October 29, 2014
(Cross-posted from Petals fall from my afro like Autumn)
It’s funny after all these months that I have come back to race. But I suppose it is somewhat unavoidable as a thinking point when you goes to a talk entitled: Black Feminism 101: Reclaiming Space in Mainstream Feminism, facilitated, by a young woman who was one of the founders of Black Feminists, a London-based group. If you look back at my first dozen posts, their ALL about race, as was my creative enquiry of the time, but looking at it now, I have perhaps made somewhat of a subconscious point of not mentioning it since. Moving from London, back to Scotland had the wonderful effect of liberatingly (if very slightly disappointingly) reminding me that I am not an exotic one-off representative of all women/artists/people of colour in the world. I am only me, one of many types, as well as completely unique. But no more unique than anyone else.
The conclusion, to put it simply, of my three-month-long (or arguably life-long) study of my own racial, or perhaps ‘raced’ self was that I can identify however I want to, and that these labels are not only allowed to, but really should be flexible, fluid, morphing and evolving just as I am. Yet last week, at this talk, I found myself confronted with this question once again, quietly, in my own mind:Am I Black enough to be here? I didn’t even know I was asking this question, although I knew I was aware of the clipped well-spoken qualities of my accent, African-print earrings, the bohemian assumptions flowing from the hem of my black, empress-line dress, and battered, second-hand cowboy boots. All of which marking me out as not only potentially ‘Superficially Black’, but also a potential ‘Wannabe White’. Simplified, exaggerated, un-politically correct terms, clumsy in the mouth and awkward on the tongue like a dirty word no-one wants to hear, but that everyone whispers behind their hands in the dark. Terms I shun, look down on, frown into submission, but never-the-less acknowledge as living breathing, potentially powerful images in their own right, images with connotations that can divide, can ridicule, can hurt, can isolate.
So whilst my subconscious was reluctantly sidling through this dangerous territory of chasms, curses and calamities, I got distracted. The talk had ended and I was trying to give my card to a girl who had asked for it, but was now engaged in another conversation. Eventually, wanting to leave I involved myself in their conversation – hoping to avoid interrupting, but still leave my details and make a quick escape. One white and small, one black and tall, and me standing there in the middle. Somehow they drew me in, and, the talk being over, I let my guard down, stopped worrying so much about how I portrayed myself, or the language I used and professed my truths: I, personally felt uncomfortable with this exclusive grouping of women, who identified as ‘Black’ and ‘Feminist’ both things that at times I identified with. Yet they put together two expansively diverse and multi-faceted words and came out with what felt to me to be a very single minded definition, and one that I didn’t associate with. I had no problem at all with the group, of course I didn’t, and I was very happy that women met and found solidarity and comfort and a voice there, it just wasn’t for me,
At which point she interrupted with a beautifully careless, “Sorry – can I just interrupt you? Your not Black.”
And you know what? I was crushed. I felt utterly obliterated and unqualified to speak. I felt like a phoney. A white sheep running with the black flock, desperately hoping they wouldn’t notice that she wasn’t one of them. I laughed nervously, buying myself time, trying to find the words, to sound confident, sure of myself, calm, collected. “Well, I stumbled, I identify differently depending on the circles I’m in, and actually claiming the word ‘Black’ has been a very important part of my own journey of identification” “But,” She interrupts again, “You shouldn’t feel like you have to identify as black, when, you know, your not, your Mixed Race.” “Of course not!” I laughed, falsely trying to play her at her own game, to reject the slightly pitying motherly eye she had now turned towards me, looking down at me. I tried to make the very notion of such a thing seem ridiculous, and her ridiculous in mentioning it. The she looked away, her interest faltering.
Or so it seemed to me, in my flustered defensive state, she was every Black woman who had ever laughed in my face, or told me I wanted to be white, or wished I was white, or said I wasn’t Black enough, or called me ‘coconut’, or even ‘Bounty’.
I excused myself fairly rapidly after that, in fact I don’t even remember much of the latter conversation, my mind was reeling. It was only afterwards, walking home that I begun to get angry. Who was she after all to say who was and wasn’t whatever they chose to define themselves as? I berated myself for being so pathetic in my response. I should have said, ‘I identify as Black because I see it as a political statement. A statement of solidarity, recognition, of acknowledgement, and of positioning’ – my whole dissertation concluded with ‘positioning’ – i.e that we are all positioned somewhere in the social and political conversation, and our job as conscious individually-minded human beings is to chooses where that is, and then stand by that position – ‘but I would be really interested to hear what your definition is (as you seem to think you can universally decide who does and who doesn’t deserve the grand title of Black!). Well – perhaps not the last bit…
Hours later, on the phone to my friend Cristian, who is Colombian I was still going on about it, and relaying how shaken and cowed I had been. ‘Ama, he said calmly. There will always be people who want to tell you who you are and who you are not allowed to be. If they feel they have a definition of Blackness that you do not conform to then forget it, their not worth bothering with – just let it go. You have to live by your own definitions.’ And of course he is right, and of course, I know this. If it had happened to someone else, I could easily have dished out the same calmly uttered wisdom. But somehow it had still gotten to me, after all these years, and a whole dissertation on the subject-later, I was still completely out of my comfort zone, feeling a complete outsider. And you know what, other than going on, of course going on (always on!), I have no solution..not yet, not tonight. But tomorrow, I guess, maybe.
Ama Budge: A performance artist turned freelance writer commenting on gender inequalities, reflecting on my own challenges and experiences as a mixed-race Londoner and most importantly taking note, in awe, of the extraordinary resilience of human kinds striving for be better, and to love.