On blackness and masculinity part 1: am I not black enough?
Sometimes I despise how much we centre the Black British Experience around being from ‘inner city’ London and how much we centre the culture that comes along with that experience.
I grew up in Orpington, which is in Bromley. It’s on the outskirts of London. it’s a strange place because we are still classified as Greater London, we have oyster cards and red buses but at the same time we are classified as Kent too. There definitely is a noticeable difference between Orpington and what people think of as ‘proper London’. In other words, not many black people around but loads of grammar schools and green spaces.
I wasn’t socialised into society in the same way that a young black kid in Thornton Heath would have been. This is not to sound classist or snobby. What I mean is I grew up in a middle class white area with access to a good primary school and then 7 years of grammar school education. I was born with socio-economic privilege and I was given the tools that allow me to survive/assimilate into a white-supremacist capitalist economy and thrive within it if I choose to take it. It means I speak with a ‘grammar school’ accent and I had the opportunity of reading loads of books growing up.
In secondary school, my Asian friend once told me ‘you’re not like the other black boys’. I passed this comment off as nothing and played it cool but inside I was quite upset. This wasn’t news to me at all but hearing it confidently from someone else was upsetting. I asked him how and he said that I don’t speak ‘in the same way as the others’ and I do not interact in the same way either. The black masculinity and the boyishness that exudes from young black boys just wasn’t there. The handshake, the notorious black male nod, and the barber shop etiquette. All of these things were not there. It didn’t stop me from being unapologetically Nigerian. It didn’t stop me from being unapologetically pro-black. And it didn’t stop me from surrounding myself with black friends in secondary school who came from areas like Abbey Wood and Lewisham. But it did stop me from getting my hair cut to spare myself the awkwardness of the barber shop experience. It did mean that when I passed another black guy in the streets I would have severe anxiety because I didn’t know how to do the ‘I see you brother’ head nod. It meant I sometimes felt like a fraud when doing the most in white spaces to challenge white-supremacist ways of thinking whilst simultaneously not feeling ‘black’ myself.
Being gay and black added to the struggle and made it unbearable. We must be aware that gayness and patriarchal masculinity are not mutually exclusive but being gay for me always meant I couldn’t form bonds with my male friends as well as I would have liked simply because I found it… very awkward. The excessive physical contact and changing-room banter (coupled with weight and body issues) made me so anxious.
The field and the pavilion were places to avoid entirely. I hated these places, I hated what they represented and most importantly I hated how they made me feel. 2 hours of ‘games’ lessons every week were unbearable. I would put my rugby clothes on underneath my uniform so it meant I didn’t have to show my body and I could minimise the amount of time in the changing room. In Year 11, I bunked games for the whole year.
Black masculinity is masculinity on steroids. Young black boys were/are expected to run fast, to be strong, to be able to fight. We were packaged into a box and given labels. This is who you are supposed to be, nothing more and nothing less. There was simply no room for the effeminacy that sometimes comes along with gayness. There was not much room for bending gender rules and queerness. The field was tough because it was the space where black boys came to thrive, where black boys dominated. Lacking the vernacular and the mannerisms was one thing but lacking the skills and the physical prowess that are perceived to be inherent in young black boys was another thing. On top of that, the changing rooms properly encapsulated everything I was afraid of. Being naked. (Or close to naked). And exposing my true self.
I realised that these boxes that came along with black masculinity are structured in such a way that keep us subjugated within ourselves. Blackness has so many rules and regulations attached to it. Whilst white people get to be whoever they want and still be classified as ‘white’, black people still have to affirm our blackness in other ways. For us, blackness is more than just a colour, it’s a costume and a performance at times. And yet, whiteness gets to retain its exclusivity whilst blackness has become a category open to everyone, accessible to non-black people in cultural blackface (CC: Rachel Dolezal, non-black people who think they’re black via association and cultural taste). Because of this, the requirements needed to be classified as black have shifted from ancestry, phenotypical traits, ethnicity and visible racial markers to the appropriation of perceived blackness. Lea-
ving some black people feeling like a passenger in their own skin.
Looking back at it now, it appears that my identity crisis was unnecessary. I showed my blackness in many other ways: through my dedication to social activism, going to Black Studies classes, wearing native dress everywhere. I didn’t see this at the time because blackness was defined through the ‘inner city’ London black experience which is why I wish we could change that narrative.
By Ademola Anjorin