I grew up in Hackney in East London in a mixed heritage family. I had always felt my race; I had always seen from tv, from the way teachers treated me, from the way old white ladies received my presence, that I was not quite right. I had always known since being a very young child that BLACK was not ideal in the eyes of society. It was not beautiful, it was not smart and it was generally not very pleasing. I had known this, I had internalised it, and I had eventually learned to overcome and stand above it. At fourteen or fifteen years old my main circle of friends were a group of all black girls, all of different backgrounds. I found them after I finally stopped trying to be kewl enough for the popular group of pretty, blonde white girls at my high school. With my new friends I learned very quickly that things worked differently in circles of black womxn. I didn’t feel uncomfortable with them as I had with my white friends, I didn’t feel like I had to compromise or tone myself down, and I had, for the first time in my life, an appreciation for Black sisterhood and what that meant in practice. Of course, no friendship is perfect and I fell out with these girls many times, but my point is that it was always from the same standing as them. I did not feel like I was worth less than any of them, I did not feel any less beautiful or any less human than any of them. And when I was out in public with them, I felt safe in my circle and invincible when disapproving and salty white eyes looked my way.
When it became time for me to start considering universities, diversity was at the forefront of my mind. I knew that the rest of England was not like London and I also knew that I could not put myself in a place where I would have to become the black girl all over again. I had known what that felt like, I had experienced white spaces and white gazes my whole life, even living in a mixed part of London. It weighed heavily on me, even then, to assert myself and my humanity around white people that thought they understood racism, that thought they could speak to me and treat me in the ways they wanted to, and that thought my voice, my presence and my existence was something secondary to theirs. When picking a university I just could not do it to send myself to some all-white, nothing town, where I knew I would have to defend and explain myself at every turn to people who could not and would not ever understand me anyway. I thought the only option was to take myself to another big city where I could continue to be around all kinds of different people. And so it was in Amsterdam that I found myself a degree course taught in English that vaguely resembled something I was interested in.
It was only in my very first lecture that I fully realised that I would be the designated black girl for my entire degree program.
I was in denial all throughout Intreeweek. I had already found myself an apartment, I had already paid my tuition. I thought that maybe just because there weren’t any black people here, it didn’t mean there wouldn’t be any once classes really started. It was only in my very first lecture that I fully realised that I would be the designated black girl for my entire degree program. I remember sitting there in the middle row with my glasses on, watching the door of the lecture hall as the other students pilled in. I digested what my new life would be like as I watched white face after pasty white face file in and sit down. I tried to rationalise it, I thought maybe it was just that the other black kids were more into science and maths rather than art and literature, but I knew that wasn’t right. I wanted to make friends with my classmates and I smiled at everyone but as I started getting unwarranted comments about my skin tone matching really well with the colour of my dress, or wandering hands tracing the outlines of my curly hair, I could only feel sick being where I was.
I did make friends but it became obviously clear to me that the white kids I met here had not encountered or spoken to many black people over the course of their lifetime until meeting me. I had the great pleasure of having to constantly and continuously reaffirm that my experience of the world, my experience in the classroom, in museums, in bars, clubs and anywhere else, was fundamentally different to theirs because I was a black womxn. I wasn’t going to pretend like it wasn’t for the sake of easy conversation and I wasn’t ever going to allow my position to go unseen or unrecognised. I remember one night walking through one of the side streets off Dam square on the way to meeting my friends for a drink and hearing this drunk white guy call me an ‘ebola monkey’ to the other lads he was with. I thought, whatever, and walked passed them unfazed but once I was in the bar with my friends it started to bother me. I didn’t tell them what happened because I didn’t know how to talk to white girls about this kind of racist name calling. Had I been with the black girls I’d known in London, we would have made fun of it and laughed. I wanted to laugh about the ridiculousness of being called an ‘ebola monkey’ by some random white guy, but it wasn’t a joke I could bring these white girls in on, and it wasn’t something I thought they’d get. I thought maybe they’d pat my back and tell me that was horrible, but I wasn’t sad and it wasn’t something I wanted to be comforted over. So instead of saying anything, I started my night with them as if I hadn’t been called an ‘ebola monkey’ two minutes earlier, and instead of relating the reality of my life to any of theirs, I sat back and silently resented them for their blonde hair and seemingly carefree way of moving through the world.
I remember sitting in my first one-on-one meeting with my tutor in my first month of university, him asking me if was having any trouble adapting, if I was struggling with the workload, if I had a part-time job or had difficulty with organisation or prioritising my work. I remember telling him no, on all accounts. I remember sitting there and wishing I could tell him how isolated I was feeling being the only black girl in almost all of my classes. I remember psyching myself up before the meeting, fully preparing to confront him about how white the uni was, how mislead I felt after seeing the university’s brochure which had been filled with black and brown smiling faces. I remember sitting there and being choked to speak. Everything’s great, I’d told him before returning home and crying into my pillow because I couldn’t understand how something like this had happened. No one else saw that anything was wrong. I felt like an alien from an out of space planet where black womxn and other people of colour existed. I knew I had always been a minority but I had never been the only minority. I had gone to schools that had ‘diversity issues’ before but that meant at least five other black girls in a class of thirty. That meant a choice of five other girls to look at when a white person decided to say something questionable in a class discussion. That meant not being the voice of all black people whenever I had something to say about race. That meant the possibility of a shameless black-girl squad. Instead I went to class everyday knowing I was denied this black-girl squad. Knowing that if I wanted black friends, I would have to hustle for them, search them out or track them down which made me feel weird and consequently even more alone.
For whatever reason, over this second year of uni I feel like I’ve shut myself up more. I don’t want to speak in class or go to class. I don’t want to be that one black girl that comes to class and rambles her way through her half formed ideas around race theory in every discussion while her white class members look on in bored or intimidated silence. I also don’t want to be that one black girl that shows up late, says nothing and peaces out early from the lecture hall at the half-way break. For whatever reason I feel I only ever end up as one of the two. I don’t know how to engage and navigate myself in the white space of the classroom since speaking sets me apart and not speaking does too. I think I probably saw myself as a young blactivist before I moved here. I think I saw myself fighting white supremacist thought in all circles and spaces and at every turn. I didn’t think I could ever run out of energy fighting for black womxn but now I don’t know what I am and I don’t know where I fit. I don’t know if blackness exists off Instagram. I don’t know where it is. I don’t know if I’m still black I’ve been rubbing shoulders with white girls so long. I never thought I’d be without the support of other black womxn and now I live in constant isolation. I don’t know where the white gaze starts or ends. I don’t know how much it is in my own head. I don’t know how much of it I’ve internalised and I don’t know why it effects me so much.
Beyond all this not knowing I still like where I am. I know all my friends care for me and make space for me to voice how I feel whenever I get frustrated. I know they all have my back. When I’m with them I don’t feel so alone but it’s whenever I walk into the university that I become acutely aware of who I am and what that means. It feels like there are so many conditions for how I should think, act and speak as a black girl and it feels like the conditions change on a daily basis. I think its too much pressure being the black-girl representative all the time and I think it’s unfair to me and all the other minority POC that we are expected to just get on in this all-white academic space as if it’s nothing. All I can say is that having difference represented in the classroom is beyond important in order to really see and listen to new perspectives on the dusty old theory that we are continuously force fed, but I’m a bit too emotionally exhausted to really hammer this point through the way that I should. All I want now is to finish my degree and take myself somewhere where I don’t feel so uncomfortable in my skin 24/7. Maybe there I’ll learn what it means to be carefree.
Text: Ayanna van der Maten
Image: Ayanna van der Maten