Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The beautiful ones are not yet born

"The beautiful ones are not yet born" is the name of an email thread I participated in (passively) with friends today. People recounted their experiences of racism, some silly, some sad, some disgusting. I'll tell of my own experiences and then I'll do a cut and paste job of the emails in the thread.

I did my A-levels at the
Royal Grammar School in Lancaster, something which I'm strangely proud of. As someone who spent his early years in Nigerian schools, I know that where you're educated has much to do with the depth of your parents' pockets, the weight of contacts in the address book, or the smile of the gods. It seems almost pointless to be proud of where you were educated, it isn't necessarily of your own doing, even if it's a selective school . If you gained a scholarship, gloating might be slightly tolerated, but even the tutoring of children for entrance examinations also sometimes depends on the pockets of parents.

Anyway before swirling forces distracted me from the topic at hand (quote from Boris Johnson), I'm proud I went to LRGS. I went to a grammar, but got the standard of education of an independent school. It is a grant maintained school, so I only paid for boarding, and nothing for tuition. LRGS consistently ranks highly in the
league tables, something I contributed nothing to (I didn't get all As, or all Bs, or all - you get the picture). It felt like I was making full use of the system, not being fleeced for my right - the right to be properly educated. But of course education is a privilege rather than a right, just go to the global south, or the geopolitical south, or the Third World, or the developing world, or (my personal favourite) the neo-colonial states and see what I mean.

I'm still digressing. Lancaster was a small town, no faces of colour, just history, bridges, rivers, a castle, and a university. Whenever I saw another black person, we'd hug like old friends, such was the excitement. My white friends who I'd abandoned for a quick platonic fumble with another "darkie" would ask, "so who was that?". And I'd reply with glee, "that guy? I've never seen him in my life." Clubbing was always fun, Born Slippy and Oasis. I was sixteen, and thanks to my puritanical Nigerian past, always sober. The bouncers would always gimme a "sup bruv?" look when I stepped to the door, while my mate Al would be stopped and asked for ID. I'd stand behind the bouncer and make faces at Al. We were both illegal (pre-eighteen), but I would get through by virtue of being a potentially "double 'ard" black man, while Al could never be as 'ard as me, the poor white fella (well three-quarters white, if you can quantify these things) would have to brandish his "Brighton University Student's Union" ID.

In school, I had no problems. I was one of four black boys at the school of over a thousand boys. Actually, I lie. At our peek, we were five. Oddly enough, we were all of Nigerian origin, only the sixth formers being "fresh from yard". Some silly little boys would do mock Jamaican accents when talking to me. And I'd just shrug, "that's Jamaican, I'm Nigerian. Get it right..." Some people thought that because I was black, I was stud muffin. They were right, I was a stud muffin. But at the time I didn't show it, and sadly the restraint was involuntary. My mojo was a little dead (like being half pregnant) for those two years. The bottom line is I didn't experience any racism while I was there. I did have a ginger-haired friend who got teased a lot, and of course like the true lad that I am, I joined in. One day he called me "nigger". "That's racist", I said. "Well you called me 'ginga'". I didn't think he had a point, but I couldn't really argue with him. So I stopped calling him "ginga".

When I lived in Sunderland, my experiences of racial discrimination were real, but also fed my vanity. I tried out for the university football team, I didn't get in. Not even the 3rd XI reserves. This was before the my defining feature became my paunch, and when I was young and sprightly. I wanted to go with the Nigerian team to the Sydney Olympics, so I figured university football would help my chances. Don't laugh, I was serious. I was a defender, and anyone who knows anything about football knows that Nigeria do not have defenders. I was a cinch for Taribo West's jersey. It really upset me that I didn't get into the team, especially when I played very well at the trials. But, hey, c'est la vie.

Apart from being a failed footballer, I'm a retired wannabe actor. Oscars, Baftas, Césars, and maybe even Razzies, I would accept them all. I went for auditions at the local theatre when it was panto season. I put on an Oscar winning display, the Don Cheadle of Wearside. The best people would be given parts, and the others would be called back. Yours truly was called back, and I shouldn't have been. People I saw at the callback were surprised to see me. In the end I don't remember if I was offered the non-speaking part of "hind legs of cow" and turned it down, or if I was offered the role at all. Had to be racism.

I've only ever had proper racial abuse once. It was Birmingham, summer 2000. The summer of Big Brother 1, summer of two-step garage and the song "Summer of Love", the summer of Wyclef Jean at Notting Hill carnival. I was "summering" with my uncle in Mosley, Birmingham. Mosley is an upmarket area of Brum, down the road from Edgbaston, a village strewn with parks, lakes, detached houses.

One evening, I was on my way home, skipping gaily with a beautiful summer sunset behind me, when I heard the words "nigger" shouted out of a moving vehicle. A group of lads in a small car speeding past me. In the distance, the car started to slow down. The car pulled over, and one of the boys came down and the car sped off again. Wonderful, I thought. He didn't look that big, I could probably take him one-on-one. My steps quickened so that I could get to him. Adrenalin began to swirl in my bloodstream, fight or flight had come to the surface. I wasn't flying anywhere, I would stand fight. I probably thought, "he's white, I'm black. How strong could he be?" But I was too slow, he had already gone in. I saw the house and paused for a bit. I could either report the stupid kid to his mother, or I could firebomb the place as soon I'd done an internet search for instructions. In the end, I did nothing. I very much regret doing nothing about it, at least I could made sure the cars parked outside had suspiciously failing brakes. But that is the sum of my racism experience.

If you're not yet bored, read the thread stuff below. I haven't got permission so I should steel my lawyer for the writs. The first story is poignant, poignant because of the extremity of the action, and the age of the perpetrators. They haven't been edited, only names have been removed, and some spelling.

Number 1

ok, i wish i could start your day on a lighter discussion but during dinner with my aunt and uncle last night i heard the most disturbing story.

their son had gotten into a couple of fights because he was being teased in school about being black, so we started discussing the racism issue here. my aunt works in the british school and said that what her son went through was nothing and recounted an incident that took place during break time in her school:

a boy had used a skipping rope to tie up one of the black girls in the school (by tie up i mean he wound the rope around her upper body), and was screaming at her "this is what we do to slaves, my daddy told me you are my slave and so you have to do whatever i say, you're a dirty slave...". (please bear in mind that these kids are like 6year olds) he kept saying it over and over. when my aunt saw what was happening she went over and asked him what he was doing. the kid then says "i'm not wrong, my daddy told me she's my slave, he showed me on the video and i read it as well. so she has to do what i say". my aunt at this point tried to talk sense into him but of course she couldnt get anywhere. so she gave up and told him to go and apologise to the girl as he had hurt her feelings. she reported the incident to the head teacher. the school called the parents and spoke with them and that was it.

imagine, i was disgusted to say the least when i heard this story. perhaps i have been naive in thinking that things were getting better. but then what am i saying? when i stayed with my sister in cambridge and was taking my nephew to school (he is the only black kid there), i couldnt help noticing that the only kid that really ever wanted to play with him had a mixed father.

one thing is for sure - kids can be cruel - if it isnt your colour, it's your glasses, it's that you're fat, or you're skinny etc etc. they have too much to deal with already without having the added burden of dealing with racism at such a young age dont they? i am even more convinced that i'm right in wanting my kids to spend their early life in Naija.

Number 2

Racist at 6 and fully armed with such surety because the very people who are
supposed to lead him right are the very ones miseducating him.

I went to high school and A Levels outside London. I was one of two black kids in the
entire school and bar the silly bint who asked if we lived in trees in Africa and do we have cereal in Naija, I cant think of anything totally bad that happened.

In that little town of Surrey, it was actually cool to be black, the Asians loved you and the oyinbo's let you be. I guess that in itself is rather racist considering they didn't bother me coz they figured I knew some black gangster who would take them out. This was in the days of 2Pac and early years of cable tv and widespread mtv nation fever. People would constantly ask me for a dealer and I wasnt bullied either- so what if it's coz they thought my drug supplier would come with his Brixton massives and take them out.

Oh and I was always put on track field even though I cant run to save my life. But
hey! Number 2 is black, she MUST be a fantastic runner. I think they got the message eventually when I lost a major inter school relay.

Besides all that randomness, I was never really bothered, people just thought it was "cool" to be friends with a black kid and to be black, so I'd have people come up to me and say stupid things like "yo" , wassup "dawg" and whatever else it is they picked up from last night's re-run of Seinfeld.

The real talk of racism actually came when I moved into London. My nephew who was about 6 at the time, had to move schools because he was constantly being picked on by teacher as well as pupils. If anything went wrong, it had to be the black kid. He started doing badly at school too because he wasnt participating, started to feel really withdrawn and even his usual happy go lucky attitude.
Number 3
Racism sucks. Makes me wanna cry sometimes. Used to think I could just shrug it off and just charge it to ignorance, but when it hits you out of the blue, then the sh*t hurts.

My Story:
Was walking friend's house in Marble Arch (DJ "Air Miles") a couple of months back, just to say hello to his peeps as they were leaving for Naija for soon. Now Mr. and Mrs. Ignoramus had just come back from shopping and were off-loading their the goods into the house. As I was walking into the Mews that same faithful night (see exhibit A) (due to technical difficulties exhibit could not be uploaded), Mrs. Ignoramus, noticed her husband had left the door open behind him and beckoned to him to close the door. As he turned round to do so, he saw me and I kid you not, dude looked like he had just seen a ghost. Old and frail as he was, he ran down the hallway, damn near fell on his wrinkly a** to quickly slam the door. He was terrified and I couldnt understand it. Who would be terrified of lil 'ol me. I cried that day!! Well not really, but I was pained, cause I didnt expect it.

Number 4
welcome to the north of the equator.........i worked in the admissions office last yr to make some extra quid while finishing my masters o...and everytime a black person with good grades who lookedlike aa prospective admit came in oga introduced them to me with a bright smile........i no kuku get why....until she told me that its good that they see that "people like you can excel"!........not only that they wanted me to give a talk to underachieving high school students.....and i told them i knew nothing of childpsychologyy...they told me..its okay..what they did not say of cos is that .."its are black..most underachievers are they need to hear you talk"..Of cos there are only like 10 black law students in the entire University
of Toronto......

Number 5

yesterday i was trying to cross the road on my daily walk to school. i had crossed the first half of the road when the light changed, so i stood at the divider. this woman was driving an suv was filtering into the road from my left, and so she had to drive right past me. as she she approached me, i noticed her fidgeting in her seat, and i thought it was a tad curious until i noticed that she was locking her door as she drove past me. she couldnt speed, because it was a corner, but she slowed down just so that she could be sure her door was locked as she drove past me. it made me feel really bad, standing there, over-educated lawyer on his way to school where he's working on a phd. im not even big, and all she saw was black man on the road. i thought i had put it behind me until i read Number 3's email. its brought back all the pain i felt yesterday.

i cant imagine how that would affect that little girl as she grows older.

What does the title of the thread mean anyway?


TMinx said...

I had my fair share of racist experiences but I never dwelt on them for more that a few minutes. I'll blog about some of them.

Nneka's World said...

I have had my own fair share of racism, living up north you tend to get more of it, and its funny that its the mixed people who tend to show more of the racist behaviour. The whites that do exhibit this trait are just stupid, ignorant and waste of my time, so i do what i always do, ignore them and make them feel more stupid.
But those stories are like wow, imagine at 6 they are thinking that way. As they say charity begins at home.

Cat said...

"The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born" is the title of the book written by Ayi Kwei Armah, a Ghanian writer. Check out the link below for more details on him and the book.

I chose that title using 'beautiful' 'cos it was the first thing that popped into my head when my aunt told me the story. I honestly believe that the corruption of the human mind begins from birth, hence...the beautiful ones are not yet born.

LondonBuki said...

Very Enlightening and Unbelievable... WOW!!!!

Olawunmi said...

its sad to see that equality and unconditional mutual acceptance is still far from us.

one day...

Adaure Achumba said...

interesting... i have gotten it so much i don't even remember. Now I think I have been a little bit desensitzed to it that if I can't help the situation I don't bother my life with it.

Noella said...

Nkem, I don't like that picture, its disgusting. In the world that we are living in now, one has to be very careful about the cartoons one puts up!!!

Anonymous said...

I agree with you wholeheartedly. Racism is wrong and demeaning and should be stamped out and yes, I am English and not black.

The thing is, it happens both ways. Racism is not a special thing saved up for black people by white individuals.

I have experienced racist comments from black people. I have also had racist comments aimed at me because I have a black friend and that comment was thrown at me whilst I was at work in a corporate that supposedly has policies to deal with such things!

I've also had to represent black individuals at work, arguing with HR, who have claimed racism but had absolutely no case.

Racism is wrong but people of all colours and creeds are guilty, at times, of using that word to cover up the basic level of intolerance that exists between people in the living world.

Alaye Scoro said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Alaye Scoro said...

In my 5th year of secondary school in Nigeria, my classmates and I had the pleasure of hosting Marek (white dude).He was the son of the Czech Ambassador to Nigeria and was our classmate for over a year. I hesitate to go into much detail about Marek's expereince but suffice to say that was the period when I realised that racism (or at least the black-white aspect of it)is defintiely a 2 way street. Taking this in concert with how I've seen black people treat other black people, I'm almost convinced that were the economic roles reversed Black racism (as conceerns treatment of poor white folks) would be far worse. But I guess we'll never know for sure.

sokari said...

I had my own experience of racism at an English boarding school. I was sent there at the age of 14 - it wasnt just the other pupils but the teachers themselves. I dont want to go into details because the experience is too painful to start recalling here.

Nneka - I agree with you on the issue of some mixed race people in England but they too are victims of internalised racism. They have been brought up to believe because they are mixed they are somehow better than their black brothers and sisters. A lot of this has to do with being brought up in a majority white environment and the use of certain types of language. Personally I thank God I grew up in Africa even with all the "half caste" blah blah blah. At the end of the day it is how you present yourself. I refuse to identify myself with these kind of labels because the terms are divisive and unproductive. They are constructs of white minds who are always looking for ways to divide and conqueor.

Anonymous said...

Firstly, I really like your blog Nkem. Secondly, I find it hard to believe that your only personal encounters with racism were recounted in your blog. Thirdly, while acknowledging that all races can engage in and be subject to racism, I'd like to posit that racism by whites against blacks has far more devastating impact than racism by blacks against whites, or even racism by whites against other whites for affiliating with blacks. Without writing a book and converting this comment into my own blog, please allow me to be simple without nuance and with grave generalization. (I'm American if you didn't notice the use of the "z" instead of "s.") White people run the world and black people do not. The lack of economic-political dominance by blacks has been credited to either natural inferiority or hopelessly unrealized potential. Either way a barb against blacks carries with it by implication the historical dominance of whites over blacks, including horrors of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, African colonization, and the absence of governmental and economic stability of African countries. That same baggage is not carried by an expression of racism against a white person. It's more personally demeaning and rude as opposed to an indictment on an entire race and heritage of people. I would much rather be white and experience racism on the perceived grounds of not being cool or not being able to dance than experience racism on the perceived grounds of being greatly predisposed to utter failure. Racism against a white is a showing of diminished individual respect; racism against a black is a showing of diminished regard for blacks' humanity.

Nkem said...

To the second anonymous, thanks for talking about the historical context of racism, as it is really important. That of slavery and eternal underachievement are hardly ever issues that Africans or diaspora Africans have to deal with. If a black person of African origin (say one generation removed from the continent) has grown up in the West, then issues that African-Americans and Caribbeans have to deal with might affect them. It's a matter of not being minority in your own country and feeling hard done by when racism is experience. Colonialism will sometimes be an issue, but it more often sparks a "we'll take back what they took from us" mentality, or a "we have a right to be here" thinking.

BTW, as I'm sure you know, the great black dancer, athlete, singer, manhood size are all myths. Not from personal experience of course.

chrome said...

strange thing this racism. I'm not sure what's worse. the racism or the stereotyping.

went to turnmills in london for a friend's birthday a year ago. b4 I got to the bar for drinks I had six people ask me for drugs! like really in my face asking.

last week had a sistren clutch her bag as i passed her on the escalator. hmmm i still pondering that one.

Anonymous said...

but sometimes its just ignorance.

Anonymous said...

ignorance that we all contribute to by deciding to 'hang' with those we identify most closely with.

if we all sought to really engage with each other and express our viewpoints without expecting complete acceptance and understanding of those views immediately maybe we could marginalise the ignorance and racism???

Ladi said...

Racism is here to stay…
White on Black, Black on White, Black on Black, and White on White (You know blonds are better than other Caucasians right!) etc…
Better still, we should all go back to our respective countries.
Then, all we’ll get to deal with is tribalism which is a lesser form of racism.

What am I talking about; you can’t run away from it…
It is human nature to discriminate against non similar forms…
Be it because of race, gender, age, or class…
To stop racism, any and every one of us should look at our insides and try to make amends by treating each other equally… then may be our grandchildren will enjoy a life without racism… Cheers!