by Charlotte Niblett
I’m in the doctor’s waiting room, filling out a form: full name, address, next of kin, etc. And then I reach the ‘Race/Ethnic Origin’ section and my pen ticks the ‘White and Black Caribbean’ box. When it comes to identifying my race and ethnicity, that’s about as straightforward as it gets.
So, biologically speaking, I am three-quarters white British, one-quarter Jamaican. Ever since I was a little, I have always struggled with my racial identity. Having predominantly white friends and a white family home, there was a certain lack of connection to my black heritage. There was some, don’t get me wrong; I was blessed with thick, fluffy, afro hair, which was not catered to by my local hair salon.
Growing up as a mixed-race child in a primarily white school evoked experiences which made me very aware of my non-whiteness. Whether it was my schoolyard crush telling me he doesn’t like brown girls anymore, people laughing at my larger than life hair, or the constant what are you’s, the where are you from’s and the long games of ‘let me guess your race’. These little instances soon stacked up on top of each other and created a weight so mighty that it crushed my confidence and made me feel different – something I really didn’t want to be. ‘I’m not that black’ I would explain, ‘I’m only a quarter’. As if pointing this out would make everything better.
It wasn’t until university, all fresh starts and fresh minds, that I started embracing my blackness as a part of what made me Charlotte, rather than some sort of burden that held me back. Instead of amplifying my whiteness, I rightly embraced my blackness after people had been pointing out my whole life how ‘not white’ I was. But once I started to respond with ‘black’ in an attempt to cut the whole ethnic origin conversation short, it dredged up a whole new problem of its own. ‘You’re brown!’ ‘Even I’m more black than you!’, ‘It’s not racist; you’re not that black’ they would protest. Well, I found myself back at square one.
So, now what? At this point, it’s left me feeling at a loss as to who or what I’m ‘allowed’ to be, and has evoked a loss of identity within a world of categories, labels and boxes. Where’s my ‘not white but not black enough’ box?
With the Black Lives Matter movement reentering mainstream media after the tragic murder of George Floyd, issues surrounding the acute presence of both covert and overt racism are once again taking over mainstream conversations. Amongst research, podcasts and many posts on social media, it became evident that my experience surrounding my racial identity wasn’t a unique one, and that many people of colour and of mixed race are feeling the effects of these conversational comments that over time, leave a little bit more than a bad taste in your mouth. It also became clear that they were more commonly known as racial microaggressions.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines a microaggression as:
‘a small act or remark that makes someone feel insulted or treated badly because of their race, sex, etc. Even though the insult may not have been intended, it can combine with other similar acts or remarks over time to cause emotional harm’
Which for me, kinda hits the nail on the head; giving me some kind of validity to how outsider’s’ words have made me feel over the years.
“By continuing to push for difficult conversations, education and awareness, I believe we can begin to not only deconstruct and tackle microaggressions but begin to dig up the racist foundations that this society is built upon.”
But from my exploration of the presence of microaggressions amongst racial discourse, I have found that many recognise microaggressions not as a factor of racism, but just another way to cater to this ever-growing ‘snowflake’ society – a society that consists of young people that melt at any sign of altercation. It’s not malicious, it’s not said to be hurtful, so how can it be included in the same conversation surrounding blatant racism? Is this just me kicking up a fuss over a normal part of my life? A life I should expect from being a little bit ‘different’?
I don’t know about you, but this kind of silencing highlights a deeper problem rather than nipping another debate in the bud. Within my own experience, and what I will witness as long as I have this hair and this skin, I have come to realise that these feelings of difference are what have made me feel so out of touch with my own racial identity, as well as how much ‘white’ is viewed as the prevailing norm. For me, microaggressions towards me being mixed race seem to highlight how close I am to that ‘norm’, but also how I just missed the mark. This to me, cements their place within discussions surrounding race, and even highlights the remaining presence of racism, prejudice and colourism in today’s society.
I don’t believe there is such a thing as a snowflake society. I think that all of us, not just people of colour, are beginning to speak up on how they are being made to feel; recognising the different paths people are on and how our own traumas and life experiences shape the person we are. And it is this apparent change in attitude, clearly seen by the worldwide protests and push for awareness over social media during the Black Lives Matter movements, that I hope will begin the journey towards shaping the compassion and understanding of future generations when discussing race and ethnicity.
The examples of discourse that rose through the Black Lives Matter protests, for the first time in my life, provided me with a vision of a brighter future. By continuing to push for difficult conversations, education and awareness, I believe we can begin to not only deconstruct and tackle microaggressions but begin to dig up the racist foundations that this society is built upon. But the only way we can continue to do so is to start talking to each other more. And I mean really talk.
Let’s put a stop to people just accepting microaggressions as a normal part of life. Let’s continue to unravel the concept of minorities and share experiences; wear each other’s shoes and understand that for some, certain words can stem from twisted origins and allow much deeper issues to resurface. Continuing to share the experiences of people of colour and other minorities, as well as exploring why we feel the things we do, puts us on the right path; giving me so much optimism for the future and the gradual dismantling of racial microaggressions.
Race, in particular, is a social construct so can appear in many different forms, and this is why education, conversation and empathic understanding is vital in avoiding children of the future hating the colour of their skin and children of mixed-race growing up feeling lost amongst boxes and labels. As protesting both online and offline continues, it will encourage me to speak up about not only my experience, but more importantly the treatment of black people in present day – kickstarting the right conversations that will eventually lead to a future where we listen to everyone’s unique journey in order to focus on who they are and what they feel, rather than what box they tick when they fill out a form at the doctors.
An SEO copywriter by trade, Charlotte spends her spare time delving into poetry analysis and articulating her experiences with race into words whether that’s through poetry, essays or opinion pieces. She recently started her own poetry Instagram page that stems from her blog, @poetry_onmymind.