I was born in Islington, North London. My mother’s family are from Guyana, and my father’s family are from Barbados. I define myself as black. I lived in London until my late 20’s before moving to Kent. I now live in Wiltshire, and have lived in the rural south west for around 7 years.
My experience in a rural area has been challenging. I settled in a reasonably inclusive town. A significant percentage of residents are middle class and go out of their way to be friendly in order to distance themselves from the behaviour stereotypically displayed by displaced, working class, white English people. For example, people will smile, say good morning, talk about the children, but ultimately, I am an overweight, dark-skinned, black woman … I could wear head-to-toe Hatley and Joules, drive the newest Range Rover and would still look like a working class person on a day trip to KFC.
Living in the south west during this time of overt nationalism has made me question who I am and see those around me differently. I remember my dad saying years ago that white people will smile in your face and call you ‘friend’ but would return to type with any real or imagined slight: ‘They’ll be your friend on Monday but you’ll go back to being a black bastard by Wednesday.’ I remember thinking, ‘For God’s sake Dad, it’s not 1955!’
Before living here I was a Londoner, raised in an aspirational working class family. I went to an excellent school and had friends of every hue. Racism was something that previous generations experienced. As I grew up and saw more of the world, I realised there were still bigoted people, but my most damaging experiences involved other black people – I didn’t fit in! I was ‘too black’ and was mercilessly bullied by other black girls about my skin, lips and hair. I grew up with the background noise of shade-ism and the almost perverse obsession with hair length and type. And yet …
I wasn’t black enough. I spoke ‘white’ or ‘posh’. I used big words and read The Guardian. I did – and still do – consider myself to be English. I do not have the strong link to my parents’ lands of birth, as many of my POC friends do. I’ve been to Guyana once, as a baby. I seem to have difficulty fitting in wherever I choose to base myself!
Once Brexit fever started, people I had worked with for years started spouting upsetting rhetoric. People tried to placate me by explaining their decision wasn’t about me – I was a decent English person, not the alien immigrant, here to claim benefits and commit crime. But we are a small country. There is not enough space for ‘those people.’ I’d shrug, depressed because they were missing the point. To people who don’t know me, I AM the ‘Other’. I became hyper-aware of my blackness; there was nowhere for me to hide.
A few days after the referendum I was attacked during my lunch break. The attacker shoved me to the ground, shouting ‘Time to go love, the people have spoken! We don’t want you here.’ I was helped up; a passing gentleman argued with the attacker. All those who came to my aid were white. One lady urged me to go to the police but I was shaken and the attacker long gone.
I went back into work upset and told my colleagues what had happened. Most of them were not outraged. Some tried to explain it away suggesting he was probably drunk, had mental health problems, or my all-time favourite ‘But you’re not even an immigrant!’ I no longer work there and avoid that town – larger, more diverse than mine – even now.
In terms of subtle discrimination, when I was pregnant I found out I was having a girl and was discussing girls’ names with my colleagues. One colleague thought she was being helpful by suggesting Beyonce and Shaniqua. (We named said baby Olivia). A colleague in rural Kent thought she was paying me a compliment by admitting that she didn’t see me as black: ‘I just see you as normal!’
My children are beautiful – I know I am biased. They are often complimented by white people when their hair is loose. That seems to be the trend – racially ambiguous children with ‘wild’ hair, right? But they often have protective hairstyles such as plaits because it works better for their hair types and I’m sick of people patting their hair as though they’re Waffle the wonder dog. But when their hair is plaited, it’s as though they are seen as just another black kid.
These experiences have had a detrimental effect on my sense of self and emotional wellbeing. I suffer from anxiety and PTSD, although these are not as extreme as they were following the attack. I do not feel I belong anywhere. I see everything through this prism of ‘Other’. At no point am I simply Michelle. I am hyper aware of my blackness 24 hours a day.
My husband, who is white, has become sensitive to the daily micro-aggressions which can make me uncomfortable. In our early days of courtship he would become enraged by behaviour which would never have featured on his radar prior to meeting me. I would placate him, explain the history and say this is just how it is. I have become more sensitive, and no longer feel I can discuss these issues with him because it is relentless. As much as he can try to understand, I don’t feel he ever truly can.
Most of my non-white friends and family live in London or other cities. Most British POC I know can tell you horror stories of others who ‘Married Out’, left the city and ran back with their tails between their legs once the local yokels had spat at them/beaten them up/bullied their children/stuck sh*t through their letter box/tried to run them over. There is real fear. My parents wouldn’t feel comfortable walking down the street in my town alone.
We were all brought up with these stories: even the younger generations are shocked when I tell them where I live. I get asked ‘What are the people like?’; ‘Are there any black people there?’ and ‘What about food and hair products?’ I’m looked upon with scorn. I wouldn’t be able to discuss these issues with many of them as they would think they were right all along – I should know my place instead of running around the countryside with a load of white people. This puts me in a lonely place.
One of my most vivid childhood memories of being in nature is being in Gloucestershire when I was 8. I couldn’t believe how much green space there was! We walked through fields and had picnics and I loved it. It was so different to London. I had my eldest child quite young but always tried to find green spaces for her to explore. When I was in my late 20’s I joined a hill walking group and fell in love with the great outdoors. I met my husband walking, and we still go walking in Wales when we can.
Most of my POC friends feel outside of their comfort zone in nature; the general attitude is ‘it’s not my kind of thing.’ The walking communities are generally friendly when I’m out with my white husband but we got many glances when we went with my non-white friends! So much good can come from exploring our surroundings, but the countryside is often seen by POC as something alien and unattainable.