In a recent family chat, my brother began to tell us about being singled out at work because of his race.
A boss had accused him of being unprofessional, and launched into a tirade... because his hands were in his pockets. The manager’s actions, he said, were called out by other workers, who stood up for my brother and, in a peculiar show of support, put their hands in their pockets too.
Whether it was hearing about one of her children experiencing such racism or our casual approach to it, my mother was shocked. She could not believe this had happened, and even questioned how we could be sure the boss was being racist. Then, she asked why we had not told her at the time. If my brother did not tell her about the incident when it happened, then in her mind he could have been making it up.
Her reaction, of course, proved exactly why we didn’t tell her – and explained why we won’t tell her about future incidents either.
I know my parents are aware racism exists; they have experienced a lot themselves. Both born in Ethiopia, my parents met studying in Bulgaria in the 1980s. For many Bulgarians my parents met, they were often the first Black people they had ever seen, and my parents spoke of things I simply can’t imagine: people who literally thought that Black people were monkeys, who would go up to my parents asking where their tail was, and I’m sure much worse that they have chosen not to tell us.
They felt powerless, and so the racism they endured was something to ignore and move past. This, I believe, shaped their parenting.
Their experiences no doubt shaped their approach towards racism. They felt powerless, and so the racism they endured was something to ignore and move past. This, I believe, shaped their parenting. They never gave us the ‘talk’ on racism – I was at university when I heard my parents acknowledge the n-word’s existence. My parents would always say they wanted a better life for me and my brother than they had, in order to encourage us to focus on our education, and they approached racism with this logic too – they didn’t want us to go through the racism they did, so they almost pretended it didn’t exist.
While they did acknowledge racism is real, their message to us was that we should act in order to not be affected by it: do not go to certain areas at certain times; make sure we have the right documents and IDs; stay calm and interact with police in the right way, if we couldn’t avoid such interactions at all. The reasoning behind all this was never explained to us, just that it was for the best.
But the best can only take you so far. What do you do when racism still happens, despite all the precautions and despite doing the right things? I have experienced unprovoked racial slurs in public, been assumed to be a drug dealer, and been singled out in otherwise all-white groups to be unlawfully handcuffed by police. For me, those horrific instances contradict the idea that shrugging off racism is the best way to navigate life – but how do I tell that to my parents, whose own philosophy, built out of necessity to survive, is how they have rationalised the racism they experienced?
The reason it feels so difficult to talk to my parents about the racism I face is the false impression that their lives as first generation immigrants are incomparable to ours. They portray their lives not as a story of people but a path of events they could not control, in order to teach us we should value what we have and appreciate the sacrifices they made for us.
We have grown up with white people, living in the same areas, going to the same schools, even talking the same way. And yet, we are still treated differently to them.
For many immigrants, the price of trying to make a new life in a new country is that you have to leave so much of your old life behind. Qualifications become meaningless, careers are suddenly lost., and it can feel dehumanising to have your knowledge and life’s work deemed worthless. My parents were already cast as outsiders, and so life had numbed them to any racism they faced. Their hope was that if our family could integrate into British society, then maybe we would not experience the same racism they did.
This is understandable for people who have lived through what they have, but it makes it difficult for me to believe they would understand my point of view and how I feel. All this hope did was leave us unprepared for the truth of racism in Britain: it didn’t matter that my brother and I was born here, that we have English accents, that we went to university. It never did.
Unlike our parents, we have grown up with white people, living in the same areas, going to the same schools, even talking the same way. And yet, we are still treated differently to them. There is no reason for this difference except racism, and our upbringing has made this all too clear, in a way that it was not for our parents.
We see racism for what it is, and know that you cannot run away from it.
Yoseph Kiflie is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter at @KiflieYoseph
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