I don’t want to be white, I just want to be treated as if I were

I don’t want to be white; I just want to be treated as if I were.

To exist in a world where the pigment of my skin is not a prison, a ball and chain, a ‘something that could be despised’.

Where my burnished hue is celebrated and not frowned upon or wished away or treated chemically or digitally via photoshop till it looks much lighter just to suit a certain narrative.

I too don’t want to have experienced hot stretching comb burns or chemical burns whilst straightening my hair with chemicals and extreme heat for fear of being seen as unkempt, because the standard of good hair is hair that is ‘white’. My hair, my afro, my cornrows they are not a statement. My curly hair grows out of my scalp that way and no I didn’t do anything to it to make it shrink like that or ‘stick out’ like that, and no your hands can’t touch, even if I can touch yours.

I too don’t want to be subjected to a body search or bag search or be followed around as I shop because somehow if I’m darker your wares will find their way into my bag. Last I checked my mahogany tones were not magnetic to your merchandise.

No, I don’t want to be singled out, called cheese girl, musalad, coconut or Oreo when I use a ‘private school accent’, nor hear you say ‘Oh, you are so articulate and a credit to your race’, tsk as if whites have the monopoly on intelligence…

Nor does that mean I want to be ridiculed and seen as uneducated when I do use an African accent or mispronounce a word because guess what I learnt it from a book. I’ve learned your  Français, your English, your Español and yet monolingual you who doesn’t even try with my language thinks bilingual/ multilingual me is the one who needs more education? Why can you judge me uneducated when I prefer to speak my mother’s tongue? What did you say, Oh, it’s because you can’t understand me? Since when was there a prerequisite that you understand all I say? This is the language of my people that you want to erase, a language that houses our culture and thoughts from time in memorial that you want to vanish because you have placed more importance on yours, because in your mind mine is primitive.

I too don’t want to change my name for it to be easier for you to pronounce, if I can figure out James, Jean, Bjorn, Tchaikovsky, Alejandro and Etienne, then Tsitsi, Mxolisi, Uchenna and Ncumisa should be run of the mill too, no it’s not Tsi or MX, or N Cumisaa because my name has meaning and nuance that you want to bastardise.

I don’t want that when I go to the airport, in order to not be seen as a threat, I implore my brother, “a hoody and our skin tone profiles danger, so pack away your hoodie and let’s dress up when flying in order to be perceived as if we belong → no, no sir, we are no threat for your security.

I don’t want to stand in line for service and be ignored, until I pointedly chat with my white friends, so you change your demeanour and serve me with the same care and fawning.

I don’t want to try harder, jump higher, shout louder before you see my accomplishments, because in your mind it’s impossible for me to have made it thus far without affirmative action. Oh, I’m not the help or kitchen staff? So how did I get my job? The most qualified person should get the job? Wait, what? I had not realised my skin colour precludes me from being qualified?

I don’t want to be asked if I’m lost or need help because I’m the only darkie in the suburb, those hallowed green lawns and gleaming abodes other black people can only dream of. And I too want to have the luxury of avoiding the hood, the township, the high densities, that you deem dangerous and dens of criminality, but alas this is where I and my family live. I guess danger takes a look at my skin and runs away.

I don’t want to travel far and wide just to find products that suit my skin and biology, or struggle to find doctors who are well versed in the difference’s melanin can give to symptoms because for some reason everything is white centred even on African soil. I too want my skin to have the power of normal to be able to match my tone and skin colour in clothing, Band-Aids, underwear, products for my hair, just as you expect your needs to be met. Alas I have to conform to your standards for my needs to be met.

And no, I don’t want to pretend you’ve given me a compliment when you say, “I am pretty for a black girl” your standards of beauty are miles away from mine.

I don’t want to pretend not to be offended when you say the races shouldn’t mix, and you would never date a black girl, for in your mind, my actual personality, values or quirks don’t matter, I have been judged and found wanting on skin colour sight alone.

I too don’t want to bite my tongue when I’m upset just so you don’t label me angry, scary, black woman. Or be forever asked, ‘Why are we so loud?’, and yet that screaming, swearing white manager is never asked to tone it down. No, I too don’t want to have to always be apologetic when I stand up for someone or my beliefs, just so you don’t call me a bully.

I too want the luxury of saying ‘I don’t see colour’. Telling me you don’t see my colour is saying I have to be ‘not black’ in order for you to respect me, it’s you using colour-blindness to force me to assimilate, I want to be seen as the individual I am. I don’t want to be lumped in with everyone and seen as ‘you people’ especially before you want to offend.

But until that happens, I want you to see my black skin and the disadvantages it gives me, and thus see why I fight for the advantages your skin has given you, because in my reality there isn’t only one race. There is white and the rest, as if we are leftover food.

Another child should not have to grow up confused and  questioning what they did wrong, only to find out it’s nothing but the melanin they are graced with; to wonder why they were born with darker skin and wish it away and have to be taught how to value themselves beyond their skin.

I know some of your actions are ignorance on your part, don’t worry I was once there too, giving undeserved deference. But the struggle for identity made it real for me and mine, how could I hate who I intrinsically am due to archaic norms started by colonialists? How can we wish to wash away the brown, something we have no control over, something that is not a sin, and yet my parents, myself, my sisters and brothers to this day are punished for.

So, I wear this deep brown skin now with pride, African melanin queen that I am, and let the sun kiss those bronze sepia hues and darken them to obsidian as I embrace who I was made to be. So, while my articulate accent, my ‘white hobbies’, experiences, education and opportunities make me blend well in the western world, I’m not trying to be white, I am no longer filled with confusion nor self-hate. I am proud of the struggles I and those like me have overcome and continue to face; but it is this unnecessary suffering I want to obliterate.

No, I don’t want to be white; I just want to be treated as if I were.

Hope you enjoyed my spoken word piece; you can listen to it on the Saving Graces podcast or on youtube.

Why this piece?

Someone asked me once if I had self-hate because I was black, or if I wanted to be white because of my activities that I did that are seen as ‘white’? This seemed like a good response.

Secondly, the past few weeks, with atrocities that black lives face being highlighted, have brought so much heaviness to the fore, yet it’s also tinged with that eternal hope. As black people we face challenges every day, but we learn to be resilient and ignore most of them, so sometimes things that should bother us just don’t anymore. Until something like an unjust death brings it all to the fore. And then we wonder is there something I can do? How I can make the world better? And with renewed vigour you learn about who you are, your identity and try educating at least that one other person by highlighting your experiences.

Don’t police my tone as you read

I nearly did not write anything because I kept asking myself constantly is it safe to do so? “How do I respond honestly and true to myself, and yet not upset or rile people?” And that there is the main issue. We live in a society that polices our tone “Speak to me in good non-negative, non-emotional, not angry speech about your negative experience, then we can have a dialogue.” But I am angry, I feel negative emotion and yet I have to police my tone to be heard… So, I have rewritten the stuff below a lot of times in the hopes that it comes across as I intend.

A lot of ‘not feeling safe to share experience’ is perception, but some of it systematic and not necessarily by design or overt. It can also be ingrained learned behaviour on our part from previous experiences or the experiences of others. Some of it may even be cultural, unfortunately a culture shaped by race relations. For instance when any other issue arises in other spheres I speak out because I know that if some people don’t agree it’s ok, we will agree to disagree, but when it comes to race matters… no, we don’t speak out because I don’t want to “agree to disagree” when it comes to discrimination. If I ‘agree to disagree’ all it means is that you are not willing to change and I should deal with it, so I may as well get on with the dealing with it part, no need to even get into the discussion.

When topics of discrimination come up, I’m afraid of being seen as a person who just will bring up race stuff to cover their incompetence so I will run to other black colleagues, family friends who I’m not even as close to because they’ll get what I mean without me having to explain anything. And it’s exhausting to have to couch my terms and educate first before I am heard. We then ask each other; was that racial or just ignorance? We end up at ignorance and then leave it or end up at racism and leave it.

Another case in point when we talk about race issues, other areas are brought up to limit the power of my emotion and anger at what has happened, because well, “all lives matter, all discrimination is wrong”. Such a blanket universal statement silences me and others like me. It’s because it is true that we are trying to highlight an area where it is seemingly not being put in effect as much as others, so when you say that, it feels like a platitude; “It’s ok to feel the way you do but don’t feel it too much, there’s a limit, think of the other peoples emotions first as well, and the world is not perfect so don’t expect too much change because there are other problems others’ face you are not the only one, what about A, B and C after all discrimination is ‘equal’”. My emotion on that has to be balanced with other people’s emotions so it then negates my experience. I have had colleagues have negative experiences, but because it can be interpreted differently or because they think this will limit their potential going forward, they would never speak up. This inevitably affects me too when it comes to speaking up.  

We don’t need new names

I’m going to give a silly example with which you can extrapolate. My name is easy enough Tsitsi, and yet many people will hyphenate, camel case or add a space to it, why? There are infinitely other more difficult Western names but people take the time to write those correctly, but I’ll make a judgement call and say to myself, it doesn’t really matter, they don’t know better, brush it off, sign my name TD to make it easier for them. But what is the underlying reason for being so accommodating; it’s because I don’t want to be seen as difficult, other, or angry black woman. So I tone police myself, watch what I say more than I would in black company. And then I see my Chinese colleagues going above and beyond to always provide a Western name to make others more comfortable? Why? If everyone just practiced, they would be able to say all names passably well, but we have given out a ‘free pass’, they don’t have to try to say your name right, it’s all difficult anyway. My name has meaning and importance and identifies me as me, and my background and culture, yet you want to turn in white…

Thoughts to ponder

My working all over the place has indeed highlighted my blackness more, such that I now identify as ‘blacker’ than ever before and don’t want people to not see my colour. When we were younger, we were ‘socialised’ to see white as better. Not overtly, but it’s when you are in OK supermarket and the tellers treated a white person better, when we laughed at each other’s mis-pronunciation, when we praised ‘good ‘ accents, when our parents changed their demeanour and actions when dealing with white counterparts, when media showed white happy American/ British families, and black gangsters and it seeped into our beings, and at school when we were taught to curtsy and greet our elders with a very British ‘Good morning Sir/ Ma’am.’ When I was 15 a classmate accused me of being an anglophile in a condescending way, and I could not decide if I should be insulted (as it had been intended) or proud because… my experiences said that meant I was getting it right…

Leaving home though woke me to the reality that we ‘centre white’ everything. And began a time of un-educating myself of the misconceptions that I too perpetuated.

So yeah, I want to be black/ brown, I just don’t want that blackness to determine how you treat me or be all that you see, I am way more. I feel it even more so now where I am the only black person in a sea of white. I want to be seen as me, as I am, not as a separate entity from the ‘other blacks’ which is what I find now tends to happen, from both sides of the colour fence; I go from being coconut, munose, oreo, musalad, cheese girl to being ‘educated’, different, articulate, not like other blacks – just because I was privileged to have experiences and opportunities others did not and could only dream of.

I feel a responsibility for that privilege, that I can never repay, so I think it’s my responsibility to therefore help my fellow black brothers and sisters attain the same privileges. I find myself embracing being Black, Zimbabwean, African more and more because I don’t want to be erased and don’t want the experiences of those who suffer for the colour of their skin to be minimised. I introduce myself as Tsitsi now not Diana.  I wear colourful Afro-fusion inspired clothing, African batik and Chitenge, clothing that before I associated with the elderly women, and Nigerians. I keep my hair natural, promote African foods and language, educate myself and slowly get rid of my biases against all things African and accents.

I understand the sentiment of someone saying they don’t see colour, they only see me, but ultimately, I think it’s demeaning, because this colour shaped me and those like me. We are not colour blind so to say so is to try and silence me when I speak of my experiences, it ignores my reality, because well if in your head that reality does not exist then you don’t have to do anything about it. It means only when I separate myself from my blackness do I then get value. I want you to see my race and colour and see what it does for me and you, because only then can we redress imbalances.

The system needs to change

I’m saying a system was put in place ages ago to disenfranchise people with brown and black skin. That system is kept going when we do not change the cogs that were put in place to sustain it. When you tell a person to work harder to get where you are and yet you fail to recognise the extra hand society gives you and yet denies him. when you say you are pro equality but are against of policies that could make it more possible, such as reparations, affirmative action or law enforcement reform, all you do is lip service. So yes, I will be in your spaces, disturbing your peace by my presence, acting white at times to get in then revealing my Africaness to you. Call me coconut, Oreo, musalad, matters not. I will risk some of the privileges I have gained through luck, mentors, and sheer will in order to bring the same to everyone.

It’s not the case for everyone depending one’s own past experiences, little slights like this over time, can be a million mini razor cuts that bleed. So yes we are shocked if after a while you are surprised that we have lost so much blood and are bleeding to death, just because you deem the one cut you gave was not all that deep.

One day we will be treated the same, it’s not yet today. But I pray that day comes and I do my part to make that a reality. But there is hope, all this open dialogue is bearing fruit, which is exactly what we all need. And hopefully policies and systems will be put in place to redress imbalances and inequalities and discrimination.