Why I Became That Annoying Black Guy On Your News Feed
Some of my friends have commented that my Facebook posts have become quite political, mainly concerning issues around race. Here’s why.
I was seven, maybe eight, the first time I came face to face with proper, unmistakable, capital ‘R’ Racism. I was familiar with it in theory, of course. Some of my earliest memories are of my mum — only recently arrived from Nigeria — trying her best to prepare me for life in a white man’s country.
Not content to simply ensure that looking back at my own baby pictures would be a colourful, garish insight into just how 90s the 90s were, she refused, for years, to allow me to wear certain items of clothing, most notably hoodies. Instead, I got this (and to be fair, was pretty damn pleased with it).
As a young child, I never quite understood, or even thought to question why my wardrobe looked like The Fresh Prince’s castoffs. It wasn’t until years later that it became apparent that it was all rooted in fear. Fear that in donning a hoodie, it would be too easy for me to be pushed into the narrative of the Hooligan Black Boy. Not in my own reality or behaviour, but in the perception of others. That perception, she knew, would have a drastic impact on how my life would unfold. In a world seemingly obsessed with pushing images of black people as gang members, and drug dealers, and generally aggressive and unintelligent, the hoodie acted as a cultural marker for all these stereotypes. So, like many parents, for the sake of her child, she was forced to play the game of respectability politics. Because what good are your principles when your child has been discounted and victimised, or arrested, or killed, for little more than being black, and wearing a hoodie? It was the same thinking that lay behind her decree that I ‘talk like them’, because peppering my language with slang would only serve to mark me as other, and place a target on my back.
She also impressed on me the idea that many would see the colour of my skin and refuse to give me my due, and so in order to achieve, I would need to shine so brightly as to be undeniable in my brilliance.
Not all of her lessons were quite so didactic, though. Often they were exercises in self-learning. For example, watching how her accent softened and her demeanour changed when she answered the phone, only to hear her revert to her natural state when she realised she was speaking to one of my aunties.
At the heart of all of these lessons was the idea that I should take my cues from the chameleon. Success would depend on being able to blend in to my surroundings, whilst still holding steadfastly on to my Nigerian heritage. If I managed to balance those two things, I would not only survive, but thrive.
And so I did. I learned my lessons, and learned them well, but racism remained an abstract concept. I feared it the way I feared the monster that waited for me in the darkness, ready to reach out a withered hand to drag me under the bed the moment I turned out my bed-side lamp; I was fairly certain it was there, an ever-present danger, but it hadn’t come for me yet.
Until this day.
My mum had sent me, and my cousins, to the local corner shop to pick something up for her. This was a big deal for a number of reasons, perhaps most pertinently, my cousins were older than me, and from America, and so the epitome of cool.
We entered the shop without incident, pausing only to perform some of the ceremonies of Blackness that are often unconsciously performed in shops to make clear your lack of ill-intent. Entering the establishment with deliberate steps, and stopping to smile at the cashier or security guard; making sure only to touch what you intend to buy, and quickly exiting the shop with receipt in hand, ready to display should the need arise. (Repeating the same scenario with my school friends years later was a particularly interesting culture shock. Not only did my white friends not observe these practices, but judging from the way the security guards proceeded to not-so-subtly follow me round the shop front whilst ignoring them, they simply didn’t need to).
We were still looking for whatever items we had gone in there to find when the cashier, a middle aged man of South Asian descent, spoke up.
‘Too many Black boys. Only two Black boys at one time’.
There it was. The Racism I’d heard so much about in crisp stereo.
I don’t quite remember what happened from there. I know we left the shop with little fuss. I know my eldest cousin went back in to the shop to have a few words with the man behind the counter — exactly what was said, I couldn’t say. I never asked.
But I do remember the feeling that passed between the four of us as we walked the short distance back to my house. There was an element of shock, yes. As I said, I hadn’t yet experienced proper Racism yet. I’d been a baby for most of the ‘Go back to Africa’s’ hurled at my parents in those days, blissfully unaware of the hatred they shielded me from. So shock formed a significant portion of the mosaic of feelings making up our mood, but one feeling seemed to take precedence over all the others.
That’s just the way it is, as the Tupac song goes. We were black and that’s how black people were treated. There wasn’t much that could be done. That was life and we had to live it.
There were a few other feelings in the tapestry, but the one I’ll concentrate on here is this:
Joy. A perverse almost-pleasure taken in the feeling of camaraderie.
This one probably needs some unpacking.
For a child growing up balancing identities — in my case being being black Nigerian and being British — there is always a sense of displacement, an unease born of not quite belonging. A feeling that was already being compounded in me, a shy; ‘well-spoken’ child, attending a private school, and far more interested in pretending to be a Power Ranger in my lunch breaks (the Black one, obviously) than play football. I didn’t fit the prototypical narrative of a Black Boy, and so cries of ‘coconut’ and ‘bounty’ — black on the outside, white on the inside — hounded me from all corners. The lesson here was clear. Positive attributes, gentleness; sensitivity; intelligence, they all belonged to whiteness, and whilst society as a whole may laud those virtues and stress on children the importance of attaining them, I, as a black boy, would be punished by both sides for attempting to live outside the parameters set for me. It’s fair to say it made growing up harder than it needed to be, and occasionally left me unsure of what direction to take, who I was supposed to be.
So anything that affirmed my Blackness was a good thing, even discrimination. It was something to be worn like a badge of honour. The way a veteran might wear a medal. We suffered, yes, but it was that suffering that made us strong and united us, and marked me as being part of that us.
As I grew up, my identity coalesced and I became more confident in my knowledge of myself. I no longer needed to reaffirm my Blackness for anyone’s sake, but the feeling of resignation remained. I would feel anger; hot, righteous anger, and my friends and I would share our frustrations, and we would pour our feeling out into the world in our own safe spaces, but the impotence, the feeling that there was not much that we could do prevailed.
So I would rage as I read an article pointing to the fact that, as a black man, I am 11.5 times more likely to stopped and searched in London than my White friends, or 3 times more likely to be tasered. Or one that showed that people who look like me are less likely to do well at A-levels, or get a first at uni, or even get into uni for that matter. Or as I read about the Implicit Racial Bias or Implicit Association Test, and how we are all force-fed such a negative image of black and brown people that even those marginalised groups show a racial bias against themselves, a particularly insidious self-hatred, evidence of just how pernicious racism in this society is. And I would despair as I watched a young Black boy forced to strip down to his pants in the middle of the Whitgift shopping centre, in full view of the public, in a peculiar kind of ritual humiliation. One I now know to be completely illegal, but at the time seemed an unavoidable fact of life. Never quite sure if my anger would be understood, or if it would ever change anything, I would silently rage, but not much more than that.
And then Trayvon Martin was killed.
And Eric Garner. And Tamir Rice. And Sandra Bland. And Freddie Gray.
All black people killed by police for little more than being black and daring to believe that they should be treated with the same humanity as a white person.
Then I turned to my own country, and discovered the names of Sean Rigg, Chris Alder, Jimmy Mubenga, and most recently Jermaine Baker, and realised that even without the use of a regularly armed police force, my state was still managing to sanction the killing of black people in police and security services custody.
Almost more upsetting than the killings themselves was the institutionalised racism they revealed.
“I went to my local the other day only to find a black barman. So I said give me a drink nig nog. He said that’s a bit racist, come round here and see how like it. So we swapped places and he said give me a drink you mother fucking white honkey cunt. I said sorry mate we don’t serve niggers!”
That’s a text message found on the phone of one of the three G4S security guards charged with the manslaughter of Jimmy Mubenga, a man they had been tasked with escorting back to his home country, Angola.
It was ruled inadmissible evidence.
As were the 64 other extremely racist texts found on the phone. Another of the guards also had a phone that was found to have extremely racist texts. They too were found to be inadmissible evidence.
Jimmy Mubenga suffocated to death due to being put into a severely restrictive position against his will, one that any trained security guard would know could be extremely harmful. He died screaming for help. They claimed not to have heard him, though passengers from all over the plane report having heard his cries. His last words were the now familiar refrain of ‘I can’t breathe’. It seems no matter where you reside, living in a fundamentally racist society feels a little like suffocating. Drowning, being pulled under by thick, cold, hungry hatred.
Despite this the guards were acquitted of manslaughter. Cleared by a jury who had no idea that the men they absolved of guilt were racists, who clearly viewed black people as being less than human. In the words of the defence, the evidence would ‘release an unpredictable cloud of prejudice’, as would revealing the fact that the initial inquest into the case revealed an “unhealthy culture” in the G4S workforce and “endemic racism”.
The case acts as a sort of microcosm of society as a whole. Rather than taking an opportunity to engage with racism, and to scrutinise the way in which it effects our every day lives, they chose to ignore it, to sweep it under the rug. It was simply an inconvenience for them.
This is the image we grew accustomed to seeing following Mark Duggan’s death. Him scowling at the camera, looking every inch the thug the media was painting him as in a bid to justify his execution. It fit perfectly within the narrative of the criminal black man. Violent, unruly, and extremely dangerous. But one only needed to look at the full image to see that what appears to be a scowl is much closer to a grimace, barely concealing the pain of standing by his own daughter’s grave.
The first time I saw the full picture and read the story surrounding it I was in a class room surrounded by people, but I have never felt as isolated as I did then. That’s what racism of this kind can do. Make it abundantly clear that your fear and your anger and your life mean nothing. All it takes is a subtle slight of hand and the people will paint you as just another black boy deserving of death. My body was hot with feeling, and I was fighting back tears, fully aware that there was nothing I could do.
I’d finally had enough.
If religion is the opiate of the masses, then institutionalised racism is the K-hole of the disenfranchised. We look at how insurmountable the odds are, just how thoroughly racism threads its way through our society, so pernicious that many fail to even notice its existence, and all we can do is shrug because ‘that’s just the way it is’. But that can’t be our attitude.
It wasn’t Olaudah Equiano’s attitude, or Phyllis Wheatley’s, or Ignatius Sancho’s. It wasn’t Martin Luther King’s attitude, or Malcolm X’s, or Rosa Parks’. It wasn’t Claudia Jones’s attitude, or Paul Stephenson’s.
God help us if it had been. If we hope to leave the world a little better for the generations that proceed us, as these legendary figures have already done for us, we have to be prepared to struggle for the future, because the present just isn’t good enough.
So I’m going to spend the rest of my life doing what little I can to change it. Sometimes that will mean taking to the streets and protesting. Sometimes it will mean working hard to achieve great things, and using any platform I can get to shout out injustice. But often it will take the form of sharing an article or a video that I think might challenge those around me to look into themselves and to question things that have long gone unquestioned. As small as that contribution may be in light of what we struggle against, it has the potential to create ripples that create waves, and change everything.
So, to answer the titular question, I became that annoying Black guy on your newsfeed because I was tired of turning my rage inwards, and I want you to be as burning-hot angry as I am. Because I’m tired of being forced into narratives that aren’t mine. Because you don’t seem to see what I see, and racism feeds off of your lack of sight. Because I’ve spent so much time apologising for who I am, making myself small, and I’m weary. Because the first Black Lives Matter protest I took part in, a peaceful demonstration, designed to shine a light on police brutality against Black people both here and abroad, saw a heavy-handed response from authorities which ended in us being aggressively forced into a police kettle and then, as far as I am concerned, unlawfully arrested en masse for crimes even they didn’t suspect us of committing. Because the thought of my unborn children growing up in the world as it is now frightens me. Because I hope that I might provoke thought and discussion, that people may scrutinise their privilege, and unlearn internalised racism. Because you have to ask me why. Because I hope that when I have my own children, their lessons will be very different to mine.