I can’t remember the exact day when I decided that it wasn’t my job to ‘break stereotypes’, but it should be marked as a day of rejoicing. It might have been somewhere between the time one of my consultants in medical school emailed me back to say of course I could have a day off to speak to the girls at my old secondary school because she understood why I would want to inspire those from less privileged backgrounds (I went to a private school), or the time my work colleague tried to fist bump me when I offered to check some blood results for him, but either way, the day came when I refused to participate in the lunacy any longer.
Growing up black and middle class, you’ll often experience that many white people will treat you like a unicorn or at the very least, a mongoose. Something rare and unfamiliar. They are curious. What school did you go to? How are you so well spoken? Is the rest of your family like you? How have you managed to arise from the ashes of your inevitable council estate experience to the glorious present?
They and many from your own community will (not necessarily openly, but tacitly) pat you on the back for ‘breaking stereotypes’.
Well done successful black person, every day you – with your hushed tones, Herbal Essences scented weave, pan seared sauteed jerk salmon and certificate that yes, you have reached the ripe old age of 25 and not fathered a child, are proving them wrong. We’re not the loud laughing, batty riding, rabbit like breeding, grime artists they thought. No. We too can read books. We too can chop kale. We too can ballet. We too can add and subtract past A level standard.
What a load of rubbish.
It’s not my job or anyone else’s job to break stereotypes.
Quite heavily insinuated in the idea of ‘breaking’ stereotypes is the idea that whiteness (specifically middle class whiteness) is aspirational. We shouldn’t be too loud, we shouldn’t be rappers, we shouldn’t wear blue weaves, we shouldn’t talk ‘ghetto’, we shouldn’t eat our jellof rice or fried dumpling on the bus. We should visit museums and art galleries (which often deny and exclude all African contribution, or pretend that Egyptians weren’t black) to become cultured, we should eat ‘gourmet’ food, we should send our little girls to ballet classes and learn Latin. And I’ve done ballet and learnt Latin and I love museums and I don’t wear blue weave. That’s not the point.
Some things are stereotypes – i.e. the majority of black people don’t act in these ways but a minority is typecast as the majority. Some things though, are just parts of some black cultures – because my blackness is not the same as someone else’s blackness. In certain black cultures in London, maybe we do gesticulate more when we talk, maybe some of the women like green hair. Maybe we laugh louder. So what? I’m not going to laugh more quietly in public and restrain my hand gestures just so people don’t think I’m ‘ghetto’. Why am I performing for white people so that they don’t think I’m like ‘one of those blacks’? What do I have to prove to them and what will it achieve? Even if they meet 5 black female doctors in one day who are all well spoken and don’t have a babyfather, it’s not likely to change the fact that they will see them as the exception – and even if it did, the onus is never on me to stop racists from stereotyping. What’s wrong with being ‘one of those blacks’ anyway? Why is working class black culture maligned and yet co-opted at the same time?
Even more subtly damaging is the idea that the reason black people people don’t deserve to be treated as equals or with respect due to those stereotypes and that we can earn this equality by ‘breaking’ them. “Maybe if black men pulled up their trousers…”. “Maybe if they listened to less hip hop…”” Maybe if they learnt to speak properly..” are all used as irrelevant excuses in discussions about police brutality, or employment inequality, or even romantic relationships. Never mind the fact that discrimination in employment happens to the most well educated, sushi eating blacks right down to the girl working in Primark, or that 12 year old children playing with toy guns can get shot by police as easily as hardened criminals. That’s because the idea that we can earn equality by behaving better is a complete and utter lie, and has proven to be completely and utterly ineffective. Martin Luther King was shot with his phD and three piece suit intact. Our treatment has everything to with white supremacy and hatred of blackness and little to do with how well spoken, educated, or ‘cultured’ we are.
It is extremely liberating as a black person who moves in predominately white middle class environments to free yourself from the idea that you are burdened with the task of proving to white people that you are as capable as they are, that your culture is worthy and noteworthy, and that you are not a stereotype. It’s refreshing to relax into simply being yourself, because not being yourself will not save you from racism. So you might as well be yourself.
I don’t use slang words at work because it’s not a language everyone understands and it would be the same as dropping random words in Urdu to non Urdu speaking colleagues. And I don’t tend to kiss my teeth either – because it’s rude. But I’ve let go of the idea that I exist to be a shining example of the talented tenth – the black people who have managed to slip through the cracks of poverty and poor education and the overwhelming desire to twerk at any given moment, to achieve some semblance of success. I do not exist to prove to ignorant middle class white people that blackness can exist outside the confines of their limited and poorly informed imagination. Our blackness is glorious in its diversity and we don’t need validation from outside of us.
So relax and bring your tupperware container of egusi soup to work if you want to. Pat your weave (white girls flick and undo their hair all the time). Laugh loudly. Call your first born son Tyrone and your last daughter Shanice.
It will make no difference to the treatment of the black community. I promise.