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Smooth, Angry, Cool, Powerful: How We Talk About Blackness

‘A black-sounding surname is a reminder that black roots aren’t in British soil’ … Jeffrey Boakye. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

BLACK

I’ve been black since about 1988, when I was colouring in pictures of priests at Corpus Christi Roman Catholic primary school in Brixton Hill, south London. I remember it well. We were sharing tables and colouring pencils and I looked up to find that there were no more “skin colour” pencils available in the pencil pot. By “skin colour”, I mean a shade of pinkish beige that was a pretty spot-on facsimile of what we can call “white”, European skin. Caucasian colour. With a hint of tan. Tea with an overgenerous splash of milk, if you want to talk beverages. Anyway, a girl whose name I’ve long since forgotten started asking around for a skin-colour pencil, keen to get her priest finished before playtime. Being the ever-helpful people pleaser that I am, I shrugged and offered her a brown pencil, thinking, in all my six-year-old wisdom, that illustrated priests could have skin the same colour as mine.

“That’s not skin colour,” she said.

It’s my skin colour, I thought. But I didn’t say that. What I did do was proceed to colour my priest in with the brown pencil, secretly very unsatisfied with the outcome. I wanted a skin-colour-skinned priest, too, you see. Turns out the improvisation wasn’t a solution. Hello inadequacy. Have you met otherness? Pleased to make your acquaintance.

I’m not black. No matter how dark my skin is, no matter how dark I appear to be in racist digital cameras with dodgy ISO settings, my skin is not black in hue. I’m probably something closer to raw cocoa, or coffee, or flat Coca-Cola. I’m beverage colour. Black, as a description of skin, is a label. As a description of racial identity it’s a pretty lazy referent not to any actual blackness, but an essential non-whiteness.

The second problem with being black is that it is absolutely, at least symbolically, true. Because, if nothing else, one thing I can confirm is that I am not-white. Which means that I am whatever “not-white” is. I’m the other thing.


Black people undoubtedly have a shared sense of identity stemming from otherness, probably because “black” is racially political far more than it is racially descriptive, with the potential to be irrevocably divisive. As an adjective, the word black comes with a terrifyingly negative list of connotations, pretty much equating to pure evil and hopeless misfortune. Deriving from the Old English word “sweart” (surviving in modern English in the word “swarthy”), it’s almost an exclusively negative concept. The only positive connotation I can find is that of being financially “in the black” – ironic when you consider the enduring link between blackness and poverty.

Call me black and I’ll get a complex knot of pride and insecurity tightening in my psyche. It’s a word that reminds me that I’m lesser than and different from, but it’s also a source of self-affirmation. Call me black and I won’t even flinch because I’m so used to calling myself black that it’s become the invisible lens. A perspective that has hardened into an objective truth. Call me black and I’ll welcome the definition, despite the fact that it denigrates just as much as it defines.

ETHNIC MINORITY

The phrase “ethnic minority” has to be the biggest oxymoron since “crash-landing” or “casual sex”. If you take “ethnic” as meaning culturally or genetically non‑European, then most of the world is ethnic. Which makes an ethnic minority a global majority. If you take it at dictionary value, however, as in relating to cultural, racial or genetic origins differing from those of a dominant group, then it becomes deeply subjective. You can only get an ethnic minority where there is some kind of majority, and that majority has to be culturally dominant, ie, white. Hello friend. We meet again.

The anticlimactic truth is that “ethnic minority” has evolved into a politically neutral way of saying “other”. Just when we thought we were out of the labyrinth. Ethnic? Minority? Other. Non-white. Back to black. Ah well. It actually felt like progress for a second.

AFRICAN

In 2018, the film Black Panther very quickly established itself as a cultural phenomenon. Let’s not underplay this: in 2018, the coolest superhero out was African, accent and all, and he just happened to have the same name as a revolutionary organisation that sought black empowerment and social justice. In this, Black Panther is an echo of a very particular type of black anger, an anger that has seared the black experience through the fight for civil rights, by any means necessary, through black power and right up until that simple fact turned provocation: Black Lives Matter.

MIXED RACE

You see words such as “nigger”, “coon”, “wog” and “darkie” and you freeze up in anticipation of the big kaboom. Then you see “mixed race” and it’s sigh-of-relief time. Something mild, something easy. A respite from all the spiky abrasions and explosive taboos. But “mixed race” is an improvised explosive device in disguise.

Its suggestion is that there is something we might call an “unmixed race”. It implicitly upholds ideals of racial purity that reinforce deeply problematic racial hierarchies. In the black community, mixed race tends to refer to black and white mixed. Note, we are not even talking countries here – just basic colour of skin stuff. One white parent, one black parent, one mixed-up kid. I’m currently living this scenario out in real life.

Me: black, my wife: white, my kids: mixed race.

That’s the cartoon version of the story. In reality, my white wife is a combination of English and Scandinavian, with God knows what else thrown in along the way. Meanwhile, both my parents grew up in the same patch of universe in rural Ghana, west Africa, but if you look at my mum’s hair and fairer-than-cocoa skin, it’s obvious that she’s got a bit of something in her going back to whenever. So “black” and “white” start to look inadequate, while “mixed race” buckles under the pressure of even the slightest interrogation.

WHITE-SOUNDING FORENAME

Through no fault of my own, I have the kind of name reserved for white men who wear stiff jeans and nod out of rhythm to guitar-based soft rock. I have the name of a British or American white male born in the early to mid-20th century, despite having two parents who list English as a second language.

When my parents, two black Ghanaians (who had decided to make a go of it in the UK in light of economic and governmental instability during the 1970s), stared down at a fat, black newborn baby on 22 March 1982 and decided to call it “Jeffrey”, they were making a cultural statement tied to a complex socio-historical web.

Now I’ve got my own kids and the pattern is repeating itself. My first son is called Finlay, while boy No 2 is called Blake. Both names are very white, Finlay deriving from Gaelic, Blake from Old English. Why didn’t I buck the trend?

Much has been written about the socioeconomic fate of black people with black-sounding names, and the obvious conclusion is the correct one: that it has less to do with the name itself and more to do with systemic prejudice and black impoverishment. Taniqua and Terrell are less likely to find themselves rising through the ranks of Fortune 500 companies – not because of the inherent quality of their names, but due to the limited opportunities afforded to the black working class and to structural racism.

BLACK-SOUNDING SURNAME

Pronouncing my surname is a challenge that most people fail. At worst, you get some variation of bo‑ah‑kie, with a hard “k”; understandable if you don’t realise that the Ashanti pronunciation of “kye” is actually “chi” as in chips.

Next best is “bo-a-chee”, which is almost there, but not quite right. This is the one I have settled on in my professional life. It’s kind of an anglicised version that strips out the African essence. Because to say my name properly, you kind of need to say it in a Ghanaian accent. Bwaaaaah-ch, is as close as I can type it. But outside of my family and the Ghanaian community, you won’t hear this correct pronunciation.

Unlike first names, which can be chosen and decided at a parent’s whim, surnames reach back into ancestry. A black-sounding surname is a reminder that black roots aren’t in British soil. On this level, I’m very proud that a growing number of people are having to wrestle with Boakye. It feels like a win for Ghanaian identity in the mainstream, an ongoing battle for recognition in which I have fought on the front line.

COLOURED

Here’s a joke I remember from the hazy, pre-Googlable corners of my childhood:

When I was born, I was black. When I got older, I was black. When I’m sick, I’m black. When I go out in the sun, I’m black. When I’m cold, I’m black. When I die, I’ll be black. When you were born, you were pink. When you got older, you became white. When you’re sick, you go green. When you go out in the sun, you turn red. When you’re cold, you’re blue. When you die, you’ll be grey. And you’ve got the nerve to call me coloured?

I’m terrible at remembering jokes, but I’ll never forget that one … How it pokes fun not at black people or white people, but at the blunt binaries of racial definition, drawing humour from the absurdity of race-labelling in the face of human commonality.

EBONY

As far as pornography goes, “Ebony” might just be another category, but the view of black sexuality in the white gaze is deeply problematic. For white men and women interested in black sex, the black body is taboo. That’s where the intrigue comes from, surely, that the black sexualised body has an illicit appeal. Historically, this perception of black sexuality can be read as an act of violence against black humanity, a hypersexualisation that says we are less civilised and therefore exciting. It’s a mindset that supports racism, built on stereotypes of insatiable, well-endowed black men and sexually acrobatic black women. In the context of transatlantic slavery, black sexuality was an intrinsic part of the breeding of slaves, further promoting the view of black people as animalistic beings undeserving of basic dignity.

Fetishisation plus objectification plus dehumanisation is a messy, tangled threesome. I remember going to meet friends in a bar somewhere in my early 20s, and, not having anything else to do, I was uncharacteristically early. Out of nowhere appears a flustered, tipsy woman in a sash and I think tiara, quivering with all the giddy excitement of a kid being dared by their friends. Clutching a cocktail in both hands, she blinks through the neon glow and asks me if I’ll strip for her and her friends who are out on a hen party.

“What?”

It’s her friend’s hen party, she explains, and they were wondering if I would strip for them, in the bar, for money. Behind her, a group of young women are huddled round a table giggling over mojitos in my general direction. They are white.

I have no way of knowing exactly why I was singled out for an impromptu strip; if it was because I was alone, or if I look like an off-duty stripper. For the record, I was wearing a Zara suit with a T-shirt and slip-on canvas shoes (don’t judge me: it was the early 00s). Regardless, the encounter felt racially charged, as though my blackness was an open invitation to sexual objectification. What gave that woman permission to approach me like that? The answer, I fear, is generations of racist ideology.

COOL

The Cool Black Myth helps the white mainstream to understand and handle black identity. There’s something enigmatic about blackness that, coupled with the illicit appeal of black culture, makes black people seem cool by default, without even really trying. In my short time on this planet so far, I’ve had people congratulate me on how cool my hair is (after feeling its texture) and applaud how cool I look in sportswear (my trainers do match my running top actually, so I might give them that one). All of which makes me wonder: am I cool? Depends. Are black guys cool?

The answer, of course, is yes. In fact, I sometimes surprise myself by how cool I am. Last time I looked, I’d written a book about grime. Which is coolmultiplied by cool. And I dress cool, if you think The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s Carlton Banks dresses cool, which he does. And I don’t look stupid when I dance, which only cool people can really get away with, not to mention that fact that all black people can dance, which makes us automatically cool and me cool by proxy.

ANGRY

Could you tone it down a bit? You’re being a bit aggressive. Do you have to be so loud? It’s quite overbearing. You do realise you can sometimes make people feel a bit uncomfortable. You need to be a little softer. You’re passionate, I understand, but your manner can put people off. Stop shouting. It’s a bit … intimidating.

So goes one of the most common criticisms levelled at black women, from people, might I add, who are not actually black women themselves, usually in some kind of “professional” context. It happens in the office, the classroom, the staffroom, the email thread, the photocopier room, the pub after work, and probably in the subconscious of the interviewer sitting across the big desk. I’ve seen it up close – black women being highlighted as some combination of aggressive and angry that ends up in the bracket “intimidating”. An idea that black women have an innate aggression that intimidates conservative, polite sensibilities, making them a threat to social decorum.

LUNCHBOX

As a child, I can remember the feverish excitement with which the media spoke of Jamaican-born British sprinter Linford Christie’s lunchbox, an alliterative euphemism designed to provoke elbow nudges, winks and grins from white society. I remember because growing up, it was patently obvious to me that one of the big black stereotypes was that black men have big black penises. There were playground jokes about it, comments you’d overhear, and, as in the case of Christie, celebrities who would be readily targeted for this kind of sexualised banter. Usually the physically impressive ones.

Thing is, I never found it all that funny. I found it uncomfortable. I could feel the objectification, the belittling, the basic disrespect of reducing an entire person to the sum total of their genitals. It felt like bullying.

It’s ironic that a race label designed for one black man can reveal so much about prevailing attitudes to black men plural, lifting the lid on white male insecurity in matters of the crotch. As far as I know, I’ve never been called “Lunchbox”, but I definitely have faced many indirect comments about having a big penis, never in malice, always from people I know, always in the name of banter. Further evidence of the nervous affinity between dominant whiteness and a blackness it doesn’t quite understand.

‘Whenever a commentator calls a black athlete powerful it’s as if skill, wit and tactics don’t come into it’ … Venus and Serena Williams. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images

POWERFUL

Whenever a commentator calls a black athlete powerful, my Twitter finger starts itching. I feel the need to jump head first into call-out culture and highlight me some racial stereotyping. It’s not that these black athletes aren’t physically strong. They often are. And it’s not that being physically strong isn’t a good thing. It often is. It’s the defining of blackness according to basic physicality that I have a problem with.

The Williams sisters are a good example. Like the rest of the world, I watched as they entered the professional tennis circuit at the turn of the century and proceeded to dominate the scene, racketing their way into the record books with an impressive list of grand slam titles to date. Both have been ranked women’s No 1 and both have taken home the most prestigious titles in tennis, introducing black excellence to a typically white sport. Watching their performances year on year, I’ve always been struck by how they were described by an awestruck media. It was often something about how powerful they were, how strong, how they were powerhouses, formidable, unstoppable. As if their raw physical power was the sole cause of their success, as if skill, determination, wit and tactics don’t come into it.

SMOOTH

If everything goes according to plan and I am as successful as an author as I think I could be, I will be on a trajectory that will end with, one day, an invitation from the BBC to star in Strictly Come Dancing. We all know the expectation is that black people can dance. It’s a stereotype, one that is so pervasive that I think we all believe it, myself included. But there really is nothing to say that I am smooth, on the dance floor or off, due to my being black.

Black smooth is on the spectrum of black cool, which is part of the defence against black insecurity. And like all 7 billion of us, I’m insecure. Being smooth is the attractive shield; empowering but defensive and exposing vulnerability as soon as it slips.

COCONUT

Much like the pantomime gladiators who were defined and characterised by colour, I’ve often felt as though my blackness is projected upon me by context. I’m black because I’m black, yes, but my blackness is also created by the fact that I’m surrounded by whiteness. This means that my ability to integrate depends on how “normal” (ie, white) I appear. How I dress and talk, who I mix with, what my tastes are and how my values play out.

Of course it does. In my entire time at school, from the ages of four to 18, the only time I came close to instigating a fight was one time in sixth form when I heard some kid from a lower year group mumble something about me being a Bounty. A Bounty is a chocolate bar that is white on the inside, brown on the outside. It’s made out of coconut, which is also white on the inside, brown on the outside. Growing up, Bounty was a term commonly levelled at black people who “acted white”. When I heard that kid say it in my general direction I was incensed. I was furious. That he would denigrate my black identity, knowing nothing about me. I was deputy head boy at the time, so he obviously knew me in that regard. I swivelled to face him with 100-watt intensity and demanded that he repeat the accusation. I dare you. Say it again. He faltered. Nearby teachers tried to intervene but I was deaf to their appeals. I was ready to switch. The kid melted into a corner and I stormed away to English.

RUDEBOY

For a black boy growing up in Britain in the 90s, this might have been the ultimate accolade. To be called a rudeboy was to be adorned with the highest order of street credibility. When I was at school (I went to an all-boys’), everybody wanted to be a rudeboy; it meant you were cool, powerful, influential, and enough of a rebel to warrant sufficient notoriety to make you someone worth knowing.

Like most people (including, believe it or not, many black men), I’m just not enough of a rebel to have ever been a rudeboy. I operate within the establishment. I play by the rules. I have a natural revulsion against criminality. I was a prefect. I’m very polite, which is the opposite of rude. I have a mortgage. And yet I have a profound respect for the rudeboy, largely due to codes of blackness that shaped my consciousness before I was even aware it was happening. Maybe the simple truth is that we have all been conditioned to seek self-empowerment through some level of outlaw status, and for black men, there is a corresponding archetype that remains well within reach. It doesn’t take much to be rude; you just have to have a level of disdain for authority, and pay more attention to the codes of the street than laws of the land.

‘#blacklivesmatter turned a moral given into a societal juggernaut’ … Jayceon Hurtz, 2, holds a sign at a Black Lives Matter protest in California, March 2018. Photograph: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

WOKE

Adjective. Colloquial. Informal. Political. A distinctly black Americanism that has worked its way out of 20th-century rural, working-class black America all the way to the 21st-century world stage. I’m pretty certain the first time I heard it I just thought it was a quirk of that African American vernacular sometimes referred to as “ebonics”, itself linked to pidgin dialects stemming from 17th-century slave communities in southern states of the US. Key grammatical features include the warping of tenses for emphasis. So, “I’m awake” can swiftly evolve into “I’m woke”, meaning: “Yo, I’m really awake.” Next thing you know, woke is turning up in broadsheet newspapers as a referent for millennial black activism. How did this happen?

The big myth, the great lie, is that we as a species are on our way to being post-racial. That we are somehow past the racism of our collective history. Not true. For many non-black people the hashtagging of #black is a millennial wake-up call. It’s a cold water splash reminding us that racial and social injustices exist and persist. Hashtags give visibility and digital momentum to ideas that might otherwise fade. For example, pre-2014, I’m sure a lot of people had an inkling that black lives mattered, but the hashtag #blacklivesmatter turned a moral given into a societal juggernaut. It woke people up to structural racism and racially motivated prejudice, zeroing in on the nothing-new shock of police brutality in the US and soon encompassing racial injustices worldwide.

In my classrooms, in the playgrounds, I see the relish with which black culture is consumed, but it stops short of real engagement with black history and heritages of black intellectualism. As a teacher, I’ve been exposed to the deep shortcomings of a curriculum that is hopelessly Eurocentric. No number of exciting black cultural artefacts can fight the pervasive gravity of default whiteness.

I can feel the cynicism creeping in so it’s important to remind myself that woke is essentially an earnest position of social awareness. It’s something to believe in, waking up to racial injustices that are quite literally life and death, concerned with not only state violence and the killing of black people by police, but the wider conditions of poverty and incarceration that contribute to black oppression and deprivation of human rights in the so-called “developed” world and beyond. Engagement with this ideal can be as flimsy as a retweet or as heavy as facing down riot police in a protest. Either way, it’s a call for action stemming directly from the black experience. It’s an alarm. A wake-up call.

Source: The Guardian

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