Being black and British: the identity crisis I did not ask for

Black ands white photo of a Black Lives Matter protest. Two young women holding up posters that read: "The UK is not innocent" and "Not anti-white, not anti-black, anti-racist".
Paige and her best friend at a Black Lives Matter protest in Surrey. Photo credit: on Instagram

I held my breath as I sat down to watch Meghan Markle divulge her experience as the first mixed race royal family member. As a black British woman, I knew this would trigger some unpleasant emotions, especially as I watched in my university home with my all-white university housemates. I felt unsettled, anxious one of them would say something against her, and I’d have to come to defend the entire black race. It is just something I do not have the energy to do. They all kept very quiet throughout.

Black and British: one person cannot change generations of systemic racism

Similarly to the brutal George Floyd attack, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex interview felt like an attack on all black people and all non-white folk. I recall how devastated I was, like many, with the Floyd murder. I cried. I protested. I posted on Instagram. I signed petitions. I had arguments with my beloved school friends about it all.

I even wrote an open letter, with one of the only other black girls, to my small private school demanding a change in the curriculum. It did not seem to stick. Turns out one person cannot change generations of ingrained systemic racism.

The interview with Meghan had made me feel the same way: angry with nowhere to direct the momentum it gave me. That is why you are reading these words. This is me doing something about it.

Please do not call me ‘BAME’ − it’s insulting…

So firstly, and briefly, as a black sociologist I do not like the term BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic). I find it ‘others’ the ethnic population from our white counterparts.

Interestingly, back in 2015 an article in the Guardian asked: “Is it time to ditch the term BAME?” It found that BME or BAME is an outdated term and “exists to purely tidy away the messy jumble of real human beings who share only one characteristic … that they do not have white skin”.

The acronyms are “divisive and serve to mask the disadvantages suffered by specific ethnic and cultural groups”. BAME includes a large group of cultures, races, ethnicities and it is really important to not treat them all as one homogeneous group.

Abstract black and white artwork (acrylic-based) by Paige Furlonge-Walker.
‘White Privilege’, artwork by Paige Furlonge-Walker

Yes, you can be black and middle class 

As a young black girl, born and raised in the home counties, I have been extremely lucky growing up. I went to a very small girls’ private school in Surrey. I have ‘clipped tones’ that symbolise the countryside I call home. I played lacrosse in PE and had a friend who owned horses, swimming pools and called her mum ‘mummy’.

All my life, I have ‘blended’ in with the white girls because that is all I knew. I have been privileged. I am at a ‘good’ university studying a ‘good’ degree and I can call my dad if I need some more funds for booze or my pasta addiction needs feeding.

But it was only in my first year of university that I met another black person my age. Her name was Siji and we met at lacrosse training on one cold Tuesday evening. Her complexion was little darker than my own. I was excited and somewhat surprised to meet a fellow black girl at lacrosse.

We got on like a house on fire, as if we’d been friends forever. I think this happens with a lot of black people, or at least a lot of black people that I have met. There is this underlying connection, as if we are bound by the inequality with which we have come to live.

Throwing fuel on the fire

As someone who has faced some mental health issues, I felt personally attacked by the outrage on social media platforms and the mainstream media (Piers Morgan) after the Oprah interview. You do not get to decide if someone was or was not suicidal.

I felt as if the negative reaction to Meghan was a symbol of denial from the British people, more concerned about being labelled a racist than about actually living in a racist society.

This is something that black British people have heard all too often. And just because the British are not overtly racist like Americans, carrying guns and having a clear divide between black and white, does not mean racism does not exist in Britain.

Personally, I find the micro-aggressions are the more painful. They are so nuanced you don’t even think it is that bad, and if you go through your life without a white person calling you the N word you should be grateful, right?

“This is the identity crisis I did not ask for. I was, and not for the first time, questioning why I was black. Why I have to face such inequality that the majority of my friends and peers do not. And if there is a God why did he choose this for me?”

Imagine this is the sort of thing that runs through my mind as I pop to my local Sainsbury’s or meet someone new on a Zoom call when I have had too much to drink, or wonder why boys are not interested.

And when, on the news, someone is suspected of murder, I pray that it is not a black man. If it is, I cringe. He is letting down the team. That crime now gives the ignorant white people the excuse to say, “see I told you black men are bad men!” and there is a slight rise in hate crime for the black community.

I am sick of standing up for people I feel indifferent about. Like most of us, I do not know Meghan Markle, but after that interview I feel closer to her. I feel like it is my responsibility, when in a group of all white people, to stand up for her, to back her. This happens often and this is exhausting.

Advice from a black woman…

I tell my fellow white girlfriends not to be afraid to ask questions and to pursue the idea of ‘doing better’ and not to hesitate, even if you think you may be saying something wrong. More often than not the black person is happy you are willing to unlearn your bias and grasp a better understanding of what it means to be black in the UK.

I often joke and say I’d rather you say something wrong to me, your friend, than to a black colleague you may have in three to five years and get pulled up with HR or something. Having the conversation is the most important thing and I urge every white person to speak to your white friends about it, without a black or person of colour mediator to referee.

Yet I would refrain from direct messaging that old friend or even that girl you met from your gap year or first year uni accommodation out of the blue to ask “what can I do better?” or “what books would you recommend?”

We are not spokespeople for black liberation or experts in systemic racism. We are just people who have faced these inequalities. And I cannot stress this enough.

You wouldn’t ask a random white person “Can you tell me what books to read on the Victorian era?” It wouldn’t happen because that is absurd. If you are stuck on where to start, google it.

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