We itched over it for two weeks until the day finally arrived. I had been writing in bed that day, living up to all my cliches, and Shani had been at her new job at the nursery. I finally got that text: leaving now. That meant I had fifty minutes to get some clobber on, brush my teeth, and waddle to the Underground to meet her as she tapped out. We wandered back to mine, discussing that new job of hers, and how she was loving it. We finally made it to my stuffy room, set to boiling. Cracked open the window, set up the very posh interview space, which was my laptop in the middle of my bed so we each had a side, and got to work.
Both true novices in each of our respective roles, to be blunt, we were bricking it. I didn’t want any of my questions to offend or confuse her, she didn’t want to stumble over words or say the wrong thing. At the end of the interview I told her she did great, and she said she even shocked herself with how well she articulated everything. It started off a bit robotic; running through the questions one, two, three, but ended long after we found our pivot and hit a flow. Due to our already established closeness, there wasn’t a lack of trust or comfort. But when we hang out we converse; I don’t sit with my phone under Shani’s nose trying to record everything she says so I can type it up later. However that was what was needed today. I didn’t want to miss a peep.
We met four years ago at music college and became very close almost right away. We both went in different directions but have found each other again, and there was no one better for this conversation, that I knew, than Shani. She has the facts and the information, but also the experience and the passion. You will see that throughout the interview. We discussed black rights’ movements, queer experience, social justice, life in London and outside the metropolis, stories of those who have suffered from the rough hands of injustice, natural hair, food, and more.
So we settled into our allotted spots on the mattress. My in my Neptune Rain band T-shirt, my hot pink, men’s boxer shorts, knitted socks, dangling earrings, side pony (freshly blonde from Shani helping me bleach it a few weeks ago) and headscarf, and Shani in her oversized, yellow jumper, pistachio slacks covered in chalk from the kids at work, smiley face tube socks and white leg warmers. She wore her hair in Marley twists adorned with glitzy, golden accessories and let her one dread, which symbolised independence, dangle out at the back of the up-do she fashioned her barnet into. Round her neck she had a cowry shell and a beaded loop with the Pan-African colours on.
Giggles first. The awkward ums and ahs out of the way. The it’s okays done. Let’s do it.
I first asked her how she got into social justice, and if she was always interested in it.
“I wouldn’t say personally that I have been so interested in social justice and stuff just because, well, I had to come to terms with things myself anyway and my blackness and that didn’t really happen until, well, the pandemic.” This shocked me. She was so well versed in the topic that I imagined she’d been practicing her activism for years. “You were forced to sort of understand yourself a bit more and sit down with yourself and just have those thoughts about it. And it’s like in school I wasn’t very in touch with my blackness, as I should be or just, you know, social matters. Just because maybe I didn’t understand it and I wasn’t really part of the friendship groups that would push me to learn more about that stuff and I was always told I’m not black enough and all that sort of stuff so that was a bit harder as well.”.
Shani grew up in North West London. She went to a secondary school famous for its controversies; students joining ISIS and one supply teacher secretly filming pupils, to name a couple. The school is approximately two-fifths white British, with a significant proportion of students from other white backgrounds, white and black Caribbean and other black backgrounds. Several other minority ethnic groups are represented in the school.
“Such a weird comment. Why do people say that, do you think?” I said.
“I know, I know. I think just because they believe there’s only one way to be black, it’s like… listening to R&B and hip hop and dressing a certain way, talking a certain way, acting a certain way. If you’re well spoken they think you’re not black enough, if you listen to rock music you’re not black enough. If you style your hair a certain way or something, they’ll be like ‘why do you have white people hairstyles’, sort of thing. And I had that all through school. Like just even straightening my hair, they’d be like, ‘why do you straighten your hair, why do you do this, that and the other’ but obviously because I grew up with my dad from the age of thirteen, so that was also hard as well, not having someone teach me how to do my hair and the most manageable way for me to do it is straightening my hair. So, yeah, as I’ve come to terms with myself more and understand myself more then I’ve, you know, got more involved with that sort of thing. I’ve started going to protests, started getting involved with a lot of activism and sharing a lot of educational things, to make sure everyone’s informed because obviously if you don’t have those things right in front of you it’s quite helpful to just help other people and share that stuff around.” When I met Shani she had her natural hair straightened to a bob length; always in her purple galaxy hoodie and Doc Martens. She loved rock music, and still does. These were things that meant nothing to me. It was just Shani and her style. But to learn that she got hassled and questioned over those attributes was sad to hear.
My next question was in regard to her attending protests and marches. I wanted to know whether she found in-person activism more effective than it being online. A lot of people experience social justice movements purely through social media. Sadly this can paint the causes by the brushstrokes of the loudest, and often harshest, voices. The extremists get put on pedestals and the masses get spoken over and eventually you have the opposition finding momentum as they push the narrative that everyone is brutally deranged and hateful. But it’s the people like you and me, Shani and I, that need to be heard. It’s not always about superlatives and free bleeding and death to all white people. It’s about human conversations where we find connection, compatibility and compassion.
“I think they can work together but sometimes a lot of people have performative activism online. They put on a front because it’s easier to just share things around and people think you know you’re doing your job. But if you’re leaving it as that and not actually taking part in things and, you know, actually voicing your opinions, saying things, you’re just sharing things that other people have written down and said. You’re not using your own voice and your own words. And I mean I do understand, you know, sharing things. It is informative but going to marches and stuff and being there, you know, the bigger the numbers the louder the voices! So the more people who come, the point’s gonna get across more whereas social media is…you just share things. It’s forgotten about the next day, yeah. But obviously them together, that’s how you share things around, share that protests are happening and people can find out how to get involved and then go to those protests and tell their friends to go to those protests and such.” I found it really interesting how she basically said they have to go hand in hand. That you used social media as a tool for wide spreading, but that meeting up in person was how you found authenticity. During this interview, I was in total awe of Shani’s confidence and zeal on these topics. She was using her own voice and her own words, and it gave me more insight and understanding than any book, post or interview on YouTube ever could. Because there was a deeper feeling as I looked into her eyes while she spoke.
There’s nothing better than hanging out with people who just get you. If I meet another diabetic, I’m all over them like a blue-arse fly, asking questions about their management and experience with the condition, because it is comforting to speak to someone who understands a huge part of your life. Finding community in any regard is vital. Shani and I found community when we met at college. We both loved music, like all of our peers, and it bonded us in magical ways. In a funny kind of perspective, music is the reason this interview even happened.
It’s always ‘the black community’, ‘the gay community’, ‘the disabled community’. But how many of the people in those groups actually feel connected to one another? Shani said, on community:
“I think it’s definitely necessary. Because like I said before, voice is in numbers. It’s definitely important to do it as a community.” So she believed in the concept, but had she found it a reality? I asked: “do you feel like you’ve found community doing it?”
“Yeah!” She happily shot back. “Because then you find more people like you. You share stories of things that have happened with you and your past and you feel less alone when you tell your stories. And as a community we can all talk about and share our experiences together and I think that’s quite good, yeah.” Oh, did I understand this sentiment. I’m always thinking about, making up and sniffing out stories. My whole life is about stories, and I view life as one long tale. The fact Shani put so much emphasis on shared stories being the foundations of these communities really stood out. As humans, we are storytelling mammals. We evolved from campfire storytelling. Granted we evolved into Goggleboxers, but even that is chasing plot. We get home and tell stories about our day. We meet friends for coffee and tell elaborate happenings with boys we fancy. We characterise each other through the stories we write into our own relationships. Shani’s activism was no different. She didn’t want to go and smash in car windows with her boots, she wanted to hear and tell people like herself the stories of her own experiences as a black woman.
Talking about stories, we all have our own private little utopia that we fantasise about. Perhaps something we will always keep private, or something we rabbit on about so much that we can’t tell dream from reality too tough some days. We could probably all answer in a heartbeat what we would change about our bodies, our wallets or our love lives, but I wanted to know what one thing Shani would change overnight to improve the lives of black people if she had that power. Her answer surprised me.
“Maybe the education system. It’s just stuff about our community is not taught enough. We get one month to talk about it, and when we are talking about it, it’s not the greatest side of our history. It’s always slavery and that’s it!” A few days ago, a friend relayed a quote about history always being written by the winners. I said, wow, that is so true! And then Shani reminded me that black people’s history swings itself round plantations, famine and trade, over and over and over again. Which winners were there in the slave trade? Who wrote the history on that? “And I’m like, that’s not the only part of my history. We have brilliant inventors, and teachers, and people with good theories, amazing theories, and all we’re ever taught about is slavery and that’s just crap. So definitely I’d say the education system.” I loved seeing Shani realise the brilliance in her answer as she further developed it. She went from maybe, to definitely. “And I know people say, ‘but you should go out of your own way and educate yourself’, but a lot of people will not. And a lot of parents will say ‘no, my child does not need to learn about this because it’s not their history’. But here I am, sat learning about the world war, or, I don’t know, industrial revolution. I can learn all about their history but they can’t learn a penny about mine. So, yeah, I’d say the education system, definitely.” What Shani did here was get to the bones of the matter. She jumped right over the flesh’s barrier, Oyster card never leaving her pocket, and dashed to the platforms of profundity. When I was younger, I was perplexed by the phrase: ignorance is bliss. I couldn’t work it out. Bliss was supposed to mean an endless supply of penny sweets and no school, and ignorant was supposed to mean granddad who hated ‘wogs’, ‘immigrants’ and ‘puffs’. I couldn’t compute how the latter could lead to the former. It was only when I got older and learnt that ignorant didn’t just mean racist old men, but lack of knowledge or awareness of something, that I finally got the phrase. Ignorance really is bliss. If we didn’t know of any of the horrors humanity holds we’d probably be pretty happy. So when we consistently pretend certain histories didn’t happen, that’s when ignorance becomes heinous. To deprive young, black kids of the glories that exist within their history, and just serve them slavery another year on, only reinstates the feeling of being an afterthought. If that.
I personally think we put too much power in power; literally. Why do I give a fuck what BOJO thinks about this or that when I’ve been delivered more insight from the crackhead playing Sudoko outside the Tube, throwing glass bottles into the road? Government is so last year. Next election a different clown will come in and piss us off all over again, and so the cycle continues, as it always has done. I’m more interested in the unpowerful. The nine-to-fivers, the immigrants who put in seventy hours a week but still find time to call mama in the home country and natter for hours about nothing, the street cleaners with no teeth and a million stories, the me who leaves for work at half four in the morning and the me who returns at three with aching knees and stinking hands, the you who has never done a days graft in your life and will always claim universal credit and fucking loves it. We are constantly told we can’t change shit so why bother trying. And that’s exactly how they want us to feel. I asked Shani whether she thought the changes would only come into effect in the government’s hands or if our own rough skinned fingers could do the trick just fine.
“I think people like us will have the bigger effect.” That’s my girl. “Just because we think so differently to others and if we can push others to think the same way, you know, we could definitely make a change. As you know, our government doesn’t do anything about anything! So, why rely on them for anything when we should just do our own thing and just change things ourselves? It just, it seems more logical really. Our government is shit!” Knowing the answer already, I asked: “Anything else?” To which she beautifully replied: “uhm, nah.” Nuff said.
Different skin colour, different lives, different eyes, different reception. Our lives are separated not only by different vessels but completely different welcomes in the world. I do see changes happening, but Shani of course picks up on totally different ones. I was interested in which she’s noted.
“I think recently what I’ve seen changing is the more diversity in, I don’t know, TV programmes and books. My nephew brought home a book the other day that had a black girl as like, she wanted to be an astronaut and I’ve never seen that in my life. I don’t think I even had one book with a black girl in it.” So all those times little Lyric saw herself in Rapunzel and Cinderella, who did Shani have to play? “So that was amazing to see. And it was just great. Even it had a historical part talking about the first black female astronaut and I was like, that’s amazing! So I think that’s quite cool. I think that’s the most change I’ve seen, maybe the only change we’ve seen so far, but…” This shocked me. Was kids’ books really the extent of the pay off?
“Really?” I asked. “Can you expand on that?”
“Well we’ve asked for many changes about the justice system and all of that sort of thing and there’s been no change. There is still, I mean, I saw, the other day, there was this dude that was racially profiled. A tall black teen… and straight away this woman moved away from him. We were on the escalator and she moved her bag to the front of her and walked the rest of the way up the escalators. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I didn’t know how to feel about that, really. If there’s people still thinking and having stereotypes about shit… it’s just dumb.” I loved the trust in her laxity of vocabulary when speaking on these monumental topics. It made it so real to me. I understood what she was saying; how she was feeling. I didn’t need Shani to recite facts she found in footnotes. I needed her to stumble over words in tough spots, to repeat herself when the statement needed to be heard. I was listening to a human being talk about the parts of life that effected her the most.
“Do you feel any reform in the police and stuff like that, or no?” I asked.
“I think if anything trust in police has gotten worst, especially when we bring in the safety of women as well, lately, then obviously you have black women… that’s just a double whammy. It makes it a lot harder. You can’t trust them with just feeling safe. It’s like when they were saying you should call the police if you feel like someone’s following you but what if that person is a police officer? So I’m meant to run away from police and call the police? How’s that make sense? So, I think if anything, the police system is just getting worst. They need much more training. Anyone can become a police officer! Anyone! God, I could go become a police officer right now if I wanted to. And just be the worst.”
“Yeah, and then also be catapulted into this group in society that apparently only deserve respect and agreement”.
“No! You need to be deserving of respect first. God, show us some respect and, you know, you’ll get some back. But it’s a one way street at the minute.”
You hear Black Lives Matter, you think police brutality. You think the knee that squeezed the life out of George Floyd one, slow minute at a time. You think protests and riots and statues being destroyed. But do you think of the statement? The movement’s name holds within itself a lot of intricate power that stems out like lung bronchi. Black. Lives. Black lives. Lives matter. Black matter. Black Lives Matter. I see a lot of people retort with, what about other lives? Don’t they matter? Of course they do. All life matters. If you don’t agree with that, I think bigger issues need addressing. But when I’m talking about shoes, I’m not talking about dresses. And that is okay. So when the phrase Black Lives Matter is used, it doesn’t mean the application of dismissal to other lives and skin colours. It means that right now we are talking about black lives specifically. It means the conversation and attention is honed; it is specified in order to shine spotlight onto issues that have been waved away to the darkness and ignored for too long.
So these are not just three words lumped together to sound pretty. They mean what they state. Sometimes we can get caught up in going through the motions; repeating rather than meaning; waiting to respond rather than listening. It’s human, it’s no big deal. It doesn’t mean you are evil. But try to take some time out now and again to really immerse yourself in what is going on around you. Note the sensations on all five senses; how do you truly feel? Meditate on things. That last sentence alone sounds shit because of the word meditate being watered down, and I suppose to practice what I’m proposing furthers this dilution, but it can help reconnect you with the truth of things, opposed to the pond-scum surfaces we find it easier to dwell in.
We can also feel pressured to agree or follow things because everyone else is. We may be worried to be branded this or that if we don’t scream with the rest of them. I know throughout my adolescence I looked into left wing, right wing, bingo wing, and still never found a side that I felt slept in the same bed with all of my own ideologies. And now I’m older, I’m glad I never settled for a place or relied on a face to campaign for me. You do not need to agree with everything all the time (you don’t need to disagree either, you nihilists). I don’t agree with everything Shani said in this interview, and I hope for interests’ sake she went home disagreeing with me about some things. But we respect each other. We listen to each other. We ask questions and educate ourselves. And we don’t hate each other for pedantic, meaningless quarrels. Unconditional love doesn’t mean forsaking yourself so the other person can be comfy. It means never losing yourself while you always search for others to connect with.
I was curious what Shani considered a kink in the armour, so to speak. What things she didn’t like about the communities and movements she was a part of and who she felt stunted the progress:
“People being performative. They pretend they care and put no action into it and it just feels like a waste of time. You know when protests were going on, one person I saw, they came along just to have sort of a function. They were just drinking and having a good time, and I was like, we’re talking about justice for others and here you are just trying to flex that you were at the protest. I think that that does stunt it quite a bit because they’re not sharing real information and they’re just pretending to care. It’s not doing anything. At all.” So don’t worry yourself trying to prove that you’re this or that. Find an aspect of popular culture that really does ignite your fire and burn with the others in that niche.
“Like what we said about justice for Breonna Taylor”, I said.
“Yes. They desensitised the hell out of her name. You know, all the time: By the way! Breonna Taylor. Oh and! Breonna Taylor. On everything, and it just had no meaning anymore. She still doesn’t even have any justice… because why? Because people just forgot she was even a real person. She just became a hashtag.”
“A meme, almost”.
“Almost become, not a joke, but…”
“Something ironic! It felt very ironic. Under every single post, oh and Breonna Taylor. When it could be something completely unrelated. If you’re gonna use her name, talk about her story! Talk about what happened. Let people know the truth of what happened. And not only something they heard, and they go, oh but her boyfriend had a gun. And? She was sleeping. You’re allowed a firearm in your home. She was sleeping in her own home and these officers, they did one of those, you know when they’re supposed to knock and come in and whatever, and they just busted into her home and she sat up in her bed and they thought, you know, they thought, they were feeling quite attacked. She hadn’t done anything! And straight away they just started firing arms at her. Yeah. And it’s just fucking disgusting. I think she was mid twenties.” How many more innocent people have been murdered so callously and don’t even make it to a hashtag?
“Is there any other stories you would like to share that you think would be important for people to learn about? Even George Floyd if you would like to share some things about him.”
“It’s like when people say ‘oh but he had a counterfeit five dollar note’. That doesn’t warrant his life! Just because he did that. And then they go ‘oh but he beat up a pregnant woman’. That still does not mean that you get knelt on for just over nine minutes. That doesn’t warrant it at all.” I will admit, when I first heard the story of him threatening a pregnant woman at gunpoint, I was disgusted. I was gutted. I had to sleep on it. I awoke afresh; less emotional. I thought it through, and the obvious bit slapped me straight upside the head.
He. Was. Not. Threatening. A. Pregnant. Woman. When. He. Was. Murdered. By. Police.
So what did it have to do with anything? It was just another diversion on the long road looking for justice. Instead of: feel sorry for this black man who was murdered by police as he squirmed under their strangling weight and begged for his life. It was: oh, but he did this! He was a monster! Get a load of this story from his past! These things become so apparent once the fog clears.
Shani continued: “Shortly after I saw that I did see a video of someone with this fake credit card or something, and they were just scanning it and doing whatever. So what happens with them? They get to make a whole Tik Tok video about it and nothing happens, no police, nothing, and why? Because they’re white. So. Yeah. It doesn’t make any sense.”. Actually Shani, I’ll agree to disagree. I think the lack of repercussions makes perfect sense.
“I think it’s really great when they join us with protesting and the activism because they can help spread it to other people that don’t want to listen to our voices.” Shani said about white people supporting Black Lives Matter. “And it is great ally-ship and what I’ve seen at protests is instead of, you know, the police officers attacking us, they [white allies] are all standing in front of the police officers making sure none of us got hurt. If a police officer went to go to a black person and try arrest them there was a white ally to speak to them and obviously they’re gonna be listened to so that was a lovely thing to see. I think a good ally is someone who listens to us when we say we don’t wanna be spoken over. That’s really important. Don’t raise your voice higher than us because at the end of the day it’s still our problem. You can just walk away from the situation but we still have to deal with being black after that. So I think that’s really good ally-ship. And people who are, you know, fake about it and it’s performative, well… they just speak over everything we say and it’s all about them and even I see in comment sections [white] people fighting about if something is racist or not. And I’m like, it’s not your place to say. It’s not your place to say. It’s like when someone said something about African waist beads and obviously to us it’s important, they all have different meanings. They all symbolise something different. And someone in the comment section said ‘oh, is it racist if I wear these or is it cultural appropriation?’ and then another white person jumped in and went ‘no it’s fine if you wear certain ones or you do this, that and the other’. It’s like, where was it your place to step in and say that it’s okay? It’s ridiculous. I see it all the time. All the time in comment sections I’m like where was it your place to step in?”
“I saw a good one earlier. A white person commented something like ‘blah blah blah, these n-words, using it as bro. Then another white person replied telling them they aren’t allowed to say the n-word, but said it themselves! I was like, you’ve just said it!” I shared.
“Oh my god, are you serious? Yeah, they’ll use it themselves then go, but I was using it in context! It’s like when the BBC said it twice. They were talking about this black man, he was in his car or something and this person shouted racial abuse at him and shouted the n-word at him and BBC just straight up said the word! And then obviously everyone complained to Ofcom and they replied again saying ‘we’re not gonna apologise for saying N******.’ They said it twice! But can we be surprised when it’s the BBC?”
We were tutti as we both spat: “not really” out together, at the same time.
“I hate them. Everything they do… they don’t even put the Paralympics on BBC. It’s Channel 4. They’re [Channel 4] so inclusive. During October they had, it was called a black to black day, instead of back to back, because every single programme that was on that day was just black people. It took me a while to clock on because I was like, hang on, I haven’t seen a white person in about five minutes, like what the fuck? Even the adverts it was just black people. But obviously some people were complaining about it. It’s just 24 hours, chill man. But I was really impressed when I saw that. I was watching Gogglebox. Everyone was black. It was really cool to see. BBC could never. That’s alright. We don’t wanna represent the BBC!”.
The homogeneous representation on TV, film and in books being such a talking point for Shani was interesting. I’ve never had to look far to find a white, blonde girl given lines, modelling lipstick or selling me something. I never realised how impactful it is to not be represented anywhere. The excitement Shani expressed in this turning over a new page – no pun intended – really showed me how vital it is to feature all life in our arts, starting with what’s accessible to children.
The next topic we tackled is a tricky one for me. I can see both sides of the coin when it comes to the arguments of for and against it. My parents met in India, lived in Israel, then Germany, my mother’s home country, eventually settling in England, my dad’s home country, when they got pregnant with me. I grew up visiting the world; India, Vietnam, Turkey. I got to see different cultures first hand, eat the best food, wear the coolest clothes. A bindi was me expressing my love for the country I can thank for my conception. It wasn’t until I read about cultural appropriation in my teenage years that I saw a different side to all of this. I read about people finding white people wearing these things as costume, or fetishisation, or just straight up theft. I asked Shani her opinion on this, in particular to black hairstyles:
“I think the past year of educating myself that there’s different types of dreads and locks – there are ones that aren’t still maybe cultural appropriation because those were Norwegian and Vikings and stuff. And they’re very different. It’s matted hair instead, whereas ours are twisted and we can take them out if we wanted to. But seeing a white person with locks is not the one…”.
“You mean faux-locks?” I asked. (Faux-locks are extension dreadlocks used as a protective style for black hair as it protects the hair from heat and environmental damage as well as breakage from combing and brushing).
“No. Even real locks. But all faux-locks or braids as well because, well firstly, I’m worried about your scalp, sis! Because that is not, it’s just, no… your hair’s gonna come out. But it also just doesn’t look right and I think the one that gets to me the most is canerows because those are quite cultural. During, I don’t know, six hundred years ago, when they were enslaved, they would either canerow grains of rice in their hair so that they had something to eat along the way or they would braid maps into their head so they could find their way to escape. So that’s why I’m like, what is your benefit from having my hairstyle when one, it’s gonna hurt the hell out of your scalp, and two, it’s quite cultural. We’ve passed this down from our ancestors and hold onto that tightly.” I was in awe of the origins of the canerow! Truly remarkable. These must have been those amazing inventors Shani mentioned earlier.
“I’m gonna play devil’s advocate, just for the interest of the interview.” I poked. “Do you think mixing those cultures and those styles is a good thing for white people and black people or do you think that’s offensive?”
“Obviously there’s things we can share but when it comes to our hair, after years through school that we get with people hating on our hair and saying ‘oh your hair’s a distraction, oh you can’t do this to your hair, oh you can’t have your afro out, you can’t do this, that and the other’ and it’s like what? But now you want to have the same hairstyle as me? So I don’t fuck with that, no.”
“And then I’m gonna play devil’s advocate again.” My interviewer’s finger dug deeper. “I see lot of white people having this argument, that’s why I’m bringing it up. What do you think about black people wearing platinum blonde wigs and stuff?”
“I was gonna bring that up actually! Because white people hold onto blonde hair for dear life.” I did have to giggle here. It’s true. I base my whole identity on my blonde barnet. Funnily enough, Shani was the one who bleached it for me a few weeks ago! “It’s not a white people thing. It’s genetic. Anyone could have blonde hair. There are aborigines with blonde hair. They have blue eyes. You’re not gonna see many white people with afro hair whereas the blonde hair and the wigs and straight hair, it’s not digging at anyone. I think that’s fine. It is quite minuscule, it is quite minor. But it’s mostly the fact it doesn’t look right.” I found it hilariously petty that part of her argument was that it just don’t suit the crackers.
“It feels like costume. Why are you using me as a costume? But also what I’ve seen a lot of is that they change the name of the stuff. They turn canerows into boxer braids. It’s like, no. At least call it what it is! Stop changing everything. Then it becomes a trend and everyone knows it as that and it no longer has the same meaning anymore. It’s like, we’ve been doing this for literally hundreds and hundreds of years and now all of you guys think it’s a trend and now everyone wants to have ‘boxer braids’. At least educate yourself first if you are gonna do something and if it’s cultural appreciation, you’re not appropriating the culture and you’ve spoken to people of that community and asked their opinions on it, then it’s fine.”
“If you speak to that community and learn about it and also if someone from that community says to you I don’t feel comfortable -”
“Then you just say okay. You don’t have to argue against it. Too many people argue ‘oh why can’t I do this?’. Because someone of that community has just told you ‘can you please not appropriate my culture because you just change it and you don’t want to listen so why ask?’. Why ask?”
“I think that’s what boils it down to respecting each other just as much as educating”.
I shaved my head at the beginning of 2018 and wanted to grow it out again by the November. I was cripplingly insecure about the way it sprayed from my nut and sweated most wigs off within the first hour. I got faux-locks put in.
“I’ve had faux-locks before. No one came up to me and said it was out of order. But I did always have that feeling in my belly a bit like, is it right that I’ve got them in or no?”
“Even I remember when you had them in, and I didn’t think anything of it at the time. But that may have been because I wasn’t so educated at the time also. And I think most of us weren’t. What were we, seventeen, eighteen. We don’t know much. What’s right and wrong, still. And it’s a learning process.”
“I personally wouldn’t have them in again.”
“Because we’ve been educated”.
“If my hair naturally dreaded I think that’s different.”
“Free formed! That’s fine.”
“But then I do come from the generation of, like, hippy white people, you know, going festivals. All having dreads.”
“That’s what I’m saying. Even that is sort of a cultural thing on it’s own because you’re not saying they’re locks like ours. It is dreads. It’s matted dreads. That’s something different. Having free form dreads is because you’re feeling free, letting things grow however it wants to go, however it wants to be. I mean, that’s my opinion. I don’t know what other people would say. They might all come fight me now!”
Shani and I often have conversations like this. We share our opinions, hear each other out, do the tango of discovering perhaps new ideas or cementing the ones we came with. I think you can see by the dialogue above how comfortable we are with each other. She allows me to be inquisitive and doesn’t expect me to know everything, but always establishes a boundary. I’ve learnt so much from her.
Cancel culture is rife, darling! Everyone’s a sex offending, racist, woman-hating bully nowadays and Twitter will make sure you find out about it. And never forget about it. In some ways I think this is brilliant. We underdogs have had to suffer in silence forever and finally we’re getting mic’d up. Some real fucking freaks have been outed and knocked off their ‘untouchable’ pedestals, and I think that’s wicked. At the end of all of our finger tips is a device that has access all around the world, at any time of day, no matter what we’re doing or who we’re with. But that also means not just the Jeffrey Epsteins and Song Shanmus get exposed. Everyday Joes like you and me can have our mistakes and shitty moments embedded in the accessible data of the online, just waiting to be screen-shotted. Shane Dawson will never not be associated with his past. Even if you have one party on the defence; the opposition will never forget Shanaynay and him pretending to have a wank over twelve year old Willow Smith. With so many people finding themselves in the hot seat with these things, I wondered how Shani felt about those who did racist things in the past, and now claim to be walking the other path.
“I think if you can prove that you’ve educated yourself a bit more instead of just ‘sorry’ or the stupid excuse of ‘I was thirteen, I didn’t know, I wasn’t educated’! You know, you need to prove that you’ve now changed.”
“How can you prove that?” There’s a massive difference between saying you’ve changed, and showing you’ve changed.
“I think again with ally-ship. If you show that it’s true and promise you’re not just gonna leave anytime soon and switch on us, you know, just change your opinion all of a sudden. But if you put in the time and the work to show that you’ve changed, you’ve actually sat down and educated yourself on stuff, then I think that’s alright. But I guess it is a bit hard to prove it. But you can’t just change in a week. Some people go ‘oh but I read this article and now I’m a new person!’ No. that’s not happening.” I liked what she said here. Change does not happen overnight. It is often incremental, and I think we can be happier all round if we allow time to turn winds opposed to one nightfall of heavy rain.
“How would be the best way to prove that?” I asked.
“I think just hearing their opinions on things, sitting down, having a conversation on what they feel about things and even, like we do, like the conversations we have, that may be a bit controversial, then they’d be like ‘no I don’t believe in that’ but then you’re like, hang on a second, I thought you were willing to learn, willing to listen, and if you’re already gonna back down when we’re trying to tell you something… you don’t wanna hear it out of our mouths. Don’t want anything to do with it.”
“So do you think it’s quite a long process for someone who may have been on the other side to become genuinely changed?”
“Yeah. I think that would have to be quite a journey. I mean, again, like I said, you can’t just one day wake up and be like ‘no I totally side with them now, I understand everything they say!’ No. You can’t do that in just a day. It could even take years for some people, depending on how uneducated they’ve been. But that’s the thing there, that it’s just them being uneducated, and if they actually go out of their way to educate themselves then that already says enough. That you’ve gone out of your way to teach yourself something.”
Shani and I have had conversations in the past where she explained to me that asking is pure, but to pester all the black people you know to educate you about their community is not on. I asked her to expand on that:
“You should go find your own way of learning things and you don’t have to come and ask every single black person ‘what about this, what about this? Can I do this, can I do that?’. Go find out! Go find out. Do some research. Google! The internet! It exists for a reason! To search things! And people just don’t. They go ‘oh but I don’t have the resources’. What do you mean? And that already shows that they’re not committed to wanting to learn new things and get it into their heads that it’s not the way they think it is.”.
It can be hard. What do you even Google? “How to like black people”? Of course not. I used to follow a lot of feminist pages when I was fourteen, fifteen. Through that I learnt about white feminism (feminism that isn’t intersectional) and thus Black Lives Matter. These were all social media pages. I was reading different experiences, opinions, preferences, wind-ups. I have always preferred my information anecdotal. I connect with and understand it more that way. So even typing #BLM into the search bar of a social media app can bring you enough resources to start learning.
And of course I had to ask the million dollar question: how can a white person be a good ally to black people? No beating round the bush with us.
“They could help share resources, tell their white friends about things. Even at home, conversations with their parents, talking to their parents about things that may be a bit controversial and they want to see their parents’ reaction on it or even educate their parents. Because, like we said, they might be set in their ways a bit and they don’t really wanna force themselves to learn new things but if you’re just putting it in their face there and then and you’re trying to bring it into conversation I think that’s the most important thing. Or attending marches and protests. And saying things! If you see something that looks wrong, a lot of people are silent about it instead of saying ‘hang on, that wasn’t right’. Step in! It’s very important to step in and just say something. It’s like when I said about the dude on the escalator, I was so close to just stepping in and saying ‘hang on, did you see what happened then?’ We were all just watching it happen. And I see stuff like that all the time. You could stop a lot of things from happening and prevent a lot of things from happening. It’s like, it could be a black man getting arrested for something he didn’t even do and all people are doing is just recording on their phone. Fucking step in and say something! Help! Say ‘no, I saw him, he was just walking on the street minding his own business’. Even that would help enough. I saw a video not too long ago and it was a black man getting arrested and he didn’t do anything and they’re like pushing up against the car and this white woman did step in and the second she said something they let go of him. She explained the situation, said ‘I saw him. He was just going towards his car, whatever he was doing’ and immediately they stopped handcuffing him. So it’s like, just step in and say something because you could prevent something really deep from happening.”.
So: share stuff, speak up, step in.
I grew up in Essex. Pretty sheltered, but not as backwoods as some. Due to my love of music sub-genres I read a lot about all different walks of life growing up. But I still went to a secondary school, for the couple years I actually went, that had only one mixed race boy in, with 99% of the students being white. Then I moved to London when I was sixteen, which was the same time Shani and I became friends, and I was thrust into a world of diversity that expanded my understanding of heterogeneity in the most raw and unapologetic way possible. I was curious what Shani’s experience was growing up in London as a black girl:
“I’d say it’s a bit of a mix. If we start from the beginning, at school, and you know, being told, one, my hair is a distraction, and then in secondary school people acted out that I’m not educated and I’d only be able to get into a community college, not be able to do anything big. All I was told I could do was BTECs. And I went ‘what, because you think I’m not educated?’. Even one day in school we had a supply teacher and I just didn’t want to do any work, because I didn’t feel like it. Obviously I wasn’t in the mood or something and because I didn’t want to do anything, the teacher assumed I had learning difficulties. She went ‘is there someone that’s supposed to be with you?’. What, because I don’t want to do any work and because I’m just minding my own business? If that was another kid disrupting class you just wouldn’t say anything. But because I did something you’re like ‘oh my god, is there supposed to be someone with you?’. I’m laughing because it’s ridiculous. It’s… what, what? What do you mean is there supposed to be someone with you? Not, why aren’t you doing any work or is there something the matter? Is there someone supposed to be with you…”. This is very typical when it comes to people of colour. The muslim terrorist was just that; some psycho with a taste for blood in the name of Allah, but the poor, little, mentally ill, white boy who shot his classmates to death in an act of premeditated revenge gets rehab and the nation’s sympathy. The black, crackhead, prozzy is fulfilling a stereotype and is the cause of her own downfall, but the pale starling fallen from the nest and into the big, bad hands of Class A needs to be scooped up and protected to prevent another relapse. It’s the double standard of colour and hardship.
“What else have I had, growing up in London… again, standing too close to someone and they’re clutching their bag or walking into a shop with my hood on and I’m being followed around because you see a black teen. They try to act like they’re so inclusive and everything and there’s no such thing as racism in London, that we’re so diverse, but I’m being followed round the shop when I’m just minding my own business. I can’t have a hood on. There’s quite a few crappy experiences but on the other end, actually… is there another end on that? I’m trying to think, what experiences as being a black person in London has actually benefited me? Because they always talk about how we’re so diverse but you know, just like I said in the eduction system, they won’t teach me anything about my history. They won’t talk about anything that’s important to me and, I don’t know. It’s like we’re always forced to take an extra step so we can catch up with everyone else. We’re always one step behind. With workplaces, worrying about how we look, how we have to present ourselves, that we have to be well spoken. Even when I was going to my interview [for the nursery] I was so worried about how my hair was gonna be. My first day at work I was like ‘should I just tie it back’ and you know, not have it big or anything like that because they might deem me as unprofessional. And I shouldn’t have to worry about something like that, no. My first thought should be about the questions in the interview, not how I look. I don’t think I have benefitted from much. Unfortunately.”. People around the country do view London as the melting pot of culture and diversity. It’s true; you do see more mix walking through Kilburn than you do Braintree. But does that mean the experiences of those people differs much? In Shani’s case, not really. She could even compare her experiences to her dad’s, sixty years ago:
“And the second you do step out of London it just gets worst. That’s when you have, like, two other black people in town! And everyone else is incredibly uneducated because that’s when they go ‘oh, I’ve not seen black people before’. It’s like when my dad was in school in the 60s. He was the only black person in his school, one in London and then that was horrible. He had so many bad experiences. And then when he moved out into the countryside when he was about fourteen he was properly the only black person. And he’s mixed! So he was not even completely black and he was still the only one. And he’s had so much shit. From being the only person with an afro, as well. My dad wore that loud and proud.”. My heart broke as I imagined Shani’s dad retelling her his traumas, perhaps warning her of the world’s evil before it bit her and she received the teeth with shock. I can’t imagine having to tell your little girl that you were treated badly because of your skin colour; the same shade hers is.
“It does get worst the further out you go from the city because that’s when you do realise ‘wait, yeah, I am only the three percent of the whole population’. You don’t realise that until you leave London. It’s like when I went to the seaside with my two black friends and we saw like, we were there for about three days, and in total we’d seen about five black people.”
“Including you lot?”
“Yeah! Then you have to think about how people are looking at you, if they have bad thoughts about you just because you’re minding your own business or if they’re concerned because they’re like ‘why are there black people over here all of a sudden?’.”
“Is that a persistent worry that you have? That people can look at you and judge you solely on your skin?”
“I would say so. It depends on where I am, what I’m doing, sort of thing. But even the second I step into central London I feel quite small. Because it’s a lot of business people, and obviously a lot of those people end up being white because if our afro hair is deemed unprofessional or we’re not white enough, then, yeah. There’s not many of us.”. Three percent. Three percent of the English population is black. That blew my mind – Shani feeling small made perfect sense.
We can’t guess what the future will be like. The last one hundred years has been turbulent enough. With the rise of social justice movements, I wonder how much hope plays a role. I asked Shani if she sees the future being better:
“I do. Because I think our generation of people are a lot different. We’re more committed to learning more and making a change. I think that’s quite important to us. And that’s what our generation does a lot for a lot of different movements. We’re really pushing that agenda for everyone to change their minds about things and we won’t even back down about it! So I think we’ll see some changes. Maybe not in the near future but if I was to have my children and their generation, or grandchildren, I think it would be a lot different for them, definitely. A lot more inclusivity, as we’re already seeing change today on TV and in books. So if that change is persistent, yeah! There’ll be quite a few big changes. Well, I’d like to hope so.”.
“And if you think about it, civil rights started in the 60s, which is crazy! We’re sixty years in and in the last decade it’s been the biggest progress.” I said.
“That’s where we’ve seen the most change! Even talking about gay marriage. That was only legalised twelve years ago in this country! 2009! People think ‘yeah! It’s been like that for ages!’. People were still hiding being gay not even that long ago. People forget that it’s not that long ago at all.”.
That little bugger seemed to be reading my mind. I made sure to keep the questions I composed for the interview unbeknownst to Shani before I started asking them. She knew which topics we were going to discuss, but I felt sending her the questions before hand would dampen the rawness and electricity of her answers if they were drawn out of her on the spot. But then she would finish one answer with a wink and a nudge at the next question!
During one episode of Rupaul’s Drag Race’s Untucked series, where we see the drag queens relax and drink cocktails in the backroom during the judge’s deliberation on the legendary drag competition, one queen, Monique Heart, had an emotional breakdown, with a line I think of often: “you can’t be black and gay. You can’t. You just can’t”. Due to her family’s religious ideologies, she had to go through conversion therapy to ‘pray the gay away’. Homophobia and racism are often lumped into the same box of grotesque qualities, yet their intertwining is rarely discussed. Shani is pansexual, meaning she fancies someone for who they are, rather than what they’re packing. I asked her what it is like to be black, a woman, and queer – the term she prefers to describe her sexuality.
“I don’t think I can really separate the three because even being a woman, at the end of the day, I’m a black woman. And that’s quite different as we still have to fight harder for things and a lot of times we’re not seen as women. We’re not really seen as women a lot. The amount of black women who are just minding their own business and straight away [they] go, ‘are you a man? Are you this, that and the other?’ We can never just be us. Even with being a black queer it’s very different because again we have to fight a bit harder in our community for both sides, baring in mind we started the [LGBT] movement ourselves anyway. But we don’t get a lot of recognition in that. Even both sides of whoever you are in the queer community, you see that a lot of white, gay people are more accepted. And I think even, not personally for me at home, but a lot of black people don’t accept being gay in our community. So being black and gay is very hard. A lot of people don’t accept it at all in our community. They think it’s wrong and it goes against The Bible, and obviously quite a few black people are religious so that goes against everything for them.”
I asked her what some of the good parts about being black and queer were:
“Obviously we unite with each other as black, gay people and we all have something to relate to and it’s a bit harder coming from our backgrounds because it’s not really accepted in the Caribbean. Even in my home country [Dominica] you get twelve years prison sentence just for holding another woman’s hand. And sometimes it’s a life sentence. You’re killed then and there, just for being gay, and black. And they just think that it’s not the way and the thing they always say is ‘but how am I gonna be a grandparent and who’s gonna give me my grandchildren then?’. That’s all they’re really concerned about. That doesn’t fly with me. But at the same time the good side of it is when we do celebrate it, we go all out, you know. It’s really nice. It’s just expressing being different, but different together.” Such a beautiful statement at the end.
My new question was about things that frustrated her with the movement that she wished were done differently. I had actually meant the Black Lives Matter movement, but due to the segue from talking about queer rights, she answered it from this perspective. What I learned throughout this interview is that I was not the one behind the steering wheel. Perhaps I chose the journey, but Shani very smoothly navigated us both through the trip. I was grateful for this muddle up because I learnt more about an area that I think needs to be spoken about.
“Accepting just anyone into our community. Because there are a lot of things that sort of make us look like a joke and not enough people take us seriously. What’s the name of that community that’s basically predators?”
“MAPS? Minor Attracted Persons?” Basically a new term for pedo.
“Yes! It makes us look like a fucking joke, adding their colour into our flag and having their own flag, and it’s just ridiculous. It doesn’t make us look good at all. And people going ‘oh yeah but I’m queer, I’m part of this’, no you’re not! You’re just trying to give yourself a gateway to say it’s okay to do that sort of thing. It sort of makes the rest of us look like a joke. And other people are going to think what we’re standing for isn’t right and that it’s messed up.”
“What do you think about adding the brown and the black part to the LGBT flag?” These stripes represent black and brown people in the LGBT community.
“I really like that, actually. Because I think that gave us black people just some more representation seeing as we partially started the movement and it’s just nice to be represented in that especially when black, gay people are forgotten about quite a bit. It’s really nice to see that representation. Even adding the trans[gender] colours as well because a lot of people, even within our community, don’t really understand what it’s like to be trans. They don’t understand the struggles they have to go through. The fact they have to change their complete body to match what’s going on inside of them… not a lot of people understand that, at all. So it’s very good for it to be seen because if it’s seen, people will talk about it more.”
“Can you explain more how black people started the gay movement?”
“It was in the 60s during the civil rights movement with Marsha P. Johnson. She threw the first brick at Stonewall. And that just, wow. Having that breakthrough and that intertwining with the civil rights movement as well, made our voices be louder and I think that really did start something especially with her being a black, trans woman, throwing that first brick. That means a lot.”. Marsha P. Johnson was actually not the one who started the Stonewall riots, which were the gay communities’ response to violent attacks from the police in the Greenwich Village neighbourhood in New York in 1969. But she was a prominent queen in the scene and certainly a figure head in showing that being brave in the face of discrimination can win the war if the battle is lost. The P in Marsha’s name stood for ‘pay it no mind’. Iconic.
Shani noticed that woman clutching her bag because a black boy was behind her. She saw it, she noted it. She will remember it. She can’t forget someone who was supposed to be a friend touching her natural hair and comparing it to the feel of a dog. Do the little parts make the whole? Are the tiny fragments of rupture what eventually cause the whole house to crumble? We can all agree that shouting racist slurs is wrong. We all know being part of the EDL means what it means. We all understand painting your face dark brown and performing blackface minstrelsy is an act of hatred. But what about the casual comments that wriggle past the radar? I asked Shani what some nonos were that people genuinely have no idea are hurtful or offensive.
“I was actually talking to someone yesterday about…” Shlag. Activist shlag. “…people touching my hair and not understanding it, and going ‘it’s just hair!’. But, to me, if you’re saying it’s just hair, then why are you so intrigued? If it’s just hair, then don’t touch it. You have no reason to touch it. I don’t go out of my way touching hair and go ‘ahhh, it’s so straight! Oh my god, I wish I had your hair!’. The amount of people who tell me they wish they had my hair but they wouldn’t even know where to begin to look after it. They don’t know all the hours that goes into looking after our hair just so someone can be like, ‘ah, yeah, your hair looks good’, and [give] that seal of approval. Not that I need it but it’s nice when you put in all that hard work and someone actually appreciates it but not touching it! Don’t worry about all the work I did by putting your greasy little hands on my head!”. I’ve read so many stories about non-black people thinking they have a right to touch black people’s hair without asking or confirming it’s a comfortable thing to do. I think the pretty obvious advice here is: keep ya mitts to yaself. Always.
“I think even within the gay community our dialect and the way we talk sometimes and the things we say. Even if some of those things do actually come all the way back in the full circle to black women. A lot of things we say like ‘periodt’ [full stop in America: AAVE (African American Vernacular English) meaning the end of a discussion or to emphasise a point] and that sort of thing and then people taking that out of context and using it as part of their own language, we’re like ‘hello? Where is our credit?’. It’s like when people use a blaccent. A black accent. To make them seem so cool and different. But when we talk like that it’s unprofessional, it’s hood talk. Recently they banned some of the things we can say like ‘wagwan’ in one school. I was reading an article and they banned a lot of slang, but a lot of that slang seemed to be [Jamaican] patois. So what about any cockney then? One can say all of that stuff but we can’t say anything like that?”
“What do you think about white people saying wagwan, and words like that? Because, obviously, I say it all the time!”
“I think there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s not a thing of colour, it’s community as well. And what class we’re in, really. Us as a working class, we talk to each other differently as people who have grown up on council estates and that sort of thing. We have our own way of talking, communicating with each other. It doesn’t have to be black and white. Obviously if it’s someone who’s middle class and they’re doing it…”
“Nearly everyone I know who says wagwan, it’s not taking the piss out of black people who said it first. It’s something different. Whereas when people start to take the piss out of that vernacular it does piss me off because I think you’re just laughing at those who use it.”
“It’s our own way of communicating with each other. Welcoming each other with peace and love.”
“What do you think about putting on a Jamaican accent? Because I know a lot of white youth in London do this.”
“Well obviously if you’re putting on an accent, you don’t have to do all that! There’s no need to do all of that. You can say some of the things we say but there’s no need to go for that and have the accent. I don’t do it if I’m saying something quote unquote white. I think it’s both ways. I wouldn’t go out of my way to change my accent when I’m saying something different so they shouldn’t.” I found this an interesting and gorgeous point. This really is a two way street – it’s not about bowing at the feet of either side; it’s about respecting each other, listening to each other, doing right by each other. Together.
For any topic, I think the best way to educate yourself is to ask questions and get balls deep. From how to tie your shoelaces to discussing race, we need to ask about what we don’t know and pass on what we do. I shared my philosophy with Shani, and asked (get it?) if she found this an effective way to learn:
“It’s fine to ask questions. You should never be afraid to ask questions. And that applies to anything! How are you gonna find things out if you don’t ask? Obviously if it’s every little thing and you’re gonna have a question, don’t bother. Again there are sources where you can find that out. Don’t ask stupid questions. But if there is something you’re genuinely intrigued about and you want a further understanding, even if you’ve read on it and you still don’t understand, so you’ve gone out of your way to ask some black peers about it, that’s brilliant! I’m more than welcome to have people ask me questions, if you just ask in the right way. Come correct! Don’t bombard me with questions if you know there are sources where you can find that out, though. Obviously if you’ve had something that’s been on your mind for a while and you may of asked other people and you still don’t really understand, then that’s okay to ask questions, definitely.” And some guidance on the Q&Aing:
“If you are gonna ask questions and I share my own opinion or experiences, don’t then disregard what you wanted to learn and be like ‘actually, never mind. I don’t agree on this, whatever’. But you just asked for my experience, and now you wanna say that my experience is wrong?” I think it’s never a good idea to question the expert, in this case Shani on blackness, with an air of distrust. Even if you walk away totally disagreeing, save it for your poems.
I see this phrase a lot: I’m not a person of colour, so I can’t decide if this is racist or not. This perplexes me, perhaps just like ‘ignorance is bliss’ did many moons ago. I feel it alienates obvious racism and only allows room for nuance, leaving many allies wondering if they could slap a bitch saying the n-word or not. Shani helped me understand more when I asked how she felt about white people standing up to racism:
“I feel it does sort of step on us a bit because it’s not really your place to say what is racist and what isn’t. You’ve never really had those experiences to know what it actually, personally feels like so then for you to say ‘that’s racist, you can’t do that’… don’t point fingers at people. Who are you to say that? No, it’s not your place to say if that’s racist or if that’s effecting someone because at the end of the day you don’t know how that actually feels. You don’t know how that feels. Obviously it’s good for them to speak up if they do think something’s wrong and point someone out for their mistakes but you can’t go all out and correct them completely on what they can say and what they can’t say when they don’t know themselves.” This cleared a lot of it up for me. The statement isn’t about avoiding any confrontation if you see racism occurring at all; it’s about not correcting a person of colour if they say they find something racist if you didn’t, or if they don’t find something racist that you did.
“Would you prefer if a white person stood up in the face of racism if black people weren’t present? So if there was a group of white people, and one said something racist, and the others stand up, it’s a bit different to a group of black people with two white friends, and one says something racist and the other white person decides to be the loudest voice against them?” I felt this situation the clearest to find answer from.
“Yeah, that is very different. Obviously if it’s just white people, just them, and you’re gonna say something because we’re not present to say anything, if you’re gonna speak up and correct them on what they said, cool. But if you’re in the presence of other black people then leave it to us to say something. And if they still don’t wanna listen to what we have to say then, yeah, you can step up and maybe explain it in your own way that they may understand, if they don’t wanna hear it from us. They may want to hear it from you.” It’s all about reading the room and doing your just part if it’s appropriate. It’s about supporting, not trying to become the stabilisers yourself.
We spoke about all the important stuff; the vital discussions that will keep this ball rolling. But there was something I really wanted to know – what some of Shani’s favourite parts about being black, from culture, food, clothes, makeup, hair, music, TV and film, books, celebrities, jokes, relationships, were.
Her instant reaction was wicked to hear:
“All of it! All of it. If I could change who I was, I wouldn’t. I would always choose being black because even though we go through so much hurt we always come together and smile at the end of the day. We always find the happiness in the world and I think that’s what’s great about black people because what we’ve been through, we’ve been through so much, and so much hurt, but we’ll still come together and smile.”
Then we went through the list:
“What are some of your favourite black foods?” I asked.
“Who can’t resist a macaroni cheese pie? So good! It’s the best thing you can ever have at any family get-together. The first thing you’ve got to go find is the macaroni pie. And then dumplings as well, or even stewed dumplings, that’s good. Or fritters, they’re so good. Obviously I’m vegetarian now but salted fish fritters are so good.”
“What’s some of your favourite music by black people or favourite artists that are black?”
“Artists, it’s hard to nail it down, because I love so much music. We’d be here forever listing them all! But maybe if I narrow it down to genres and stuff, the best things we’ve ever done is jazz, blues, soul, hip hop, the best thing ever.”
“I want to thank you personally, right now, for bringing hip hop to the world.” I had to interject with that one.
“You are so welcome! And people always try to copy their sound, but it will never be the same.” At this point we wanked ourselves over the many black artists that we both adore. Stevie Wonder, Biggie, Tupac, Lil Kim, Queen Latifah, Miles Davis, A Tribe Called Quest, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Erykah Badu, Slick Rick, James Brown, Lauryn Hill, Jill Scott, to name a few.
“I think a lot of the old blues music really shows how you can make hardship into something good, which sounds cold to say, almost like it was good they went through the hardship, but it’s not that.” I said.
“That they could transform that pain into something good. Like I said, still finding a way to be happy at the end or just doing something to still be able to smile at the end of the day.” The personal experiences Shani has had with doing this in her own black community being paralleled to the great musicians of yesteryear and the modern popular was profound. The rainbow was never put out of search.
“What are some of your favourite black TV shows and films?” I asked. I listen to a lot of black music, but have to admit my picture intake is lacking.
“That’s hard!” Shani said. “Any Spike Lee film. They’re all so good. Obviously he always talks about the struggles in Brooklyn, New York, and just the culture in his films is amazing. I don’t really watch too much TV anymore, so I’m trying to think. Moesha was a brilliant one, until about the last season.”
“I felt like that with Pose! The first series was amazing, then the second was so strange.”
“Don’t watch the third season! Don’t watch it, I watched it, don’t watch it. It’s because they were on a lower budget the last season as well so you could see the actors didn’t wanna bother anymore, they were like ‘we ain’t getting paid’.” But I urge every one of you to check out Pose season one. It’s gorgeous, sad, insightful.
“And that shows the funding isn’t there for black projects.” I pointed out.
“Always! Like when we were talking about The Get Down. Amazing…second season: cancelled. It’s always the black shows that get cancelled. Even asking me what are some of my favourite [black] shows, there aren’t too many. There aren’t enough. I would love more. We do have Black-ish, but even the title throws me off. Why is it Black-ish, not Black? Mixed-ish, Grown-ish. They have whole sequels man! I hate it. What’s the ish? And even when we do have black families on TV, it’s always a mixed family. It’s never a dark skinned woman. They don’t get enough representation in our community – darker skinned women.” I’d read about this. We see it all the time; in India and Africa business booms for skin bleaching creams and treatments. Lighter is better; darker is not. This is the message promoted.
“Colourism is a thing, isn’t it?” I said.
“Yeah, massively. It’s like when people crap on others outside of our community when saying racist shit when we need to sort our own stuff out as well. We can’t just look at white people and be like ‘they do this, that and the other’ but we need to stop saying stuff about lighter skinned women. People crap on dark skinned women but light skinned women get it too. My sister didn’t fit in at school because the white kids said she was too black and the black girls said she was not black enough. She didn’t ask to be mixed, you know. But definitely speak about darker skinned women because they don’t have near enough representation in anything and when they are they’re always deemed the angry, black woman, always.”
“Can you explain the angry black woman trope?”
“I hate it. It’s expressing how you feel, and all of a sudden you’re angry or upset about something but if it was a white woman saying it, everyone would feel sorry for her. They would be like ‘oh my god, are you okay?’, they’d ask her so many questions, they’d try to comfort her. But if something was wrong with me people would just say ‘but you’re a strong woman, you’re this, you’re so powerful, you’re so strong’ but I could be hurting so much inside. And people just shrug their shoulders and it’s whatever. I hate that trope so much. I could just express my opinion, people would be like ‘oh my god you’re so aggressive, oh my god you’re so angry’. What? Why?”
“You should be allowed your space to express yourself.”
“Yeah. Like you said, space. We don’t really have that space, ever. To just express how we feel. We can’t even be upset about something before someone tries to comment on us being upset.”
“Do you think things like this is why a lot of groups, not just black people but all, will stick to their own so to speak, because they’re not getting the same even playing field when merging with other groups?”. You see this a lot with immigrants in England. They will move to communities were others of their ilk live because maybe a friend or relative is already there. They’ve changed geographically, but the overall culture of their new environment isn’t that different from the one they left at home. They still hold most conversations in the mother tongue, cook the same foods, go to jobs where it’s mainly people from their nation working, etcetera. My boss came to London, started working straight away, and didn’t speak a lick of English. He had to learn after the shift. And he said it was probably because he lived in a flat with only other Hungarians. My mother was totally different. She moved from Germany to Essex but was really the only immigrant in her circles, so she had no choice but to embrace the culture whole heartedly and speak the language perfectly. But that didn’t mean she was viewed as a Brit because of it. My very nationalist, paternal grandparents would bitch about foreigners in front of her, remember she was one, then say ‘oh, not you though love!’. Thankfully my mum isn’t too offended by that kind of thing. But it proves that complacency and community are huge parts of our lives. We do things because that’s how we’ve always done them; i.e complained about immigrants even though one’s round for dinner, and spoken mainly Romanian even though we moved from there over ten years ago.
“Yeah, I think obviously we understand each other, so if we know one of our peers is hurting we know exactly how it feels and we know we can be there for them but obviously if someone outside of our community, they don’t understand. They don’t understand some of the hurts we go through and why it may hurt a bit more. It’s just very different.” And that’s what it boils down to. Understanding each other. Why would I turn to a man about painful period cramps? I would want to speak to a woman about it, and she will understand. Why would a man come to me if he’s having trouble with erectile disfunction? I wouldn’t even know where to start in advising him, and he’ll know that. We seek out people who are like us, and if we do end up being friends with our opposite, there still tends to be a little thread that keeps the connection bonded.
“Do you think the fear of not being understood keeps us segregated?” I asked.
“I mean, personally for me, because I grew up with most of my friends being white, I can’t really step in and say too much about that, but I know for other people they did really stick to their own because not a lot of other people understand them. And if you do say something to other people you may feel a bit uncomfortable.” So how huge is it for Shani to have opened up so vividly and rawly during this interview? And hopefully, no matter what tone your skin is, reading this had taught you something. It taught me a lot.
My final question was for you lot. I asked Shani if she knew any resources for people that can help extend the understanding of her communities further.
“I think TV series wise, definitely watch the first couple seasons of Dear White People. I found it to be very educational even for myself as a black person, I was like, ‘wow, I’m learning quite a bit here!’. And you can just understand some of the experiences we have, why some things are so difficult and obviously you can’t really put yourself in our shoes but to have a visual representation of why some of that stuff is hard for us is good.” Shani shared some more TV and film after our interview: She’s Gotta Have It, Pose, Self Made: Inspired by The Life of Madam C.J. Walker, and Sorry To Bother You. “There’s an Instagram page that’s very educational called @ukisnotinnocent and it talks about stories of the news and stories of injustice in the UK.” Again, after our interview, Shani sent a list of a few more accounts she recommends checking out. @blackarchives.co, @thefakepan, and @theblackcurriculum.
“A lot of people forget that we have our own problems here.” She continued. “A lot of the time they go ‘thank god I’m not American!’. And it’s like, we have our own problems here but it’s way more casual that people don’t even notice. It’s so imbedded in British culture that people don’t even realise when you’re being racist anymore.”
“And it’s very different to America so I think they see the things about America and go ‘it doesn’t happen here’, and it probably doesn’t, because it’s different.” By this I meant, of course we have racism here, but it will be different to America, so we need to stop looking out for their happenings in England in order to believe that prejudice goes on. We have a whole different vocabulary of slurs, catalogue of ideology and population when it comes to people of colour. I think to constantly compare us to America only weakens the reform we want to see.
“We have stuff that’s equal, we have our own problems.” Shani continued. “Just because police aren’t gunning down people every five seconds does not mean it’s any different. And I’m sure if our police had access to guns twenty four seven it would be exactly the same and that’s why they use tasers instead.”
“Look at Mark Duggan. Shot to death by police, getting out of a cab.” He was twenty nine, killed in Tottenham, London, as he got out of a black cab because police suspected he was planning an attack with the BBM Bruni Model 92 handgun in his possession. His murder started the protests and riots throughout London and other English cities in 2011.
But discrimination doesn’t always have to come in the form of a bullet through the chest. A quarter-mixed friend was travelling back to London from Leeds recently and the luggage man asked “are you part black?”, to which my friend said yes. The man said he could tell by his hair. He continued on to say my friend looked rough and that he looked like he could stab him. A white woman nearby was shook and asked if that was serious. My friend sat down on the coach, and only in that moment of settle, did he realise the edge of the luggage man’s statements. He had to sit for four hours with that playing on his mind, but the weight of his massive bollocks won the day because when he got off in London and collected his bags, he called the little luggage twat a ‘cretin’ to his face.
We stopped the voice recordings and spent the rest of the evening discussing the topics further, gossiping as always, and eating vegan Papa Johns. It felt a true privilege to speak to Shani about the things that make up a huge part of her existence, and an even bigger honour to be able to share it with all of you on my website. I hope you agreed, disagreed, were reminded of what you know, learnt something new, cultivated sympathy and understanding, laughed, wrinkled your eyebrows, itched your head and lapped up. Shani said it best: you do not just get these things over night. It takes time. It takes effort. It takes commitment. But to be able to start opening up, that’s the biggest step. The rest is an easy embrace if you have open arms.
Thank you for spreading yours wide by reading this newsletter.
WIAEA (What I Am Excited About):
Song (chosen and written about by Shani!): A Toast To The People by Gil Scott-Heron – “Gil was the hip hop lyricist of his time; a true poet. In this piece the subject is a toast to all Black people for the hardships they have faced and though it was written in 1975, it is still relatable in present day. I feel like that says a lot about how little things have really changed, if someone can relate to a song that is dated 46 years ago.”
Book: Manifesto by Bernardine Evaristo – I love this woman so much. She is truly one of my favourite writers ever. For Shani’s birthday I got her a copy of Evaristo’s book Girl, Woman, Other. In Manifesto she tells the story of her life as a black, queer woman growing up in London. Oh, we love a parallel! It is insightful, funny, well-written, and I couldn’t put it down. I recommend all of her work, though!