Recently I’ve been thinking about where I belong. On forms and official documents I automatically opt for the box that says ‘Black-British – African decent’. This, I assume, is straightforward - I was born in Nigeria but grew up in Britain and subsequently immersed myself in British culture. However, my cultural identity has been something that I have struggled to fully understand within myself and often find difficult to place. I’ve been caught up in the catch-22 situation of not feeling ‘Black enough’ but also not feeling ‘British enough’ to be classed, definitively, as either or both. There are days where I crave nothing more than to be surrounded by those like me; those with whom share my mother tongue and totally get it when I tell them ‘people keep asking me if Ayoola and I are sisters. Like, what the hell?’ There are days where I want to indulge in my mothers cooking, talk with my cousin while making our way through bottles of Supermalt, laugh with my siblings about our childhood that was so boldly different from that of our classmates and bask in the glow of my skin. Then there are the days where I refer to home as Nottingham and where my language is dry and dripping with British humour. Among all this, however, there are also days where I feel awkward and proceed to scrutinise the way my hair refuses to co-operate. Days where I enter a room and scan the place for any sign of another woman of colour and days where, when among black people, I feel ashamed at the uninvited thoughts that enter my head - that being 'Black' is more than just my skin colour and heritage. Yet, I don’t quite ‘get’ what else there is to it. For years, these parts of me that I identified with have struggled to coexist with one another – to celebrate, or even talk about, being black seems to leave others perceiving this as being anti-British or anti-white while, to acknowledge that I am British, seems to cast aside my Nigerian heritage with one careless motion.“It is axiomatic that if we do not define ourselves for ourselves, we will be defined by others-for their use and to our detriment.”— Audre Lorde
I grew up in a Nigerian household while moving up and down the country. I experienced life as the only foreigner and woman of colour in a school of hundreds and again in a school full of different ethnicities and religions. I found myself not really fitting in to either side of things and so cultivated friendships with people from places I’d yet to learn about. Nevertheless, my experiences of home life certainly was different to that of my classmates and, for that, I was confused as to why things didn’t quite seem to fit. For example, one of my many over dramatized teenage woes included hating my hair and not understanding why it couldn’t be like everyone else’s in my class or on TV or in the literature that I was reading. A certain type of hair that was literally everywhere in the world I was seeing, except on my head. I laugh at it now but it’s a clear example of wanting to pick and choose, to mix and match parts of who I was with what I wanted. Of course, this is not how things work.
When I was 17 and deciding on University and career options, my dad told me with a sense of urgency ‘Saadiya, you’re a young, black, Muslim woman in the world today. You need to give yourself as big a chance as possible to succeed.’ That’s a lot of things to understand and carry around with you as you navigate this world. It is something that I’ve been trying to compartmentalize; pick apart, taking the time to understand each component, and piecing carefully back together.
I’ve been informed many times that I’m not ‘really black' by others who deem themselves to be ‘more’ black than I. The scrutiny followed me around during my time at University, insisting that I need to be of a certain character, use a certain type of vocabulary, cultivate certain types of friendships or move through the world to a specific rhythm before I can truly ‘be black’. Which begs the question, without meaning to be reductive, what else is there to being black other than the colour of one’s skin or heritage? For me, it is a part of my identity that is clear cut – no wishy-washy definitions or alterations needed. It is, indeed, who a person is and not a certain aesthetic that one is trying to achieve or portray. Yet we tend to put up barriers, insisting that there be a difference between one persons black in comparison to anothers. Growing up I believed this. Not so much anymore. Because as I started to explore other parts of my identity; being black or being of African heritage were, in my view, solid and tangible – something that I could always come back to, regardless of whether others welcomed me or not.
On the other side, I also have many experiences with struggling to identify as British. From food to navigating two distinct languages. From my relationship with my parents to a concept of a 'home' that was not immediate and present. I felt like I was constantly trying to find the right balance between my heritage and the British culture that I found myself in. In a post-brexit world this has increasingly become a cause for much internal debate. A part of this is, firstly, understanding what it means to be British and, subsequently, having a different definition than others.
‘Multi-cultural Britain’ is a phrase that forms part of our dialogue when talking about life here. It’s something that I want to believe in when I see it reflected in my neighbours, colleagues and passersby. It paints the image of a nationwide tolerance that forces the chains of prejudice to loosen. Sometimes, however, this belief is not something that I am able to hold on to. It’s always a kick in the teeth to see or hear comments calling for people to ‘stop talking about racism’ in order to make it go away. Because I still consider what, if any, affect my skin colour may be having on a certain situation or social setting that I find myself in. This is simply because my experiences have not afforded me the opportunity to stop thinking or talking about race.
For me, Brexit was a recently prime example of how, despite growing up here, I, like many others, can feel like an outsider in an instant. Fear surrounding immigration and subsequent xenophobic rhetoric engulfed our lives. With the ongoing rise of hate crimes, I cried while meeting up with a friend as I told him that I was left questioning what, in my eyes, was one of the core values of this country and of what it means to be British.
Unlike being ‘black’ I found being British to be less tangible a concept. Rather than a set construct, I saw it as an amalgamation of different things. Surely, being British means something different to everyone. It could mean something different to people in Liverpool or Newcastle and something different to people in London or Devon. Then there is the difference between people in Scotland or people in Wales. If I am mistaken, however, should I then identify myself as ‘Black-English’ while my Welsh counterparts identify as ‘Black-Welsh’? Or does this create further divide? It then seems strange to me that to be British – an amalgamation of different nations - means something other than being inclusive, welcoming and, indeed, multi-cultural. But of course, as the story of the Brain family tells us, there are certain cultures that are more welcomed than others.
If I am to believe the media, it seems that immigration poses a real threat to the very essence of what it means to be British. What is missing however, is the understanding that immigration has always been part of the rhetoric of Britain, woven in to its history as far back as 1066, if not further.
It seems that the very act of calling out different races or immigration, has, in steady defiance, caused people like myself to hold strongly on to this part of our identities. To insist that it is possible to be both Black and British at the same time, in the same sentence. Given the historical context of Great Britain, there should be space for this to happen.
Yet, there are those who clearly envision something different to what I do. I have yet to understand this in the same way as I have with being black. Can the part of my identity that is British ever be fully acknowledged by others? Nevertheless, while I can’t control how others perceive me, I’m learning of the high importance of how I perceive myself.
I identify as black and I identify as British. As a citizen and as an ‘other.’ It is of importance to note, however, that this contrast encompasses a variety of things. I identify with my mothers culture, with her language, with the food I eat at home and my upbringing and values. I identify with my experiences, with the people I have met and the education that I’ve had. I identify with my friends, my travels, my view of the world and my reflection in the mirror. Ultimately, I identify with what surrounds me. In certain spaces I identify more as black, in others I identify more as British while in some I identify as neither. Rather than taking away from who I am, I think it adds to it. A small example of how a fusion of different things can work, providing insight that I may have been too blind to see otherwise. I have been afforded a unique point of view that has shaped my immediate world for the better.
Over the next couple of weeks I will be talking about identity, specifically as a Black-British female. How do you define yourself and what do you identify with?
Leave your comments below, share your responses, tweet me your thoughts, share this post around and let’s keep the conversation going.