This is a very personal post. It is also a long read. Probably my most heartfelt and vulnerable post. Please read, share, comment with that in mind.
This week has been an emotionally tough week for me. Several things triggered this for me.
The fatal stabbing of Folajimi Orebiyi
The nonfatal stabbing a few days later in West London
Having to visit a friend of mine in a secure unit
The fatal shooting of Alton Sterling.
The fatal shooting of Philando Castile.
A black man found hanging from a tree in Piedmont Park, Atlanta
The fatal shooting of police officers in Dallas and the subsequent fallout.
Whilst I am really passionate about challenging and tackling disproportionate violence to black men, whether at the hands of the police or at the hands of other black men, this week was incredibly troubling for me. At one point I felt that I was having an anxiety attack and my hands were shaking like mad when I wrote the following.
LIFE THROUGH A BROWN LENS
We grow up as black men with our parents telling us we have to work twice as hard as white people if we want to succeed
We work hard and get nice cars but drive knowing that at some point we’ll be pulled over and asked if it is our car.
We learn how to code switch and are often reminded how “well spoken” we are
We tell our boys to pull up their pants, to be respectable, and yet cant explain why skater boys do the same and get a pass
We change our names and our accents so that we have a better of chance of landing jobs and business contracts
We remind our boys to be assertive, yet are at a loss to explain how they are excluded disproportionately in schools
We take and sell less drugs than the indigenous population yet get arrested more and have harsher sentences
We set up businesses and have white chairpersons cos we are told we’ll be taken more seriously if we do
We move to suburbs because we wish for a better life, even if our so called neighbours, don’t want to talk to us
We work our arses off to educate our children to get into the best state and private schools, to give them a better chance
We integrate because we don’t want to be seen as non-British . Even if it means we lose a little bit of who we are
We struggle daily with the context of perception. We build platforms and when we speak out are told to stay in our lane
We walk the corridors of power and get asked if we are in the right building
We dress in suits and ties and yet still witness people crossing the road to stay safe
We thank God for Uber because we don’t have to witness taxis switching off the “for hire” sign late at night
We have to constantly rebuff the “black male gaze” when we go out. Be it straight. gay or bi
We are born here and speak better English than many “natives” yet still get constantly asked, “Where are you (really) from?”
We protest when our fellow men are shot down in cold blood and are reminded that “all lives matter”, so our stories don’t count
We try to assure each other not to speak out because it could affect our brand or it would seem we have a chip on our shoulder
Each and every fucking day. The same damn thing.
It’s a wonder more of us haven’t lost the whole plot
Today I am angry. Angry that another black brother has died.
Angry of having to play a game of survival
Just all kinds of fucking angry and without apology
Chip on my shoulder? Nah this is the whole fucking potato farm!!
On Surviving Black Manhood
For some, navigating black manhood is like surviving Panem in the Hunger Games. You can’t rest on your laurels
How the hell are we supposed to thrive when all our energy is spent on surviving? Ultimately trying to win favour with those who call the shots in authority. Models of toxic masculinity, see black men killing each other or seriously wounding each day after day. Without remorse.
Working as a trustee for a charity tackling youth violence I see so many cases of violence caused by toxic masculinity. Young men willing to take out another one’s life in order to demonstrate some warped sense of respect. Whilst I am aware that places like Cleveland and Durham in the North East of England have the 1st and 3rd highest knife crime rates in the country, I am aware that London in second has a larger black and brown population committing these crimes. Often fatally and, more often than not, reported more than any of the two places I mentioned. Or Glasgow. Or Hull. Or any of the other knife crime hotspots that our charity get asked to come and work with. Each and every week our charity along with others speak out and take action on tackling this.
Listening to the stories of young men who would rather take a chance with a weapon than being branded “a pussy” is heartbreaking. Such stories are reinforced by a lot of the music they listen to or watch with posturing hypermasculinity. And as for speaking to the police to tackle such violence, for many of these young men, it’s hard to respect a police force who they see as the ultimate gang who never get caught. People always comment that communities hide killers and attackers, not realising that way too many young men who have told, have also been exposed by the same police force as snitches or snakes.This is then hung over them as a means of keeping them in control.
There are no excuses. None whatsoever for another young black man to stab or fatally wound another for whatever reason. Yes, there is poverty, absent fathers, poor education, aggressive content in music and varying forms of trauma, but these are more about symptoms rather than excuses. Tackling this is a joined up exercise and there are those with the help of community programmes, churches, mentors or others that they look up to who are able to successfully navigate them away from such a life. That said, it is still a huge problem of which far too many are not able to survive from.
This week it made my heart so pained to be reminded how fragile it is for so many black males. Those who don’t feel confident enough to explore their own city for fear of being caught in the wrong postcode or “endz”. Having to deal with territorial issues with individuals who neither own property in said codes or in some cases pay rent.
Over the pond in the US Black males between 15 and 34 are 50% more likely to die from homicide whether from each other (or police) than heart disease, suicide or other self-inflicted ailments. This kind of self-hatred is problematic and other than some community groups little else is done systematically to address this.
We campaign and work and talk and listen to try and solve these problems.
We realise that a lot of this is related to class and education too.
Much has been made of the narrative of being respectable and a lot of the negative stuff won’t happen to you. There have been memes and conversations in the media and on social platforms suggesting that we would be arrested less, shot at less or other mistreatments if we were just respectful to those in authority. Unfortunately, I have to call bullshit on this way of thinking too.
I am an educated and somewhat successful man. I run my own business. I am married with two children. I have never been arrested and my worst felony was probably getting speeding tickets. I live in suburbia away from the noise of inner-city life and yet I too feel that even with respect I am still surviving.
I am consciously aware that smiling and saying good morning to people in my little village is a subconscious way of making others feel safe. I have seen people visibly flinch with my greetings or cross the road when they see me. Maybe it’s my own cognitive bias here but there is way too much evidence and, sometimes, even from the horses mouth people saying they were not sure what to make of me.
I have walked the corridors of power and have had people walk past security without an eyelid batted where I have been asked if I am in the right building. The right building? Note I am usually in those spaces as the guest speaker or panellist.
I am often asked where I am from even though my accent is clearly English, usually better than those asking. Complimented on speaking so well with such a wide vocabulary.
And can we talk about how many times in work or social circles some dude or dudette wants to bump fists with me, try and adopt some vernacular they heard on the latest video and ask “bruv, do you know where I can get some weed?”
Let us talk about the times when in company cars traffic police pulled me over to enquire if it was my car and if was sure. Or when they pulled me over in my own car because I looked suspicious.
Let us talk about the times when with my wife or the rest of the family we travel around the country and stop in pubs, service stations and conversations stop. Of speaking in schools, businesses and local government areas where I am clearly the only black person for miles around. Somewhere in the back of my mind always thinking let me just leave a good impression to counter the constant negative stereotypes of black males that the media portrays. That stuff is so tiring.
I am aware that like many other black males I am cited as a role model.
I speak well. I wear my clothes in a certain way. I have done well in spite of the odds.
I come from a two parent family. I vote.
And yet, I wonder how many share that same sentiment when I speak out quite openly on how criminal and social justice way heavily against us as black men?
Playing the Race Card
Finally, let’s talk about issues that have reared their head which touch on race or xenophobia, the second guessing about how openly you can comment on it and how others around you feel.
Many years ago I remember working in an office environment and getting into a heated debate about the Steven Lawrence case. Some of my colleagues were stating that they were sick of seeing Doreen Lawrence’s face. Why couldn’t she accept the verdict that those dudes didn’t kill her son? What was with the constant going after the police? They uphold the law and were without reproach.
For me, this was a blatant case where a young black man had been murdered by a group of racist thugs on the street and there was a sniff of police corruption.
Years later, when the McPherson report came out and it highlighted the bigger picture of institutional racism in the force, and the latter conviction of two of the young men, I wondered what those same people who argued with me would be thinking about.
It came to mind again recently when the BREXIT campaign in the UK was won on an overarching narrative of migration and sovereignty. People wanted to take back control and make Britain great again. Given that much of the rhetoric pushed by extreme nationalist political parties in the UK mirrors this, it is very hard to see how others could deny this had anything to do with race. We were reminded time and time again of the hateful nature of Nigel Farrage and his disdain not just for Europeans but any immigrant (ironic given his heritage and wife) and yet, people still bought into the line.
I watched as people who I knew liked or favourited some of the rhetoric online. And whilst my stomach turned to see people fall in line with this thinking it made me wonder what they actually thought of me. Was I the guy they liked because I was not like the others? Was I the acceptable black guy?
It’s weird to see people who you thought you knew totally misunderstanding you. That by supporting a movement like Black Lives Matter, who call into question police brutality and miscarriages of justice, people think you are against all police and would counter with blue lives matter or all lives matter. That both scares me and saddens me and has got me rethinking some of my friendships and acquaintances.
This is not Question Time, this is real life.
Thriving not Surviving
This morning in a personal space on Facebook I reached out to the 124 people on my friends list. Friends across all racial groups who I have curated to be part of my most personal online conversations.
I reached out because I think it is important to think about what friendship really means to me.
That if you are too scared to comment online for fear of being misrepresented or not being sure where I am coming from then call me, text me or whatsapp me. We shall see.
Part of my legacy is that I speak to business and education audiences about being successful on our own terms. To raise personal and community standards. I am about to embark on crowdfunding and writing a book about this same said thing and yet there is a sadness in my heart. A little doubt that even though I have had a modicum of success professionally there is something still missing. I don’t know what that is yet.
I mentioned a number of things in this post from dealing with violence between black youth, to tackling perceptions of me as a black male. I have been very open and honest and vulnerable about how it is tiring. I am sharing with you the struggle of having to balance double consciousness, which is the individual sensation of feeling as though your identity is divided into several parts, making it difficult or impossible to have one unified identity. That I can be black, British, Caribbean, global, feminist and hold more than one political viewpoint is cool for me but problematic for others. Whilst it’s easy to say I shouldn’t care, as humans, we have to navigate such paths for effective communication.
I want you to understand that there are no easy answers and that a lot of us are struggling with balance. That we are struggling with unlearning some of the models of masculinity we were taught or learnt by osmosis. That we would like to be heard and our story told rather than assumptions being made about us. That we want to have a healthy debate without it being an extreme argument. That some of the internal struggles that cause black males to be violent to each other need to be tackled by a community, not just other black guys.
To be frank I’m done with just surviving and being polite to accommodate others. I will continue to say it as I see it. If you don’t want to hear that’s your choice, but this is how it is.