Last year, I was in a lecture chaired by a member of academic staff with visiting speakers. At the end of the presentations I put my hand up to ask a question. I was one of maybe three people that had raised their hands, and we weren’t sitting that closely together. I was wearing a bright blue jumper. Cerulean blue, like The Devil Wears Prada cerulean blue. So, why am I talking about my jumper? Well the person taking questions, the chair of the lecture, pointed to me to indicate I should ask my question. That was enough for me to know he meant me, but then he said ‘the gentleman in the blue jumper’. He could’ve pointed and said ‘the person in the blue jumper’, but he said ‘gentleman’. I’m not a ‘gentleman’. I’m a woman. Okay so I’ve got short hair, but I was also wearing big earrings and have breasts. (Not that these should necessarily serve as signifiers for being a woman.) In my shock, I just stared at him, asked my question and didn’t mention the mistake he’d made because you just get on with things, don’t you? The ‘mistake’ he made was misgendering me as a Black man, when I’m a Black woman. The Black Lives Matter movement has reminded me that mistakes aren’t alright, but you don’t want to be problematic, do you? Afterwards I was trying to work out why this had happened, because even when you get on with things, these mistakes and assumptions stay with you. As a Black woman at the University of Sheffield, I’m sometimes the only Black woman in the room and there are usually more Black men than Black women. Was that the reason for his mistake, and his assumption that I was a man?
Merriam-Webster defines racism as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” This includes mistakes and assumptions. If racism, conscious or unconscious, has a scale, it might range from mistakes and assumptions to hatred, abuse and violence. The mistake that the member of staff made may have been based on an assumption, but that wasn’t okay. The University of Sheffield’s Race Equality Strategy and Action Plan is meant to be a strategy which “specifically targets issues of under-representation, progression and attainment’ of BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) staff and students. It “aims to create a University community which is diverse and inclusive”, and is about “transformational change”. One of the changes that needs to happen is the assumptions that people make based on race. Are people more likely to assume I’m a Black man, rather than a Black woman? Are people more likely to assume that I’m a cleaner, rather than a student?
The emotional labour invoice by Charity So White lists service charges from ‘marginalised ethnicities’ working within the charity sector, but it could be about any sector. The list includes being asked if you were a member of service staff. That hasn’t happened to me, but it has happened to Black women I know. If you add everything on that list to the actual job you’re there to do, in whichever sector you work in, it can get tiring. It would be tiring without adding on the job. It’s tiring on its own. I’ve never experienced declining “White applications for BAME support group”, but an assumption that I myself made was that the University of Sheffield would have a network for BAME staff. You’d assume that a university with over 8,000 staff members would have this representation, but the BAME Staff Network was only set up in 2018. It was set up by academic and professional staff that wanted their views and voices represented. You’d assume that in a university of nearly 30,000 students that Black students would be visible, but Black students “continue to struggle to win undergraduate places at UK universities, despite applying in record numbers and equipped with stronger qualifications than previous years,” according to a 2017 report from The Guardian.
Looking at the Charity So White invoice, I’ve experienced most things listed or know people that have. The Black Lives Matter Movement has led to people recognising or questioning White Privilege, and also questioning me about White Privilege and racism. I’ve regularly using my own ‘racial trauma’ to ‘teach’ people about racism. This has meant me reliving times when I’ve experienced some form of racism, and unfortunately I’ve got a lot of examples. “Gentleman in the blue jumper” might have just been an assumption, but it wasn’t okay. There was the time a gentleman and gentlewoman challenged me to a twerking contest because my people were “better at that”. My sister walking down a street in Sheffield city centre and being called a “Black b***h” by a group of White gentlemen wasn’t okay. The time I was with my friends walking down a different street, near Kelham Island, and some gentleman in a car drove past and called me the N-word wasn’t okay. But in those instances, you don’t know what to do. Sometimes you just freeze. So when they drove past me my first thought wasn’t that I should get the registration number, it was just shock.
Racism is an everyday occurrence, but shouldn’t be acceptable, whether it shows itself in mistakes, assumptions or banter; whether it is verbal abuse or physical violence; whether it is institutional or structural. So when you hear a spokesperson for the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, say that he “does not agree that this is a racist country” on 8 June, you just laugh at him. Though this is someone that in 2002 wrote of Africa and colonialism in The Spectator, “The continent may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience. The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more.” So I shouldn’t expect any better from him really. But actually I should expect better, and we should all expect better. Racism is everywhere, and the world is based on racist attitudes and structures. Racism isn’t new, but the past few months has been a constant cycle of watching non-Black people go through a cycle of reckoning with racism.
Sometimes when you bring up racism, you’re made to feel that you are overreacting, that you’re upsetting things or that you’re being problematic. How could you be overreacting to racism? It’s a concept which makes no sense, but is acceptable in many ways across many institutions. So instead of being the “gentleman in the blue jumper”, I’m going to be a Black woman, wearing whatever I want, and I’m going to be as problematic as possible.