“It’s so important for people to show up for Black women,” says Kelechi Okafor, assuredly over Zoom. It had been a conflicting week for the public speaker, actor, podcast host and author who is recognised for showing up for Black women even when UK authorities fail to; even when she’s met with UK media pundits who make it a mission to misunderstand her, even when online trolls seem committed to try stopping Okafor from speaking her mind — she has never stopped. “You have to gather them! You can’t be polite, especially in Britain,” she says laughing but also in a dead serious way that makes me want to take notes. “It has to be that way. And the more we all feel emboldened [to use our voices], there are certain things that we're just not going to stand for collectively anymore.”
Okafor was recently named Cultural Hero of the Year at GUAP Gala 2023 for all the multitude of ways she shows up and stands up for her community. She has just released her first book Edge Of Here: Stories from Near to Now, a sci-fi collection of otherworldly short stories where Black women win and trauma isn’t the overarching theme — it’s the stories she’s always wanted to tell. However, upon the book’s release, Okafor admits she is hopeful but “tired” as the last few weeks have been an “overwhelming” reminder of the persistent call to “protect Black women”. And right now, that very call is ringing loudly in the author’s ears.
Ahead of our conversation, a viral video from a South London beauty supply store — a store that stocks and sells hair and beauty products targeted for Black women — surfaced showing a Black woman being “strangled” by the store's large male owner, after a physical scuffle on the shop floor. Multiple reports claim that the altercation was ignited after the owner refused to give the woman, 31, a refund and she tried to leave the store with items she believed she was owed. Police arrested and bailed the woman on suspicion of assault, but the man had not been charged. The shop owner, who was no stranger to TV interviews at this point, later told My London he “regretted” the way he handled the situation. Lukewarm platitudes from local MPs and the Metropolitan Police followed, stating that they would investigate the incident. On cue, Twitter was ablaze with condemnation for the shop owner’s excessive use of force but also, scarily, support for his actions. It became glaringly clear to Okafor, and all the Black women watching the news unfold, that much of the public had quickly determined who the victim was in this scenario — and it wasn’t the Black woman with hands around her neck.
“I saw what happened and not only saw that it's happening to a Black woman but also that it was happening to a Black woman in Peckham, where I've lived for most of my life,” she says to Unbothered. “I only moved in the past few years, but I still live in Southeast London. And not only that, but that is a shop that I would regularly go to.”
Okafor joined the peaceful protest outside the Peckham store days later, where local initiatives such as Sistah Space (a specialist charity that supports African & Caribbean heritage women affected by domestic and sexual abuse) posted alongside large crowds from the community. As Okafor explains, it was an opportunity to show that the community would not stand for violence displayed that week, but also show the woman at the centre of the incident that she was seen and, ultimately, cared for in a very public way. “For me, [showing up at the protest] was not just about talking about the overt violence of the store owner having his hands around this woman's neck, it was also about the violence that is people assuming she was shoplifting without understanding the full story.”
“The assumption of guilt is instant when it comes to Black women and Black people, we are never afforded both sides of the story."
Okafor drew parallels with another incident that arose in Croydon in July this year, where a Black woman was assumed to have not paid bus fare, handcuffed and detained by multiple police officers in front of her visibly distressed son. Police later found out the woman had paid to use public transport. The police later defended their actions, describing the viral video to My London as a merely “snapshot of the wider incident” but would listen to the community’s views on the matter. Following this particular incident, a similar protest was ignited by multiple Black activist groups, condemning the police’s conduct in front of the young woman’s sobbing child. As one member of the crowd told the Independent, “It doesn’t make sense that they would handcuff her in front of her crying child – she wasn’t a threat.”
“The assumption of guilt is instant when it comes to Black women and Black people, we are never afforded both sides of the story,” Okafor stresses, reflecting on both incidents. “That's why I felt like it was important to lend my platform and show up [to the protest in Peckham]. I didn't know what I was going to do there, I just knew that I had to be there physically.”
Over literal generations, we’ve continually seen why the presumption of guilt is inherently dangerous and, far too often, can be fatal when it comes to Black lives. When Black people are feared, tracked, and surveilled without due cause, this implicit racial bias can (and has) lead to wrongful convictions, systemic racist treatment, “Karens” weaponising victimhood, and untimely deaths at the hands of trigger-happy police. In the UK, unarmed Chris Kaba, 24, was killed by police in South London in 2022, just months away from becoming a father. A year later, a Met police officer has been charged with his murder — an unprecedented outcome — but justice feels far from realised.
“When Chris Kaba was killed by police, I was one of the first people to make a video explaining to people what happened because the media were presenting it in a way that wasn't factual or accurate,” Okafor stresses (the news of the Met officer charged with Kaba’s murder was released the week after our conversation). “I had to make sure that we had a counter-narrative that humanises the victim — because that’s who Chris Kaba was in this situation, the victim. And then, comes the incident with the Black woman in the Peckham store…”
Questions such as ‘who gets to be seen as innocent and who doesn’t?’ and ‘who is afforded sympathy and who isn’t?’ are recurring lately. We only have to look at Megan Thee Stallion and the inconceivable amount of sympathy that came in support of the rapper Tory Lanez, after he was convicted of shooting her in the foot. It had to be reminded that Lanez was the one on trial, not Megan. In the UK, many will remember the fallout from the Child Q scandal in 2022 — the 15-year-old Black girl stripped-searched by police — which became a heartbreaking example of not only the adultification of Black girls but the inherent bias that prevents certain people from being given the benefit of the doubt.
“Just a few weeks before videos in the Peckham surfaced, I had received a torrent of abuse and threats online for making observations about how the media were presenting Lucy Letby,” continues Kelechi, referring to the white British serial killer who was recently convicted of murdering seven babies whilst in her care as a neonatal nurse. British media spoke of their shock that the perpetrator, a white blonde woman in her early thirties, could commit such heinous crimes. “I explained to people very, very carefully and in-depth about the construct of white femininity and how it plays a role in how people are perceived when they commit crimes,” she goes on to explain. “The media were very careful about how they spoke [about Letby] mostly focusing on shock — how they couldn't believe that this young, blonde white woman would take this path with absolutely zero displays of remorse. Yet, as I pointed out, statistics show that there's nothing anomalous about her, in terms of her identity and the crime that she's committed, she fits the bill of what's expected of female serial killers, in a broad sense, and this is what I conveyed.”
Kelechi's opinion was lambasted online and she experienced a barrage of racist trolling as a result. But now, the public speaker feels she has even more reason to double down on her views.
“Then, a few weeks later, we look at what happened in Peckham,” she continues. “A Black woman, who's unknown — nobody knows her like that — and all the British audience sees is a video of a man with his hands around her neck,” she says, drawing parallels. “Instead of being shocked by the assault, people said she must have been stealing. They asked, ‘what was she doing to cause this assault?’ Whilst the violence that [Lucy Letby] committed, people tried to explain away through shock and saying this is an “anomaly”. But then, a Black woman being held and treated in that way, the response from a large majority of the British public was like ‘well, what would you expect when Black women are angry, when Black women are aggressive, given Black women steal?’”
"We can't keep saying to people, Black women are human, stop attacking Black women…”
During our conversation, Okafor discussed just how disheartening it is to continually remind people of our humanity. “Navigating this society is constant trauma — and we don't we don't get to sit with that enough — then navigating racism is a never-ending trauma. Because even if it's not something that's happening to you physically, you go on your social media and scroll and you're gonna see something happening to somebody else that looks just like you,” she says. We can't keep saying to people, Black women are human, stop attacking Black women…”
It’s why Okafor wrote Edge Of Here — a book described as a collection that combines the ancient and the ultramodern to explore tales of contemporary Black womanhood. “I thought I was just going to write stories where Black women are just living life. Because that in itself is a protest; Black women having some mess romantically here and there, Black women engaging with tech like in the world that they exist in, Black women in polyamorous relationships where they respect each other…”
As the dust settles on the Peckham hair shop scandal, falling to the very back of the UK media cycle, I wonder how Kelechi plans to keep up the momentum, what showing up for Black women means in this moment of her life. “This book is a protest, but not in a way that I'm gonna be screaming and shouting — Edge Of Here is definitely not what people expected me to write. Showing up for Black women can also be as simple and as loving as writing a world where Black women can escape to and know that they'll be held.”