The genesis of this post occurred during a discussion I had with Yassine Rahal a few months ago. I had meant to post this back then but never got round to writing up my thoughts. With the recent spat of blackface scandals I definitely feel that it’s the right time to engage in this kind of discussion.
After being featured on Madame Noire back in August as one of "15 Of The Finest Black Male Models Working Today" one commentator was unhappy with Yassine’s inclusion as "being from Morocco he was Arab and not Black". Yassine found it quite funny but to me it represents a deeper issue within the global Black community about what “Blackness” constitutes; who can be included and who should be excluded. Having spent some of his life in France but originally from Morocco, Yassine identifies with both a French culture as well as a Moroccan one. His family have a long history there, and he identifies obviously as Moroccan but also Arab and African. According to Yassine his mother looks ‘Southeast Asian’, whilst his father looks ‘mixed’ i.e. like someone with both Caucasian and Black/African heritage. Most of his relatives have skin tones ranging from medium to very dark skinned resembling most West Africans to those that look unmistakeably Arab. His Blackness” as it were, was first introduced to him when he started modelling and began to experience the racism and discrimination that most Black models in the fashion industry face. With his brown skin, ‘curly/coily’ hair texture and full lips Yassine has features that would lead most people to describe him as Black but also Arab.
But why am I writing about this? Well, with the recent spat of blackface scandals, I definitely think the notion of identity and how one chooses to identity themselves is very much a discussion we need to be having more often. To me blackface is so offensive because my identity as a black person becomes a plaything for white people. A chance for them to wear a costume, or “go native”, have a little fun, look a little silly (let’s be real no black person has ever or will ever look like that!), then go home and wash the bronzer and black shoe polish off their face whilst returning back to their normal lives infused with their white privilege. They never have to face the things that I as a black woman face on a daily basis. Looks, stares at my highly textured hair, people pushing ahead of me in supermarkets like I’m invisible, people barging past me on public transport, retail assistant who refuse to look me in the eye or drop the change on the counter instead of in my hand, colleagues or friends who make jokes about other black people to my face but it’s okay because “I’m different, I don’t act like that”. White men who see me as an exotic or foreign despite the fact that I speak perfect English and have lived in the UK for over 20 years. I could go on and on and on. They never have to experience any of this and the idea that it is okay to paint your face or wear my identity; my daily struggles, my complicated ancestral history as a costume is quite frankly disgusting.
Who we are and how we identify ourselves as Black people is so diverse, whether African, Caribbean, Mixed, African-American, Black British, Dominican, etc. Light-skinned or dark-skinned. Broad flat nose, or narrow perky nose. Full hips and lips or thin hips and lips. Flat backside or full backside; the African diaspora covers a wide range of facial features, skin tones, hair and body types. Many of the models featured on this blog are mixed such as Eryck Lafromboise, Rob Evans, Dudley O’Shaughnessy and Abiah Hostvedt. I try and show as many different representations of ‘Black’ models as I can. I know other blogs such as black-boys has received several negative messages because such and such model isn’t really ‘Black’ because their skin is too light or they have red hair, which is just ridiculous. You cannot enforce your own notions of identity onto someone else. The word itself is Identity not Wedentity or Usdentity!
How you identify yourself becomes much more complex when you are mixed or grow up within a mix of cultures. Whilst I’m fully Nigerian, and was born in Nigeria, I grew up here in the UK. In the past I’ve struggled with being not quite Nigerian enough and also not quite English enough. There are parts of Nigerian culture that I don’t identify with but also parts of English culture that I don’t identify with. If anything I see myself as more British than English. White British people constantly remind me that I’m not really English when they ask where I’m from. I always respond with “South East London” and they always respond with “No, you know, originally?”. Nigerians always remind me that I’m not Nigerian enough when they discover that I don’t speak Yoruba. The look of disappointment and disgust is one I’ve come to know very well. Whenever my parents are angry with me it’s always “Oh you think you’re an English girl” despite the fact that I’ve grown up and lived in London since I was two, something which I had no control over. I’ve come to a place where I can only be who I am without worrying or subscribing to other people’s labels. I’d like to think that who I am as a 25 year old British Nigerian woman is an amalgamation of the best parts of both cultures. My sarcasm/dry wit and realism is unmistakeably British. My strong work ethic and respect for family traditions is no question a result of my Nigerian heritage.
How important is identity to you? I’m posing this as a discussion because I want to know your views. I’ll be reading all of your comments/messages and posting the majority of them in the coming weeks. Is identity something you’ve struggled with or found easy to establish? Do you think it’s okay to impose your own sense of identity onto someone else?