Slay In Your Lane’s Yomi Adegoke Chats To Her Mum About Being Black, Brave & British(-ish)

Black women are well known for being on the front lines and often being the first to put our heads above the parapet. This is in no way a new phenomenon, but the freedom with which we’re able to speak truth to power is. These conversations are happening increasingly in the mainstream, with tongues rarely held and no holds barred – something that makes my mother, Yetunde, nervously excited. 
My mum was born in Scotland in 1958 and left as a toddler, returning to Britain as a teenager in the '70s. She then went back to Nigeria in her 20s where she met my dad. They moved to England to raise three daughters throughout the '80s and '90s, against a backdrop of Britain that’s very different from the one we live in today, but even more different from the one she grew up in. 
Like many a Nigerian matriarch, my mum doesn’t mince her words. But she grew up in a time where the generally accepted survival strategy was to avoid and assimilate – the collision of the British 'stiff upper lip' and the mantra of many Nigerians, 'suffer and smile'. When co-writing Slay In Your Lane: The Black Girl Bible with my best friend Elizabeth Uviebinené, it was important for us to pay homage to the several black British women who helped create a landscape that allowed a book like ours to exist. Many were like my mum – enduring in the hope that we wouldn’t have to. I sat down with her to talk about growing up black British-ish, navigating white spaces and the ways black women, past and present, are silenced.
Yomi: Do you have any memories of what it was like living in Scotland? And why did Nana and Grandad decide to move you back to Nigeria?
Mum: I don’t, because I was about 3 when we left. But I remember that when Grandad started hearing me speak in a Scottish accent he decided, right, it's time to go back to Nigeria. 
I remember this story! What was his problem with the Scottish accent? Did he want you to have a Nigerian accent?
He just felt we should pack up and go home before I start becoming Westernised. He wanted me to grow up in Nigeria and not forget where I came from. 
So you went back to Nigeria when you were 3 years old and then came back to the UK when you were 16, to England, right? 
Yes. Nana and Grandad told me we were coming on a visit – I didn't know that I was going to stay behind. They found a school but I thought we were just going to look at it and come back later. When I went I didn’t see any black people and I thought, Oh. This looks very isolating. Not like London – we used to visit there every summer and this was so different. This was in Stafford. 
The first few months I was very homesick. I kept writing to Nana and Grandad saying, 'I don't like this place'. We were about about eight or nine [black people] in the whole school of about 1,000. I remember going to the big assembly hall and you’d sit and the white people would leave about eight spaces next to you because they didn’t want to sit next to you. 
You also had the accent that Grandad wanted in the end – a Nigerian one – as well as being black. Was that something that made you feel different too? 
Oh yeah. I don’t think they even knew where Nigeria was on a map. And they thought I lived in a hut. I remember travelling to Nigeria and your uncle said, 'If that’s the case, why don’t you take a picture of our house back with you'. And I did – they were really shocked. 
It’s crazy, because 20 years later when I was at school, it was similar. Mainly because of Oxfam adverts and stuff. Poverty is of course an issue on the continent, but it’s literally the only thing that was ever portrayed when I was in school. It was so bad that loads of kids pretended to be Jamaican.
Really? I don’t remember this!
Because we [Yetunde's children] didn’t do it. You and Dad made us proud of it. But it was hard – people made fun of us for sure. Anti-blackness was a huge issue but anti-African-ness was too, growing up. And teachers never took racialised bullying seriously, even less so when it was black people making fun of other black people. I got in trouble for saying the teachers were racist, remember?
I remember. They meted out some punishment to you and your black friends and the white kids were allowed to go scot-free. They were singling you out. 

In my time, I was quiet and so were the rest of the people I hung around with... We didn't really say anything because we knew no one would do anything about it.

If people were being racist at your school and you went to tell your teacher, would your teacher have done anything?
Not in this case – the teachers themselves were racist like yours. They wouldn’t do anything. The way they looked at us and talked to us. Kids would be saying, 'Where are you originally from', 'You people don’t have any clothes, you go around like Tarzan' and no one would tell them off. 
People still ask me that to this day, with this British accent! 
They always say that. 'Where are you originally from…'
Obviously, I'm originally from... I mean, my parents are Nigerian and identify as Nigerian, but I have a red passport, I was born here. You used to get offended by people asking you where you're really from as well. So do you feel like your kids are British?
You’re British. Your parents are Nigerian, but you’re British. 
So you look at us and think, My British children
Yes. You’re both. Nigerian and British. You were born and brought up here! Even more so than me. I was born here, but brought up partly in Nigeria – we’re dual nationals. 
True. Do you think that it's easier for our generation, in terms of being able to stand up for ourselves?
In my time, I was quiet and so were the rest of the people I hung around with – nobody wanted to say anything. We didn’t want trouble, we just kept it to ourselves and talked about it among ourselves. We didn’t really report anyone, we didn’t really say anything because we knew no one would do anything about it. 
This feels generational. I was on a panel the other day with Bernadine Evaristo, the Booker Prize winner, and Diane Abbott MP, and they were talking about the fact that when you go to work, they advise that you do your work, pick your battles and as Diane put it: 'You save your real self for your friends.' I suppose that’s the mentality that you had at school and it followed you into the workplace…
Yes, definitely. There have been so many racist comments in the workplace and so many times I’ve just had to get on with it. A lot of people were worried about their jobs. That if we say anything, we don’t know what would happen to them.
Yeah and that’s something many still experience to be honest. Probably the majority of black women, who aren’t in the privileged position of having a platform or job that allows them to speak freely. It’s a class issue as well as a race one. 
So when you look at your daughter, who writes about racism for a living, and the fact she and her best friend who you love like a daughter have written a book that literally says, The Black Girl Bible... How did you first feel when we said, 'This is what we're going to do, Mum'?
I was happy about it. It needs to be brought to the forefront, that this is what's happening. I think by reading that book, a lot of people have learned from it. It would have helped me growing up, because all the chapters are dealing with different issues: dating, health… The micro-aggressions bit I can really relate to. I’ve experienced that. 

This generation is less like us, burying our heads below the parapet. You people speak your mind, say anything there is to say to do with race. You're out there trying to deal with it. Less of us felt able to do that. I admire that. 

Were you surprised by how much trouble black girls are still going through, 40 plus years after you came here?
I'm surprised that in this day and age it still exists. I think it will always exist – when I have grandchildren, great grandchildren. I don’t know when it will ever end. But you’re dealing with it in the right way. This generation is less like us, burying our heads below the parapet. You people speak your mind, say anything there is to say to do with race. You’re out there trying to deal with it. Less of us felt able to do that. I admire that. I’m proud of you – you’ve done a lot of panels, you’ve been told to talk here and there, you’ve won several awards. The book has made you famous –
Mum, we’re not famous.
Well I’m proud of you both.
Thanks Mum! But do you ever get afraid? Part of my job is to go on the internet and call out racism, but you've grown up being taught to not make a fuss. Do you ever get worried when you read my articles and I'm saying, 'Hey, you racist, this is why you’re racist...'?
I do get worried because in this age of social media, people make threats there, so sometimes I do hope you’ll be careful. But it’s important. I haven’t finished reading your book, by the way…
That's shocking! 
...But all that I’ve read in that book is what I’ve experienced. These micro-aggressions, things with how to do your hair at work –
What about hair?
Like some people touching it and saying, 'Oh, how's your hair like this?' years ago, at school. 'How was it done? How long did it take?'
I remember once I went on Sky News to talk and I had an afro. You love my afro, but you were a bit taken aback because it was for TV. Do you think you would ever have your afro in a professional setting?
Hmmmm. No. 
Why not?
I just feel like they’d be looking at and talking about the hair. I’d be concerned about how other people see it. But your generation overlook that. You don't care about what they say, you just go ahead and do it. 
I always wanted my hair relaxed and you never allowed me to do it. 
I thought you should have your hair natural – not to put chemicals in it so that it's chemically damaged at a young age. So I always said no, not until you’re old enough to make a decision.  
That's a very good decision to have made. If you didn't want us to put relaxer in our hair, that means you knew you were chemically damaging your own hair. 
I just felt I couldn’t go to my workplace with my hair natural. I still thought you girls looked good natural, though. 
You’ve lived here much longer than Nigeria but like many Nigerians of your generation, you still call Nigeria home. Do you feel at home in the UK, too? Is it somewhere you will ever feel is truly yours to call home? 
What, right now?
That’s a difficult question. It's not as bad as it used to be, so I could feel at home in certain parts of this country, not everywhere.
Like Croydon?
Yeah, because it's multicultural. I still see Nigeria as home though, and here as a temporary place of passing through.
But you’ve been here for like, 40 plus years!
But I still see Nigeria as my home. I don’t think I want to live here for the rest of my life. Because when you’re there, it's a different type of treatment. You’re in a space where you’re all black, so there isn’t that discomfort of being 'the only' as there can be here. It’s different. 

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