Representation and the power of not being seen3 min read

When we talk about representation and racial diversity,  we almost always talk about being seen. Having our faces on adverts. Being recognised for our achievements. History not being whitewashed. Being able to go see a film like Black Panther, without people complaining that it’s too niche.

But what we don’t talk about, is that representation should also afford us the privilege of not being seen. Yet so often for ethnic minorities in the UK, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

When you’re a minority, people see their unconscious (and conscious) bias before they see you. When you apply for a job as Olatunde or Kaljit, people are putting a set of beliefs on you before you even walk through the door. And when you do walk through the door, they already have a preconceived notion of your religion, your qualities, your home life, your skills and aspirations. For most of us, this is unfounded, and for all of us, this is wildly unhelpful.

I grew up in Hertfordshire, went to college in Hampshire and university in Cambridge. I’ve been in mostly white communities for my whole life. And that does not come with the privilege of anonymity. As a large black woman, people see me. People have on countless occasions commented on my physical presence, as if me being anywhere is an act of defiance.

Can you imagine the anxiety caused by a childhood of being followed around stores by white security guards, just because I “look the type” or having people shocked by my accent because “I don’t sound black” – the hassle of having to explain who I am and where I’m “from” (because I can’t actually be from here, surely?) Or having “go on blackie!” yelled at me by a well-meaning Mum from the sidelines when I was playing netball?

In my late 20s I moved to Stratford, one of the most racially diverse neighbourhoods in the UK, and as a result, was granted the anonymity I had craved.  I remember the excitement I felt being in a work meeting, where I was greeted by two other tall, black, beautiful women. It felt like Christmas.

Being here is bittersweet, because it only takes a train journey to west London or Essex to feel the otherness dripping off my skin again. I feel like moving out of London would have a huge mental impact on me, having every interaction preceded by a voice in my head that says “but remember you’re black”.

I am tired of having to explain that “white” isn’t synonymous with “default”. The emotional labour of having to explain to people how their prejudice is hurtful takes its toll. But we can’t be angry, because of the trope of the angry black woman. We have to be measured; we have to be quiet. In everything I do, I have to be a credit to my race. I am not allowed to simply be my natural, flawed self.

Having to actively mute yourself to appease other people’s sensibilities is damaging. So is having people you think are friends make racist jokes or say, “but you’re not really black, are you?” – or having to hype yourself up to walk out of the door for another day of being seen, trying to make your physicality look smaller and less “intimidating”. All of these things use vital mental and emotional resources that need to be spent elsewhere.

We often talk about minority issues in tangible terms: higher risk of poverty, lower attainment in exams, less likely to be paid a living wage, more likely to be stopped and searched and arrested. 

We don’t talk about the resulting mental burden and the fact that black people are less likely to receive adequate mental health treatment and are more likely to be offered medication than talking therapies and continued support. When you layer all of these things on top of each other, you start to get a truer picture of inequality.

Clearly, there’s still a staggering amount of work to be done to counteract the impact of just being born black has on a person in 2018, anywhere in the UK. A major step in the right direction would be greater public awareness of unconscious bias and other barriers to true representation – in other words, to the power of not being seen.

Despite the strength in numbers, I don’t mean for a second to suggest we’ve eradicated racial inequality in multicultural communities like Stratford. I might always turn a head or cause a whisper. Of course, being able to be lost in a crowd is not a perfect solution, but it’s the best I’ve got right now.

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