To whoever wants to understand,
I am so profoundly sad. As I write, I cry – the kind of tears that feel as though they will never end, the kind that are experienced in times of deep sadness – they are rare and I cry not just for me, but for everyone.
It is important that I tell my story.
It begins with the letter M:
I have always been marginalised.
I suppose in many ways this comes hand-in-hand with the territory. I am an out-spoken, quirky, mixed-race female with working class roots from a middle-class background. I come from a predominantly white area in Salford and have attended both private and state schools.
Due to my heritage I am connected with countries all over the world, from Jamaica to India, Britain to Canada to those native to Jamaica – the Arawak Indians. My roots spread from continent to continent; I am firmly grounded in an amalgam of complexity and it is safe to say that because of this my experiences vary immensely from my peers.
It is reasonable to say I am often the outsider or the other, in many ways, which stem from both a conscious and unconscious ignorance, I’ve been treated as such. We live in a society where difference is immediately associated with wrongness and because of this I have experienced marginalisation, prejudice and racism in its many-faced forms, all of which are cruel, vicious and ugly.
I have suffered at the hands of my peers and teachers alike. This was especially problematic the three years I attended private school and I was subjected to horrific torment and verbal abuse. It is these experiences that shaped some of my most important years and they will stay with me for the rest of my life. It is because of this I am aware of a deeply ingrained racism and elitism that is inherent within the world of education. I suppose that is what inspired me to write this article, a recent situation at university which – as unintentional as it may have been – left me feeling extremely uncomfortable.
One of the course texts Three Lives, written by Gertrude Stein, was abhorrently racist and I’m not talking about the kind of racism that is addressed constructively, or racism that establishes social and historical context, I’m talking down-right blatant racism with no reasonable justification.
The story told the lives of three women, two white and the other girl of mixed-race background, or “mulatto”. My mixed heritage made me immediately connect with this character – at what other point am I going to find a mixed-race woman represented on an English Literature course?
I read the story only to be met with repugnant words that left me feeling bitter for days; the word “nigger” was used multiple times in both the dialogue and the narrative voice. When the time came for the lecture the novel was introduced as a “Negro” text, and it was at this moment that I felt there was something wrong. I felt that I was not a student studying in 2017 Britain but had in fact time-travelled back to the not-so-distant past, to a time when it was considered progressive to call black people Negroes, to a time when institutionalised racism was not considered racism at all.
The mixed-raced girl depicted, Melanthca, was ‘half white’ and had been ‘half made with real white blood’; this not only drew attention to the fact I was the only mixed-race woman in the room, but the only person of colour too.
When the tutor was questioned about the racism inherent within the novella he did indeed acknowledge the prejudice within the text, but argued that the use of innovative language overshadowed this, stating that it was acceptable because it was a highly original artistic endeavour.
I was shocked: artistic genius does not justify racism, not ever and certainly not now. It is the implementation of this age-old ideology that is so apparent in modern academia; it is both wrong and concerning. Academic institutions are a place where new ideas are supposed to flourish, yet in reality it is where outdated modes of thinking thrive.
Someone in the seminar asked the tutor if he thought it appropriate for a white, middle class woman to assume the experiences of a mixed-race working class female. The tutor replied that denying the re-writing of another’s experiences would be to deny the imagination; he wholeheartedly failed to recognise the implications behind this for someone like me.
It is clear he has spoken from a position of privilege and a position of ignorance, standing above all as a white middle class male and a university professor. It is this pedestal that blinkers not only his perception but many other academics.
It was an extremely alienating situation and for the first time in many years I became hyper-aware of my ethnicity. I was the elephant in the room, an imposter – why was I in a room full of white people, studying English literature at a highly-rated academic institution? It scares me that this is a question I felt necessary to ask.
My argument here is not that we do not study texts that include racist narratives and rhetoric; it is a part of history that we all need to embrace. Rather it is the way that these texts are embraced that needs to be considered. If we are to progress further and away from racist structures then they need to be dealt with sensitively; the racism should not be overlooked. If the texts are racist then it needs to be discussed sensitively, with an awareness of how it may makes “the other” feel. Whether people like it or not the nature of our ever-diversifying society means that more and more people like me will be accepted into academic institutions.
Awareness is necessary.
Change is necessary.
But change only occurs when we use our voices.
I want to reiterate: just because prejudice isn’t overt does not mean it doesn’t exist. It is subtle, it is hidden and it is discreet. But I cannot hide and nor will I. I do not want sympathy. I do not want pity. I want empathy. I want understanding. I want to be heard. I want change.
This article was originally posted on Aimie's blog; Digging With Duggan