Around a week or so I was in the middle of a muggy office, printing forms and daydreaming about nothing worth mentioning. I was on internship duty and the workload had everyone in the office, clients and all sweating. A change in the law had precipitated a deluge of immigration casework and the anxiety even had cucumber me spilling IRN BRU all over pretty important documents due to be sent to the Home Office.
Amidst the rush I managed a moment of peace by the water cooler in the foyer. More than a few clients were in the foyer but none of them, understandably, felt like doing much talking. Their children on the other hand were as chirpy as the British disposition…or rather the opposite of that. Anyway, I decided to listen to the conversation of two young girls, both of whom were comfortably under 10 years of age. Both girls were black and both girls were almost certainly of the first generation of their family in this country. The two of them, by any person’s admission, were adorable and seemingly innocent.
The two children, I noticed, were busily leafing through a gossip mag. My initial reaction at this stage wasn’t shock, in fact, I didn’t really comprehend that they were reading a gossip magazine until I heard their running commentary of the issue.
“Oooh she’s pretty but a bit too big” says the elder.
“yeahh, you’re right” replies the younger of the two.
This brief exchange in and of itself was enough to jolt me. I glanced over at the magazine and unsurprisingly, the woman in question was as svelte as anything. The obsession with image in our society is nothing new but it is not, and should not be any less shocking to be privy to such. The parents of the two children did not bat an eyelid at these comments and from the expert manner in which the children were plucking through the pages, they were no gossip mag novices. Our society has betrayed young children in that even before the age of 10, a time period in which it is MUCH easier to regulate what our children consume, we fail consummately.
The danger of all of this was expressed more virulently to me in the exchange that followed almost immediately afterwards.
“She’s pretty isn’t she?” suggested the younger of the two girls.
“She’s OK but she’s definitely too black” replied the elder.
“Mmm” agreed the first girl.
This exchange, which was announced for all to hear in the foyer, shocked no one but me apparently. Even typing that exchange disturbs me until now. “Too black, too strong” said Chuck D of Public Enemy once upon a time. This was a powerful sentiment built on simple words but strong rhetoric that sought to empower and enamour faith in a collective Black Community…in America.
I will be honest. I never really considered that there might be a need for such in multicultural London. I grew up, and still live in a part of London that is closer to the idyllic graffiti art of multicultural London than anywhere else in the city. It features a complex web of interactions between different racial groups that the people who tend to comment on multicultural London could not begin to comprehend. South East London features areas that some might see on face value as wholly black, but in actual fact are composed of communities from ethnicities from different parts of a continent or different continents entirely.
Growing up, there had never been a need to bite one’s tongue when it came to racial slurs, tropes and jibes. Everyone largely knew the phantom boundaries, which were by the cliffs edge anyway. I would not be able to claim that communities were entirely homogenised, but there was an enjoyment of different ethnic backgrounds in my formative years that many people believe only exists in the “Squeezed Middle”.
The incident in the foyer however has picked on an age old scab that I have tried to ignore for years and years, if not from my very genesis. We may have to take more responsibility, even in the UK for the language we use and for the power we might have to truly alter the perception of individuals within different parts of our community. We may have to face up to the fact that there may very well be a negative slant on the word “black” and we might have to make a concerted effort in, not reclaiming it, but in my opinion reducing it back to what it is; a word.
I personally felt like I had one of my first real sort-of character defining lessons in an English Language class. We were studying the concept of linguistic determinism (as espoused by Sapir and Whorf) and linguistic reflectionism. In short, the former argues that language forms and places a limitation on, and shapes thought. The latter argues that language broadly reflects thought. As with any philosophically tinged question, the answer is much blander than either extreme – more horseradish than salsa.
For me the answer was complicated but I liked to think that people could separate themselves from different lexical thought ‘lanes’ they might go down. More simply, just because someone consumed a lot of any form of media, said media wouldn’t limit or constrain their thought; we would all expect most people to not swing swords in real life after logging out of World of Warcraft. Yet, there have been many (debatable) cases where person ‘x’ has murdered after reading a book or listening to an aggressive type of music.
I was discussing this topic with a friend slightly before the foyer incident and he, on twitter, had decided to guard his beak a bit more so as not to influence people negatively and misrepresent himself on a public forum. I disagreed that he should do such a thing and conversely, I can admit to not really having a filter when it comes to any offensive language. From my perspective, words are vehicles of expansion, of thought that offer interesting ways to break them down, shuffle and restructure them (i.e. I like to muck about with words). Naturally, one tends to veer towards the unpredictable and thus potentially the offensive.
Twitter is a place where offensive sentences are key-stroked about very casually. Tensions and vulnerabilities have resultantly surfaced akin to those espoused by those two young, black girls. Like it or not, Black women (and Men) have been told silently that being dark is unfavourable. This is the kind of thing that I grew up goading friends for, purely tongue in cheek (I think). However, growing up, I never believed that people (other than Michael Jackson) would ever actively bleach. In retrospect, I definitely practiced a form of doublethink.
Head to your local afro-Caribbean hair salon or shop and people are inundated with all kinds of bleaching products. This undercurrent of self-loathing, funnily enough, is not limited to the Black Community. Bleaching products (I have been informed) are rife within the Asian community and within the White community to be too pale can be seen as a parallel.
I would still continue to argue against guarding one’s tongue against thought processes, if not only because the existence of on point of view will eventually produce a counterpoint. In an ideal world people would be able to separate their character from external influences that they are aware do nothing to tangibly benefit them. In an ideal world, all other parts of the country would resemble the microcosm that is South East London in that honest negativity towards people of different races might be reduced to negligible levels. I always used to tell people, the word “nigger” doesn’t offend me any more than “dickhead”. What offends me are those who harbour a racist spirit (for lack of better word).
What is clear is that, our society needs to take more responsibility when it comes to what we feed our young children. WE CAN have an impact on what they digest and thus can help them filter between language, the media and their own reality. “Too Black” is a concept driven by the media in our society, whether local, historical or as a consequence of the present. Either way, sentiments like that from those that young can be prevented if we take greater responsibility individually and in our society in general.