Ever since I was a small child, society’s discourse has been that life is a bit harder for me. Firstly, because I’m female. And secondly, because I’m not white. I became skilled at ignoring those messages, I told myself that if I worked hard it wouldn’t matter. In many ways it’s still easy to tell myself that because I will never be able to prove how much more I could achieve if I was a white boy. My parents, who moved from Africa to England as teenagers, always told me that if I worked hard I could be whoever I wanted. And I believed them.
But in my teens society’s messaging about my inferior attributes got louder and it was getting harder to ignore. I refused to acknowledge the way I looked was particularly different from everyone else at school until one day my parents made a mistake. They discussed, in front of me, a call my father received from a recruiter; he’d been asked to come for an interview to join the board of an airline. My mum wanted him to go to the interview and see how the organisation was, but my dad said, “No, they’ll never hire me, I’m not white.” And that was that. This was the moment I had to face up to us not being like everyone else.
It’s strange how the discourse on white privilege, Black Lives Matter and #metoo affects me. These are buzz words now; before that it was just racism and equality. If someone pushes in front of me in the sandwich queue I find myself wondering if they did it because I’m an ethnic minority/female/or if they are just plain rude. I wonder why I have not been given a particular opportunity at work. Is it because my skill set isn’t good enough there or is it actually because my face doesn’t fit and my boss doesn’t have the courage to tell me?
The more I see the words white privilege, the more I am reminded I am different.
I’ve recently been asked to join a diversity committee at work. On one hand, great. On the other, oh boy it’s because I really am disadvantaged. I want to succeed so much, I can’t bear to think I have to work harder than most others just because of the lot I was born with. But the signals I receive are that yes, life is tougher for me. For example, all the interns at my first job were given one mentor. I was given two because apparently, I needed extra help. Really?! I knew my exam results were much better than my peers. I ignored one of the mentors because I wanted to be like everyone else.
So many of my friends are people of colour (POC) but we don’t talk about diversity. I suspect we don’t talk about it because that would mean admitting to ourselves and each other that our life is unfair. They are doctors, lawyers etc. and there is enough of them that maybe I can conclude that society isn’t that bad after all. But the media keeps telling me I’m discriminated against so when I was nominated for that award last week was it because now my skin colour is fashionable?
I need somewhere where I can go where I’m not constantly thinking about the to do list that will edge me towards my career and life goals. I need somewhere where I’m not being reminded of my complicated status in society and where I am just seen as just plain me without even trying. I really thought ALL was going to be that for me. I was so so happy when I found it.
I thought finally this online platform was going to make each of our female voices genuinely equal regardless of background or disadvantages. But, while it has given equal opportunity to those wishing to contribute and ignite conversation, some of those conversations have served to magnify people’s differences, further underlining the dangers of describing the world so simplistically; in terms of racially privileged and underprivileged.
The more I see the words white privilege, the more I am reminded I am different. The more I and others tell the group I am offended by these terms, the more they are propagated. Ironically, I now feel only the white privileged can participate in the conversation. How have the conversations on equality now become one about segregation?
Perhaps it’s the danger of labelling. I am labelled solely and simplistically ethnic minority/POC/BAME – this is by definition closed minded. I much prefer the more holistic concept of intersectionality. We need to work hard to try to mitigate the great divides in society but labelling people as over or under privileged based on one simple measure is destructive. An anecdotal example, the children who come to school in the morning at one of my local primary schools who have not eaten breakfast are in fact white. However, the children who have the weakest reading scores are those from ethnic minorities, this is not surprising as English is not spoken at home. Both these sets of children need and deserve more support. Using race to determine which children should get help in this instance would be wrong.
I’m so desperate to just be seen as me that I don’t classify people. You are not Annabel the white privileged person, you are just Annabel. I am fearful that I might be seen as X, the coloured girl. Is Annabel actually privileged just because she is white? What if she is a carer or lacks qualifications or is less abled? Must we really label and group people by race in an online forum of all places?! Can’t we save that for the Home Office and passport forms.
Is this another club that won’t have me because I’m not from the right Anglo-Saxon family? I’ve never wanted to just be me so much.
I desperately want to be myself.