Too often growing up, I was told that my music taste, reading habits and behavioural traits were “too white”. I was “black on the outside but white on the inside.” People proudly proclaimed that I would definitely end up “marrying a white guy” (note the assumption of heterosexuality) because I listened to music by men with ponytails and read books by Thomas Hardy. I’ve only now come to realise what a damaging assertion this is. Not only does it reinforce the idea that there is only one way to be “black”, as if black reality has not diversified, but it led to many an anxious thought that I was not an authentic person. There is a joke that there are two types of black people in Britain who are easily distinguishable by the question “Where are you from?” Type A tells you “Edmonton, North London”. Type B says “Nigeria.” For context, growing up I was type A. That question has always seemed like a trap to me because you inevitably end up sacrificing a part of your identity. I am undeniably British, that is my nationality. I am also undeniably Yoruba – that is my ethnicity. There is no simple answer to such a question.
This idea of white and black attitudes, behaviours or ways of being is perhaps most pressing for those racialised as mixed or who identify as mixed race. When your duality is written across your face in that way, I doubt there have not been moments where you have felt between the two obvious ‘halves’ of yourself, trying to battle amongst a myriad of identities.
The proclamation that I am “white” because I like “white things” – like reading, Starbucks and Urban Outfitters (all charges that, believe it or not, that have been placed before me) – is not only deeply racist but limiting. If being white means reading, speaking “well,” being creative, liking art – what does it mean to be “the other”? Does being black mean being uneducated, speaking “poorly” and lacking cultural capital? Of course it does not, but the reduction of one’s identity to the statement “You are too white” or “You’re not really black” creates a binary of extremes. It stifles black creative voices or the voices of those who do not suit preconceived notions of ‘blackness’ by suggesting that they are untruthful. It assumes that liking said activities means that somehow I am betraying who I really am – as if my own identity had already been formulated for me and I merely had to step into it, slip it on.
In terms of the normalisation of whiteness, I do believe that there are legitimate criticisms that can be levelled against the children of western immigrants that concern a Eurocentric world view encouraged by a racist curriculum, the pressure to conform to European standards of beauty and so on. All too often though, the idea of clinging to whiteness leads to a crisis in black reality. One which I believe distracts all efforts to challenge, disrupt and eliminate a system in which people of colour are viewed as inferior or ‘less than’. It also throws up a question that I firmly believe should be left in the past, or the bin: “Am I authentically black?” There is no way to be authentically black. Your tastes do not determine your authenticity. Nor should you feel compelled to support the work of an individual just because you share an experience. For example, even though Tyler Perry and I are both people of colour I HATE his films with a fiery passion, but that is for another day.
In an interview with Bookworm, Zadie Smith said something that has always resonated with me “[t]he idea that you can even be less authentic than you are, is nonsense. To struggle under that idea, to concern yourself constantly with your identity…seems to me a kind of prison.” If you take one thing away from reading this piece, let it be this idea. Groups are not homogenous, monolithic masses; they allow for difference. You do not need to ‘try’ and be anything because black culture, indeed every culture, is multifaceted.
“Who Am I?” is a valid and exciting question, one that has dominated the literature I have to read for my degree. In no way am I advocating the abandonment of labels which undoubtedly hold societal value. I am instead suggesting that there no behavioural traits or ways of being that make a “black person” or an “Asian person” or a “gay/trans/queer person.” This does not mean that distinct cultures do not exist; it simply means that you do not have to try and be something that you are. There are no generalisations that you can make about a single group of people that will be true – unless you are referring to any oppression they may experience due to their systematic exclusion. It is accurate to argue that most if not all people of colour living in the western world have experienced some kind of microagression – but it not accurate to argue that all black people like rap music. This is elementary stuff, hanging on to stereotypes about what it means to be “black” or “white” is dangerous because it does not allow people to exist comfortably or to recognise the validity of their lived experience.
We are all different, even people who share common traits, whether it be race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or ability. We are also capable of believing in two or more things at once. As a cisgender black girl and an English student, I firmly believe that it is possible to empathise and love characters that do not share my experience. Jane Eyre resonates with me for many reasons. I also recognise the importance of seeing characters who look like me in the literature that I study. I am made up of a plethora of influences – some which were easily available to me, (like the writings of white people) and some that I had to search out (literature, art and film by people of colour)
To anyone struggling, remember that your tastes can never betray your identity. You are allowed to be two or more things at once, to be nuanced and complex, to have many interests, sometimes opposing. It is called being a human being.