In the wake of George Floyd’s death, I made a conscious decision not to engage with many of the stories, videos and online discussions. I uninstalled my Facebook and Twitter apps. I asked my Mum and sister to avoid playing one more documentary, one more YouTube video or article about the plight of Black people because I was working towards my final year examinations, but more importantly than that, I was emotionally exhausted from engaging and caring about race relations, like many other black people, for much of my life. Even when I did watch those documentaries or read those articles, I didn’t have any hot takes; I didn’t have the right answers. In fact, I was worried that my own takes were self-indulgent and self-consumed.
I have chosen to write this blog in a way that is not necessarily academic, “fact”-driven or argumentative. Often when I write like this, I feel like I’m on the defensive, trying to factually prove racism, feeling the need to draw the “centrist” in, use logic, “facts”, rationality to get them to see the world I see, but that is useless. Such sentiments have driven me to dedicate a third of my final year degree to prove the relationship between race and economic inequality. I am far too tired, cynical and drained for that, so I will let emotion and pessimism drive the following paragraphs.
In this moment, I feel empty, angry, uninterested and at times, depressed. There are few days in my life when I do not think about being Black. But as a soon-to-be graduate, I feel the need to “grow up” and let this part of myself, the race-obsessed, “angry black girl” go. In white workplaces, with white colleagues, white bosses, white friends, this anger cannot be productive. Surely it will hold me back, make it look like I am isolating myself or just hate white people. If I actively engage in race discussions and a fight for Black liberation, how will I be socially mobile? How will I outperform racism (loool… the trap of Black excellence, but that’s for another day)? How will I find peace, and joy in the other parts of my life? But as hard as I have tried in the last few weeks to push this part of myself away, at the very moment when more people have become politically and racially conscious, I have been unsuccessful.
A strong racial consciousness has given me the tools I need to make sense of the world around me: when my Mum and another women were fighting over the last newspaper in the newsagent and the lady said “it is not as if you read” to the time when racists approached my sister and I in the park, asking if we “knew the way back to Africa”, to my first year supervision when my critiques of Hannah Arendt were undermined as me being upset about “comments she made about Somalis and African Americans in university”. Identifying it as racism helped me keep my sanity- I was being treated differently because of something out of my hands. Without understanding and identifying racism, my own mental health would have been poorer.
Racial consciousness has made me angry, drained, agitated but at the same time, I like to think, insightful and nuanced. It is a strong racial consciousness, knowing that Black graduates are more likely to be unemployed than their white counterparts, despite similar grades and backgrounds, which propelled me to fight hard to get a graduate job even in lockdown. It is a strong political consciousness that has driven me to academic and emotional heights, propelled my mother and sister to work far harder and be far more resilient than their peers, because in a racist world, Black people frequently have to channel their trauma into tools for survival. Obviously, this is not how it should have to be, but as a Black person, for now, this is how it is.
Nevertheless, the terrorism of racism is exhausting, unsustainable and unhealthy. When people discuss the racial inequalities in Covid deaths, why do we not discuss how racism kills the black body from within? How racism, the violence of it, the chipping away of your soul, your spirit, can physically and mentally make you sick. Many members of my family and friends, all Black, have spoken about how the death of George Floyd has prevented them sleeping at night. How many of your white family and friends can say the same? This is the trauma of racism, for white people it is a point of discussion, for many Black people it rattles us to our core, consuming us mentally and physically.
This particular moment in time has, dare I say, made me bitter. Why must the death of a black cisgender, heterosexual man be the tragedy to trigger the general public to now desire to “recognise” or “fix” racism? What about the deaths of numerous Black (trans and cis) women and gay Black men? Moreover, why is there general apathy to racial inequalities in healthcare, education, wealth, income, social status and more? I ask again, why must it be only death which triggers this conversation? Alongside the gun, structural inequality is violent!
Moreover, why must we as Britons draw on American race relations, police brutality and the American political climate to trigger our own discussions? This is rightly a moment that has captivated the world’s attention, but I worry borrowing or relying on American political moments makes us unable to see the nuances of racism in Britain. I understand the importance of Black international solidarity, but British racism has its own unique flavouring: pervasive, subtle while also still being violent, unflinching in their denial with a dollop of imperial nostalgia.
Which brings me to reflect on my last three years in Cambridge. For me, the racist incidents that most hurt during my time at university were not filled with racial epithets or violence. Some could say this is privilege, and I agree. Rather they were the times when I was largely ignored. As a Black woman in Britain, the racism I experience is frequently the racism of erasure. Not being invited to the “Women of Trinity Hall” brunch on Caesarian Sunday (despite running a university-wide Feminist forum, FLY!), feeling as though people actively avoided talking to me in Freshers’ Week, seeing people use critical race theory and intersectionality as tools to score highly in end of year examinations, all the while ignoring black (usually women) students in their colleges. This erasure is of course beyond academia, it extends to the workplace, our history books, health policy and more.
And yet, despite the erasure of Black people, I realise in this elitist bubble, people still use trimmings of Blackness: Black music; Black slang; Black aesthetics; a token Black (frequently male) friend in the friendship group- all part of “Black cool”- to comfort themselves that they are progressive, good white liberals. The racism of Cambridge has been far better articulated by others so I do not wish to dwell on it, but what I will say is that going to Cambridge made me despondent by the end of my time. At one of the best universities in the world, it confirmed that racism is not born from ignorance, but intention. People know better, they have access to better, but choose not to do better.
I’m glad to be finished. I hated being in that bubble, and yet it brought out the best attributes in me, politicised me and connected me to ideas and people far wiser than I will ever be. But what this moment in time tells me, that even when I hope to be beyond racism, I better equip myself for the lifelong fight at hand. After a long period of self-care, I will once again, along with others, give it my best shot.