The following piece is written by 22 year-old Ken Livingstone who grew up in Manchester. Much like the previous piece uploaded to the blog, Ken provides a first-hand account of her experiences growing up as a black woman in the UK. An eye-opening blog that provides a lot of insight – read and absorb. LW
In light of current events catalysing a surge in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, I was on the fence about speaking out, penning a piece of writing, or even addressing the matter at all.
As a young black woman, it was initially frustrating to see people ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ or following the trend on social media. Was I annoyed that so many people were only just seeing the racism that I had felt my entire life? Probably. Will they ever be able to truly understand the problem? Probably not. All you can do is educate yourself. A first-hand perspective is often the most valuable, so that is what I have decided to write.
When I was roughly 12 years old, I distinctly remember a comment made by a friend that has stayed with me all these years. She asked “is your blood a different colour to mine because your skin is a different colour? Is it brown?”. In the moment, I was really taken aback. It was an innocent question, with no intentional malice… but it really upset me.
At 12 years old, I was confronted by an underlying myth that has plagued history – black people are seen as different, a subservient version of the human race. This idea may seem extreme to some but just the thought that my blood was a different colour to the typical red we learn about in biology really struck a chord.
To make it more imaginable, I thought of a way that I can illustrate how it feels to be a black woman in a white dominated environment in the following way:
You’re at a party and you are the only person of your gender in the room. You notice it immediately, but it’s not necessarily a problem: merely an observation. As you bump into more people you know and feel more comfortable – you forget. Then a situation arises, like going to the toilet and (girl stereotyping here) you realise you have no gal pals around to accompany you. Your alienation is then much more apparent, however it’s a momentary blip and you soon forget again.
Except you keep needing the toilet and the realisation of your lack of same gender friends keeps presenting itself, but there is nothing you can do about it.
Being privileged enough to attend private school presented both advantages and challenges. I was exposed to a very white orientated school environment from the age of 4. I was 1 of only 3 black girls in my year, which had 100 people. In hindsight, I can appreciate that those statistics subconsciously really impacted me.
It was (and still is) hard being the only black girl in my friendship group, which may sound silly to some. I’ll outline a few challenges or considerations I have experienced, some past and some present, in the hope that you can increase your understanding and gain more familiarity or insight into being black in the UK. Whilst some of these may seem trivial, let that serve as an example of how skin colour can creep into the smallest of spaces.
- A constant feeling and awareness of being the ‘odd one out’ purely based on skin colour
- A genetically natural larger build resulted in a constant negative body image when comparing to my smaller, slimmer built white friends – a very hard concept to understand during teenage years
- Never being able to share makeup with friends as our complexions were completely different
- When my friends brought me back to their family home for the first time, as I got older I began to notice the subtle look of surprise or apprehension on parents’ faces as I walked in the door – was I the first black person they had ever had in their home? I really believe so, on some occasions
- New teachers would get to my name on the register and say: “oh I’m sure I’ll easily remember this one” – what was it that made my name stand out in a list of 20?
- Job Applications – “Inset First Name.” I toy with the idea of using my nickname, or even my middle name just to ‘whiten’ myself out a little bit. My Scottish surname however never causes me the same hesitation. When I do decide to use my full name and get rejected, there is always the after-thought – did my presumed skin colour influence the decision?
7. Alternatively, there is also the thought that my name grants me opportunities purely in an attempt to fulfil diversity quotas
- “Can I touch your hair?” A question I’ve received far too many times yet I am fairly confident my white peers have not – why is that?
- Surprise when I don’t fulfil the black stereotype “oh you don’t sound black” or “I didn’t realise you were black from speaking to you on the phone”. If somebody could let me know how I’m ‘supposed’ to sound I really would love to know
- Being female, I am arguably increasingly vulnerable to objectification, however this is amplified by my skin colour. “exotic,” “I love a chocolate girl,” or “you’re pretty…for a black girl” are 3 common exchanges I encounter. Mainly, but not exclusively from the opposite gender.
I hope I’ve outlined some relatable trials and tribulations for my black peers. I am by no means as educated as I could be, and do recognise how privileged I am. I am too speaking to myself when I say this:
Take this time to truly change your mind-set. Educate yourself, and retain the knowledge. Don’t just read and sign the petitions for the sake of it, to be able to say “I’ve done it”.
Make your actions genuine, and if they’re not genuine (and that’s okay) consider why they may not be; make it a challenge to really understand yourself and eventually you’ll get there. It’s not up to other people to educate you. If you are physically active, you can actively seek out resources to educate yourself. Have the hard conversations, feel uncomfortable for not recognising the systemic injustice around sooner – that’s okay.
Change doesn’t happen overnight. However, if we all do a little to improve each day, then true progress will occur.
You can find Ken on insta: @kenlivingstonex