Before reading the blog, please consider making a donation to one or more of the following deserving organisations:
- BLAM Charity
- The Black Curriculum
- UK Black Pride
- Black Cultural Archives
- Black Lives Matter UK
- Black Minds Matter
- LGBT Foundation
- Show Racism the Red Card
- Stephen Lawrence Trust
- Stand Up to Racism
- Southall Black Sisters
- Stand Against Racism & Inequality
I sit here in my pyjama’s and bath robe, freshly showered, drinking cider with my husband as we winddown for our Saturday night. We haven’t done this in over a month I think. The pandemic had already given our life a complete overhaul. Then the Black Lives Matter movement spread across the world at an even faster rate. People have wondered what gave the movement such momentum compared to 2012 when BLM began. My armchair opinion is that the continued needless police murders of innocent black lives caught on camera and broadcast globally on social media during lockdown were akin to a match dropped into a tank of lighter fluid. Isolating ourselves at home, the developed world had increased their screentime by over 50% and there was just no avoiding the repeated and historical racist transgressions of the police, on a global scale. By implication this also drew our attention to systemic racism across all institutions, social structures, indeed all social spaces. For anyone with any social conscience it was a brutal, harsh and painful awakening.
With my heritage as a second generation immigrant, born to Hong Kong Cantonese parents in a small coastal town in North Yorkshire I am accustomed to being “not from around here” even though I am indeed from around here. So, although I am very familiar with racism in all its overt forms, it was alarming to look internally and realise the extent of internalised racism I also carry, to this very moment. Disparaging misconceptions of black people that I have internalised from my elders. Racial slurs that I would never dare utter in English, yet comfortably use in Cantonese until only the last year. The reflection in the racism mirror is ugly, and then I started to tackle the racism I had perpetuated in my art.
I’m not particularly proud of this area, but I share it in the hope that it will help another henna friend who may be facing their own racism mirror and having difficulty with atoning for what they see there. Many of you will already know that my henna journey began only in 2013 – a mere 7 years ago. Henna as body adornment by then had existed for over 5000 years according to archeological evidence. My subsequent ascension in the professional henna society was rapid, a combination of my quick learning skills (I love to learn, anything) and my ‘good immigrant’ model minority personality. I was quickly welcomed into circles of influence – I created a regional community group with 18 months. I was an international instructor within 3 years. Won a regional award by 4 years. And formally initiated in the online henna community with a moderator role. The acceptance via recognition and accolades was intoxicatingly dizzying.
I only learned recently through reading & self-study that my sense of identity and belonging have always been weak and neglected, which goes some way to explain why I have spent my entire life anxiously yearning and searching for a place to belong. Somewhere I can be my authentic self. Somewhere I can call My Village with My People. My home and my little family were set up, and I felt that the henna community was the final piece of the puzzle. Like the good immigrant I have always been, I assimilated and integrated within nanoseconds. No adjustment period necessary. It was like I had always belonged. Without hesitation I was advocating the prescriptive professional community standards: Use only natural henna; Condemn all imitation/chemicalised henna; Only recognising ‘professional’ henna artists if they have insurance with some effort towards branding along with a close-to-advanced level of artistry regardless of cultural heritage. I didn’t question it. It was logical and sensible.
It did not occur to me that what was actually happening was that the 5000 year old art and craft of henna had been gentrified. In the 1990s a white American lady was the first to document scientific experiments on the dye properties of the henna plant, on how to maximise the dye release, on the best conditions for mixing, and also set a standard protocol for anyone who would decide upon henna as their artistic career path. By the time I entered the upper echelons of henna influence, social media had closely networked an artistic community that was previously divided by physical, geographic distance. The world was smaller. The art of henna was more visible, more shared. It became a renaissance movement for henna body art, and I had been given a seat at the table in the palace where judgement was passed. It seemed of little consequence to me that this plant and its uses for body adornment on hair and skin had existed for 5000 years without any need for this institutionalised intervention. It hadn’t occurred to me that the accusations of cultural appropriation that I could hear were not against henna as a medium for art by non-POC with no equatorial descent – but that it had been gentrified by white women who had created an inherently racist standard to measure and judge the world’s henna artists. It was arrogant and ignorant in its insistence that it was ‘honouring’ the legacy of henna. And I was completely complicit.
My rose-tinted view took approximately a year to fade. My fall from grace came slowly, with social punishment and significant emotional trauma (as I keep telling you – clearly I have an issue there).
I no longer belonged. I had been rejected.
The 2020 Black Lives Matter movement brought with it new vernacular. We had already added social distancing, pandemic, personal protective equipment (PPE) into our daily conversations. BLM has added even more vocabulary with terms including systemic racism, white privilege, model minority myth, white silence, white fragility, code-switching, internalised racism, and more (Google these to find the definitions). I have been immersing myself in learning about racism. I gave myself a reading list*. I studiously began to consume the books both in physical and audio form. I took notes. I applied the new knowledge in order to solidify my learning. And I realised the urgent need to call-out the gentrified structure of the online henna community, just one. More. Time. You can witness the actions I took and the consequences of those actions in my social media, in ‘my document‘ and in the previous blog update. I don’t want to drain you by repeating myself.
…. I question myself constantly.
Could I have handled it better? Should I have been more gentle with my tone? Should I have reached out privately [again]? Was there another way I could have made my former colleagues and friends hear my pain and discomfort? Did I expect too much from them? Am I just too much for everyone? Too passionate. Too loud. Too involved. Too exhausting. Too demanding. Too direct. Too harsh. I look at the events and messages and screenshots. I consider everything backwards, inside-out, upside-down, diagonally and fragmentally. I can’t see any other way I could have tackled it. And yet, I still hold belief that I am in the wrong, despite evidence to the contrary. This, according to my therapist, is what anxiety does.
This is the first time in my life that I have invested in regular counselling to manage the poltergeist in my life – my anxiety. I believe that investing in fortnightly counselling has given me the strength to raise my voice to say: NO. I will not let this happen again.
And once I had used my voice once, I found myself using it again.
And I know with a fair degree of certainty that I will do it again when the situation arises. Silence is, as I have personally experienced, a very damaging compliance.
Inevitably there was backlash for which I was naively unprepared. I knew there would be people who don’t agree with my methods. But what I was not prepared for was the sensation of being given apologies that I struggled to accept. Or apologies that were performative and empty. Or apologies that came with apologetic emotional accounts of traumatic and abusive histories. I have learned some horrible childhood histories in the last 3 days. I was not prepared for this specific type of emotional weight. I was also not prepared to learn the true extent of fragility in the white woman. From tone policing to the bombardment of insidiously polite words in debate-style as insistent, dogmatic justification for why I am wrong to feel what I feel, and even worse share it. I have very consciously refrained from making direct accusations. I’ve only provided visuals of what I experienced from my point of view, then shared how traumatised I am, along with the state of my mental health as a result. The line between my self, and my anxiety blurs with each retort, and from there it doesn’t take much for the anxiety to take over.
This is where I am at: Walking the slack rope between my rational mind, and my paranoid anxious mind. And this is likely to be very common for every single one of us engaging in anti-racism work while balancing mental health issues.
So, now what do I do?
Anxiety tells me every 5 minutes that the only surefire solution is to Shut Up and Sit Down. Be quiet. Stop talking about anti-racism. Stop talking about how it is affecting me. Stop noticing when systemic racism is at play. Stop creating more trouble and backlash.
My support system (hubs and my lovely counsellor) insist otherwise. They tell me emphatically that I need radical self-care and boundaries of steel. Setting firm and specific boundaries, such as fixed times for anti-racism work, specific channels for communication and discussions, immediately deleting any messages or comments with negative opening sentences. Most importantly I must unequivocally keep my evenings free from anti-racism work so that I can maintain a healthy family life. Additionally, self-care needs to go beyond taking a relaxing bath, or exercising. I need to remember to do things that make me feel good. All of these will serve to protect me from allowing the anxiety to dominate and skewing my perception of reality. If like me you also live with your own poltergeist-like anxiety, then these are all important actions to take while you tackle unlearning internalised racism and engaging in anti-racism work. It is deep work that goes right into the core of who we are as social beings – and it is frequently very unsettling. If you don’t take care of your self, you will burn out with emotional exhaustion very, very quickly, thus sabotaging all your hard work. We need to remember that this is a lifelong marathon, and not a 7-day sprint. Endurance. Pace. Cadence. That’s what we need most. Take it at a pace that is suited to you. Always (and I mean ALWAYS) use your voice. Small measured doses, as frequently as you can manage. Never stop learning. Don’t give up when it gets difficult. Celebrate the tiny milestones, and then keep going because you know as well as I do: We can do this.
Postscript: Thank you deeply to everyone who has made a contribution as a result of my document on systemic racism in the henna hub. These contributions enable me to top-up with additional counselling sessions as I continue with the work and emotional energy of using my anxious voice for anti-racism.
*Finally, here is my reading list for anti-racism work in the order I have been reading them and my suggestions. Please, if you want to do your part in understanding anti-racism, try one of these books in whatever format is accessible to you:
- Why I’m no longer talking to White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge : A great place to begin. Reni fills in historical omissions in white history, highlighting how white supremacy has been carefully maintained.
- Brit(ish) – Afua Hirsch : Essential reading for any human in the UK. Compulsory reading for all immigrants and their descendants.
- Me and White Supremacy – Layla F Saad : Currently working through. This is a workbook with journalling prompts for 28 days. It’s direct and reflective work. I recommend discussing this book with a support system, book club, or loved ones which will help greatly.
- Native – Akala : Just started reading
- How to be an Anti Racist – Ibram X Kendi : Yet to start reading