black woman. Granted, I am all these things, but is this part of my identity simply because I’ve been told so at every possible opportunity throughout my life? Is my whole identity based around white supremacist ideologies that serve only the function of separatism? Am I a walking stereotype? Am I part of my own problem? These are questions I ask myself daily. Of course, I am not my own problem in this instance. But for one second, sit with this fact: I, a powerful woman of colour, still blame myself for my pain.

I remember the first time I realised being black made me different. I was eight or nine years old, attending a primary school where all the people of colour could be counted on one hand. My friend at the time explained that she had been reluctant to speak to me when I first moved to the school because, in her words, ‘you know...’. No, I replied, I didn’t know. She explained how the colour of my skin made her wary of me, presuming we couldn’t be friends. I remember finding the conversation genuinely funny, I remember laughing and telling her how stupid she sounded. How could I be any different from her just because of the colour of my skin? Looking back, I have tried to look at her with anger, but I cannot. How could I blame a nine-year-old girl for her prejudiced views when they are a direct product of the white supremacist society she was brought up in. She knew no different. However, I think from this point on, I began to see myself differently. An outsider in my home. An outsider in my country, the country where my parents, and I, were born and raised.

I remember in Year Six, our class had an ‘Around the World’ day. We were all allocated countries to bring in food from. One friend, a white boy, had been allocated to Pakistan. (Perhaps this highlights the problem as a microcosm - a white boy, teaching a group of predominately white people, about another culture?) Anyway, I remember thinking one of the dishes he had brought looked great and, eager to learn, I asked him about it, but the boy did not think educating the ‘brown girl’ was necessary. I remember him, looking at me and saying, ‘You should know.’ Naively, I asked why? To which he responded 'You’re a bloody P*ki, aren’t you?’ I remember being angry, shouting ‘No, I’m from Montserrat’ and rolling my eyes because, even at such a young age, his ignorance pained me. I should never have had to justify my questions and a willingness to learn because of the colour of my skin. I remember the group laughing at his response. I felt isolated and thought I was genuinely in the wrong for being upset and raising my confusion over his words? Now, there are so many levels of ignorance and racism here to unpack, but, again, I do not blame this boy, I blame his parents, I blame his society.

Don't Touch My Hair- Solange

I have presented these two stories as examples of the racism I received throughout primary school. I think it is essential to hear stories from childhood because it allows you to see the dangers of not educating our children of racism from a young age. If we do not educate our children we allow them to echo our vile society, we allow them to grow without the understanding needed for change and we allow them to think that where we are now is acceptable. That my treatment was acceptable. This cannot be the norm. Not anymore.

I remember when I was 14, I got my first proper boyfriend. I remember, for the first time in my life, I felt so attractive, really confident in both my appearance and who I was (the fact male validation gave me this is a different matter altogether). This was quickly torn down, and the destruction of that feeling is something that I think has scarred me to this day. I was at school and my white friend reported to me a conversation she had just overheard between my boyfriend’s friends. They had expressed to each other that whilst they were happy for him, they ‘wouldn’t want to even touch me’, because I was black. My white friend retold their vile words. But she did not call them out. I was too scared and upset to call them out and when I asked my boyfriend to do so, he said he could not. After all, they were his friends. I was horrified by all aspects of this, by everyone involved, but I forgave it because I was embarrassed.

Last year, I was put in a group chat of around 20 people from Rossendale, made for a friend’s birthday. In this chat, pictures began to circulate of a white boy’s dad and his new black girlfriend. The disgusting comments made about this beautiful woman of colour triggered an emotional breakdown within me. They called her a ‘blackie’, 'savage', 'an animal', they painted this innocent woman as a hypersexual beast, because of the colour of her skin. My close friends expressed their horror to me, but not to them. Meanwhile, I sat in bed, crying. I felt pain for this woman and silenced by white men. Unable to stand up to them. I felt scared and alone. If you sit back watching racism go by, if you do not call people out, you are part of the problem. You have to be active and you have to be angry. Most importantly, you have to make your voice heard. It is not my job, as a black woman, to 'call out' this behaviour amongst white peers. I am hurt.

Rossendale, Lancashire. Population of 71,000. 90.6% White British 5.6% Asian

Like every person of colour, I could write a novel about my personal experiences with racism but once again, it is not my job to educate you. Listen, learn, and do your own work. Let me leave you with this. I have told you my stories because I need you to hear my pain. Although you may never understand, it is crucial that you try. Throughout my life I have been silenced by white people, I have grown up in a society where calling people out makes me nothing more than an 'angry black woman'. (Look up Misogynoir, coined by black, queer, feminist Moya Bailey as 'misogyny directed towards black women where race and gender both play roles in bias.') I want you to see how this is wrong. I want you to change this. Next time you hear racist comments or jokes, whether that be towards people of colour or based on religion or beliefs. Don’t laugh it off. It is not banter. It is blatant racism.

So, what can you do? 1. Don’t touch my hair. There is a fine line between appreciation and appropriation. Stealing our culture for your own gain is appropriation. It is not enough to ‘appreciate’ black culture. Listening to hip hop and grime and worshipping black footballers does not make you not racist, especially when you seem unable to educate yourself of their history. It is not enough to fetishise black men whilst stamping out the voices of black women. Don’t let white women steal our beautiful black features and claim them as their own, leaving black women gaining no recognition for their beauty. Don’t touch my hair, touching me without my consent is singling me out for being different and petting me as if I am an animal. Don’t braid your hair, because braiding evolved from slavery. Don’t dread your hair, because it is part of a religion. Don’t sing the 'n word' in songs. DO the relevant research here. This isn't just because I find it offensive but because black people have spent years trying to reclaim this word, it is not your word to take. Do not continue the legacy of your ancestors by taking something that does not, and will never belong to you.

It is not the job of black people to educate you, it is your job. Educate yourself, get angry, feel guilty, be active, do not tolerate racism in any form, and make sure this momentum does not slow down. The time is now.

To conclude I want to quote myself. I wrote this to my friends a couple of weeks ago and I believe it is important for all your reflection: ‘You should all feel white guilt every day. You should all acknowledge you privilege every day.’

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BABYSTEP MAGAZINE Est. 2017