The other day I was walking my dog when a fellow dog walker stopped me. He was clearly just wanting the general polite chit chat but his opening line threw me for 7am in the morning…
“Wow, have you been on holiday? Where d’you catch a tan like that ducky?”
I include the ‘ducky’ reference because I think that’s important (bear with me).
My initial reaction (like with most awkward things) was laughter… but when I realised he was deadly serious I understood that he has no clue that I’m not white like him. Now, first thing in the morning I’m not at the top of my game and I didn’t really want to go in to a full blown thing about my family background, so instead, I went along with his assumptions. I told him how I’d just come back from visiting my sister in Ibiza (lie!)
As we finished exchanging pleasantries and I continued on my walk I found myself shaking my head wondering why the hell I did that?! Why didn’t I just tell him that I’m mixed race with a Jamaican dad?
Honestly, it’s 2 things… firstly I hate that awkward moment when someone asks you a question or says something stupid only to be put right and then… awkward silence (it was just too early in the morning for that). Secondly I thought that telling him the truth could leave him feeling stupid or awkward… something I didn’t feel like inflicting on an elderly man who was just trying to make conversation.
But there’s so much wrong here. As someone who understands ignorance and has unfortunately had to live around it on multiple occasions in life; I know that the only way to move beyond it is to educate. In that moment I could have just said “well actually I’m mixed race, half English and half Jamaican” with a smile. Maybe he’d have been embarrassed for half a second, maybe he’d of thought nothing of it and continued his walk.
But in the heat of the moment, that sense of clarity was nowhere to be seen. So why did I think it was best for both of us if I lied?
This isn’t the first time that I’ve been in such a situation. In fact there’s been plenty of moments through my 26 years.
Just earlier this year I was away for work and had the exact same remark made to me. Yet on that occasion I didn’t go along with it; instead I answered in a much more sarcastic tone “awwhh I’m mixed race!” To which awkward laughter followed and a joke around how embarrassing that was given the ongoing focus of the ‘Creative Case for Diversity’ in our sector.
So what was different in both of these situations for me to react differently?
In this second story I was in a small group of people. This group included people of all different shades and from all different backgrounds. It was clear from the group that everyone else could see the faux pas, except the person delivering it. So maybe this gave me more justification to set them straight; maybe it gave me a sort of protection against any potential reaction?
As well as considering what caused me to act differently in these two situations, I started to question what similarities might have existed between them.
So as you may have guessed from the ‘ducky’ reference in the first story, this was an older man from a small town in the Midlands. The second story was a younger man from Australia (I’m not sure where exactly). Without wanting to generalise at all, but based on my understanding and experience of both areas and cultures, I’d question whether they have been exposed to the same levels of multiculturalism as someone living in a city such as Leicester or London would.
And then the important point… that on both occasions I had my hair pulled back tightly and in to a low bun… no hair, no identity.
Did taking my fluffy, frizzy afro-european hair out of the equation blind them both to my real identity? If I’d been wearing it out in all it’s glory, would they have asked me the same question?
I’ve often felt that my hair plays a huge role in my external identity. Give me straight shiny hair and I could be South American (especially given my name). There is something about my curls or my braids in previous years, that tells the world, I am mixed.
I think that’s why my hair is so important to me. Chop it off and I will still feel that I am half Jamaican and half English to the core… but what will other people see?
That’s what it really comes down to and this is where it has always got complicated for me. You can feel one way, yet the world can see you as something entirely different; and sometimes that sucks.
It makes me think how people who encounter this every day must feel. People who might be feared as they walk down a street, just because of the shade of their skin and the clothes they choose to wear. Or those who were born in the body of a male but feel absolutely that they are female.
This is where, for me, considering unconscious bias, opening up people’s idea of what’s possible and breaking down stereotypes is so important.
We are all a product of what we know in that moment. The relationships we’ve had. The programmes we’ve watched. The places we’ve been. The history we’ve been taught. The news we’ve heard…
…But how far can this really take us?
We all know that the mainstream media is controlled by a select few. We all know that history has been written by a person with their own perspective and has been changed countless times over the years. Very few of us have been lucky enough to experience (and truly experience) every other country and culture on this planet. So as human beings we are all limited.
Limited to what we know today. But that doesn’t have to define us.
If we take a second to think about the environment we have grown up in and the environment we find ourselves in today. To think about the views we hold without really knowing why we hold them. To look at our Facebook homepage and see who our friends are and what they all look like…
This can begin to show us what’s missing in our understanding of the world.
Once we know what’s missing, the solution is simple. At best, go and experience it. At least, remain open next time there’s a news story talking about a person with a certain religion outside of your known sphere, or next time you pass someone on the street who makes you feel uncomfortable for some unknown reason.
The more aware we are of who WE are and what makes us think the way we do; the more able we will be to act beyond unconscious biases and treat people as just that… people.
Featured image: taken by Sean Goldthorpe; wearing clothing from Dope Thirteen.