That was definitely something I had to get used to.
It can be argued that I have never really gotten used to it. There is something to be said about how the whole experience of racism is dehumanising and othering. But, experiencing discrimination that did not purely revolve around slurs and active racism was something I discovered to be just as bad. From day one in Bahrain, I was constantly reminded that I was different. My skin, my hair, my accent, it was all different and therefore I was deemed strange by my peers.
Despite this, I was still able to enjoy my new life in Bahrain. I went on to make many friends including the most significant and unlikely friendship of my childhood, with a little blonde British girl. We were a mismatched pair to say the least. I had my mums’ creative hairstyles in a variety of different bobbles paired with my big eyes, wide smile and blemishless dark skin. She had her long blonde hair in two ponytails, sporting a mess of freckles and blue eyes. No one would have imagined that two people so vastly different would have gravitated towards each other, and yet we did. In our young minds, the differences did not matter or even fully register with us. In our minds, we were equals, regardless of what society thought.
Seeds of Racism
It was during my first year in Bahrain that I first experienced racism. At the time it did not register to me as racism because of my naiveté. One of my classmates made a comparison of my complexion to ‘caca‘ which I would later find out meant poo. When it finally sunk in that she was comparing my skin to feces, I was numb. I had no idea how to react. So I stayed silent as some of my classmates came to my defense, confused and ignorant to what this meant.
The second incident occurred a few years later in primary school during a lunch break. I remember walking with a friend and a white girl came up to me just to let me know I was a “Black girl.” As she walked away my friend looked at me with so much pity it made me uncomfortably self conscious. It had officially become clear to me, I was different. Yet it still didn’t register that I was the victim of racism.
The first time my parents pulled me aside to talk to me about racism I was ten. I remember how they told me outright about the n-word, it’s history and its implications. How they told me that if anyone ever called me that I should stand up for myself. How it was a disgusting, vile word. I nodded, not fully understanding at the time how important this was. To my ten-year-old mind, everything was black and white, and that included racism. My friends, who at the time consisted of a Nigerian girl, my blonde friend, as well as Arabs and South Asians, weren’t obviously racist so I had nothing to worry about. That girl who said those things about my skin had long escaped my memory. Then came the classes where we were all introduced to topics like the civil rights movement, apartheid and slavery. All eyes would end up on me and the few other Black pupils in class. I felt like an unflattering spotlight had been cast upon me and I never even asked for it.
I hated going swimming. Since primary school, at least once a week we had a swimming class. Living in the desert meant that this was almost year-round, except for the odd chilly winter. It was not that I could not swim; I was an exceptional swimmer having won several medals for my participation at swimming galas. What I hated about swimming was how the sunscreen would leave a horrible white residue on my skin, how the chlorine would end up drying my skin afterwards and how my neatly plaited hair would end up ruined. I detested how my mother would make me wear a swimming cap that was so tight it would leave marks on my forehead. I felt embarrassed that I was the only one who had to wear one and how ugly it made me look. I envied how my blonde friend was able to towel dry her hair, give it a quick brush and be on her way.
Roots of Anti-Blackness
When I was eleven I asked my mum to relax my hair. I was tired of the touching and the questions and most of all how my curly, kinky hair did not feel or look silky and soft. I wanted my hair to be straight, I wanted to be exactly like everyone else. I wanted to be normal, beautiful, accepted. I hated how long it took to comb and to put into those complex styles. I genuinely believed this would at least be the start of problems being solved. My internalised anti-blackness was beginning to show its head.
As a teenager, I became more aware of how I was different. I would sit in a class of maybe twenty pupils and I would be the only Black one. On rare occasions, there would be one other Black person, usually my Nigerian friend. I did my best to ignore it. No one else noticed or mentioned it, so why should I? Outside of school was a different story. I quickly noticed how supermarkets and pharmacies alike held certain skin whitening brands, anything from body cream to deodorant. The ads claiming that fairer skin was lovely, more beautiful, more worthy. I couldn’t help but feel that this country was not willing to cater to people who looked like me and that perhaps the more I distanced myself from this perceived view of blackness the more I would fit in.
As I got older, my increasing awareness of the frequent passive racism that followed me and my family only made me more determined to confront it, rather than conform to it. When my mother would get mistaken for a store worker or a maid by lighter skinned Arabs, it forced me to look at the way that dark skin Arabs, Black people and dark skinned people of colour are treated in the Middle East. Specifically in Gulf countries. There is an episode of Ramy, a comedy drama starring the comedian himself when his mother makes a comment about a Black woman’s hair and in not so many words told her that her natural hair was ugly and would be better straightened. While I applaud the show for its portrayal of anti-blackness it gave me an uncomfortable reminder – that even though I have such an intense love for this country, its people may feel differently.
The fact of the matter was, no matter how much I tried to position myself adjacent to whiteness or ‘not like those other Blacks’, I would never be fully embraced, loved or accepted by a people conditioned to dislike those who look like me. The anti-blackness is too deeply ingrained.
Searching for a Black Identity
Going to university in the UK really helped open my eyes to the beauty of being Black. I began to follow more Black women who looked like me on Instagram and grew bored with my relaxed hair, initially getting my first set of braids but ultimately doing the big chop. I began to listen to grime, reggae, dancehall and soca in a dual effort to regain my West Indian identity as well. I made friends with more Black people, both British and West African and in turn learned more about the beauty and joys of blackness. Although I enjoyed this new perspective, I could not help but feel a bit cheated. Almost as if I wasted a large part of my life despising part of me. This caused me to attempt a reinvention of myself; the way I dressed, spoke and acted changed tremendously. Finally. I thought. I fit in!
“You’re such a white Black girl,” said a girl I considered a friend. I blinked, unable to think of a suitable response to this. It was said with such casualness that I didn’t even have the chance to respond at all and it was only long after, through conversations with others who had experienced the same, that it dawned on me to be offended. Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident and I soon began to feel a divide between myself and the Black people I surrounded myself with. Their knowledge of Black culture and the Black ‘authenticity’ they possessed made me feel like a fraud. I found there was an increased lack of understanding, or perhaps acceptance, of my background. It became tiring having to explain to people my background in an attempt to explain away my lack of knowledge of Black culture and I detested how dismissive they were of my international background. In hindsight I can see how my internalised anti-blackness and desperate need to be accepted by a community I knew little about caused me inner turmoil, which caused me to become extremely bitter, resentful and to feel like an imposter.
A child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel it’s warmth. -African Proverb
The dissociation of the person I wanted to be and the person I was at my core came to an end when I realised how inauthentic I was being. I was forcing myself to fit a mould I was not meant to fit in the first place. I came to the realisation that I was far too complex of a person to be forcing myself into an ‘either/or’ situation that was only hurting me and not improving my relationship with my blackness. I felt uncomfortable with the person I had become because of this and missed my prior trueness to self. I no longer felt genuine. It was during this epiphany that I realised there was a way to find a balance between the two worlds I had found myself trapped in: to be myself.
There was no reason I could not be the person I was before, but now with my newfound love for my blackness. I did not need to completely change myself to be seen as more Black. The things I’d learned about Black culture, I could still embrace in a way that was authentic and genuine. It did not matter to me if others felt that my blackness was not real enough because to me it was. It had taken me a long time to accept this but it was incredibly freeing. Identity, especially blackness, is not one dimensional and if there was anything I had discovered during my lifetime it is that I am quite literally an embodiment of this. There was no use trying to force myself into monolithic structures that society was pushing onto me. I am Black in my own way, the only way I know how to be.
Whilst growing up in the Middle East made me develop these identity issues about my race, culture and how I navigated my identity in relation to traditional ideas of blackness, it has ultimately allowed me to forge my own identity beyond the confines of what is traditionally seen as Black. I hope that the person I am because of my international background can at the very least challenge the one dimensional, stereotypical perception of Black people worldwide. To be Black is to be beautifully complex.