As my departure date for London approached, well-meaning friends and family bombarded me with advice. Living as a minority in any country is never easy, but I would be living as a minority times two. Not only would I be an American in England, but a black-American. The next six months would take living out of my comfort zone to another level.
“They love black girls over there, you know, especially American ones,” I was often told, “You’re gonna have to fight those English boys off with a stick!”
I’m not sure if this was supposed to be comforting or not. To be admired is always a good thing, but exotification I can do without.
“They don’t like black people over there, you know, especially American ones.” I heard this, too. While it was not comforting, it was nothing new.
“There are so many black people over there, you’re gonna have the time of your life!” And I also heard the opposite. “Why are you going to London? You know there aren’t any black people over there.”
Looking back, one could say all these things about America, and they would all be true. I didn’t catch the irony then. I wondered how I would be treated, and whether I had made a terrible mistake. Maybe I should have gone to Barbados.
Everyone else I talked to who was studying abroad seemed so excited, but I could not shake this feeling of dread. They were excited because they would be living in another country for six months. I was scared for the very same reason. I pictured myself trying to find my way in a sea of potentially racist, potentially lustful scary white people with strange accents. They would be yelling at me from the street, calling me a demeaning names or doing other terrible things in an effort to belittle my heritage and my sexuality. And I was going to be by myself, in a place I have never been, an ocean away from everyone I care about.
That was the worst-case scenario.
I chose to study in England because, besides Canada, it is culturally the country most similar to the United States. I wouldn’t have to learn a language, and, I thought I would not be bombarded with culture shock. How wrong I was. The accumulation of little differences are surprisingly nerve-wracking. In Britain, the time is 21:42 instead of 9:42. The food is always just “slightly” bad. The sun comes out once a week, at most. On a particularly homesick day, these small discrepancies can make one want to open fire.
However, I’ve found that London more than makes up for these shortcomings. I was initially surprised at the number of black people I encountered. And not only black people, but people from all over the world. London is the most diverse city in the world, I’d been told.
My school, the School of Oriental and African Studies, is, within itself, very diverse. Claiming to be the world’s largest school focusing on Asian and African studies, it has students from over 110 countries, and 25 percent of students are from overseas. It was comforting to know that there were other students whose homes are outside of England. However, so far, I have only met one other black girl from the States.
I still feel my “otherness” here, even more than I did back home. It is evident as soon as I open my mouth. I can feel it in my Colonial Encounters class, where my white, male, British professor almost smugly describes how Great Britain colonized most of the world, and how this colonization would come to be the basis for the racism that continues to plague certain countries today. Sometimes I can almost see my professor, dressed like some fifteenth century explorer, setting out on his new “discovery.” I am the only black person and the only American in the class.
In general, there seems to be less sensitivity than in the United States when it comes to race relations. I don’t think the PC craze was as strong over here; whether this is ultimately a positive or negative thing is yet to be determined. A few examples: In an effort to buy tickets to a professional soccer game online, I wandered into a fan chat room. Most were talking about the players, the games, the news. One topic stood out. A young man was talking about how he loves to go to soccer games but is tired of all the racist name-calling that goes on in the stands. Apparently, some of the white fans like to have fun by calling the black players racist and demeaning names such as “black bastard” and “monkey,” among others. The young man was pleading for the fans to use a little more tact in their cheering, as it made him uncomfortable. However, his request fell on deaf ears (or silent keyboards, as it were). People replied that he needed to loosen up a bit, that it was all in good fun, that it was not racism, and that he should stop taking it so seriously. I questioned whether going to a soccer game was really a good idea.
While walking around downtown once with some friends, I passed a McDonald’s and was almost run over by a young white man running out. Apparently, he was evading an Indian McDonald’s employee for some undetermined reason. Once across the street, he called the Indian man a “black bastard.” He got several strange looks from people on the street, and he ran away. Do these incidents represent the feelings of an entire country? Probably not. But even so, I wonder.
Another time I went to a club with a few friends, all of them black, British and female. I think we were the only black women there. We danced in a circle all night, having a great time. Throughout the course of the evening, we got hit on by a number of very drunk, white British guys who approached us and mumbled a slurred pick-up line that we couldn’t understand. We politely turned them down and continued dancing. But the great time ended when I felt something on my behind which, after I grabbed it and held it up, turned out to be a man’s hand. After I sternly berated him for his behavior, his friend expressed his surprise that we were not as “fun” as he thought. He said he had the impression that we wanted to have a “good time,” implying that he thought I was the kind of girl who didn’t mind someone grabbing my ass. Did he get this impression because we’re black? Because we were dancing? A combination of the two?
Perhaps I’m being hyper-sensitive, but it’s a tough call. I’ve certainly encountered my share of African-American jerks. So who’s to say whether it’s exotification or plain, old-fashioned sexism?
I have spoken at length with my flatmate, Kesha, the only other African-American female I have met here, about our experiences. She said that speaking to black British people here has helped her to see how little she knows about her heritage. Most of the black people here are African or Caribbean, usually first or second generation British. Kesha recalled people who assumed that she was African or Caribbean and asked what country she came from. When she responded that she was American, they wanted to know where in Africa her family and ancestors were from. For the first time, she realized she had no idea.
The incident points to a substantial difference between African-Americans and black British people. Slavery has, among other things, wiped out the histories of many African-American families. I can trace my own family back to the nineteenth century in South Carolina, but beyond that I can only say “somewhere in Africa”.
I have asked my black British friends for their impressions of African-Americans. One girl, Hana, is from Nigeria, but for the past three years has been an international student at the University of Maryland in Baltimore. She said that upon arriving in Baltimore, she was excited about getting involved in the black community there and forming relationships with the black students. However, she felt that she was treated like an outcast because she was not American. She finally stopped trying.
Thus, after having spent one month of observation and research, my conclusions are….inconclusive. Just like the United States, it is impossible to come up with one sweeping statement summarizing the racial mentality of this country. All the contradictory advice that people gave me at home is true. They like black people, they don’t like black people, there are a lot of black people, and there aren’t a lot of black people. In many ways, this country is not unlike America. With the many blessings that come with a diverse society, so do confusion, ambiguity, and gray areas. My experiences here have taught me a great deal about the culture of another country. They have also helped me to see my own country in a new light.