To celebrate the end of Black History Month we have an article from student advisor, Ashley McClain. Ashley reflects on personal experience which offers an important viewpoint we should all consider and take forward.
“If you could have one superpower, what would it be?”
Whenever I see this question on social media, I immediately choose “invisibility,” despite the fact that in the back of my mind I know superpowers, magic, spoiler alert: Santa Claus and other magical things do not exist. But that conclusion might not be true after all because, somehow, I have discovered the power of invisibility since moving to Glasgow, Scotland. You read me right! I can be invisible. I realize as I type this that it is sounding a little Outlander-ish but please, hear me out. I am able to walk on sidewalks and go unnoticed. I can be on a video call and never be seen by those on the call with me. But it’s not only invisibility I possess. I can make people forget facts I tell them too, for example, when I’m asked about where I am from. This side power reminds me of the device in the movie Men in Black that could make witnesses forget about whatever alien event they just witnessed. But the thing that I can’t quite figure out with my invisibility superpower, much like Aang (from Avatar) when he was learning how to wield his control over the four elements, is why I cannot always get it to work. The invisibility power seems to only work when I am around (a large majority of) white people.
Don’t misunderstand me. There have been many white people, who see and acknowledge me, like any other human being. The levels of love, warmth, hospitality, and kindness that I have received, particularly from those in the Christian community has been extremely overwhelming (the good kind) and comforting given my being so far from home. But with others, it’s as though my invisibility power enters Super Saiyan mode. How does my power work on other ethnic groups? Stay tuned to find out.
The community of black and mixed-ethnic groups, whom I’ve had the privilege of spending time around and learning more about, have expressed that they too possess similar invisibility strengths: “I am not seen by the white Scottish men or women here [in Glasgow].” “I agree with that.” “I feel like being or feeling like an outsider prevails a lot, especially in university.” “You might be in classes with solely white people and you feel left out of conversations.” “When it’s time for lunch, you get made to feel like an outsider again.” “Your presence is not wanted but you force it [in order] to fit in or even [relate] with them.” So it seems that it is not only the black community expressing feelings of being overlooked, but also other ethnic groups.
Has this response from the white community been insulting, a cultural shock? Absolutely. I think had I not been raised in a majority black country, where examples of black/brown excellence are in abundance, the effect of this response from the white community could be greater on me. After having a recent conversation with a friend, who, like me, was raised and grew up in a country where the majority of the demographic is black/non-white, we both came to a similar conclusion: our joy about having been raised around other people who look like us.
Why? Because we were able to see countless examples of black/brown excellence or, to put it more simply, a lot more positive representation. Think about what representation might’ve looked like had we grown up in a country with a white majority. This is not to say all such representation would be negative, surely not. (e.g. Google Doodle recently featured a story on Andrew Watson as the first black Scots international footballer who brought wide acclaim to Scots football.) So my concern here is not the complete absence of positive black representation, but more so the frequency and extent of such representation.
I guess the significance of this did not strike me until now, until leaving the environment where this was and still is a very common, regular part of social life. The impact of seeing black/brown people living out fulfilling lives, having successful careers or in positions of power when the messaging in majority white countries about these same ethnic groups clearly made this seem strange, uncommon or an impossibility has been and is now super significant. Seeing people who look like us and do the best they can with the resources around them showed us that anything is possible, and we, in turn, act in that power and truly believe that we can achieve whatever we put our minds to. My friend went on to talk about his strong self-assurance, confidence, sense of identity and concluded that that might not have been possible had he not been raised in his home country. “I [am] so happy I was raised in [redacted].” I told him I shared a similar thankfulness. That is not to say home is free from its problems, but they did get one thing right: examples and portrayals of black excellence.
In this same conversation, we also touched on navigating racism and figuring out the difference between behaviour that is/is not racist. Even this part of the conversation was kind of challenging as we tried to think about how to class racist conduct: “That’s racist!” “Oh no that wasn’t racist!” “That was definitely racist!” Not always entirely sure about the behaviour itself, I think the general conclusion we came to is that there is an undeniable sentiment attached to certain behaviours, which most certainly point to racism. And that’s the thing with racism: even though it can change its form and reappear in many different ways, I think it always feels the same. The feelings and connotations attached to it do not change. Nevertheless, its ability to appear in a trillion, million, thousand ways makes it particularly taxing to navigate (at least to me). The burden of questioning every single interaction with a white person for fear that there might be some underlying racist sentiment is much too heavy for me (a whole 25 year old), let alone, a 4 or 11 year old black/brown child to carry.
Naturally, I started to consider if this invisibility stems from racism. “Sometimes in their case they don’t mean it or realise it which is an issue.” A black friend, having made this comment, made me consider that there might genuinely be moments when white people do not intend or realize that they are not being inclusive of the other ethnic groups around them. I think we all can make this mistake sometimes. Caught up in our own worlds and agendas, we do not pause to consider nor make the effort to include our African, Arab, Indian, Korean, Chinese or Spanish counterparts in an activity that simultaneously impacts them. This makes me think about how I treat people from different ethnic groups. Is there some way I can be more considerate of my community (and not just those who look like me)?
Unfortunately, there was a time recently when my powers didn’t work so well. My power did not render me completely invisible to the human eye and yet, I was still not seen by the white people around me. On a particular night, a group of me and my peers booked out a table at a local student bar (in advance) to unwind. Keep in mind that we are not always at this bar so our being there could definitely be thought of as a special occasion. Growing tired of the music on the playlist, I made a song request at the bar and was told that I could only make “one request.” I also asked whether it would be possible for me to provide a list of about 10 songs to be played throughout the night as a way of juggling the original playlist and what we wanted to hear. But no, I was told that I could only make “one request.” I was genuinely bothered by this response, though wanting to enjoy the night, I went back to my people and told them to make the most of the song I requested because we would only get one. How is it that all night only one genre of music catered primarily to white patrons be played and my request for a song that isn’t what the majority wanted to hear is treated as asking for too much? Shouldn’t the DJ or whomever was responsible for music that night sought to have catered to the crowd that was present that night? Am I misunderstanding the purpose of a chill out spot? Shouldn’t that spot help its patrons enjoy themselves/unwind?
“They don’t acknowledge that they do leave us blacks out of the mix.”
Though invisibility has its perks, I still, like Aang, need to learn how to turn it off and adjust its strength. There are times when I do not want to be bothered and other times when being seen/acknowledged is what I need. Every white person that I have met has not overlooked me or my needs and I am sure that I have black peers who will agree. However, the consensus remains that we are not acknowledged or seen enough. This feeling of invisibility still lingers. If you are a white person, think about how you can be more inclusive of the black people around you not only for the rest of this month, but continuously. I will go beyond black people and ask you to consider those from other ethnic backgrounds as well. I personally will think and effort to be more inclusive of those around me, ever aware of how strange it is to be visible and yet unseen by those around you.
“Can I turn this thing off?”
By Ashley McClain, Student Advisor
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