The following piece is from Seun Odusanya, who shares her experience of growing up as a black British girl. She was made aware of her differences as a teenager, as she navigated her way through the complexities of two cultures. This is an honest and emotive piece. Incredibly powerful stuff. LW
My worries growing up could be filed under one general heading – ‘Am I good enough?’. This is a question that I have grappled with all my life.
As a black British girl navigating my way through the complexities of two cultures, I became aware of my difference growing up. This has undoubtedly played a large role in shaping my identity today. For all of my school years, I was a minority. At my primary school, I was the only black girl. When I then started at my secondary school, I was one of only four black pupils (one of which was my brother) in the entire senior school of around 1,500 students. While being at a private school was a great privilege, and one that has put my life on a different trajectory, it has also meant that I have had the experience of being the anomaly – often being the only black girl in the room, facing the battle of trying to belong.
Reflecting upon my school life, I can remember early encounters where I was made to feel like the ‘other’. I was accustomed to very few people (including teachers) not being able to pronounce my name – Suen, Sean, Shayoon… the list goes on. Being an outsider was nothing new to me and I was reminded of this with the numerous comments I faced from other students such as ‘Why are your lips so big?’, ‘Were you born with braids?’ or ‘You’re actually quite pretty for a black girl’. By far the worst incident was once being referred to as ‘Ebola girl’. Incidents like this happened with surprising frequency. There were many occasions where I cried in the toilets at lunchtime or when I got home from school. I have always considered myself to be a confident individual, although admittedly I did care deeply about what others thought of me.
I spent my young life seeking approval and ran into messy social situations in my effort to be accepted. This was also the same for how I looked. I would measure my physical appearance and self-worth strictly in terms of everyone else’s – tall, slim, long blonde hair, blue eyes and white. Understandably, this did get me down at the time, however I can say with full confidence that it made me a stronger person. People would describe me today as hardworking, determined and passionate. I hope this belief will never come undone.
The notion of the token black girl is something I have thought about. How did most teachers know my name even though they had not taught me? Was I just known because I stood out being the ‘black girl’? This obviously had its advantages attached to it. But of course, there was an almost automatic added pressure. An old age maxim that I always heard growing – ‘You’ve got to be twice as good to get half as far’.
Whilst I am sure that all these experiences are perhaps not unique to me, it is imperative that institutions like schools take note, particularly in response to the disturbing events that have emerged. Schools will do well to include ‘Black History’ in their curriculums and its relevance in today’s society. True understanding goes beyond watching ‘Roots’ in Life Studies and reading books.
Over the years, as I have grown older, I have grown in confidence and self-acceptance. I have learnt to embrace difference and diversity and let go of the worries I had during childhood. I have relished every opportunity to share my culture with my peers. Whether it is organising a Nigerian dinner party for my friends in sixth form or leading a whole school symposium on Africa. It has become something of a mission for me to help change the negative perception about black people today. University was the first time that I actually felt as though I fit in. As I have become older and more mature, I have become more aware of my blackness. Gaining a vast array of diverse friends has made me even more grateful and appreciative of my background and culture. This gave me the opportunity to confidently discuss things like hair, makeup, music and food.
However, I still notice that even today, the more privileged the sphere of life I enter, the fewer the people that look like me. Why is this the case? When I think about the extraordinary and accomplished people in high places all around the world, some though not enough are women and equally some though not enough are black. More needs to be done to see women of colour fairly represented in leadership positions. Another issue is that people are quick to define strong black women as angry and aggressive. This narrative functions as a dangerous trap – one that continues to sweep minority women to the perimeter of every room. The question that has to be asked is, ‘Should we have to defend ourselves after being inaccurately labelled by others?’
While I understand that the journey towards diversity and inclusion requires uncomfortable conversations, I believe change happens when we all educate ourselves because education is the primary instrument for change. The overdue acknowledgement of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement by mainstream media has further highlighted this. In light of the heinous and unjust murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and many others in America, ripples across the world have been created. Not only has it triggered nationwide protests, but it has also sparked conversations that would not have otherwise happened. What baffles me about the world is that time and time again we hear of so many of these senseless and preventable deaths with too little action made. It has reached the stage that we can no longer stay silent.
This time has created a space for many like me to pause and reflect and share our stories. This is just the beginning of these sorts of discussions. While I believe that all lives matter, this can only be true when black lives matter too. I think we all have a role to play in bringing about real change. However, change on its own is just a word. We need unity, strength and action through taking what we have learnt and vocalising it. We can no longer escape the fact that the makeup of Britain is rapidly changing and multi-culturism is here to stay.
When times are tough, I remind myself of some of the obstacles I have managed to overcome. As I have got older, I have come to realise that this comes from within. My hope is that the next black girl that looks like me in a school like mine will not have to go through the same struggles that I did. The motto I use – ‘Be the best version of yourself rather than the second best version of someone else’. I am continually evolving to reach this goal. It requires one to stay determined and never give up. I can confidently say now that yes, I AM GOOD ENOUGH and I am incredibly proud of my Nigerian heritage.