It takes a lot of confidence to be this ridiculous.
What is your identity?
This is a very big question. One’s identity is like an onion – multi-layered. It develops with time, it can be fluid, ever changing; it often solidifies as you become more comfortable in your skin. It can be elusive, or lucid. Finding it is a process: a painful, powerful, wonderful, beautiful, lengthy, confusing process. My identity is born from my cultural heritage, physical place, beliefs, what I know and what I do not know, and what I have learnt about my place in my society and on a larger scale, global society. Once fully realised, I think your essential core identity is then a constant presence, assisting your navigation through life. I feel things like music have helped me to explore my identity and through my poetry and creative writing as well as my opinion pieces, I have been able to explore that identity – perceived or otherwise.
Has a label ever affected you negatively?
I used to be that person who was all about ‘not being labelled’. However, in the summer of 2011, I went to America to live with the Amish for two and a half months and during that journey I was bombarded with labels. It was everyone’s attempt to understand me because I was so ‘different’ from them and our values were seemingly astronomically opposing. When I returned I decided to own certain labels as you can’t control the fact that people will label you. I always say I was a reluctant feminist and tried to avoid using the word at all costs because it was so loaded. Now I am using it and trying my best to positively reinforce it and let people know that you don’t have to be a white middle class cisgendered heterosexual woman to use it but you do have to be about it.
At school I was labelled an ‘oreo’, ‘coconut’, ‘milky way bar’, things that were ‘black on the outside and white on the inside’. That irritated me throughout school and is directly to blame for the period of my life in which I outright rejected my black identity and the black community because I believed I was not ‘black enough’, and thus, felt that the community rejected me. However, you live, you learn, and you heal and I have long since come to understand that the people who gave me those labels were the problem, not me.
Where would you say you are originally from? What does the term ‘Black British’ mean to you?
I was born in Freetown Sierra Leone on the 16th of September 1991. So I always make a distinction between being ‘from’ somewhere and originating from somewhere. I originate from Sierra Leone in West Africa but I am from Britain, I am from London. In my final year of university, I started to feel more African after trying to be English my whole life. Now, I would never say I am English because I have learnt that Englishness has a colour (or rather lack of colour) attached to it, whereas to be British is something else. The British identity is accepted – perhaps begrudgingly so – as an amalgamation of identities including those of the colonial Diasporas, a ‘melting pot’, and nowhere in Britain is as much of a melting pot as London. It almost feels like ‘London’ is its own country within a country. I can be fully African and fully from London simultaneously, but I do not feel that I can be fully African and fully ‘English’ simultaneously. I find the term ‘Black British’ very interesting – it says so much and says nothing at all at the same time. We don’t call white Brits ‘White British’ unless we are filling in forms. Whiteness is the default. Whiteness is blankness. A clean blank page. Whiteness is the norm. There is a political definition of blackness, which includes all non-white people, people who are actually the global majority, but it’s not a widely used or widely understood definition. People still understand blackness as a skin colour alone.
How do you think your cultural upbringing has affected who you are, if at all?
My cultural upbringing has ensured my identity is a rich tapestry of history and lessons. I’m only twenty-three and still working life out so I am sure I don’t fully appreciate how my culture has affected me yet but no doubt I will find out in due course.
Do you think labels such as someone’s sexuality, gender, race, or class can or should define them?
I don’t think any label should define you, especially things as fluid as sexuality and gender, and as subjective as class and race. And yes these things are subjective – they are labels and groupings created by people, not universal truths. If anything, I think your values should define you and the aforementioned might help to shape your worldview, which will in turn play a part in nurturing and developing your values, but ultimately I think your worth is in what you stand for. As the saying goes, ‘those who stand for nothing fall for anything’. Stand for something. Be about it.
When do you think you’ve learnt your most important lessons?
I have learnt my most important lessons outside of the classroom and beyond the school gates. I studied at one of the world’s best universities and have been taught by the greatest minds of our time, but I’d always say the University of life trumps all. You don’t receive the degree from this particular university until the day you die.
This interview first appeared in VS Notebook on January 28th, 2015