“the other day…you know…sit down, let me talk to you. The other day when you were dressed… in your clothes, you look very pretty, you’re a pretty girl- but you don’t need all of that. You don’t need those big earrings, all of that (makes motion of headwrap above her head), you don’t need the lipstick. You can keep the (makes motions to nose rings), those are fine, but the others, no. I just thought I should tell you. I didn’t want to offend you, but here it’s not safe, we see it all the time, people like you will get attacked by a group, a large group, maybe seven white men, because of the way you look. Maybe you should dress normal, to stay safe, don’t wear all that you wear the other day, it’s better to be safe than sorry. You’re so pretty, I don’t want to see your face slashed with a knife you know. You don’t need all the earrings and necklaces, they are beautiful, but maybe only for an event at your school, or for a carnival but not every day, it’s not safe. I just wanted to tell you, I did not want to offend you.”
|The outfit that caused offence.
This is a paraphrased version of the “talk” my new landlady gave me on Friday, a talk she’d couched as a kind almost motherly address to “protect me”, because she felt “responsible” for me, she decided to talk to me after a “conversation” with one of the other old white women in our road. Apparently, they both felt this discussion was necessary. Of all the racist microaggressions since I have arrived in London, this was possibly the most violent experience I have had. From an old, white unassuming Austrian woman.
The whole time I sat there my face burning, my sight blurring with my seething rage, unable to even respond to the idea that whites would stop being racist if I just stopped, looking so African, so black. The caucasity!
She asked me whether I’d ever noticed that people would look at me funny or stare, and when I said yes, she ah yessed like it was an affirmation of what she was saying. But I’ve been in London three weeks now and here are some examples of what white people will stare, frown or snivel at:
An east Asian lady walking into the bus.
An elderly black womxn struggling to get on the bus with her bags.
A group of Muslim womxn.
A Chinese womxn speaking on the phone in Mandarin on the bus.
A South Asian man, walking into a kebab shop.
A black man with unruly mixed children.
A Hasidic Jewish family walking down the road.
The Bangladeshi men, attending a protest in Strand Street.
Mind you, I similarly noticed these people, but they weren’t a threat to me. They were my solace, every time a POC got on the bus, walked by me in the road, entered a shop. Every time I heard, Arabic, a Nigerian accent, Mandarin, Thai, anything “foreign”, I felt safe. I felt comforted by the smile of the Hijabi who helped me at the bank, the Turkish man who sold me a kebab, the Polish man who had helped me setup my phone, the Polish woman who sold me my pot plants, and the black women who would walk past me and say, “I love your earrings” or “you look beautiful”.
Of course, it hasn’t all been multicultural happiness, yes there was that horrible moment on my first tube ride where an elderly white woman, stared at me with hostility and muttered curses under her breath. And the East Asian women, who grab their bags and hug them closer, when I near. The Indian lady at the bank who decided to help a white woman before me, even though I was a head of the queue. The ways in which white people will cram themselves onto one side of tube, rather than take the seats near or next to me.
But you see, all this did not bother me, I grew up in South Africa, I am used to being exteriorised. I am used to the racialized stereotypes that make coloured cashiers refuse to touch my hand, that makes sales attendants think I’m about to steal. What annoyed me about the exchange with my landlady, is that she tried to act as if she were on my side, protecting my safety. As if my blackness could be erased by merely taking off my beaded earrings.
See what annoyed me is that she had been thinking, had spoken to the neighbour about it and they had decided that I- I! needed to change. Not the racist white community she forms a part of, she did not go have a discussion with her grandson, who could potentially be one of the white men, who slash black womxn’s faces. She did not tell her neighbours to stop looking at me as if I’m trying to break into the house every time I’m at the door, she didn’t speak to her old white lady associations about addressing, 400+ years of coloniality and whiteness as global dominance. No, she came to me and told me to assimilate. She epitomised white feminism so eloquently, she couched herself as an ally, while maintaining and subtly perpetuating white racial violence. It was dehumanising.
As to whether I was offended by her address, No, I was disgusted, disgusted by Becky’s continual allegiance to white-supremacist heteropatriarchy.
So, Becky, no, I will not stop wearing my headwraps, my jewellery, my big earrings, just like I will not and cannot stop wearing my skin. I love this skin, I love my Africanness, Becky, “I am Black, mixed with even blacker”. “I am black, blacker than black, I’m black”. I am black, black, blackity black! Deal with it.
Talk to your people instead and stop boring me with your inability to cope with difference.