As part of my voluntary work on the Amplify Black Voices UK project, I have been running short portrait sessions with people who have stories they want to share. You can find Claudette's words below. Please take time to consider her words, and also check out the UK-wide project to learn more and discover more personal stories.
I was blessed enough to emigrate to England at the age of five after a beautiful start to life back home. Because of this, I’m hyper aware of the extra opportunities I have here that I would not have had and try to maximise them. This means through the good and bad I try to remind myself to put a positive spin on things because as bad as it might be, someone else’s reality is worse. I have very clear memories of what I now know are termed ‘microaggressions’ during secondary school here. I was always the token black girl and continue to be in many environments in my adult life but it's taken a very long time for me to be okay with it. I often hoped to meet more young black women like myself living in the UK and even signed up to do a pageant in the hope I could meet some life long friends. Well life happened and we didn’t really stay in contact after about 5 years but I did walk away with three titles and meet my future husband that night instead so I won in other ways! As a teenager, whilst I didn’t rebel spectacularly, internally, I was the walking definition of the term ‘culture clash’. I didn’t wholly fit my African heritage as I couldn’t speak our tribe's language- we only spoke English at home- and simultaneously, my British upbringing didn’t fit harmoniously with the way I looked, the music and food I loved and the values I held dear. I couldn’t reconcile who I was “meant to be” because I was “too British” for my extended family and black peers at school but clearly I was also much too African-looking to sound as British as I do! I was mugged once by a group of white neighbourhood kids on my paper round- somehow I didn’t let them get my bike but I saw them around all the time and my stomach was always in knots worrying for my safety or worse still if anyone would believe me if I told on them. So I never did. I knew back then, their words held more ground than mine. I wonder how many of these events go unreported and unnoticed? My childhood bullies often referred to me as an “Oreo” or “the coconut” and also “Bounty bar”. There were worse names too but whilst these all sounded like innocent sweet treats that couldn’t possibly cause hurt, they stuck with me more than the overt racially motivated attacks. The insult behind these slurs -as they were then intended- lay in the insinuation that my blackness is only skin deep and really I’m a wannabe white person inside dying to get out and to be set free. It has taken me years to understand that the insult isn’t in the comparison of my skin colour at all but really in the suggestion that I SHOULD in actuality be white and being black was lesser than or even I should WISH to be white and I therefore “talk white”- whatever that means - in order to make up blood my extra melanin transgression or mistake. This accent, it’s just a product of my environment, I’m not role-playing or acting being me. I just am. People I meet are often surprised as I very quickly erase their initial perception of what they expect the average black woman is going to sound like thanks to media portrayals and small mindedness. I am fully aware that I may be one of the very few black people some of my neighbours/ acquaintances meet on a regular basis and it has become very important to me that I help break down the stereotypes. By just being me. We all have instances we wish we could rewind time and go back to as we think of better comebacks after that person has walked away. Mine will forever be to the twenty-something white girl who I welcomed into my home as a guest. She ate my food (jollof rice included as standard) then proceeded to tell me in so many words that she considered herself more black than me because she sounded more “ghetto” and she also didn’t know that black people even drank wine or ate cheese. I would love to tell her, you might know black people, but our melanin doesn’t rub off the more time you spend socialising with us. Do not for a millisecond think black people are defined by anything other than DNA which displays more melanin than yours does. I won’t be held by your imbecilic boundaries and in fact, I quite enjoy pushing them. I’d say other things to her too but that’s all I’ll publish on here!!