The Problem With Being Labelled Black – Part 1

I am brown. A mahogany deep brown. I get darker when exposed to intense sunlight, and take on a more reddish deeper dark brown. Come the winter months, I become a bit wan. The lack of vitamin D changes the pantone somewhat from mahogany brown to chestnut. And yet if I was to fill in a census, application form or other kind of information gathering tool, the demographic I would have to select is black. I would have to chose between Black Caribbean, Black African, Black British or Black Other. Not brown.

You see I have a problem with the label of black. I find it a label that actually seeps into more stereotypes and biases around such a label than we care to imagine.

What if I don’t want to define as black?
What if such a label is too limiting?
What does it mean to be black anyway?
What about those who are of mixed heritage? Why should they have to chose?
How can one colour define a varied group of people of different ethnicities, values and histories?
Why are only two racial groupings mentioned by colour but all others by region or area?

In my own personal journey (here in the UK) I have had people describe me as coloured, afro caribbean, african caribbean, black british, BAME, BME, person of colour!!!!
Seriously? What’s with the labels?

When I think of many “non black” contemporaries in business, education and other professional walks of life they are not described by their colour. The assumption that they, being British, can’t be anything else than white is common but jarring. So how can one get away without being described by this label?

Just this week the actor Benedict Cumberbatch tried to address the lack of diversity and opportunities for black actors in the UK. He used the term coloured people to describe the grouping he was talking about. Social media networks jumped all over this with their commentary. Some layed into him and told him he should have said black, others that he should have said people of colour, others still BME. People of colour? What the france does that even mean? How can it be that the bigger picture of someone being brave enough to address inequality be overshadowed by some linguistic litmus test?

The labelling by race brings so much hang ups with it. I have written about standing up for black women, whether it matters if you are black or white, whether black boys need black role models, whether black history month is relevant and even why I married a black woman. And yet at the back of my mind there continues to nibble away the limiting nature of being labelled black and all the assumptions that come with it.

I have mentioned online, and when I speak, that I  was told when younger by my parents and their contemporaries, that I needed to work twice as hard as white students in order to succeed. Do you know how hard it was to unlearn that kind of thinking as a young person? How it puts you immediately into a mind set of inferiority because of your colour? Although I said stuff that an ensured it would be something I never uttered to my children sometimes this doubt creeps into your mind. You enter a world of work where you see loads of business leaders as white middle class males. All of a sudden you hark back to that which you thought you unlearned. I enter so many business spaces as the only black guy and for a moment I think, could they be right? And it gets deeper than that.

In church I felt inferior because people in authority told me slavery was justified and we were cursed as sons of Ham?
I become part of a community who cower every time you hear of a stabbing or shooting on the news because you don’t want to see “another black face”.
I became part of a culture disassociating themselves from other “blacks” who weren’t well spoken or did not have aspirations outside of the hood.
I noticed that many of my black male professional friends married white partners and sometimes south East Asians. To have a black partner was the exception to the rule.
I noticed that many of us black professionals compared ourselves not just other racial groups but ethnicities such as Indians, Jews, Polish who made good of their selves and individually managed to study, set up and run their own businesses and do well. Subconsciously, if one is not careful, an underlying stream of self doubt starts to eat away at your core. And why? Because of the messages that come with the label of being black!!!? Crazy. I refused to let that happen but I know so many who still struggle with such self doubt.

And then there was the push back. I became part of a movement wishing to claim back identity that the label black brought with it. I explored Afrocentrism. Maffa and Post Traumatic Slavery Syndrome. Pan Africanism. The Harlem Renaissance. Conscious hip hop. Making black positive again. I pushed back against a system of “white privilege”. I wanted to teach black students (and adults) how to play the game so that they could have a part of the “British Dream”. I wanted them to seek for something that I thought was wrongfully taken from them. Us. Me. But why?

And then I paused.

This kind of thinking is messed up. Grouping all by colour is backward and only really serves economic and social division. There are inherently more poor white people in the country than there are wealthy ones. The same goes for any other racial or ethnic grouping. Having to unlearn that kind of thinking is tiresome and exhausting. As an educator I see the patterns continue where either teachers fall prey to the stereotypical approach to managing black boys behaviour and the vicious circle of those boys who want to play up to that type. In work those black professionals who keep their head down and not challenge the status quo for fear of scuppering their chances of career progression and leadership. Let me go play golf. Wear a weave and not go natural. Keep it down in case I am perceived as aggressive. Anecdotal as this appears the damage to the psyche and self esteem to inhabit the boundaries of such labels can be overwhelming. If I taped the countless conversations I have had on this I would have enough stories to fill a couple of books.

So do I have answers to this? No, because I believe the racial grouping is something systematic that has been going on for centuries. The label messages are reinforced in community groups, churches, media and other institutions. It is fair to say that at 44 years old that discrimination and outright racism is something that was commonplace in the UK, USA and beyond. That kind of thinking does not just disappear overnight. Even if I chose to sign the box called other at the next census those same institutions will constantly reinforce the need to see me as black and all the assumptions and biases that come with it.

The problem with being labelled black is not a rejection of all the cultural idiosyncrasies and diversity that comes with it, the problem is that as a starting point we have to defend so much. Even when my parents and community teachers empowered us with lessons of our cultural history, civil rights, anti apartheid movements and pride in being black, it was not a term we chose. It was a reaction to negativity.
How can you actually reclaim something back which was never yours?
How can you live a full life if your first point of thought is wondering what others think of you or whether you fit that stereotype?
How can you be present if your identity and esteem starts of in comparison to another?

Having the name David McQueen opens a lot of doors, but let me tell even when I am in the room there is a hell of a lot teaching and learning that has to go on on a conscious and subconscious basis. And most importantly my own.

So what next? If not wanting to be limited the label what then?
Well that’s in part 2. Thank you for listening.

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