‘Charming’ Racism

In the second part of our Black History Month blog series, Aleksandr George recounts his experiences of racism growing up in the USA.

Begotten from Carter G. Woodson’s Negro History Week, the first Black History Month was observed nationwide in America in 1976 and later came to be celebrated in the UK in 1987 in conjunction with African Jubilee Year. Importantly, Black History Month is a time not only to acknowledge the deep and lasting impacts of the transatlantic slave trade including the lack of focus on Black History in schools but also to celebrate the lives and achievements of Black people throughout history. 

And this Black History Month, I’ve been reflecting on my Old Kentucky Home:

“The Greatest”, boxer Mohammad Ali–renowned as one of the 20th Century’s most significant athletes–was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1942. The very first African American woman to earn her pilot’s licence in America and the first to run for Congressional office, Willa Brown was born in Glasgow, Kentucky (coincidentally, there are also a Paris and London in Kentucky). 

But I’ve also been reflecting on my experiences with racism, at home and abroad.

I am from Lexington, Kentucky–a city comedian Trevor Noah described as the place where he discovered “old school, charming racism with a smile”, which is as American as apple pie.

And he’s not wrong. 

When I was in elementary (primary) school, I had an art teacher ask “where in Africa my family is from”, Fresh Off the Boat style. Of course, that’s not to say that there are no African immigrants in Kentucky, only that the answer to the question of where my family’s from is also: Lexington, Kentucky. Other highlights from my K-12 academic career include making a room full of 8-year-old children lie on the floor “the way slaves on slave ships were packed together”, and the head of a mentoring programme not allowing me to mentor younger students like my (white) peers in the Gifted and Talented Academy because he assumed that I was in need of mentoring, myself.

But the joke’s on him. I spoke at my high school graduation on account of my academic achievements…though I also graduated from a school whose namesake was a slave owner. Three cheers for reparations? 

Unsurprisingly, I have also come across this so-called Charming Racism–perhaps even better described as microaggressions–during my time in the United Kingdom. Just the other day, a complete stranger asked if I “happened to be mixed race”. Quite clearly, I think, but it's exactly these sorts of inappropriate, probing questions I’m sure Black Britons also deal with all the time that thoroughly make British people feel uncomfortable in their own homes. 

Being followed around in stores or having people touch your hair without asking or answering the question of where you’re ‘really’ from may seem insignificant, but all of it feeds directly into overarching systems of racism and discrimination at the societal level. For example, studies as recent as 2020 demonstrate that a shocking proportion of white medical students believe that Black people have a higher tolerance for pain, resulting in serious disparities in treatment.

So, this Black History Month, I encourage white people to learn about the Harlem Renaissance and Black Wall Street and Southwark’s massive diaspora of African Christians and the history of Black people in Britain that dates back to the Romans. But I also would encourage them to work on allyship with Black people–patronise your local, Black-owned businesses and restaurants; volunteer at charities that directly aid Black people or combat hate crime, more generally; and importantly: educate yourselves on deconstructing internal, anti-Black biases you may not even know you have. 

Antiracist activism is far from easy, but we cannot hope to create a fairer and more equal society without it, and Black History month is only the beginning. 

Aleksandr George (he/they) works as a political organiser and currently holds the post of Trans Officer at LGBT Labour. He previously studied International Relations and recently completed an MA in National Security at King’s College London. He tweets @JayAleksandr.

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