The Paradox of Race – #blackonblack

In #blackonblack, Features, HOME, LIFE by Sam Prance

#blackonblack is a feature in which black people discuss black culture/black experiences/black everything.

The impetus for this article happened a few weeks ago.

11156756_10152763549086120_1831192551_nChilling on Spring Break.

I was on spring break in Mexico, with a large group of friends. On a day trip I was approached by a Mexican man who asked me to take a picture for him. I assumed he wanted me to take it of him and his infant son, and reached for the camera. He corrected me; the picture was to be of me, holding his little boy. I was confused but still game; I love children. Then he turned to my friend, the only other black person on the tour and asked if he could have a picture with him also. My friend and I locked eyes in a weary moment of mutual epiphany. I looked down at my tribal patterned dress and bitterly wished I’d worn something a bit more muted.

Until that moment, I hadn’t connected this to my race, but here came the reminder that not just tourists, my friend and I doubled as attractions on this tour. Now protesting at this suddenly awkward situation, the stranger still insisted on shunting his clearly alarmed and similarly protesting child into my arms.

I took the picture. It didn’t seem worth the time it would take to explain to this man why this made me uncomfortable. The toddler very vocally resisted taking a picture with my friend, even though his dad tried very hard to convince him to pose ‘con negro’, so he took the opportunity to duck out of this situation, only to be summoned an hour later to pose with the father. This whole situation made me fairly cross. It may not seem like much to you, but it’s by no means the first time a stranger has taken a photo with me like this, and that day I just reached one of dozens of little breaking points I have had, and fumed for about an hour. Worst of all, my friends simply couldn’t understand my distress. I was told to ‘just let it go, because there was no point getting upset about it’ and asked ‘but I thought you’d love that, you love children?’

PicturesI have a weakness for babies and animals.

It’s difficult, looking at an isolated incident to understand how draining this kind of experience can be in the long-term. I don’t mean to suggest that people don’t understand my woes; when I’ve spoken to my friends about some of these fools who seem to lack basic human empathy for the most part they are pretty horrified. A particularly empathetic friend of mine put it best: ‘Imagine being the sort of person to take a picture with a stranger the same way you might take a picture standing in front of the Eiffel tower or the pyramids.’ Needless to say, I am not a pyramid. Except clearly, I do need to say it.

To be seen and judged as an individual, independent of race or creed is a freedom most people in the Western world consider their right. Most people wouldn’t even aspire to this as a goal, as it seems so integral to our society. And yet, it is a right that I do not have. Every now and again, something happens to remind me that I am not just a person, but I am a black person. More rarely, but still on occasion, that something will serve to show me that the fact of my blackness is actually more relevant than my personhood. I think that this dilemma is unique to the racial minority; we are told that our society has moved on and is ‘post-racial’, but we are likewise reminded hundreds of times daily that we are not the norm.

My race is still so relevant to my discourse, because society at large forces it to be. A feature like this, which showcases the ‘black voice’ feels so exposing to write – I don’t want my problems, and my style of writing, and my voice to be bound in that realm. The thought of anyone derisively labelling this an angry feminist, racialised rant makes me want to scream. But that’s a part of who I am: an angry, feminist black voice. The first article I’ve ever written is about my struggle as a black person; a paradoxical situation, it nearly undermines my whole argument about wanting to be seen as just a person. But this feature is so necessary, because when the problem of race is mentioned, specifically the different way I am still treated as a result of my race, I am hushed, told I am being ‘too sensitive’ by those that I love, those that I expect to listen.

The paradox is draining: my day to day life of just being a person is interrupted by a series of people who wish to put the ‘black’ back in my descriptor. If the ignorance of the comment, of the moment is too overwhelming and I feel the rare urge to let someone know of the miniature devastation I have just experienced, a standard response to my bitter sadness is that I’m being ‘oversensitive’. I’m questioned on the accuracy of what happened; ‘am I certain it was race-related?’ I am asked why I have to make everything about race. What you must understand is that if I had the option to ‘not make everything about race’ I would. I would happily be considered raceless if it meant I could be judged on things that I have more control over than the melanin content of my skin, but it seems that to many people my race is my defining characteristic.

Some of these offences are minor. Laughable ignorances from people I don’t know, who mean nothing to me. Having someone plunge their whole hand into my freshly washed hair, and then complain about the product I’ve put in it. Being asked in most club situations if I know how to twerk. Being hit on because some guy has ‘ always wanted to slay an ebony girl’, something which is sadly a verbatim quote. If these incidents were less frequent they may not have fazed me and they may not continue to play on my mind at all.

11119454_10152763550461120_133030251_nThe joys of Tinder.

Some offences are major. If you consider yourself a friend of mine and you are still unable to see beyond my blackness, chances are I know this and do not consider you a friend of mine at all. If I am token to you, you are nothing to me. ‘Rianna, you’re black, you should know about X Y Z’. ‘You are the whitest black person I’ve ever met’ or once, tragically, hysterically, just ‘Rianna, why are you so black?!’ Please imagine how ludicrous it would be for me to reverse this. To tug on your hair without permission, to preface any flirtation with how attractive or worse ‘exotic’ I find your whole race rather than you individually, to make vast assumptions about your character, your upbringing, your intelligence based solely on skin colour.

I think of myself as a ‘black girl’ – my blackness is wound up with my femininity, with my persona, because others have told me so. I have always been placed on a sliding scale of ‘blackness’ by pretty much everyone, black people included. The factors that determine where I sit on this societal scale are outrageous: my middle-class background, my education, my speaking style all count to make me ‘less black’. Essentially, this marks a pervasive view that to my horror has infiltrated and limited the black community from the inside; markers of success are not natural to black people; they are reserved for other races. 

Here is my ‘black voice’. It’s also just my voice, my experience, and I can’t and won’t vocalise the experiences of millions of black people. But it is something to consider. These are not isolated incidents, I am not the only victim, and these microaggressions are absolutely absurd. Most microaggressions are not meant in offence, I know that and it makes me feel conflicted when I do take offence, but they are piling up and I am drowning.

Rianna Walcott

Rianna is very nearly 21, and an Edinburgh Uni student masquerading as a UCLA Bruin for the year. She is an English Literature student, but thinks she is a Music student. Her life revolves around looking at babies and crying, the near constant stream of jazz she sings, and sleeping all of the rest of the time.

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(Image sourced from: here)