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“Is it because I’m black, is it because I’m a woman or is it because I’m both?” There have been a few experiences in my life during which I found myself asking a question no one wants to find themselves asking. It is the sort of question that takes away all the power you have mustered and forces you to recognise that despite your hard work, competence and pleasant demeanour in any and all circumstances, you are still capable of being reduced to stereotypes, prejudices and misrepresentation of your character based on two things that you did not choose and cannot unlearn.
I am a black woman and have grown to be extremely proud of that fact. As an immigrant in the UK, I was challenged in my teenage years by the juxtaposition of my experiences as a member of the racial majority in Nigeria to becoming a representative of a dire minority in the suburbs of Kent. Growing up, I had to teach myself which kind of racism mattered and which kind of racism didn’t. I had to make the distinction between my A-Level History teacher’s treatment of my “forcefulness” which other teachers deemed signs of leadership abilities and the treatment I got from strangers every few months who would yell slurs at me in the street for merely existing. Both are bad, but only one was going to affect my future opportunities.
To be clear, I built a social paradigm that gave me what everyone around me told me I should strive for - the ability to “keep calm and carry on”. In my paradigm, I defined “racism that matters” as “the negative demonstration of unearned or positional power, typically exemplified by socio-economic standing and societal influence, by a person of one race, over a person of another race who is incapable of matching that power, unable to earn that power and therefore cannot counteract the effects of the negative demonstration on their life or livelihood.” Everything else was explained away as, “racial insensitivity”; the result of ignorance, bad parenting, likely hardship that person must have been facing in their own probably terrible lives and so on. It worked for a while. I lived happily in the bubble I created, knit together by sociological theories and paradigms that kept me calm and unproblematic, declawed and unable to fight for my space, my time, or my mental health.
In 2016, when I started my social enterprise Do it Now Now, I recognised only one key problem in my life. It was that despite my qualifications, work history, educational background, articulation and pleasant demeanour in any and all circumstances, there were still many opportunities that I was incapable of accessing despite my racial counterparts enjoying the benefits of those tools and resources. As I tackled one problem, I recognised another. In the many conversations I had with our black female beneficiaries, I heard echoes of the paradigms that were helping me get by. The “racial insensitivity” we had each experienced over years as minorities in a “keep calm and carry on” culture had planted seeds in us and planted common mental health disorders like depression and anxiety. The trend amongst our black female beneficiaries was undeniable so I decided to do a little research and found that, according to the UK’s Office of National Statistics, the most likely racial demographic to experience common mental health disorders in the UK are indeed black women. We addressed this phenomenon by re-vamping our support methodology for black female business owners; for example, support groups and social activities as well as female-only events and programs during which we talked about personal development, building resilience, mental health AND how to build a successful business.
We weren’t taught to value ourselves in this way growing up. We now have language around things like “toxic behaviour”, “microaggressions”, “gaslighting” and the like that more and more black women are adopting and utilising to unlearn their old paradigms and create new ones that put a value on our lives, livelihoods and mental health. Despite this being a full-blown and very active movement in the US, it is still in its very early stages in the black community in the UK. We are still learning that our lives matter, our health matters, our hopes and dreams matter and that our voices matter.
Over the past few days, like many other black women in my sphere of influence, I have found myself incredibly interested in all commotion concerning the announcement made by Prince Harry and Meghan Markel about their decision to “step back” from their role as Senior Royals. Those two words have galvanised a much-needed movement in the black female community; one that encourages black women to value themselves and their personal happiness over the fear of playing into and confirming the stereotype of the “angry black woman” so many expect us to perform.
Step Back is about recognising that ALL racism matters and we each have to decide to defend our lives, livelihoods and mental health from big and small attacks that have previously been explained away as the actions of the ignorant. So to black women, whether you decide to #StepBack by leaving a job that forces you to engage with co-workers that de-value your personhood or you decide to tell your aggressors to #StepBack so you can reclaim your space, as long as you’re doing what you think is right for your life, livelihood and mental health, its the right decision.
In 2020, we are taking our commitment to black women to the next level and including groups that are not noticed in specificity by the data currently made public by the Office of National Statistics in the UK, but certainly in need of similar support. We are glad to have received a pot of funding from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation to create a year-long program that identified 375 black women, black non-binary people and black LGBTQ+ people who have an idea that is going to contribute to the social mobility, resiliency, safety and economic empowerment of people of colour and people living at risk of poverty or in poverty in London. You can find out more here - www.mymoonlanding.com
We’re excited to spend the year identifying, supporting and enriching the lives of people that are typically underserved, unsupported and unrecognised in their work to make London a better place for everyone.