“Is It Me, or Are There Lots of Black People Here?”
“Is it me, or are there lots of Black people here?”. The words sound different when they come out of a White person’s mouth. The fact is, my White wife and I are comfortable with it because she’s heard me ask the same question on numerous occasions during our six-year relationship.
Because I am Black, I always know who’s around me and, more importantly, the colour of their skin.
I live in Copenhagen, Denmark, and it’s very White. I see people from other backgrounds, but they aren’t Black like me. Where are the dark-skinned, curly-haired people of Caribbean or West African descent? So, when I see more than a handful in a single place, I have to ask, “Is it me, or are there lots of Black people here?.”
Because I am Black, I always know who’s around me and, more importantly, the colour of their skin. At the end of most days, I can tell you how many Black people I have seen. Today I saw four. Seeing people who look like me makes me feel safer. The opposite is true when I don’t, because I stand out more, and I don’t like standing out.
I grew up in the UK. I attended a school with a majorly White but diverse population. At school, students of Indian descent were the second largest population, followed by people who identified as Black — mainly, Black Caribbean.
Now, when seeing another Black man, I look them straight in the eyes, smile and nod my head.
As a small child, Black people, especially black men, used to talk to me. Even if they were strangers. When I was six years old, I went to a supermarket with my mom. “Let’s just pop in for some milk and bread. It will just take a minute,” she said. Despite my young age, I knew this was a lie. This was going to take time, a seeming prerequisite for a parent visiting a supermarket who has three growing children to feed. We were not only going to leave with bread and milk, but also a host of special offer items which would spend most of their lives in the freezer until leaner times were upon us.
A tall man with long, black dreadlocks saw me. He walked straight up to me and started talking. “Wha gwan, little man?” he asked in a Caribbean accent, holding an outstretched hand. He knelt down to my level and smiled, revealing at least one gold tooth. “Is this man my uncle? I don’t think he is. I have never seen him before,” I thought to myself.
I was a shy kid and could do nothing but give that babyish look kids do when they are in an obvious state of shock and unable to hide it. My eyes were as wide as saucers as I stood there gawking at him, frozen. After staring into his eyes for a little too long, I shifted my vision to my mom. First with my eyes and then, following in a delayed fashion, my entire head. She giggled warmly at my confused expression. She had a conversation with the stranger. They spent time smiling and laughing like friends before parting ways.
I didn’t know what had just happened. I knew that this man liked me. I knew he cared for me. But I didn’t know him. I couldn’t explain it. But deep inside, it felt good.
As I became older, I subconsciously craved such interactions with other Black strangers. I was searching for them all the time, hoping I’d see them more and more often. When I did, I considered them a sort of family member, even if they were a complete stranger.
By the time I became a teenager, I’d accepted the once confusing bond as normal. Now, when seeing another Black man, I look them straight in the eyes, smile and nod my head. You know about the nod, right?
The acknowledgment rarely develops into anything more. It’s a subtle connection which — to me — says, “I see you, and we are the same.” It happens more frequently in places with fewer Black people, but that’s not always the case.
There have been times when it developed into more than a mere nod. I walked into an East London pub and saw a Black guy. We nodded as per ‘the code.’ He then approached and offered to buy me a drink.
The events of 2020 have caused many to gaze, with a sharpened focus, upon racial inequality in society.
In Thailand, I was walking along a beautiful beach at the junction of sand and sea. To the left were a row of bars with views over the idyllic ocean. Sitting at one such bar was a Black man. Although forty-odd meters away, I could see he was old and frail. It looked like he’d chosen to sit in that very chair all day and was truly satisfied with his choice. Next to him was a younger woman who could have been his daughter. It was obvious that he had seen me before I had seen him.
When I noticed the man, he was already closely looking at me following my journey along the sand. I caught his eye preparing for what I thought was going to be a respectful nod. I turned to him, lowered my head and awaited a reply. A reply came, but not in the form I expected.
The old man gingerly stood up from his chair, gained his balance, raised his arm into the air and proceeded to wave his hand from side to side as far as his limb could manage. Like he had seen a rescue airplane fly overhead when stranded on a desert island. “What the heck is he doing? Is he waving at me? He must be. There’s no one else here. How do I handle this? By waving back, of course.” So, wearing a huge smile, that’s exactly what I did. That was that. I carried on walking and went about my day. I liked him, and he liked me, because we were the same.
The events of 2020 have caused many to gaze, with a sharpened focus, upon racial inequality in society. For Black people, despite the fact that we’ve always known racial inequality exists, we have done exactly the same. Maybe it’s because of this our bond together has become seemingly stronger in 2020. The smiles, raised fists and nods we exchange on a more frequent basis makes me feel closer to my ‘family’ — the ‘family’ I care for but who are also complete strangers.