Staffs Graduate, Leah Mahon, shares her experience.
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My time at university began almost six years ago.
It was a vivid and almost momentous moment for me, as it was for most 18-year-olds beginning this long and unpredictable journey. As I look back at those times, I saw nothing but the university experience for what it was, and knew that thousands were going through it right next door to right across the country. I took a weird sort of comfort in that, but beneath that generic gaze of a new chapter was a different type of path I was about to begin on.
I was a student just like everyone else, but soon I realised how being a black student was altering my experience. It was with a fair bit of naivety that I thought the only way of experiencing my blackness negatively was through racism. However, what initially began to shape my experience as a black student came from the other black students around me.
Being black - or being black enough - became a part of my every day, lived experience.
Being black - or being black enough - became a part of my every day, lived experience. On nights out, it stemmed from having to know the newest Drake song, or the newest slang social media was passing around. It was the expectation from everyone to start twerking when the beat dropped, and not to “dance like a white girl” on a Gobble night. It was having the smallest waist and the biggest ass, but making sure the other black girl across the room didn’t think that you were better than them. After all, there was only enough space for one pretty black girl.
I had to twerk, because that’s what Nikki Minaj told you in a song. I had to know all the newest black artists, because all of your black friends knew them. I had to be loud, and I had to be hype. I had to have “sass”. But, in truth I wasn’t quite enough of any of those things. Rather suddenly, and automatically, I found myself in a strange and exhausting paradox of being too white for the people that looked like me, and too black for the ones that didn’t. Yet neither side really knew me, or the weird paradox I was caught in.
The very people who looked like me, in groups and cliques across the university, whom created a sort of safe haven and protection for each other amongst all the adversities we would have to endure, a sense of familiarity and comfort, were the very ones that were creating this unspoken and silent dichotomy amongst the atmosphere.
The only way to just be, I felt was to be a walking stereotype, another caricature of what a black person – a black woman - should be like. Reflected across popular music, new slang and dance trends, it was the Americanisation of what it meant to be black, or to embrace black culture. A sentiment that also echoed throughout almost everyone else that didn’t look like us.
But whom I was and my culture was much, much more.
My Caribbean heritage, across the islands of Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago, was embedded in stories of colonialism and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Albeit, an undeniable part of me and my history, it was not the only part that I had to identify with and not the only story I had to tell.
My “black culture” ran deep into the mix of Indian and Chinese spices in our national dishes, the colonial presence in our patois to our way of life, and even the celebration of carnival. Other black culture had origins in Africa and within their very tribes, across Somalia, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Others as African-Americans, and others as Afro-Latin Americans.
Black culture and being black had become a monolith that society has perpetuated across generational stereotypes. However, this incredible and immense diaspora that were left afterwards, still harboured those same clouded perspectives, re-inventing itself in new and silent ways. Almost trapped and unbreakable from the boxes that we’ve been told we have to be in, and the one’s we are only accepted in because they are “cool” and on trend. As a consequence, the very boxes we keep each other in are just as oppressing, and the boxes we refuse to discover and inhabit are too.
From the very start of university to the moment I bid farewell, I still believed in being able to love and identify with what speaks to me the most, and most of all allowing others to do the same without judgement.
It had become a frequent pattern for me wherever I found myself. My beginnings were in classical piano, and the ballet. Coldplay lyrics resonated with me the most. I loved the works of Jane Austen and Kazuo Ishiguro; I read poetry from W.H. Auden. It wasn’t about being a “white girl” or liking “white people things.” For me, I went where ever my heart took me.
The story of Motown, the works of Fredrick Douglas, William Wilberforce and Madame C.J. Walker all had found a place there. It went beyond the 1960s civil rights movement that had become the one and only representation for the black experience, but rather I was enthralled by the Wind Rush generation that called Britain home in 1948, and the thousands of West Indians whom contributed to the war and post-war effort. The Black Tudors that lived throughout 16th century England, and were not slaves.
Those were “black enough” for me.
The journey to understanding and accepting the skin we are in transcends having the loosest curl pattern in the room, or twerking in rhythm. It’s an internal process of accepting one’s self on the outside despite what everyone is telling and us – our darker skin, our coarser hair, our beautiful bodies – right up to whom we are on the inside. Now, it’s up to those apart of this vast diaspora to dismantle our psyches and processes embedded within us from our history, and to rediscover new ones that allow us all to just be; simultaneously along the way letting what resonates with our hearts lead the way on this journey.
Being black, our blackness is wonderful and incredible, it’s soul-searching and awe-inspiring. It’s not a monolith. It’s not just one box; it’s all the boxes that make up this bold and beautiful African diaspora.
It’s diverse, and bountiful. It’s an ever-going journey, and it is always enough.
This article is part of our Black History Month Game Changer. Join the discussion on social media using #ProudToBeBlack and #WeAreStaffs.