Piece by Tumi Onanuga
Developing a coping mechanism becomes second nature to being a black woman, and being African-born, that’s truly a whole other journey, so I’ll speak from what is seen before our name-tag, skin. Comedic relief has been an escape for decades, dare I say, centuries amongst oppressed cultures, groups and individuals, so understand that your funniest friend has been or is probably going through it. Whoever can make you laugh till your chest hurts, can make your gut wrench until your eyes leak, but I digress.
Institutional racism is a term that has been thrown ceaselessly amongst the high and mighty of the social media ‘streets’. In fact, I first came to know there was a term for my experiences, only after tirelessly scrolling through social justice “threads” on twitter. The comfort in knowing I was not alone, yet the sadness in knowing how long this had been going on for, stirred my emotions into a nice blend of “can’t we all just get along?” juice.
‘The answer may surprise you’
No, it will not, because we clearly still haven’t gotten along since. If no one could figure out how to silencesupremacists from spouting bigoted rants especially with skin-color as their canvas, then sorry to say my friends, but it’s a long way home.
Institutional racism led me to embrace an age old buddy, laughing when uncomfortable or cracking a joke so others do. So when Susan (name altered) at my first job told me my English was good considering being “of foreign descent” , even though she had not seen my name, and I had painstakingly mastered the English accent to an intermediate level; I knew what she really meant was “ you speak my language well considering you are not my colour , even though I have knowledge that the only reason you speak it at all , is as a result of premeditation to one of the most upsetting tragedies of humankind, colonialism. Followed by the supremacist ideology to extend, my language as globally acceptable against yours, your effort is satisfactory”.
The passive aggression in the tone of the entire sentence itself, “you speak English well”, watching her tongue touch the roof of her mouth, slowly enunciating to me, whose ability to understand she had just commended, was condescending to say the least.
Oh but this is not at all institutional racism
This is Susan exhibiting conscious racial bias. My response on the day was laughter, I laughed because it happened on a small scale, and at the time I could not fathom it happening on a larger scale, or the effects that kind of dangerous bias could have on my work- life.
Horrifyingly, that is what institutional racism is, Susan’s bias on a larger scale, like an entire company founded and run by Susans, ready to project their racial prejudice on brown skin, in more aggressive ways than “you speak good English”.
How much can we really comb out? Our curls, or mannerisms, language. How many times have we been nudged to straighten our ends and brush up edges enough to suit corporate whiteness? How much until we live in a society where the cost of living is our blackness? Unfortunately the trend of ‘diversity’ bolstered by organisations with bigoted founders , is not strong enough to humanise the black skin, but it’s 2019 so they’d rather use us as props than let us know we are still at the back of the bus.
Contributor: Tumi Onanuga