Whether you like it or not, the amount with which you see yourself represented in different positions and different areas of mainstream media, directly affects your perception of your position in the world.
It affects the way you ask or don’t ask for things. It affects whether you are courteous enough to say thank you to someone who lets you go ahead of them in a queue. It affects the ways in which you receive critique of your behaviour, the way in which you respond to it and the ways in which you apologise.
I, being of Ghanaian descent but growing up in areas in which I was the minority, was always taught that while I could grow up to own anything I wanted, I had to respect and value the possessions of others the same way I would want mine valued. I was taught that while I am unique and perfect in my making, that I should be open to hearing and receiving critiques about myself because ‘not everyone does things the way we do’. I was taught to be considerate. I was taught that I was not entitled to anything. I was taught humility.
A lot of people will read this and think that this is something that anyone should teach their child and more so, argue that all children are indeed taught this but here’s what not all children get. The subtext. The subtext that ‘these things, this place, these people, aren’t yours and you’ve got to move through the world carefully and respectfully because they don’t do things the same way we do. They don’t think the same way we do and they sure as hell do not see you the same way they see themselves’.
Growing up with this feeling of being on borrowed time, borrowed land and borrowed politeness made me extra sensitive to the way others around me might feel. It made sure that I minded my Ps and Qs, was openly thankful to those who showed me the slightest politeness and that I cared for all around me. Again - sounds like a great child, raised right and free of trauma, correct? Well - if it wasn’t for the lack of representation and generational trauma experienced and passed down, not to mention the poor representation of people like me (when we did finally get some kind of representation), I might have moved a little freer. I might have felt a little less out of place. I might have been happier.
You see, growing up and having dark skin meant the main time I was seen on TV was when there was an Oxfam advert showing kids with distended stomachs, followed very closely by muggers in shows like ‘The Bill’. I wasn’t shown a black millionaire. I wasn’t shown a black astronaut - matter of fact, there were more rodents and made up mammals in space than there were good black people on television!
The same way that affected my movement through the world and that of so many other black people, it affected the way those outside of blackness, of otherness, interacted with us. Gratitude for us graciously giving way to you was not met with thanks - rather a silent and cold step in front of us. Being met with an honest account of callous, selfish and or racist speech and behaviour was often met with a response - an attempt to justify, reason - as opposed to just listening and apologising.
I write this because I have very recently been triggered. Triggered to feeling like that little lost kid who felt tongue-tied at expressing they feel disrespected or taken for granted by a white counterpart. I write this so that you who call yourselves allies, actively do the work on yourselves and look at how you might not be being the best ally you can be.
Know it. Recognise it. Understand that the things you simply complain about and get a resolution for, some of us are fighting tooth and nail for. Know and see that the ability to assert ourselves is something that some of us are still growing into and you reacting in a way that doesn’t recognise us setting boundaries but rather makes us feel as though we have done something wrong, is triggering and hurtful. See and hear that while you are sharing and reposting, platforming, interviewing etc, there are things that you could be doing that actively silence, trigger or diminish the feelings of the people around you that you say you love.
Know that your representation - through centuries of history, art, music, drama, technology, etc. also allows you to be desensitised to these things and actively do the work to unlearn the entrenched white entitlement that is no direct fault of your own but still a product of your people.