Friday, 30 September 2011

'Is it cuz I iz black?'

There's generalisation - and there's over-generalisation.

I, for one, will never forget a small group discussion on race and representation at university, where one student, making a point about racism in Britain, turned to me - the only black in the room - and said matter-of-factly, 'I'm sure you experience it all the time.' It wasn't even a question. 

At the slightly dumbfounded expression on my face (because my first coherent thought was, 'why does she automatically assume people are racist toward me just because I'm black?') , she hastily added, 'no offence or anything.' Well no, I wasn't offended, but I thought it was a statement that was spectacularly bereft of judgement and tact, and the sort of flippant, ill-observed generalisation that I've often heard black people bemoan.  
I should mention before I continue, that this post isn't a weepy rant. On the contrary, it's an irreverent tongue-in-cheek  look at the 'small' issue of race. 

Take this scenario for instance: last month in a Saks Fifth Avenue store, I was walking around the make-up counters checking out eye shadow pallets, and vaguely wondering if I could pull off some of the more daring colours without looking ridiculous. At the Lancome stand, a representative with a slick, professional smile hovered close by.  
Her seductive citrus-y scent reached me before she did. 'Lancome does make-up for...women like you.' 

I think we both noticed the obvious hesitation. 

Women like me? What, you mean.. Ghanaian women currently on holiday in America? Or women casually dressed in jeans and flats? Or would that be young, twenty-something females? At that point in time I could have been in any of those categories of questions, and was, in fact , all of the above. Yes, I am being daft - I knew she meant black women like me, but why the incredibly sparse tag, 'women like you'? 

It reminded me of a conversation from my early days in London. An English colleague whose company was in the same building as mine gave me a message one winter morning as we both stood in the shared kitchen making hot drinks to warm our insides.

'Oh Davida, a lady came in looking for you yesterday after you left...'


'I didn't know who she meant in the beginning so I asked her to describe you, and she said you were a tall, black lady. Hope you're not offended.' This last was said almost sympathetically as she made her way out of the kitchen with her cup of tea.

I felt like I'd missed a beat - which part was I meant to have been offended by, exactly? Later when I cornered her for an explanation, I was more than a little surprised by her question: Do black people find it offensive when people describe them (physically) as black? No, darling, that WOULD be calling a spade a spade.  Personally, if someone describes me as black, it's as obvious as pointing to a mango tree and declaring, 'that's a mango tree.' Black is what I am! But I can't answer for how others might have reacted to her question so I'd like to throw it out there, and get your thoughts on it.

There are many stereotypes going about black people. So while I don't walk around manically chanting, 'say it loud, I'm black and proud,' to myself, I have many moments where I simply revel in being black.  Why, I have been known to play up to some of the stereotypes myself, flaunting lines with deliberate cheekiness. ('Davida, you're late!', to which the classic response is, 'sorry, I'm just black!') Stereotype: black people are always late. Nothing like a well-timed quip where you can play the 'race card'...unless of course, the person waiting on you is your no-nonsense punctual (gasp!)  black friend who's clearly not amused. ('Well you better hurry your black behind here NOW!)

Or how about that poll which placed Ghana second in the list of countries with well-endowed men? Stereotype: African men are hung like a horse. Funnily enough, I read about the poll whilst leafing through a magazine at a sandwich bar , and talking on the phone with my mum to find out how many balls of kenkey I should buy on a later errand. This is how a deliberate double entendre happened: a random man, waiting to collect his sandwich  heard me say 'balls', and I just knew he'd been reading over my shoulder when he said, 'has someone got their balls mixed?' Ew, be gone with you, man.

There's the other 'hairy' issue of black girls and their tresses. We all have some sort of preoccupation with our hair - to go natural or to perm, to weave or to bond, to cut or to grow, to braid or to twist? The possibilities, it seems, are endless.  In my neck of the woods in London, the company which has a monopoly over hair and beauty products is Pak Cosmetics in Finsbury Park. It never ceases to amuse me how a trip there will see me come away with anything from hair rollers to pink oil, and, most definitely, ripe plantain and fufu flour amongst other things, because Pak happens to be conveniently situated next door to an ethnic food store.

Earlier this year, I took the plunge and had my hair cut whilst in Ghana. Immediately afterwards, I endured uncharacteristic moments of insecurity - I would walk into the bathroom and freak out when I saw myself in the mirror. ('Where's the rest of my hair?!') I thought someone had handed a pair of scissors to a small child and told them to 'play around' with my hair, until my sleep-addled brain remembered that, no, in fact it was a professional who had done this, not a child. In spite of reassurances to the contrary, I was convinced I'd made a bad hair decision, and the following week,  I was back in a hairdresser's chair getting a weave, an innocuous enough move which nearly stopped me from signing up for swimming lessons a week after I arrived back in London. Guess the stereotype? Black girls don't swim.

I was a little ashamed to discover that my real reason for being reluctant was the thought of getting my weave wet. In deed, I went along to my first swimming lesson and came back to write this entry in the journal I've been keeping of my progress: 'Diary of a wannabe swimmer'

Week 1
I sputter my way through this first lesson, painfully conscious of the fact that I haven't been in a swimming pool since 2007. Vlad, the swim teacher takes one look at me and catches a whiff of the terrified inexperience I'm bringing his way. He cheers when I'm able to put my head underwater - although I'm wincing about it seeping through my swim cap and wetting my weave - and blow bubbles through my nose. I'm disappointed I can't kick my legs as well as I should

In the lessons since, I have sunk to the bottom of the pool more times than I can count, have befriended all the lifeguards on poolside (I have, after all, been giving them some job satisfaction if the amount of times I have nearly 'drowned' are anything to go by), have had my stomach filled with more chlorinated pool water than red wine, and have ached for days from a questionable attempt at the breaststroke than any other physical activity I've ever done. I have even plunged enthusiastically into the pool, only to come up and realise a cheeky boob has accidentally crept out and is now inadvertently flashing a guy sitting on the bench awaiting his turn - rather disturbingly, he gave a thumbs-up sign, but I digress. My point? A bit of wet hair is the least of my worries!  

So what am I saying, reader? Stereotypes are said to be based on truth, but you must question the validity of any statement which forcefully naturalises particular beliefs about gender and race to make them common sense ideas about the world.  The truth is, stereotypes are limiting, and do a good job of suffocating a person's individuality. If you must judge, do so on the individual, rather than the racial group with which they are associated. 

But while we're on the subject, it's probably a good idea to work on my dance skills too. It simply won't do that I destroy this particular stereotype so comprehensively any time I try to get my dance on : black people are good at dancing. I have good intentions when I hear music, honestly I do. The problem is my two left feet beg to differ. Or, as my younger brother eloquently put it, 'Day, are you in pain, or are you dancing?' I should take time out and discover my inner Shakira , and if I'm late reporting back, I guess you know why. It's because I'm operating on GMT - Ghana Man Time.*

* Sorry, but that was an affectionate dig


Kwatemaa Karikari said...

Love how you took this usually serious issue of racism and gave it a funny but still thought-provoking spin :). Keep it coming, my Black sister! ;)

Etoile Oye said...

I love this look at the 'small' issue. My comment turned into a post on it's own. Check your inbox :)

Anonymous said...

Well-observed and entertaining. Although, like you, I'm a bit baffled by the exchange with the shop assistant in America. Perhaps other readers of this blog could throw more light on this? Let's get a dialogue going..


Davida said...

Thanks for your comments, guys. I wanted to explore it in a more light-hearted manner..:)

And KB, good looking out!

Anonymous said...

Have you come into some inheritance lolly? You seem to be all over the globe.
Racism is overt or hidden, but with all the advances in race relations and laws to protect against racist abuse and behaviour it is a bit more difficult.

It it is the snide, insidious you-know-type-but-cannot-prove type that is dangerous, because it is saying" screw you, prove i am racist"

Davida said...

Indeed. I particularly have a problem with oversimplified statements about gender and race, and I personally think statements like those are at the root of sexism and racism.

And about your first line..don't you know I want to be a professional globetrotter? :)

Ewurafua Baboa said...

"...flippant, ill-observed generalisation..."aaaaaiiish! akay! on a more serious note, couldn't agree more. this whole issue of race has been a bit overblown. I don't mind walking in the rain. who cares about your hair being wet when you can relieve the experience of a six year old getting soaked in the rain while dancing? Certainly not me! Bravo mademoiselle. Great piece!!!

Davida said...

Ahh, how I used to love doing that! These days I sport the wet hair look less voluntarily - usually the rain pissing down on my umbrella-less head. :D