Something happened this morning which has the high ability of ruining my day. I do not want it to ruin my day because it’s just another occurance of every day racism. Normally I would brush it off, use it as an anecdote to laugh about ignorance – and not let in the hurt that comes with having to define and defend my heritage in regular day to day life… But I’m not going to do that this time. Because it’s these small, insignificant, thoughtless acts that make it blindingly obvious that everyone is NOT seen the same.
Today I was filling out a form and I was working my way through it when I saw the ethnicity box. Tick whichever applies. I didn’t tick any, because I don’t feel like declaring my ethnicity is ever relevant. The woman behind the desk comes over to me and says she can’t register me until I tick a box, so I tick White British and Black African. She comes back again and says in a very slow voice, “Yeah, you can’t be both.”
I look at her. Avoiding my eyes she starts stuttering, “Well, what are you? I guess you’d be more black wouldn’t you. I suppose you could tick white… But what are you, half and half?” and with that she signals towards a tiny box at the very bottom of the form that says ‘other ethnic background’.
Now, some people will read that story and be filled with immediate rage (which I personally am still trying to shake off) whilst others will think, ‘what’s her problem? It’s just a form, fill it out properly and she wouldn’t have to ask you twice. Stop making a fuss’. So I’m going to break down that story from my point of view.
Firstly, I have been reading a book called The Pigment of Your Imagination: Mixed Race in Global Society (follow the link to Amazon – it’s only £2!) which is one of the most relevant books I’ve read in an incredibly long time. An American woman travels to Britain, Kenya, Nairobi and Jamaica to talk to interracial couples and their mixed raced children about what race they consider themselves to be. I could talk about this book for days but for the sake of not rabbiting on I’ll highlight one part. Joy Zarembka, the author, speaks to someone about what race they consider themselves and the woman says, (paraphrasing) “I do not define myself as a race, as an act of defiance whenever I get a form where I have to declare my race, I either tick no box or two, because I am not half of anything. And what business is it of theirs?”
As soon as I saw the registration form – this came to the forefront of my mind and I thought, what business is it of theirs? Will they treat me differently or file me differently if I declare myself white or black? I don’t want to categorise myself for other people anymore, why can’t I just be a human being? It may seem like a small activist act but, we all have a part to play. So I didn’t tick the box.
When she came back and told me I had to tick a box I was annoyed because I always thought those boxes were voluntary but apparently I was not going to be given the service until I told them what ethnicity I was so I ticked White British and Black African because that is what I am. Not even going into the long list of White options that were listed – six in total – before the two options of Black African and Black Carribbean and how highly dismissive of culture that is, I thought OK. I caved. But at least I tried.
Just take a minute to think about what that means to me, or any mixed heritage person, for a second. This was a registration form that has to be filled out for help and I’ve been told that I cannot get a service unless I disregard one side of my heritage. And then for her to suggest and almost tick the Black African box for me (because I’m too stupid to do that myself) just showed her complete lack of understanding of what she was asking me to do. Eventually after a frankly embarrassing interaction where I stared at her and she made herself look even more foolish, she decided I would be better put in the ‘other ethnic background’ which was right at the bottom of the page. I didn’t even see it when I first looked at the form.
As a ‘race’ us mixed folk are the fastest growing group in the world. Shock horror, it’s true. Now as far as I’m concerned, unless you’re an incest baby EVERYONE is mixed race. But for the sake of this, we’ll consider mixed race as coming from two different racial backgrounds. So WHY is ‘my’ box at the very bottom of the list, why does it have no acknowledgment of my culture and why is it named other?
Like some reject spawn.
I am not an other. No-one is an ‘other’.
It may seem like making a mountain out of a molehill to some but the time is now. The time to start climbing that mountain is now. Because things are going to get worse before they get better, and by pretending a problem doesn’t exist we are only prolonging the damage that is being done every day through casual racism.