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Black History Month: If we cannot unite, we can never overcome

Charmaine Mandivenga writes about her experiences as a black student at Queen Mary

“If you’re from Africa… why are you white?”

One of my favourite quotes from a hilarious movie. I love Mean Girls, but as my time at QMUL has gone on I have found myself relating to Cady Heron. Not because I really want to get with that guy in calculus so much I’ll act stupid, but because no one seems to believe that I’m from Africa!

Just over a year ago, I packed all of my possessions and braved the two-hour drive to Mile End. I had done the tour of Queen Mary University, gotten a canvas bag and seen what to expect from ‘typical halls life’ on open day. I now know that, as a person, I live in two minds and function as such. I both felt scared about the decision I had made but secure in the fact that it was the right thing to do.

I knew I would miss my small coastal town. As we made our way to Ipswich, I memorised the rolling hills and open fields, knowing I was going to miss them. One thing I wasn’t going to miss was not seeing other people like me.

I wasn’t going to miss being known as the ‘other black girl, the lighter skinned one’ as I had been known throughout sixth form. At work, they had known my name only because I was the only black one there. 

I had decided to come to university as a mature student because I had looked around at where I wanted to be and saw no one that looked like me. No one female and certainly not racially other. This had dawned on me and saddened me for about a year.

At work, they had known my name only because I was the only black one there.

So this was the mindset I had come to Queen Mary with. I thought that just by the of balance of probabilities, I was going to meet people that not only looked like me but perhaps felt the same as me.

The reality that I faced was sadly the opposite. I realised that the people I thought I was so easily going to be able to relate to, couldn’t relate with me because I had always lived in small middle-class towns and been to both private and boarding schools. It transpired several times that black or Asian girls would come up to me and I would see the disappointment, sometimes horror, spread over their faces as I continued to introduce myself in my refined ‘posh’ voice.

I can understand that I am an anomaly; my Suffolk twang is quite subtle (except when I’m drunk). If I had a Scouse accent, I think it would be more acceptable because then I wouldn’t sound… just so damn white.

The unfortunate thing is that I can’t help it. I always joke that I didn’t realise that I was black until I was ten because my mother never told me. Quite sadly, like most dark jokes, it does have a lot of truth to it. I had spent my primary school education in an English private school in Brussels. Then, after a brief stint of living with my father in Essex, I had gone to an international boarding school in Wavre (a small town in the Belgian countryside).

I had been sheltered but I think my mother didn’t have to explain to me that I was black because I had read it. I had fallen in love with Maya Angelou from a young age, read The Colour Purple countless times and at 17, Ntozake Shange spoke to the coloured girl in me, so no one had to explain to me what the fight was. I know the fight.

What strikes me the most is that even outside of university I get the same response. Working behind the bar in a bar in Bethnal Green, I habitually hear the same things: “You’re really well spoken” (for a black girl), “I didn’t expect you to like Indie music” (since you’re black and all) and “You seem really different from other (black) girls I know”.

All of this seems like an attempt to assimilate me into something that is less offensive to my roots. Like my love for Tame Impala betrays my people, being able to speak coherently means that I somehow can’t accept the plight of Black Lives Matter.

The more I think about it the more I understand that it is human nature. As humans, we find comfort in people that look and sound like us, it makes us feel secure. This then gives leave to a hidden insecurity in seeing someone that looks like us but doesn’t sound or act like us.

We are programmed to first fear what we do not understand. This has led to people like me to be outcasts in the black community. At family functions, I proudly wear the moniker “Coconut” or “Oreo”, knowing that deep down, this ridicule causes a greater division because they will never understand that we are the same.

But, this is not isolated to just my family. I see it in the smart black man being branded an “Uncle Tom” in popular black culture, a traitor to the cause, one who is ignorant to the oppression because they live well.

When Diane Abbott came to QMUL, I asked her about this and we briefly discussed how hurtful it is to be labelled a traitor when we are jumping the same hurdles, if not more, because we are seen as ‘other’ from both sides.

This is sadly a remnant from slavery, the division of field and house slaves and how this was used to keep us divided. The antagonism that was bred from this was not accidental. If we cannot unite, we can never overcome. Let us then not assume that just because I speak well, I am not discriminated against.

Unfortunately I cannot help my upbringing – it was not one I chose. All I can implore is that, this Black History Month, let’s not only unite against being forgotten, oppressed and suppressed, but also against being divided within ourselves.


Image: Jerónimo Bernot on Unsplash

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