Who does the work, whilst white people think about race?

The below piece of writing was originally intended as an email to my academic supervisors, but it is now a reflective essay about the impacts of whiteness within the academic and cultural sector . 

Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

Dear _____, _______ and ______,

I have now entered the last year of my PhD program and my future beholds! During this time I have taught at a university on topics I enjoy; but being the only Black person / not white anything in my department has been absolutely soul destroying. I no longer want to teach.

I have also had the opportunity to present at a number of conferences over the past few months, and produced public papers about my research which has been well received. I realised that, again, I was the only Black person/ not white anything in the room. And I no longer want to speak. 

More recently, I attended a conference in Oxford organised by the Arts Humanities Research Council (AHRC) for Collaborative Doctoral Partnership (CDP)  students like myself. I was again the only Black person/ not white anything in the room. I no longer want to attend things.

Can you see a pattern emerging here? Why am I always the sole Black person/ not white anything in the room? It is incredibly boring, are you not bored too? This reality: a lonely and mundane one, of being the Black stain against the white backdrop is not a source of  joy for me, quite far from it actually. I do not enjoy occupying both hyper visibility and invisibility, it is quite confusing and crazy-making. It always makes me want to retreat, to pack up my metaphysical cavalry of excellence and retreat. Retreat to where, I don’t quite know. Retreat in to myself? Retreat beyond the borders of whiteness? Retreat somewhere safe, somewhere I am seen, acknowledged and valued? Perhaps somewhere where I am not mistaken for the help, (not that there is anything wrong in that); or someone who is lost and has clearly walked into the wrong room, oblivious to the fact that they quite frankly do not belong there. I don’t know where, but somewhere…

So Oxford, my most recent experience of being the only Black person/ not white anything in the room, I didn’t actually consider that I would really be the only Black person/ not white anything in the room. I did not mentally prepare myself for that role, I assumed due to the title of the conference, ‘challenging histories’ it would have attracted other students of Colour. I was wrong. So perhaps unlike those other moments of being the only Black person / not white anything in the room, it felt even more rude; as if someone had abruptly woken me up from a sleep that I was pleasantly enjoying. When I walked in to the room surveying the contours of faces, textures of hair and pigmentations of skin and then being violently confronted with this overwhelmingly stark white room; to say I was disappointed would have been an understatement. I felt my being collapse into myself.  I was a paradox: both hyper-visible and invisible. Then it all came. All of  those memories of being the only Black person/ not white anything in room came. They arrived punctual and orderly, each ready and waiting to give their perfectly rehearsed testimonies of when I was the only Black person / not white anything in the room. They all spoke loudly in perfectly pitched chorus, ‘why are you surprised Janine? You know this routine Janine.’ It is true, I do know this routine, for it is a dance that was choregraphed before many of  us could even walk. We were only ever expected to do add-libs, there was never an expectation to make it our ‘own,’ or worse, lead the dance.

So here I am in Oxford, in this the conference drowning in whiteness, aimlessly splashing around and trying my best to keep afloat, trying not fall under the tide of hostilities that whiteness creates. Catching the eyes of my fellow white students who would either look past me or grimace,  but the corners of their mouths never reaches their eyes, ‘that’s not a proper smile’ my great aunt would say ‘a sign of disingenuousness,’ I say. Having only 7 white people, (yes I counted) who felt moved enough to talk to me, after bravely disclosing how anxious I felt about being the only Black person/ not white anything in the room, in a conference about ‘challenging histories,’ over the course of 2 days, out of a cohort of 30 people was unsurprising to say the least. As mentioned, I did not mentally prepare myself for this…. (do white people “mentally prepare” themselves for  such mundane things?) I always like to think my mental preparations as mini psychic versions of me dressed in riot gear, armed with a full arsenal of weapons ready to battle whiteness. Instead my mini psychic versions of me were dressed ready for a night out with their pals, no proper coat, scarf or hat; ignoring their mother’s warnings about catching a cold. I caught pneumonia that day. 

 Whilst I spent most of the day with my fellow white CDP students with them either not talking to me, looking past or through me, I wondered what was so fundamentally different about me to my white peers? After all, I was wearing African print headscarf, Black lipstick, a leopard print dress and was the only Black person/ not white anything in the room. I was completely incognito.  When I did engage in a conversation with one of my white peers who asked what university I attended and I replied the University of Bedfordshire. They felt it was completely necessary to make an off-hand remark, which meant that I felt it was completely necessary to give them a full read for reproducing elitism. And then sauntered off, channelling my best Destiny’s Child strut (imagine the closing sequence of the ‘lose my breath’ video) mimicking every gesture and flick I had to hand, reminding her that I had the moral upper hand. But did I really? 

Later that evening I sunk into the gap that forms when two-single beds are pushed together and I realised that I wanted to cry. Like really cry. Like hysterically over the top cry. The kind of cry with salty tears that burns your eyes, streams down your face, drips in to your mouth; and you can taste every last piece of strength you had that day cry. The kind of cry that makes you look really, really ugly, cry. The kind of cry that promises you false hope, that tomorrow will be better cry,  all is going to be okay cry,  you just need to get it out of your system cry; this is an emotionally healthy cry. The kind of cry where you convince yourself it is not your fault cry. It is their fault cry. They are to blame cry. The cry that is full of, anger, astonishment and admiration that you made it this far cry. The type of cry you cry, because you know there will be future cries and this will not be your last cry, cry. As they (whiteness) have already conspired to remind you about this cry. That lingering  cry, that doesn’t quite make it out, cry. I-just-wanted-to -cry. However, the thought of having to reapply my make-up and rebuild myself all before dinner felt far too indulgent. And besides, I am not a white woman, I cannot cry on demand.  

When I arrived for dinner, I sat alone the entire time, I watched new friendships and even lovers form. I watched from afar how white people affirm each other, with small sneaky smiles and scrunched up eyes, careless giggles and bellowing laughter, I watched wine being poured, spaces being made they were happy with and amongst each other. They were with their kind.  I sat alone the entire time and watched. I can only describe it as racially bizarre because they (the white CDP students) knew exactly who I was, because when the waiter called my name to serve me my meal, they gestured at me. Whilst eating my starter, I pointed this out to the CDP coordinator (who is white), my loneliness, I did so, because I knew she could see it, what was happening before her very eyes. But this is how whiteness works you see,  because instead of asking if I’m ok? she asked if I felt that BAME people felt like PhDs were not for them? I became the problem.  I, laughed, because what a funny thing to say to a Black PhD student sitting right before you. My laughter was punctuated with her silence. I sighed and rolled my eyes and I answered, ‘we are not the problem, you (all white female administration teams in the cultural/academic sector) are the problem, this room (disproportionate number of white students getting full scholarships) is the problem, you (overwhelmingly white, statistically regressed cultural and academic sector) not seeing our intelligence, our value and our credibility is the problem. You (white middle-class decision makers) not giving us scholarships or there being so few academics of colour is the problem. I know of people  (of Colour) dropping out because navigating racism became too much to bear. And they had went far beyond their breaking point.  Oh we deserve to be here, I deserve to be here, but you (whiteness/ white people) are robbing us of our place.’She responded by addressing an email enquiry I had sent her a few weeks back, completely unrelated to her question and my response. Afterwards, I got up and left the restaurant. I couldn’t take it anymore. One of my main regrets of that evening was not finishing my dessert. 

Later that evening I became seriously ill. Now, I am not saying that the food made me ill, neither am I saying the days event made me ill. But I was disgusted with both and I did become ill when encountering both. But anyway, I digress, I was still ill the following day and so I missed most of the conference. But arrived with just enough energy, patience and will to complete my presentation (which was really for my CV anyway). I spoke about my research, white people asked questions, I answered and I reminded them about their behaviour from yesterday. I gave a full glorious shade as if one was lounging under a parasol on a Caribbean beach somewhere. Yet after academically labouring and literally spelling out the impacts of coloniality, white supremacy and begging for specificity when discussing race; I clearly must have been speaking alien for about 30 minutes, because why would my fellow white student ask ‘how do we bring ‘challenging histories’ to our audiences‘ right after my presentation? (Or something along those lines).  Other than they were not listening and dismissed my entire presentation. So imagine my dismay. Was he not listening? (Clearly he was not l-i-s-t-e-n-i-n-g). So I asked, (mainly for false clarification sake) what ‘audiences’ (obviously white) are you referring too? Do you mean white audiences? (Of course he meant white audiences, otherwise he would have used something like ‘diverse,’ ‘non-traditional,’ ‘inclusive’ or ‘non-conventional’ audiences to describe us not white anythings. The only people without racial description are white people because they are always the norm).  It was a question I repeated several times, mainly because I wanted to confirm what I already knew. I didn’t receive a direct answer…Whenever I experience racism, I see myself as this statue, there sits this hunched over little white man on a stool, chisel in hand, who eagerly awaits to chip away at each encounter. Sometimes because racism is tiring work of course, he takes a break and sometimes an equally hunched over white woman replaces him, and sometimes they are both there together chipping away at me. Sometimes, I stand afar watching them chip away and then watch fragments of myself float away into an abyss,  that lays with the chippings of others. Sometimes, I wonder if this is what whiteness and white supremacy does when it chips away at us, we lose fragment of ourselves. Is it trying to harm our essence?  Disconnect us from ourselves? Is it trying to erase our existence?

I often watch Black people (and People of Colour), practice the dance of whiteness, sometimes they do so until their toes bleed like a ballerinas, who contort their bodies in unnatural positions. You see their congealed blood beaming through their shoes and hunched backs under jackets- who too learn the art of chipping away at others.  Sometimes they rehearse so intently, so vigorously that they injure themselves, but still continuing to dance on that dislocated knee, until they know every beat, step, tilt and  gesture by heart; even taking the time to learn the part that white people perform. But this choreography, this dance we are forced to learn but not participate in, was always intended for them, right. They were expected to be the dancers, both leading and supporting, they were the rhythm, the steps, the auditorium and the audience; it was all made for them. Whiteness is their source of entertainment. We were there only to be spectators and to provide add-libs when called upon and discarded once our cameo appearance was done. And sometimes if we were lucky, our cameos might last that little bit longer, especially if we could convince them that it was all the same dance and the Black dancer was just a  technical glitch. (It is always a ‘technical glitch’ when we are the only Black / not white anythings present).  These Black performers, so skilled, so talented, always graceful and gentle in their movements, never aggressive, kind, palatable but the most of all understanding. The good ones. I envy them. You see constantly performing and giving away their essence is their dance, they were never really dancing to whiteness though. But do not tell them that.  As someone with two left feet who finds learning dance routines quite stressful and chaotic, I no longer envy them. I pity them. For I know this is not my dance, so why bother to try in the first place?

So, imagine how relieved I felt when I arrived back in London to then experience an anxiety attack. Having to allow an hour to past, whilst I sat in Paddington station calming myself  down before travelling on the underground. The number of times I’ve experienced these anxiety attacks after racism is un-telling. There always an interesting correlation between my anxiety attacks and racism. Now I am not saying that racism causes me anxiety, I’m just say that its interesting they both always happen at the same time. The last time I experienced anxiety, a  white female middle-class senior member of staff at Tate felt it necessary to correct my speech and pronunciation of words. For a good while afterwards, I pestered people asking if my speech was clear. I am just trying to connect the dots.  You know, like the ones you did as a child  in those drawing pages that formed a name, or shape, but in my case it was that I clearly do not belong in these spaces. That whilst I am clearly academically gifted, it is unlikely that I will ever get a job in academia or the cultural sector. Although this would be a great shame, because the ‘world’ needs to know, that I, Janine exist. However, I know that I do not want to experience a mental breakdown of some kind which is very possible being both a PhD student and a Black Woman navigating this crazy-making world. I know that whiteness is a psychosis, a dis-ease, a poison for me and others. I know that white people find my intelligence intimidating and my outspokenness aggressive. I know they will (because they do) un/consciously draw on  white supremacist behaviours to remind me of my place; you are the help who wandered into the wrong room, remember?! I know that this is not unique to me. So after knowing all of this, why bother work in a sector that is not mentally and emotionally safe for me to simply be me?

I remember before the conference ended, one of the (many) white female coordinators shared there was a lot to think to close the day? I noticed that white people fear racial conflict – even in the abstract. And so I end with this last thought, if white people are ‘thinking’ about race, who is doing the work?

Words: It Janine BTW!

Subediting: Monique Francois

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