I Thought I Had Nothing to Say about Race
When I was thirteen, I realised I was a lesbian. My response to this, naturally, was to kiss a boy. I’ll set the scene: 1998 school disco held at the Catholic Girls’ School, with boys as guests from a local private boys’ school. One of the “slow-dance” songs- maybe even Celine Dion- was playing in the background. At least, it appeared to be in the background, as the moment of the kiss had moved to the fore. It was my second kiss, and not a very good one—a small group of girls had gathered to watch us and were making silly sounds. Up on the stairs, presiding over us, was the headmistress, determined to pay us no mind as we were, in her words, just looking for attention. If it’s what I was looking for, I certainly got it and not just for that night. What I had earned myself in those short (but seemingly unending) moments, was a reputation.
Robert became my boyfriend for around two weeks after that. As we had no way of actually seeing each other, our messages were relayed largely through mutual friends on the 248 bus. After two weeks of “Robert says he loves you” and “Robert thinks you’re sexy” I eventually received the message that “Robert wants to break up with you.” When I asked why, I was told “he said he only kissed you cos coloured girls are easy, innit?”
It wasn’t the first time that I had heard something negative to do with my race, but it was the first time I had heard someone in real-time use the word “coloured.” My instinct was to laugh and laugh I did. I laughed it off in the nonchalant way that you can only manage if you are covering hurt. “Oh well,” I said. I spent the next three years wishing my hair was straight and trying to live up to a friend’s suggestion that “I know you’re half-caste, but you’re more on the white side.” Whatever that meant, at that time I wanted it to be true. Surrounded at school by white girls with hair in varying degrees of flickable, I wanted to be like them.
After the Robert incident, I made it my mission to be unoffended by anything. When we discussed John Agard’s “Half-caste” in class, I wrote an essay saying that, as a “half-caste” person myself, I didn’t care about the fact that the phrase wasn’t politically correct. I wrote that it doesn’t matter what we call people and that the poem was taking offence where none was needed. I think I got an A. Whatever words people threw at me, I would grab in mid-air and twist like origami into jokes. I was determined not to care.
When I was fifteen, I was walking with a friend along a high street, all in our grunge clothes. A boy across the street, an obvious “trendie”, shouted out rudely to us. “Half-caste idiot,” my friend muttered. I realised in that second that I had taken offence but at the same time realised that if I voiced this, she wouldn’t understand. I would cease to be her token mixed-race (sorry, “half-caste”) friend. So I kept quiet. I did my best to erase the offence and yet obviously it remains in my mind even now.
Nineteen. I was living in Toronto, where I met and fell in love with a woman eleven years older than me. We were watching the football. “Stupid nigger,” she shouted at one of the players, spilling some of her drink as she waved her arms in the air. “What?” I said. She brushed it off with some remark and I sat, quietly stunned. I think it was the first time I had ever heard that word directed at an actual person. Hours later she explained herself. “I’m sorry, baby. I was just angry. And you know I didn’t mean you? Anyway, your mum is white.” I didn’t stick up for myself or the man on the screen, just nodded, smiled, accepted the hand extended. I felt like a traitor.
At twenty-three, I was working in a pub for an especially sexist, racist, homophobic and generally offensive manager. At one point, another company was looking to buy the place and two men came to survey it. When they left, the manager said to the supervisor “did you see that Paki bastard?” Afterwards, the supervisor came up to me. “I’m sorry, darling. He shouldn’t use that word in front of you.” Always better at standing up for others than for myself, I simply said “no, he shouldn’t have,” and carried on with my cleaning. I felt sad that that was all I had managed to say on the topic but glad that I had spoken at all. By that time, I was so used to swallowing my offences that they no longer sat sharp in my belly but dull and heavy as stones. I felt I was carrying around a weight but I couldn’t have said exactly what that weight was. Now I am aware it was the weight of offence taken and never expressed.
For years, I thought I had nothing to say about race. That I had never experienced discrimination and had no right to comment. It didn’t feel like denial but like something I genuinely believed. From five-year-old me wanting to be white like a Disney princess, to twelve-year-old me being ditched by that boy, even through to nineteen-year-old me hearing the racial slur that made me flinch, I believed I was immune to offence. It wasn’t my fight. I said that to myself and I said it to others. It’s nothing to do with me. For the first three years of university I avoided postcolonial literature like the plague, terrified I would end up being “typical.” When asked where I was from, I invariably said either “London” or “my mum.” I pointed out repeatedly that I had never actually been to Jamaica. Always put the “Holland, Ireland…” out there first.
I used to think, subconsciously I guess, that because of the long list of protected characteristics I possess (lesbian, non-white, mental health problems…), I had to be able to take a joke. I didn’t want to be seen as part of the reason for Political Correctness Gone Mad. I was like the girl in a group of guys laughing at a sexist joke, like the one black guy in a room of people tittering at some racial slur. I was so determined to hold my own, so determined to not be offended, that I forgot I am rightly allowed to be offended by certain things. Without realising it, I spent a long time apologising for who I am. I thought that un-offendable meant invincible. I was wrong.
I no longer strive to make myself immune to offence. I am able to express it and more importantly, able to feel it. I no longer describe myself as “half-caste” or even “mixed race”; if pressed, I am “four quarters black and three thirds white.” I don’t water myself down for people, or try to depoliticise myself: all bodies are political in and of themselves, and mine is no exception—why should it be? All these experiences have shaped me, I couldn’t deny that. But they don’t make me. I won’t let them.
So I thought I had nothing to say about race?
I was wrong.