By the time I’d gotten to work, I’d cleaned the mixture of saliva and soggy potato off my dress, re-applied my Fenty lip gloss and spent the day acting like I was FINE.
How else is a black woman who works as a senior corporate executive and leads a team, supposed to get through her day, not to mention excel in her job?
Selah Brown is a 35-year-old black woman living in London. Here she shares the experiences of racial microaggressions towards her from white people, friends and colleagues throughout her life and how they have shaped the woman she is today.
“That’s appalling!” my colleague gasped as I found myself sharing another, ’This one time…’ story during a video call – about the time a man chewed a mouthful of crisps specifically so he could spit them on me as I walked into a W.H. Smith’s.
I was wearing a dazzling £900 Marni dress, but it turns out not even a designer frock can extend its powers to shield me from the microaggressions I brace myself for on a regular basis.
But this week feels different. Suddenly, during what is apparently a first in my living memory, Black Lives Matter to more people and brands than I’ve ever witnessed.
It’s become a catalyst for a shift in conversations that I’m not sure any of us were prepared for. “How has this affected to you?” has literally become the opening topic of team Zoom calls and anxious WhatsApp messages. One black friend was asked this in front of eight colleagues and was mortified she could do little more than sob. This morning at 1am – because we are not sleeping well right now – she told me, When they asked, all I could do was cry, Remembering all the times my mother would tell me,
Smell clean, stand straight, don’t be too loud… you’re already black, don’t give them another reason to hate you, before she straightened my uniform and sent me out the door to school.’
This was the message we internalised before we even made it to adulthood, communicated by our mothers, desperate to shield us from the worst of what they’d already been through. It didn’t work though. We’d still get to school and endure being chased, our body shapes laughed at, our names mispronounced if we sounded too African, and, if a teacher was really riled up, being told to “go back where we came from” by an adult who was supposed to be someone we could look up to.
I’m not talking about children in school now, who have more of a framework for raising complaints against discrimination. I’m talking about women who were in school in the 1980s and 1990s. These are the black women who are your colleagues and friends now. And what we are carrying and unpacking this week goes back at least that far, for us.
Daily this week, someone has said to me, “I see you” – to convey solidarity without realising they’re also emphasising how invisible, or worse, despised I’ve been made to feel, up until now. I understand their comment is inspired by articles like Danielle Cadet’s ‘Your Black Colleagues May Look Like They Are Doing Well – They Are Not’ which is currently being shared virally across social media.
I also know that we have to start somewhere, so I am actively appreciating it when people have begun to ask me if I have experienced racism. But long before this week, black women have been concealing, overcompensating and overcoming microaggression damage just to be in the room with people who don’t know how to see us. That’s why we’ve never been OK.
Not many of my close friends are asking me about racism. They’re too busy letting the penny drop as they reflect on those times they’ve heard me explain the complex, costly process I go through every two months to sew straight textured hair wefts over my afro hair. This has been the first week I’ve been able to admit my hair habit is fuelled by that one time a boy shouted across a packed playground that my natural afro looked like pubes on my head. I couldn’t sink into the concrete that day, but I damn sure prioritised investing in covering my hair as soon as I was earning my own money.
Did you know black women in the UK spend eight times the national average on their hair care? And that the majority of that spend is on chemicals to burn our hair straight or extensions to cover it entirely? Yet that effort, is somehow a thousand times easier than repeatedly standing on a Tube escalator and realising a white person behind you has thrust their hand into your hair. You turn, feeling violated, only to be met with “I just had to touch it” tumbling unapologetically out of their mouths.
The ‘it’ is the most interesting part of the sentence, for me. Because when you feel treated like a pet, like an animal that someone can just reach out and touch with no permission or boundaries, it just confirms that they are not viewing you as another fully human being. And when you don’t see someone as a human being, that’s how it becomes chillingly possible to sit on their neck in a street.
Micro denotes something small, yet that doesn’t make it insignificant. If anything, it’s often the tiniest digs that leave the deepest wounds.
It’s those tiny cuts you’re already nursing from way back, that trigger sharp pain in the here and now. Like that time Danny Baker suggested a newborn royal was a chimp, causing black people everywhere to wrestle with painful memories of hearing chimp noises sent in their direction on the street or football pitch. Yet when black people then demand an apology, we’re told very firmly to stop overreacting.
The hardest thing about microaggressions is how often people who perpetrate them view them as compliments. They whisper conspiratorially, “Oh, I don’t see you as really black” before leaning back so they can get the full view of me basking in the delight of their concept of inclusion.
That comment usually comes from a sister-in-law or colleague. As long as I don’t see myself as black and they don’t either, then I can share in all the dreams and achievements they feel entitled to for themselves. I once had a senior executive tell me I should be proud of myself for all I had achieved professionally, despite being black. I cried for a week, but he never saw a tear. More importantly, he held a lot of influence over whether I could stay in that job.
Those constant reminders that invalidate our hurt have silenced us for too long. But the shift, as traumatic as this week has already been, is creating the most unexpected miracle.
It’s Thursday and already I’ve had the beautiful John Boyega give a tearful speech, calling for the special protection of black women. Brands are littering my social feeds with awkward reassurance that they stand with me – which I arch an eyebrow to as I wonder if they’ve finally realised they can’t do without our spending, even though they rarely include us in their editorial or advertising. And honesty.
Woah, there is so much honesty happening. This is something I could not have written so honestly a fortnight ago. But now that people are asking, I’m pulling myself back from breaking point by just trying to speak my whole truth like I have nothing to lose and, finally, my sense of self to gain.