Tag Archives: colour

Here We Go Again

lilywhite

The past few month has seen a lot of talk about racism in the media. Particularly in relation to the Oscars. With it, a lot of eye rolling and people saying they are fed up of black people going on about discrimination and playing the race card. What about the Muslims, the gays, the transgender, the browns, the women, the poor? It is a constant source of irritation and sadness for me when these discussions kick off and people start shouting at each other. My first issue is no one wants to listen. This is why racism and the many other forms of discrimination continue to thrive in our societies. Societies that are ashamed to admit a lack of progress and would rather hide what they consider dirty laundry out of view. As if out of sight is really out of mind. Well, it is humanity’s shame and face it we must. Because if we don’t face it then we won’t ever fix it.

On the Oscar issue: yes, it is inherently racist. Why? Because up until recently, majority (94% according to many internet sources) of those who are eligible to nominate and vote for the winners are white and ¾ of those are men. Human nature, and this is evidence-based, is such that if a selection of talented actors/actresses/directors is presented to a person, the voter will look for common traits to identify with the nominees. The easiest trait to identify: skin colour, gender and other physical attributes. So stands to reason that if 94% are white, they are more likely to nominate and vote for white people. There was a blog by a young black woman who works in the entertainment industry published on mumsnet. The reaction was one that had my gnashing my teeth. Many (white, brown and black) suggested that it was not the correct forum for such a discussion. I was dismayed. If mothers are not the people who need to be educated about the ills of discrimination and who need to be encouraged to socialise their children into seeing beyond colour, then who exactly is going to be the catalyst for change?

mother and child

I cannot for the life of me see which other group yields more influence when it comes to such a fundamental change. As a soon to be mother, I see it as absolutely my job to teach my child to see the inner qualities of every person they interact with and judge them based on their actions and words and not the things over which they have no control over.

queue jump

In Nigeria, there is blatant racism still. The fairer your skin is, the more socially desirable you are in many circles. The more foreign your English accent, the more educated you are perceived to be. Being resident in Europe or America or Asia elevates your self-worth. Doesn’t matter if you do the most menial of jobs abroad or have very little education over there. I was born in Nigeria, left as a teenager and I have now officially spent more of my life outside of Nigeria then in it. I see the discrimination clearly. Sure I am a highly educated and successful professional but most of the strangers I interact with don’t know this. To many it is all superficial. I get asked my opinion on things that are well outside my area of expertise and even when I am confessing to having little knowledge, my opinion carries weight. I get better customer service because of the way I speak. I get less abuse from those who like to abuse their positions of power – the police, road safety, customs and immigration officers. When I go into shops run by foreigners, I watch how they treat ordinary Nigerians with barely disguised rudeness or contempt and how those Nigerians do not complain about it. I speak up sometimes to the surprise of those Nigerians and I get told I am ‘feisty or fiery or outspoken’ with amusement or admiration depending on the age of the Nigerian I am defending. I have been in situations where a non-black person has walked into the place, seen the queue of Nigerians waiting to be served and decided that their time was more valuable that the locals and cut to the front. I wait to see if the officials say anything, rarely will they ask for the person to do the right thing. If nothing is said, I am never afraid to tell the person that there is a queue and we were all in it.

The other manifestation is through skin bleaching. It is so prevalent in Nigeria and indeed many other societies. People, mostly women, spend a lot of money on creams and lotions containing dangerous toxins which ‘whiten’ their skin. Some of the more expensive products do a good job and give them fairer skin that looks natural and healthy. Most do not. It is so ugly to see the patchwork that results from some of these products. You see women prancing around with their face and neck a Caucasian skin tone, their arms brown and their joints black as nature intended. It is so unnatural that it sometimes looks like a comedic caricature. Sadly, for those who do it, they look in the mirror and think they look more beautiful. Heart breaking to me because some of the most superficially beautiful people on the planet are all shades of brown and black. There is nothing more beautiful to me than flawless golden or deeper brown skin. I see photos every day and wonder how those who bleach are unable to see the beauty in brown skin. Of course this is all about superficial beauty. Maybe that is where we fail. We are too preoccupied by the outer image and fail to see the beauty within. I truly believe that for a person to be truly beautiful, their soul, their heart and their mind must have a positive nature. That is why I find beauty in the eyes – a person whose eyes glow with love, happiness, kindness and warmth is a person I naturally gravitate towards.  That is why there is nothing more beautiful to me than a baby (human or other mammals). That luminosity that is unspoilt by life and its many hardships, that bright light.

name spelling

Here in England, racism is everywhere. I have a surname that has 3 syllables. Pronounced exactly as it is written yet many won’t even attempt to pronounce my surname. If I can get my head around Siobhan actually being pronounced as shee-von and Yvonne pronounced as Ee-von, then I do not see how it can be hard to say a name as easy as Ab-dal-lah or Jo-da or Di-ya. Working as a doctor on the wards, I have had patients say to me with surprise ‘you speak good English’ and I turn around and say to them ‘why wouldn’t I? English is one of 3 languages I was brought up speaking’. I overhear staff talking to non-native English speakers (those with foreign accents or limited English) very loudly, as if the issue is with hearing loss. I hear comments about those non-indigenous Brits being ungrateful for asking for what is routinely offered to their white British fellow patients. I see the relief in black and Asian patients when I say that I will be their doctor and I will look after them. I empathise with them even as I feel sad that I make them feel better not because of my medical skills but because of the colour of my skin and how they perceive that I can relate to them better or will treat them with more dignity.

I will never forget the first time I was racially discriminated against. I was in my 3rd year of medical school on my first hospital placement in an inner city English hospital working with a medical team. On the first on-call I did with them (on-call means being responsible for the new patients coming in off the streets as emergencies), I was seeing patients who were then reviewed by the qualified doctors. Of course, there is a triage system so medical students never saw patients who needed urgent care for things like an on-going  stroke, heart attack or acute asthma that needed immediate treatment before information gathering. Anyway, I was allocated an elderly Asian gentleman to see. I walked into the cubicle and introduced myself, clearly explaining that I would see the patient then get one of the doctors on my team to review. The patient did not protest but his 2 sons were affronted. They, in their high-powered suits, did not think it was appropriate for their father to be seen by me. They wanted someone else. I got my registrar and told him what they had said. He, being Asian like them, was angrier than I was. He marched me back to the patient and his family, informed them that I was part of the team and as this was the NHS, they would be seen by the first available medic. Their choice was me or going private. How awkward for me and the patient! They apologised and I got through the consultation. This happened 10 years ago and happens to this day. I applaud my registrar for his stance and anecdotally, it is happening less and less because people like that registrar were calling people out for their attitudes.

random search

I spoke in another post about the attitude the police have when they stop you as a black person. The approach is usually quite different – the black person is more likely to be treated as guilty of some wrong-doing until proven otherwise even where you are the victim reporting a crime whereas the white person is more likely to be treated as innocent until proven otherwise. Same as when you go into a shop, a security man (or woman) is more likely to follow around a non-white person than a white person. Same as ‘random’ extra security stop searches in the airports. Once, I got stopped for a random search twice in 10 minutes in Birmingham International Airport less than 100m apart. I was irritated and the lady was apologetic and wouldn’t meet my eyes. I pointed out to her that her colleague had just stopped me randomly too and in fact he was only a stone’s throw away. What was it she thought would have changed in the distance to her? It is a random search ma’am. Randomly because I am black you mean. She flushed and muttered an apology as I gathered my bags and carried on. Random. Racial profiling is reality.

So whilst I know that majority of white people are not actively racist, just as I know that majority of Muslims are not extremists, it is clear that as a black woman, I have more obstacles to contend with. Life is just that little bit harder because I was born with the colour of my skin. I ask for no special treatment. I just want to be treated the same as my non-black friends are. I want to be treated with respect and given my dues. I want people to judge me for what I have said and done (which I have control over) and not the genetics I have inherited. I want my talents to be recognised for what they are and not the physical package they come with. I want the same rights afforded to me by virtue of being a human being. I want justice. I want acceptance. I want to freedom to be me.

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Judge Me Not

Yo teach, I’m fed up with this shit!

Judge me not by the color of my skin,

This olive complexion given by genes.

Hate me not for my accent,

Trying to hide it for your pleasure.

 

My grades reflect MY knowledge!

Don’t give me that

“Cause you were taught in a white school” shit.

What you know?

Ma stayed up with me studying,

You gave up,

Saying I’ll never make it.

 

Now I’m laughing. 

Six years later and I’m graduating,

Heading off to college,

While your rich and privileged dropped out. 

Y’all could’ve believed in me,

But you refused.

So later fool, I’m out.

Off to better places and higher goals.

 

The poem above is entitled JUDGE ME NOT BY THE COLOR OF MY SKIN by NANASEVEN432 (accessed on http://www.powerpoetry.org/poems/judge-me-not-color-my-skin). It says so much about what it is to have skin that is not white in a majority white country. Britain is much more inclusive than America judging by what is said in the media. Yet, the first thing I am judged by generally is the colour of my skin.

I moved to London aged 14 and I can tell you far from rejoicing when my mama told me we were moving to England, I was very sad for many months. I did not want to be the new girl at my new school and I certainly did not want to leave my friends. I was afraid of what it would be like to be the foreigner. I was not excited about the prospect of cold winters or being away from the extended family. Little did I realise that as soon as I stepped off the plane, I would lose my identity and join the nameless mass of ‘black people’. That I would be held responsible for every bad thing any black person has ever done or will do in the future. That I would be judged even before I open my mouth and speak.

When I went for career’s advice in secondary school, I told the lady that I was going to be a doctor. I believe I was the first person from my school in Tottenham to become a doctor (I might be wrong but my teachers say so) so you can imagine this careers advisor’s expression. She took a minute to compose herself and said you need to consider other options like physiotherapy or nursing (these are probably more attainable for the black population). I was like I am pretty sure that is what I want to be. Another white tutor at College met with me to give me advice on UCAS applications and cautioned me against applying for just medicine (UCAS allows you to apply for 4 medical schools only which usually means prospective medical students apply for physiotherapy or medical science or pharmacy in the last 2 UCAS slots as backup). Well, I told him, I will take my chances. I don’t want to be a physio or anything else. I saw the lack of belief in his face but I smiled anyway, thanked him for his advice and left.

I went to Dubai with my sister 7 years ago and during that trip, we went on a dune surfing excursion. We were placed in a 4×4 with a couple of Russians who were rather un-exposed. When we got out to stand on top of the highest dune and admire the breath-taking sight, one of the young Russians stood beside us and said ‘You are exotic’. My sister was bemused by it and I was just a bit ‘ehn?’ Exotic meaning what? Strange like an exotic bird or fish that is rarely seen? Non-European like exotic fruits from Africa, Asia and South America? Non-white? Personally I was put off. It didn’t end there. There was a whole group of Chinese tourists in the other 4x4s in our convoy. When we got to the campsite and were sitting around, eating and watching the belly dancer do her thing, a Chinese young woman timidly came up to my sister whilst I was off fetching a drink and asked if she could take a photo of her. My sister said yes. I watched with surprise from where I was and as I walked back, a group of Chinese people descended to my sister’s side and posed for pictures with her. Like some sort of statue. I stood sternly to the side, daring any of them to want to include me in their craziness. I think the expression on my face spoke volumes because no one bothered me.

This was repeated a couple of years ago in India whilst I was travelling with a bunch of people. We were in Delhi at one of the largest grand old mosques up on a hill where you could see much of the city. I was hanging out with an 18 year old Aussie as pretty as a flower, let’s call her Audrey. She looked like the much talked about English rose and the Indians visiting the site thought she looked like Princess Diana. As we sat in the shade, tired from the walking and the heat, a father approached us with his daughter. He motioned to Audrey and mimed taking a photo. She shrugged in acquiescence and the girl sat next to Audrey whilst her father took a photo. This emboldened another father nearby who without a word, strode over to Audrey and dumped his baby in her lap then walked away to take a photo. A queue quickly formed and poor Audrey was trapped in a photo-taking frenzy. I watched from the side lines as she went from not minding being used to being embarrassed and feeling harassed. She went redder and redder and eventually extricated herself from her fans. Later I asked how she felt and she said ‘trapped’.

Over the years, I have got bored by the question of ‘where are you from?’ From fellow black people, I realise that the question is normally a way of finding common ground but in general, I feel it is a way of reminding me that I am a foreigner here. Unfortunately for those who don’t like us foreigners, I was born a British citizen (by virtue of my mum being a Londoner by birth) so this is my home too. I am entitled to be here. I have paid my way and will continue to do so. My work is essential to the population. Some people go on to say ‘you speak good English’. My reply now is always ‘of course I do. It is my first language’. In a way that is true. I learnt to speak Hausa, Fulani and English simultaneously as a little tot and actually my English vocabulary is the strongest of all 3 because I was educated in English. Indeed I would like to point out that if you were to test the British population on their grammar and comprehension, you would find that across the ethnic groups, indigenous Brits tend to score the lowest. Sad but true. So don’t patronise a black person with ‘you speak good English’. Many of us have lived here most of our lives if we were not born here. Many of us are as British as British comes.

I would call myself a Nigerian Brit. Nigeria first always because my blood is Nigerian. I was born in Nigeria, my parents are both Nigerian, my first steps were taken in Nigeria, my foundation was in Nigeria. Nigeria made me who I was so that when I came to Britain I could contribute to my school and my community. But I am British too. I learnt my profession in Britain. I have worked all my working life in Britain. My closest friends now are mostly here in Britain. I love Birmingham. I met my husband here. I married him here. I have bought my first home here in Britain and I hope to have my children here. I have aspirations for Britain. I want it to be better. I want it to grow. I want Britain to embrace all its children, regardless of the colour of their skin because I honestly believe that the colour of my skin tells you nothing about who I am. What my dreams are. What my beliefs are. What makes me special. Above all, I believe that what makes Britain great is the diversity of its population. This is what makes our country part of the UNITED Kingdom.