“Portrait of an African” by Ignatius Sancho. The sitter is thought by some to be Olaudah Equiano, c. 1745–1797.
What does it mean for a racially designated person to no longer accept that designation?
I didn’t fully realise the significance of being coded as black until I was thirteen. I grew up in a proud British-Nigerian household. For the first part of my secondary school years, I went to an international boarding school. There were a few black people there, but they all came from wealthy families in Africa. They were African people first and foremost and, as I had been born in Britain, I carried my British-Nigerian heritage with pride. There were no contradictions between those heritages and the school was highly integrated: therefore, there was no meaning assigned to race.
It wasn’t until I left that school and went to a local comprehensive that things changed. This school had a large minority of black students. I remember, on my first day, entering the playground and finding that most of the black kids hung around with one another and most of the white kids hung around with one another. For the first time in my life, I was forced to confront the question: where am I meant to be? The only visible element that separated these groups of children was the colour of their skin. So, I became racially conscious and proceeded to join the kids who looked most like me. This marked a pivotal transformation in my understanding of racial difference.
However, I soon found out that being black wasn’t just about the colour of your skin. For many of my peers at that time, it was more than that. It came with prescribed—or, at least, expected—behaviours, attitudes and even speech. It was an identity.
I learned to change my accent from that of my private school days. I learned what music to listen to and how to change my attitude. If I slipped into my earlier self, I was told that I was acting white, which threatened my racial authenticity among the group. So I performed blackness. But it was okay. I felt a sense of community and solidarity, an instant familial bond, a deep knowledge of shared interests and values, solely based on our racial identity. My race had meaning.
However, as I grew older, the meanings assigned to blackness by some white people and some black people began to pose a challenge to me, as these prescribed attitudes took on new dimensions. Expectations of political beliefs and attitudes towards racism and towards wider British society are all widely considered to be shaped by the identity of blackness, rather by than individual thoughts, experiences and reasoning.
For some of those black people who challenge the dominant meanings assigned to blackness within the black community, the words and phrases Uncle Tom, coon and coconut become all too familiar. They are the adult version of you’re acting white! Paradoxically, in such a situation, the person considered most authentically black is often the most stereotypical. Blackness thus becomes performative: a fixed identity that demands conformity, rather than develops freedom. Affirming blackness provides no roadmap to creating a meaningful and good life—it is merely a mechanism to signal one’s authenticity. As recently as last month, black Mayor of Bristol Marvin Rees was branded a “traitor to the race” for removing the statue of Black Lives Matter protester Jen Reid.
This phenomenon is seldom discussed in the debate about racism. Black people impose collective obligations onto other black people in a way that white people do not do to one another. It is easy to see how this is likely to have developed. In the past, black people sought belonging and safety together, thus forming a shared black experience. It is less frequently examined how this continued collectivism can and does produce new forms of racial essentialism and racial limitations. If not internally and externally challenged, these expectations can affect a black person’s sense of self and sense of possibility, if they mistakenly think that their race should define their mode of being and potential.
A growing number of prominent thinkers are arguing that it is the very notion of race itself that forces us to define it and imbue it with meaning.
The dominant expression of anti-racist activism seeks not to dissolve racial boundaries but to invert their meanings and reify them. Instead of blackness meaning negative things, they seek to assign positive meaning to it: innocence, and moral and spiritual superiority. But this naive endeavour cannot free us from the bonds of race. It will only create new bonds.
I want blackness to have no meaning—neither positive nor negative.
Our assumptions about race can feel like common sense, but, in truth, both whiteness and blackness have been seen differently at different times. Coloured people in South Africa would probably be classed as black in America, but as mixed in Britain and black in Brazil. However, a recent genetic study found that the average black Brazilian has 41% European ancestry.
To be anti-racist in the most meaningful sense, we must expose race in all of its fraud and absurdity. It was created as a tool of hierarchy: to distort, subjugate and deny the humanity of others. It serves few functions other than to perpetuate these divisions.
Some people argue that to ignore race means that we will ignore racism, but it can and should mean that we consistently argue against instilling race with meaning—positive or negative. It is too easy to become invested in the thing that we are seeking to fight and lose sight of the bigger picture. Martin Luther King’s vision of a future in which people are judged by the content of their character, not the colour of their skin, speaks to a shared humanity, a shared vision of a world beyond race and artificial bonds. I still believe that world is possible. All people have agency and we can all define our destinies. To abandon racial bonds is to choose humanity.
A new generation of American thinkers, from Thomas Chatterton Williams to Kmele Foster, are arguing against race. I’m hoping to bring these radical, challenging, humanist conversations about race to Britain. That is why I’ve launched the Equiano Project: a debate, discussion and ideas forum that seeks to facilitate conversations about and promote the values of freedom, humanism and universalism and aims to bring fresh thinking to the debate about race, culture and politics.
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Inaya Folarin Iman is a speaker, writer and artist. She uses her work to explore subjects in politics and philosophy