Losing my smile

There is an increasingly widely reported phenomenon in popular culture called the “resting bitch face”. This is when your neutral facial expression looks unfriendly and unwelcoming. According to the Urban dictionary, resting bitch face is “a person, usually a girl, who naturally looks mean when her face is expressionless, without meaning to.”

Well, I suffer from the opposite. My neutral facial expression is a smile. I am just a very happy person, I am always thinking of funny thoughts and I get excited about very little things (e.g. if a traffic light is already green when I walk to it – this is a cause for celebration) so 9/10 when you see me – I will be smiling.

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Smiling through life…

However, I have recently been noticing the detriments of being a visibly happy person. I feel as though it makes me appear to be approachable. Whilst this in itself is a positive thing – I love talking to new people! I live my life by the premise that strangers are just people who are not yet my friend. I pretty much assume I could be friends with anyone. Nevertheless, this perception of approach-ability also often makes me susceptible to unwelcome attention and uncomfortable bordering on dangerous situations.

As I write this, I realise that there is not a week that I have not suffered from microaggressions. You may think I’m exaggerating but let me just give a couple of examples of things that have happened over the past month:

Whilst I was on my way back from an internship in London, there was a man on the tube. I smiled at him, like I do to anyone who I make eye contact with (I once read this really moving article about how a smile can save a life. You never know what someone might be going through so I always felt showing you care even if it is just superficially through a smile was important!). Yet after smiling at this man, he kept staring at me. I began to feel uncomfortable. He moved to sit next to me and kept asking for my number, telling me he wanted to take me out that night. I said no. My stop on the tube came and I got off and so did he. He became aggressive, kept pressuring me to give my number, accusing me of not giving him a chance.

Just yesterday I came home from a long day spent revising in the library. I stop off at the local corner shop to buy peppers to cook dinner. As I’m paying, there are two men behind me. I’m smiling because I’m so excited about these peppers (they had just begun stocking scotch bonnet chilli peppers which made me really happy as they remind me of home!). These men took my smile as an invitation to talk to me (what in itself is not a bad thing).They begin asking me all these questions and as I try to leave the store they begin to follow me. One of the men tells me he is “in to black girls” as they begin leering towards me.

As I leave the store, hurrying home, willing my legs to move faster, reaching for my phone to call a friend for protection – my mind drifts to the worst case scenario – what if something bad did happen to me? I look back and still see these men nearing calling after me. I suddenly get flashes of newspaper articles with my face on the cover. And I think, what would it say? I was walking home from the library (not that it should matter) I’m wearing baggy harem pants, no makeup, a high necked long-sleeved sweater. The only skin on show is my face and my hands, it is barely 10pm…and I wonder, if anything were to happen to me, how would the newspapers twist the situation to make it my fault? How would society figure that I was “asking for it”?

And that is how I lost my smile.

I began thinking of all these situations I have been in where I have been harassed or made to feel uncomfortable. And I think: what if that stranger on the tube mistook the smile on my face for an indication I was interested? Even when I explicitly state that I am not, what if they mistook my friendly demeanour for “playing hard to get”. Lastly, I think of all the different people my path crosses on a daily basis within my standard walking route who I smile, wave or nod at – do they realise I am just being friendly?

Dear strangers, who behave in this way – you took away my smile. You have clipped my wings, reduced my vitality and put fear in my heart. Now when I walk – I look down with a dead pan face so as not to attract unwelcome attention. And whilst I do not want to internalise misogyny or accept male entitlement and normalise this behaviour. This is self-preservation. I do not want to be that girl in the newspaper.

I am sometimes brought into feminist debates where people ask my opinion on campaigns like “free the nipple” or “reclaim the night”. Whilst, I generally have a personal preference to be fully clothed rather than exposed, movements like these are so important. We live in a society where women’s bodies are policed and are unnecessarily sexualised. We live in a society of victim blaming, where we ask a woman what she was wearing when she was assaulted, essentially asking her to avoid being raped instead of telling men not to rape.

There have been countless incidents of women being victims of violence for rejecting advances from men. For example, Christopher Plaskon who killed a classmate after  rejecting his prom date proposal. There was Christopher O’Kroley who killed his co-worker for saying no to his romantic advances. Also,  Elliot Rodger who went on a killing spree for girls not fancying him. On Reddit, there’s even a whole subreddit called “Incels” and “Truecels” for men who are involuntarily celibate which is full of the most toxic and misogynist display of entitlement.

After every phone call home, I am told to “be safe”. And most parents say this, especially to their daughters, because they care about their children and have wonderful intentions. And I listen to them, I am safe – I try to make wise choices and avoid dangerous situations. Safety is so important but this is futile if this does not go hand in hand with teaching men not to feel entitled. What did all the aforementioned women who were killed by men do wrong? They said no. They were uninterested. They were living their lives.

So next time you question why we need feminism, after all, women can vote now? Remember that there is a girl out in the world questioning whether to even smile.

It’s just me, Dammy, learning to smile again

xxx

Don’t close that door…

So I have been considering some of the reasons that certain groups experience disadvantage. For example, I’ve talked about daily microagressions in The Everyday Racist, stereotypes in I am not your maid, and privilege in Check your privilege.

Whilst there are definitely many systemic issues and wider societal institutionally ingrained discrepancies. In certain situations, I think it’s important for marginalised groups take ownership for acting as catalysts for our own disadvantage. This is not necessarily about allocating blame but about offering an alternate explanation.

As a black woman, time and time again, I am in environments that lack representation. I look around and do not see faces that look like mine. Whilst there is a whole plethora of research that goes into the nuances of why that it is. One of the reasons that I have experienced that have not seen covered in great depth, is that we as disadvantaged people do not facilitate each others success.

I have frequently seen the analogy that success is not like an elevator, it is the stairs. It takes hard work and determination, it rarely gets handed to you. Whilst, I get why referring to success as an elevator is problematic. Bare with me for a second and let me suggest….

If success were an elevator…you need to send it back down to bring other people up

This is a premise that has been instilled in me from a young age. Yet, often I see that when people from marginalised groups (predominantly in race and gender), do actually make it to the top, they then close the door behind them. There seems to be the mentality that once people overcome adversity and reach a certain level, they feel as though they have worked so hard to reach where they are. Therefore, if other people are struggling to reach that level, it’s because they are not working hard enough.

For example, in my first year of University I was assigned a mentor in the year above. I would frequently ask her for guidance with essays or general advice, the usual type of thing a mentor is supposed to help their mentee with. And every time I was met with unresponded to messages or simply the undertone of an unwillingness to help. The topic came up with another friend and she told me that’s just how my mentor always behaved, she felt that if people wanted to do well then they needed to work hard for themselves.

Then about a year and a half later, the tables turn. I am in a situation where I am ahead and she needs my help with an application for a firm that I have already worked for. And this was a pivotal moment where I had a choice. I could act in the same way this girl had behaved towards me and tell her to help herself. I chose the opposite. And this is not because I am an inherently nice person. Because lord knows I can be really petty sometimes.

It was because I realised the importance of bringing people up with you. There is already a lack of black girls in these fields. Helping a fellow black girl smash these barriers to entry can only ever be a good thing. When I graduate and I’m in my city job trying to fulfil all my dreams – I want to be surrounded by other people like me. It is so important there is representation in all facets of society. Therefore, I have a duty to help as many people as I can.

Whilst intelligence, hard work and all that good stuff is important and contributes to our human capital. We also have a social capital which can either aide or hinder us. This is the area that many people from marginalised groups lack in. For example, this is the equivalent of the “old boys network” where other men from a particular socio-economic and educational background give each other a leg up. What leg up do black people give each other? What leg up do women give each other? We are actually more likely to tear each other down.

I feel as though this issue is one of the main reasons I struggled to be friends with other black girls when I was younger. Growing up in predominantly white area, I was often the only black girl in many situations. My sisters and I were the first black people in each our respective schools at the time. Therefore, it is easy to see why you might become threatened when there is another black girl. It can often feel like there is not enough space for people like you.

For example, at University I used to be really involved in the musical theatre society. And I remember there was another black girl and we didn’t really click at first. It always felt like we were being compared or in direct competition with each other. And often we probably were, there is already a lack of diversity in theatre so often we would actually be up against each other. I remember a particular scenario where we both got call backs for the same character and we essentially had this weird sing-off against. We both look back and laugh about this now, because we were able to realise that we could both exist in the same space and be fabulous. And we are now such good friends because of it.

And this is not a particularly new phenomenon. This issue of an unwillingness to help each other out is deeply embedded into history. For example, take this issue of race. During the slave trade, often slave masters would choose a few black slaves to be guards and watch over the other black slaves whilst they worked. These guards were still still slaves but they had some power, they were encouraged to whip other slaves and granted certain advantages. Likewise, light and dark skinned slaves were also segregated to either be the field or house slaves.

Already you can see a hierarchy emerging even within slaves. Whilst I am not arguing these guards should have helped the other slaves – of course, the situation made that inappropriate and self-preservation was important. However, I feel as though many black people still have this slave mentality now. When they become successful and rise through the ranks, it is almost as though they feel that by distancing themselves from other disadvantaged people, there is the hope they will not be treated like them. Just like in the slave trade with the guards, in doing so, they limit the benefits of having diversity as they merely offer a mirrored version of their slave masters.

We are no longer slaves…

This can often lead to them feeling the need to assimilate and mimic the behaviour of the privileged, be it stereotypical  Caucasian traits or in the case of women, exhibiting male traits. In itself this is not an issue, as ultimately I do not believe there is a specific “black” or “white” or even “male or “female” personality type, only stereotypes. However, this assimilation does become problematic when it results in marginalised groups who have become successful or are in a position of advancement turning their heads to the problems other marginalised groups face.

I feel as though there can also be a culture of self-hate amongst marginalised groups where they hate themselves for the thing that makes the marginalised e.g. black, woman, etc. Thus, they hate other people who remind them of themselves. This perpetuates a feeling of not wanting to support people like you which further facilitates marginalisation. Whilst, police brutality is a massive issue, a massive amount of black people are also killing black people. We heavily criticise each other which in turn sets the tone for how other people treat us. As Chris Rock said: “Everything white people don’t like about black people, black people really don’t like about black people,”

As with all these type of posts, this comes with a small caveat. Yes, bring people up with you. But this advice is for a very specific scenario and you need to be strategic with it. It’s not for when you’re in direct competition with someone at a given time. It’s for when you are already ahead, so you have the ability look back and drag others up with you. Helping others should not come at the expense of your own progression. It is so important to be wise as I wrote in talk less, smile more.

For example, when I was still considering whether I wanted to be a solicitor or barrister. I was fortunate enough to secure a mini pupillage and this led to attending an event where I had the amazing opportunity to speak to the awe inspiring Baroness Hale.

I really wanted to absorb all her knowledge and understand how she as a woman had smashed the patriarchy and succeeded in such a male dominated field. And she gave me a whole wealth of advice which all these years later, I still draw upon when making life choices. They help me place myself in the best position for success.

Baroness Hale is clearly already ahead of me, she has no reason to close the door to me. I am not her competitor. Likewise, my mentor was a whole year ahead of me, she had completed those modules and already gotten her grades. We were not academic competitors.

This is not to invalidate the wider issues that due exist in society. But I feel like it is so easy to blame “The System” for all the problems because its an abstract entity far away. But what if you are part of the problem?

It’s just me, Dammy, there’s space in the elevator for you

xxx

VLOG: surprise birthday trip

So today is my friend Zoe’s 21st birthday. We have literally been friends since the first day of first year of University. We have lived together for the past 3 years and honestly, she is one of my closest friends.

Birthday’s are such a strange concept as it is essentially just a day just to celebrate you. So it can get a bit stressful trying to organise things for yourself. Therefore, I wanted to do something to make the day as special as possible without all the stress of having to plan it for herself.

She had no idea where we were going or what we had planned so this vlog was a lot of fun to film.

We had an amazing day in London on a boat cruise, eating LOTS of food and the Imax cinema watching Beauty and the Beast in 3D.

It’s just me, Dammy, making memories

xxx

Check your privilege

About a year ago, I took a Buzzfeed quiz called “how privilege are you?“. It was during exam season and fellow procrastinators, will know how enticing these quizzes can be when they pop up on your timeline especially when you’re avoiding writing that essay you’ve been working on all day.

So I took the quiz and I think I got approximately 47%  of the privilege in the quiz. Which is not particularly high but is definitely not that low either.

According to the Oxford dictionary Privilege is…

A special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.

Therefore, when you think about it anyone can experience privilege in some shape or form.

For example, I experience disadvantages for not being white on varying levels everyday. Whether this is by not being able to find a single colour to match my skin tone at the make up counter at my local drug store, or wondering how “random” the random selection of my Dad at security in the airport was, or the fact that I even to have to consider “does he even like black girls though?” when talking to a guy I like.

If you do not have to consider the impact of your skin colour then chances are you have privilege. For example, I saw this premise encapsulated in its purest form in an instagram post of one of my friends a couple of days ago. It was a photo of her posing in the back of a police car, smiling from ear to ear with the caption: “Reading about the police force is more exciting when you’ve been to a police department and realised how uncomfortable the back of a cop car is”.

Wow. I had to sit there for a minute pondering whether this was real life. The post just screamed insensitivity and privilege. As a white female, her experience with police in America was exciting – just an opportunity for a good insta post. Yet, considering the political context of police brutality and #Blacklivesmatter…it’s easy to see the disparity in experience. What is a fun experience for a white female is as a scary reality for many black men. That is white privilege for you.

And what was particularly farcical about the whole post is that she would most likely identify as a feminist. So as a female she is aware of the disadvantage women face yet, as a white female cannot quite tap into the disadvantage others face for not being white.

However, that’s the wonderful thing about intersectionality, it means you can experience privilege in one area but be losing out in other areas. And it is so important we understand the muli-faceted layers of disadvantage others might face when understanding our own privilege.

Intersectionality is a word that was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw and has recently become increasingly popular, especially within the context of femism. In a nutshell, it explains that all of an individual’s separate identities come together to create their overall identity. This overall identity includes things like gender, race, social class, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, age and disability.

This just means that each individual has many layers of their life they have to deal with. Therefore, it is impossible to truly see each part e.g. race separately and it is important to look at these issues holistically. This allows us to examine the varying dimensions and degrees of discrimination people face.

I tend to think of it as a jigsaw puzzle to make it a bit easier to process the concept…

Intersectionality

As a black female, there are definitely opportunities that are unavailable to me because I am not white or male. So often I suffer from racism and sexism. Likewise, there are so many ways that I am privileged. For example, I am able bodied, I come from a good background, I am cisgendered, heterosexual….the list could go on into all the nuances of the ways I benefit merely by belonging to a certain group.

Yet it is important to note that you cannot have privilege in an area you are disadvantaged. For example, you cannot have black privilege or female privilege or poor privilege. As these groups do not have institutional power. Likewise, privilege is not necessarily special treatment but things you get as a right, things you are entitled to purely because you belong to a certain demographic.

Acknowledging all these things does not make me a bad person. For the longest time, certain peers in secondary school would make me feel bad because of the advantages they perceived I had. I never did, but I always wanted to explain to them the sacrifices my parents have made for me to have a the opportunities I have today. All the missed Christmases, the late pick ups from school and the endless stress. But now I realise I don’t have to explain or make excuses for my privilege, I just need to have an awareness of it. And use the privilege that I experience to bring others up.

It’s the realisation that some people have to work a lot more to get what I often take for granted. This doesn’t mean I’m not working hard, it just means others have to work harder. For example, I wrote the post University: to go on not to go, a while ago. I’m so pleased it was able to help so many people but retrospectively, the post oozes out with privilege.

I worked so hard for my A level results and to get into University in general so of course, if someone else insinuated that I did not get there through sheer determination and diligence, it would be easy to see why I would be offended. However, every single member of my family have gone to University so for me, going to University was an expectation. Yet, lots of people do not have this privilege.

I imagine this must be what it must feel like for some of the Trump voters in America who keep being told about their “white privilege” yet feel like they’ve been left behind. It’s hard to see the privilege gained from your race when you’re struggling to pay rent or buy food. And then you see these seemingly disadvantaged immigrants in better jobs. This “white privilege” rhetoric can be difficult to understand when coming from a place of poverty. Yet being oppressed by poverty does not cancel out white privilege.

However, there are multiple oppressions at work and not all discrimination is the same. You cannot do comparative suffering. For example, you cannot compare the experience of white women to that of black men. Both groups suffer in many ways but it is not the same. 

I feel as though the reason people are so reluctant to accept their privilege is because we live in a culture of “one-upping” where we always want to out-do the last person. So let’s stop with the game of “whose suffered more?” as the hinders progression.Whilst I’m not trying to create a hierarchy of disadvantage, clearly some have a greater impact on your life that others.

So whilst I am not trying to demonise every white middle-classed cisgendered able bodied man because of the advantages they were born with. But it is so important to check your privilege. And by that, I mean you need to have an awareness of it.

Then take that awareness and do something about it. Educate yourself, talk about privilege no matter how uncomfortable it makes you, challenge the systems that privilege some and oppress others and become an an active ally, call people out on discrimination. Be aware and take action.

It’s me, Dammy, advantaged and disadvantaged all at the same time.

xxx

I am not your maid

So it has been over a year since I wrote Don’t Trust a Black Girl and even longer since I wrote The Everyday Racist. Collectively, those have been my most read posts and I am constantly surprised that they are still getting so many views and shares so long after they were written. I think it is so great that sharing my personal experiences of “blackness” have garnered the most interaction, because those type of posts are always the ones I tend to be the most nervous about and I spend the longest time hovering over the “publish” button.

But honestly, I am tired. I am so done with needing to talk about being black. Don’t get me wrong, this blog makes me so unbelievably happy and the “big issues” I tackle are my favourites. Yet, it is so tiring having to constantly think about being black. I genuinely (probably a little naively) thought that since writing The Everyday Racist, I would be done.

I was of the mentality that I could just be like, “Yo friends, racism still exists, these daily microaggressions against black people are harmful. Please stop doing these things. K, thanks, bye”. And then I could go about my merry way and dance into the sunset (well, I wasn’t quite this idealistic but you catch my drift).

That was until exactly 12 days ago and I had one of the most eye-opening racial experiences I have had in a long time. And this was when I truly realised the importance of instigating dialogue and utilising this platform to discuss race despite how uncomfortable it can and does make me feel.

So, it was by sister’s birthday and my family had come together to celebrate over the weekend in London. I made a vlog of the weekend here, and as you can see we had such a great time. We are hardly ever all together at the same time, so occasions like this are always so special.

Yet this one white American man nearly tarnished the whole memory for me. We were staying at the Hilton Hotel on Edgeware Road and I had gone to knock on my parent’s room to see if they were ready for breakfast (lol, they weren’t, classic mum and dad). And then on my way back to my hotel room, I was abruptly stopped in my tracks by the aforementioned white american man.

I am met with two towels which are thrust in my face. He then mumbles something about needing new towels, blah blah blah…

I stare at him confused. He then proceeds to place said towels in my hand and tells me that I need to come clean his room and change the towels. It still takes me a while to process what is going. Surely, it could not be, could it?

So I tentatively ask him: “You don’t think I am the maid, do you?”

He stops in his tracks, looks puzzled and then begins to laugh. He laughed. In between his guffaws, with a shrug of his shoulders, he merely asserts that he just assumed I was the maid.

As I sit here a couple of weeks after the incident, I can still feel the echoes of the burning behind my eyes and the heat on my skin as this man continued to laugh in my face at this “funny” situation. A laugh that evoked images of colonialism and slavery. A laugh that whispered the memory of subservience and the diaspora of a nation.

I boldly responded, “what about me made you assume I was the maid? Am I wearing a maid’s uniform? Am I pushing a maid’s trolley? What made you think I was a maid in the hotel rather than a guest”.

He had no response. No shame. No apology. Nothing. He just stood ambivalent to the magnitude of what he had just done.

I am not your maid…

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My “maids” uniform…

The whole situation frustrated me and made me question how some people might perceive me. The issue was and is, what about seeing a young black woman approaching, made this white man jump to the conclusion that I could not be a guest at the hotel so I had to be the maid?

Interestingly, the following weekend it was my mum’s birthday and I met up in London with my family again (this time, staying at the Hilton hotel in Paddington) and in the afternoon we watched the movie Hidden Figures, about the black women who helped NASA send John Glenn into space.

hiddenfigurestheblackmedia2016

It was such a great movie which I would definitely recommend for everyone to go and watch.  In the movie, there was a similar scene where Katherine G. Johnson brilliantly played by  Taraji P. Henson comes in for her first day at NASA and is handed a trash can to empty by a white man. She poignantly whispers: “I’m sorry. I’m … not the custodian.”

Of course, this black woman could not actually work at NASA in an academic capacity. Surely, she had to be the cleaner. Hidden Figures was set in 1961, it is now 2017. Whilst so much has changed since the 60’s, the journey is not over. If equality is the destination, then we are definitely not there yet. Usually racism today is not as overt as it used to be, modern day racism is much more nuanced as I wrote about in The Everyday Racist.

Yet, how can a situation so similar to one that happened in 1961, play out in 2017? I may be allowed to use the same bathrooms as my white counterparts but that does not mean I am equal. Whilst assumptions are still being made because of a persons skin colour, equality will never truly exist.

So don’t be that guy at the hotel, do not stereotype people. Stereotyping is harmful because it leads to largely unjustified and discriminatory decisions being made about a person solely because that person belongs to a certain demographic.

Do not be lazy. Stereotypes are the cowards way out of thinking critically and actually being present in situations. People naturally categorise people all the time based on arbitrary factors. I am acutely aware that I sometimes mentally do the same thing myself.

But just because we frequently do something does not make it the right thing to do. Together, we must unlearn these biases we hold against one and other. Regardless of whether they may seem to be a superficially positive entity or not.

All that hotel guest had to do was open his eyes and look at me, look beyond my skin colour at the actual situation and it would have been so clear that I was not the maid.

I get it, talking about equality all the time gets tiring. Trust me, I wish I lived in a world where I didn’t have to write about racism anymore. I wish being black did not feel like a heavy load that I have to carry everyday. Likewise, I understand that being constantly reminded of your privilege can be a tough pill to swallow.

In some ways, I definitely experience privilege myself – not everyone has the benefit of having two supportive and loving parents or can have cute weekends away so I know I have a lot to be thankful for. But it’s 2017 and black lives still matter, so let us keep moving forward.

It’s just me, Dammy, and I am not your maid

xxx