Colour Blind

(This post was originally published by the Independent, 24 October 2012)

More than a decade ago the poet Lemn Sissay visited my sixth form and performed his bittersweet poem Colour Blind. I was 16, contrarian, and determined not to be moved by his plaintive climax: “Why do you say you are colour blind / When you see me?”

My friends and I dismissed the idea that skin colour was important, and pretended to each other that to be colour blind was a good thing. We were cocooned in an insular, bustling world where most of us were a shade of brown, and had yet to feel too keenly our otherness.

Yet deep down I knew it had struck a chord because many of us had experienced racism; sometimes overt taunts and sometimes the other, subtler kinds of intolerance. But we pushed these experiences to the edges of our existence, buried deep with lessons on a distant, tragic history, drowned out by the cacophony of proudly taught lessons on the British Empire.

Then I went to university, embarked on a career in journalism, and my world grew whiter. But simultaneously I learned that, as a journalist, to be colour blind is not an option. You have to see colour, religion, class, and every facet that distinguishes people. If one insists on seeing the world in a certain way then how can one understand and objectively report the experiences of others? But our media is so homogenous that it often forgets that white is not universal or neutral.

It struck home after 9/11, when the media began writing about British Muslims, littering their articles with a casual ignorance that probably had less to do with Islamaphobia and more to do with the lack of Muslims in newsrooms.

The inaccurate generalisations of British Muslim life swept away the myriad of experiences of those I knew who practised the faith; until a terrifying caricature of the British Muslim had etched itself firmly onto the public imagination. So much so that when a group of men who happened to be Muslim abused and raped vulnerable young girls in Rochdale, it fitted perfectly into a dangerous narrative which continually demonizes anyone part of that faith. “While our media continue to exclude minority voices in general, such lazy racial generalisations are likely to continue,” wrote Guardian journalist Joseph Harker in an article on the subject back in July.

Caitlin Moran’s dismissive comments on the experience of black women provides another example of our media’s inability to recognise that white is not universal. Moran said that she “ literally couldn’t give shit about” about the lack of black women in the Brooklyn-based TV show Girls. When criticized for her comments, Moran’s defenders, including high profile journalists and writers, leapt to her defence. One tweeted nauseatingly that Moran’s book was not called How to be ALL Women and Lena Dunham’s TV show was not ALL Girls. How depressing, how patronising, how belittling; I want your understanding not your tokenism.

One positive is we have had a spate of eloquent articles from young black womenvoices rarely given a platform, which has enriched the debate. Sadly they have been derided as trolls and dismissed by other feminists.

But what saddened me most is that while I know the media in general does not represent the myriad of experiences that make up modern Britain, I had thought many female journalists were different; in their writing I found what James Baldwin described as “the specialness of my existence [which] could be made to connect me with other people instead of dividing me from them.”

I cling to the idea that humanity and good writing  trumps skin tone, as I clung to it in my sixth form common room when Sissay poeticized the reality. In some journalists, especially feminist writers, I could do what Baldwin wanted and “connect”. Growing up I enjoyed the wit, intellectual curiosity and platform of writers like Zoe Williams (one of Moran’s defenders on Twitter). And I swooned over Caitlin Moran’s teenage revelry in How to be a Woman, exalting in the familiar, if banal, battles of figuring out the physicality of being a woman.

The casual flippancy of one journalist has lifted the lid on a deep seated complacency within the liberal, white media. Each day brings a new article explaining why it is impossible for writers to represent everyone, all the time, tacitly defending the need to remain insular. The lack of understanding is frustrating, but the unwillingness to even try to understand is infuriating. It is the same ignorance that informs the reporting on British Muslim, and it saddens me that we have these battles in 2012.

As a black women, over-schooled on a diet of English literature, I am used to making excuses for my favourite long dead writers, exalting in their prose and excusing prejudice and casual intolerance as a product of their time.

But it is wrong to make excuses; brilliant writers can transcend the bigotry of their time with a little empathy and understanding. As African-American Richard Wright did in Black Boy published in 1945:

“There were many more folk ditties, some mean, others filthy, all of them cruel. No one ever thought of questioning our right to do this; our mothers and parents generally approved, either actively or passively. To hold an attitude of antagonism or distrust towards Jews was bred in us from childhood; it was not merely racial prejudice, it was part of our cultural heritage.”

What does Britishness look like from the outside?

(Originally published in the New Statesman on 11 June)

I was born in 1980s Britain and went to school in Kent. At school there were only one or two other brown faces. My dark skin bothered some people. They would – inexplicably as far as I was concerned – yell words like “nigger” and “Paki” as I played in the street. Such incidents left me baffled, certain that I did not quite fit in. At that stage, I do not think I would have called myself British. Yet I knew I wasn’t quite Nigerian like my granny, because I didn’t speak Yoruba and pronounced my uncle Gbenga’s name like an English person.

My confusion deepened when I moved to London and started secondary school. There in a colourful sea of faces and cultures, I was told I was not black enough. “You don’t talk like a black person,” my friend told me once. Black was a powerful identity at my school, and everybody, Muslim, white, Indian, wanted to be “black”. It was not political, it was not gang-related, it was just cool. If asked at that time if I was British, I probably would have said, “No, I’m black”.

As I became more politically aware, my confusion over my identity hardened into irritation, and anger. Irritation, because public discussions about the supposed failure of multiculturalism often feel like an entire generation being told go home, except that I was born here. Anger, because it is difficult for a child of the Commonwealth to think about being British, and not think about the brutality of empire.

It is only now, having worked as a journalist interviewing undocumented migrants desperately trying to reach the UK, that I begin to understand what it means to be British. Faced with a wretched migrant who has risked death to find work, I feel less turmoil over my identity; which is unambiguously British. Why? Journalist Gary Younge puts it well in his brilliant book, Who are we – and should it matter in the 21st century:

The more power an identity carries, the less likely its carrier is to be aware of it as an identity at all. Those who have never been asked, “How do you balance childcare and work?” or “How can you prove that you will return home after this holiday?” are less likely to think that their masculinity or western citizenship and the privileges that come with them are anything but the normal state of affairs.

Because their identity is never interrogated, they are easily seduced by the idea that they do not have one. Strip them of their citizenship, recategorise their ethnicity or put them in a place where they become a minority, and see how quickly they will cling to attributes they have inherited.

I am one of those people. I never truly considered the privilege of my identity as someone born in the west, till faced with those without it. They leave all that is familiar to find work, to study, to escape war.  I wake up each day without these worries. At home in Britain, I am a minority and my navigation of identity is wrought with all that that entails; but away from home, in the minds of those at the mercy of war, poverty, and global inequality – to be born in Britain is to be born powerful. Or perhaps privileged is a better word.

Meeting migrants who undertake dangerous journeys to find a better life, and choose Britain as their destination, forced me to think about their notions of Britishness.

The UK’s global relevance and power is diminishing, but the idea of “Britishness” remains attractive to the undocumented migrants I met in Spain, France, Italy and Greece. Their views of the British are tied to their perception of Britain as a liberal, fair minded country committed to human rights. Take the Iraqi interpreter I met shivering in a muddy forest in Dunkirk, waiting to smuggle his way into Britain. While working for the British army in Iraq, he made friends with several British soldiers and developed a profound respect for the British. One solider had given him his mobile number, he told me proudly, and said to call if he was ever in the UK.

The glitz and glamour of the premier league is another indicator of Britishness for many. Outside a prison-like holding centre in a tiny border-village in northern Greece, I tried to communicate with some Afghan teenagers waiting for a bus to Athens. We had no common language, but when I said I was from England, their faces lit up. “Manchester United”, they said. I responded with, “I live in London. Arsenal,” I said. Enthusiastic nods and smiles. Chelsea, they said. Thumbs down.

In the novel Hinterland, journalist Caroline Brothers’ tells the story of two children seeking asylum in Europe who look forward to arriving in London because there they will go to school. Their dreams tally with the real life hopes of the teenagers I met, giddy with the excitement at the prospect of education. The power of this idea was strong enough to inspire many undocumented migrants to keep moving; through the mountains of Iran, forced to work like adults in Turkey and Greece, to live in destitution in Italy and France, till they reach London, and the dream school.

The migrants I met held semi-religious ideas about Britain and the British. As they experienced more and more hardship in other European countries, they developed a zealous faith in Britain, as a place apart from Europe, a place where “they care for the humans”. In Greece, an Afghan fearful for his family’s safety with increasing attacks on dark-skinned migrants by fascist gangs, said he would try to get to London, where finally they would be safe and he could work. Europe had quickly become as merciless as the continents they had left behind. But in their minds, Britain, with all its cultural associations, remained intact, a more liberal prospect than its European neighbours. Chatting to a group of migrants at a Calais soup kitchen, I expressed doubt about the streets of gold they dreamt of in London. A tired Eritrean man turned to me angrily and said, “of course this would not happen in the UK, we would not sleep on the street”. The rest nod in agreement: the general consensus is that they can find work and sanctuary in Britain.

The reality is darker than this, but still, strangely for the first time, I felt proud to be British, and proud of the society I live in. The migrants I met left their homes, and the countries they loved deeply, often risking their lives on the way, to access what I have because I am British. A society where there is universal education, a national health service, and a society where people are free to fight inequality and seek justice.