This reflection has forced me to confront something uncomfortable. I’m 23 years old and I am nothing but proud to be a Black woman. But that wasn’t always the case. Scrolling back through my memories of being a teenager and a young woman in her early 20s paints a very different picture.
I grew up in Buckhurst Hill in Essex and attended a private school. Both places, which shaped my early life, were distinctly lacking in melanin. At my school I could count the number of Black girls on one hand. More than this, overt displays of Blackness were frowned upon – it was constantly impressed upon me that I needed to 'talk properly'. In reality, this just cut me off from Black language and culture.
On top of that, I realise now that I rarely saw dark-skinned Black women presented in a positive light in the media. I was not taught by a single Black person at school or at university. Blackness was something that I was left to figure out on my own.
My attempts to assimilate were so successful that my white friends actually poked fun at me for not being 'Black enough'.
I am very obviously Black but for years I did all I could to behave in a way that didn’t make my white friends feel uncomfortable, to the detriment of my own comfort and self-discovery. I avoided making cultural references that they wouldn’t know – like Chris Rock jokes – and forced myself to watch TV shows that I considered to be nothing short of dire, like Gavin and Stacey. All of this, combined with my genuine interest in skiing and classic rock bands like The Rolling Stones, meant that my attempts to assimilate were so successful that my white friends actually poked fun at me for not being 'Black enough'.
By the time university came around, I felt suffocated. Finally, away from home, school and the same people I’d been around for 10 years, I could be free to be myself. Or so I thought.
I ended up at Durham: a Russell Group university in the northeast that was even more melanin-deficient than my school. Considering that only 21% of all Russell Group university students are from a Black or minority ethnic background, all hope of being unapologetically Black and accepted for it was well and truly lost.
Stepping into my halls of residence I quickly realised that out of roughly 300 students, I was the only Black girl. This meant I faced a strange dichotomy of being both hyper-visible and invisible. This is tough to grasp if you haven’t experienced it yourself but it’s something that I’ve had to grapple with since early childhood. You need to do enough to be noticed but not so much that people are quick to make judgements or adhere to stereotypes. As always, the easiest means of survival was to assimilate.
A lot of this centred around the pub: white Britain’s collective and beloved living room. Even in a city as diverse as London, you can often play 'spot the Black person' when going to a pub. It’s quite rare to see one group of only Black people in a pub, let alone several. The same could be said for my experience at university, where the only Black people in pubs were the students, with usually one Black person per group – two if you were lucky. Still, I went because I wanted to fit in.
Just like at school, I only really started to have fun and allow my true self to evolve when I was about to leave. I spent the majority of my final year at university travelling back and forth to London as I felt drained and burned out in Durham. Coming back through King’s Cross and stepping on the Tube was always a surreal experience; from a land punctuated by received pronunciation, I was thrust into a melee of accents and languages, and greeted by people of all ethnicities. Who knew that a packed London Underground could feel so comforting?
I'm no longer living life for anyone else and for the first time, I feel truly free.
Getting home, I was able to switch off and just exist. There was no need to entertain or perform an identity to make others feel comfortable. I realised that I was so desperate for people to like me that I felt like I couldn’t be myself. As a result, I had forgotten who I actually was.
Years of self-hatred and censorship had made me lose sight of who I was and I’m still fighting to get my identity back. I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) last year and attribute much of this to being in environments in which I felt I had to mould my identity in order to be accepted. Indeed, more Black women are diagnosed with BPD in Britain than any other demographic.
I don’t look back on my time in education with any great fondness, and the same can be said about the person I was. That person wasn’t me. She was a lost girl just trying to survive in a world that wasn’t made for her. I consider this previous chapter of my life closed; I’m onto another one now. I’m no longer living life for anyone else and for the first time, I feel truly free.