In the first part of a blog series to celebrate Black History Month, Nicki Adeleke addresses the misconceptions surrounding how Black people ‘should’ behave.
This year’s Labour Party Conference was one I thoroughly enjoyed. Hearing the policy proposals demonstrated that Labour is a government in waiting. However, the suspension of Rupa Huq, for comments made at a fringe event in which she referred to the former Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng as “superficially Black”, was a taint on the Conference.
She has rightly apologised for her comments and it is not for me to pre-empt what further actions the Party will decide to take. However it is important to recognise the implications of when such comments are made in society.
Kwasi Kwarteng has attended Eton, Cambridge and Harvard. Whilst it can be said with a level of certainty that these have been advantageous to him, as he is a dark skinned Black man with an African name, I find it very hard to believe that he has not experienced racism in his lifetime, or that his experience of these institutions would have been the same as his White counterparts. There are many accounts of Black people having negative experiences in exclusive institutions. Whether it was Michelle Obama finding out her Princeton roommate asked to switch rooms because they did not want to share a room with a Black person, or Dawn Butler being told she was in the wrong lift when she entered the lift for MPs, Black people have been told in many ways, that they are unwelcome or unwanted in certain institutions.
As a dark skinned Black woman with an African name, I have experienced a number of racist incidents in my life, including ones in which my Blackness was called into question. During my school years, I was called a Bounty Bar, coconut or BOWI (Black on the outside, White on the inside). These comments essentially meant I was not “acting Black'' or that I was “acting White”.
These comments were made because I did not comply with typical stereotypes attributed to Black people. I performed well academically; I preferred indie and rock music to hip hop and RnB; I did not have a creative or athletic streak; and I did not watch TV shows or films which a lot of other Black students watched, because I found they reinforced negative stereotypes, but rarely portrayed Black people in a positive light. On one occasion, I was called “un-African” because I enjoyed reading books.
Such comments infer that institutions like Eton, Harvard or Cambridge, some of the most prestigious educational institutions in the world, are inaccessible to Black people, and that those who do attend are not “really Black”. Calling someone BOWI reinforces the negative stereotypes that Black people speak or dress in a certain way, can only excel in the creative arts or sports but not academically, and only listen to certain music genres.
When I faced such comments, I would rebuff them by asking why they thought that because I am Black, I could not do well academically or that I could not appreciate all music genres, or why it was that films and TV mainly portrayed Black actors in roles relating to criminal activity or the enslavement of Black people. I asked them if it was more “Black” for me to get expelled from school, rather than to excel. To the person who said I was un-African, I asked them about the many revered and award winning Black African writers, and whether they were un-African too. None of them ever had an answer.
We cannot be unhappy at the lack of Black people in prominent spaces and institutions, and then accuse the few who do manage to get into them of not being Black enough. We must also recognise that it is not for anyone to determine how Black someone is. The Black community is not a homogenous group that all conforms to the same interests. We have different traditions, religions, cuisine, fashion, music, stories and history. It is in the diversity of the Black community, which is not celebrated enough, that we see how beautiful the Black community is.
Nicki Adeleke is a councillor in the London Borough of Enfield and Chair of the Environment Forum, writing in a personal capacity. She has been a Fabian for over five years and has served on the Executive Committee for two years, as Women’s Officer. She has also served on the steering committee of the Young Fabian’s Health Network. She tweets at @MorenikeAdeleke.