You don’t look Somali

I get this quite a bit. Never from Somalis, they have a habit of going oh yeah, you got this or that and point to things about my face that they have. One woman once and grinning broadly grabbed me by the chin and rubbed the top of my forehead and said what else could you possibly be.

But I was buying “Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race”. And I got into a conversation about it with the sales person who had read it and thought it was really great and when I mentioned my dark half, she said, without batting an eye, you don’t look Somali to me, apparently her best mate is Somali and I don’t look like her QED. With all due respect, I would imagine I don’t look much like her mother either and I am half english.

There is something about having a mixed race wrapper that means you have to be on the end of a perpetual guessing game about what you are supposed to be according to the person you are talking to. You are constantly bumping up against other people’s perceptions of the way the world is and on the whole, in the blancosphere, well, it’s perlycentric. This has all manner of implications when it comes to talking at any length about what matters to you and this was deftly unpacked in an article I read by Mwende “FreeQuency” Katwiwa on Medium.

She was writing about her experiences around being invited to give a TED talk. She was asked to cut out reference to Black Lives Matter

After finishing, I went backstage only to notice the curator of the conference walk up behind me. She informed me that there had “recently been 2–3 talks on the TED platform about ‘Black Lives Matter’”, and suggested that I “cut the ‘Black Lives Matter’ portion from my talk” to make it “just be about Reproductive Justice”.

The curator had decided that there was some overload on the subject and as some perceived quota of BLM had been reached, it was only logical to cut. Katwiwa, however, didn’t cut it and went on to deliver the piece as intended and revived a standing ovation for her performance after which was approached by another woman from TED who amongst other things said:

TED would NEVER do such a thing, that she couldn’t IMAGINE that what I described happened, and that IF it did, it wasn’t meant in the way I took it…

And there’s the rub. Imagination, or as in this case, the failure to imagine, I would put it, empathise. That’s the thing that kept me tight lipped about my experiences for so long. Other people could not let go of their worldview long enough to attempt to imagine what it was like looking through my eyes and hearing the world I hear. The upshot of this is every conversation that is linked to my experience as a person of colour, needs a gloss and footnotes. the thing is, when you do this, you can end up tangled in someone else’s matrix where they interject a reading of the world through the prism of their experiences and it all becomes about the group they belong to by lack of melanin and one I have a right to remain in, as long as the political winds don’t get stuck blowing too far from the right. Which is a scary thought. I come away from encounters like this feeling bruised and annoyed because they tend to make everybody taking part feel a bit grubby because my experiences in the same places at the same times as them are not the same. All this does is throw my own experience into troublesome sharp relief leaving me to consider that they are also be part of the problem.

A lot of the choppy conversations I have hinge on the idea that I have misunderstood the intentions of the people I am holding up as problematic and never that they have failed to acknowledge that my equal opportunities monitoring checkbox is not the same as theirs. Ever.

I’ve been on the recieving end of people’s opinions about the way I look my entire life and for the most part those opinions are 24 carat bollocks. Most of it is thoughtless but benign. What gets my goat is when people argue with me about what I’m actually made of. I can’t help but wonder how much of this is irritation about someone asking me what I am, being told what I am and then being asked if I am sure of my sources. I am sure of my sources because being adopted means there is a legal paper trail and it’s all there, including the name of my birth father which is the Somali world equivalent of Smith.