I’m a Nigerian black woman who grew up in Scotland. This combination means a large chunk of my life has been driven by trying to fight the usual barrage of stereotypes about black people. But at what point do you stop trying to prove stereotypes wrong and just live?
As a child, I started off negating the juvenile assumptions (“No we don’t all live in huts”) but as I grew up the stereotypes became a lot more damaging. I had to explain to friends that telling me “you act like a White girl” or “you’re not really black” isn’t ok just because I didn’t fit the image of the sassy, loud, black woman they held in their heads. Or even more hurtful, their assumption I wasn’t black because I was well educated and well spoken. As if the two scenarios are mutually exclusive. What they couldn’t understand is that my blackness is determined by my birth and heritage and I have to deal with the struggles of walking through this society as a black woman every day.
Additionally, there is the struggle of being hyper aware of my actions in case they support the stereotypes people want to believe. Not raising my voice too much if something rude is said so I’m not the “angry black girl”. Or having to pick my battles when an incredibly ignorant comment is made so I’m not the black person “complaining too much” or “playing the race card.” Like Chimamanda Adichie said, the problem with these stereotypes isn’t that they’re not true, it’s that they don’t tell the full story. “They make one story become the only story.” They put the focus on your anger, rather than the situation that got you there in the first place.
Having to work twice as hard just to be seen as equal, having to complain every time a security guard finds it acceptable to follow me around a shop, having to explain why the unsolicited “I don’t date black women” rant is rude, or why wanting to date me as a novelty just to tick off your bucket list is just as bad…it just becomes exhausting.
That is why I think it’s time we stop fighting these stereotypes. It is a distraction. If you walk into a room and preoccupy yourself with breaking stereotypes, half your mental energy is already spent looking for validation rather than the task at hand. By no means am I saying you should accept injustice. There are stereotypes that can cost people academic opportunities, jobs and even their lives and I believe these should always be challenged. I’m saying we need to discern between the two. I think we should ask ourselves, am I fighting injustice or am I just looking for approval?
If it’s the latter, then consider not fighting. Refuting all of these micro aggressions means you have to justify yourself over and over again to someone who doesn’t determine your worth. Whether it’s arguing your point or changing your behaviour to contradict their belief- you are letting them dictate your time. We spend so much time proving who we aren’t, that we don’t have time to build who we are. Instead, we should focus our energy on growth. We should re-assign our time to our goals and our passions. Focus on bettering yourself for your own benefit, not to prove a small-minded person wrong.
It is incredibly freeing when you stop looking for validation from a society that wasn’t built for you. I’m free to have an off day at work, I’m free to be quiet and reserved when I feel like it, I’m free to listen to loud music and wine at carnival, I’m free to get upset by hurtful comments about my culture or race because I’m HUMAN. If anyone wants to see that as lazy, bitchy, ghetto or aggressive purely because of my skin colour then that’s their business. All I can be is who I am. If that isn’t enough to break their stereotype then they can continue to live with the ignorance. Just don’t get in the way of me living my life.
I find this approach tends to attract open minded people. You become surrounded by people who are interested in learning about your differences. People who won’t belittle you to a stereotype. And I don’t mean people who say they don’t see colour. I’m proud of who I am, I don’t want anyone to ignore the colour of my skin. Just respect it.
By Kemi Oyeneyin