While working as a security guard for John Lewis, I would usually face customers disappointed with the services provided and inevitably demand a refund. Sometimes it was warranted; sometimes it was not. Nonetheless, on one occasion, I was having a conversation with a colleague, and while talking, a customer kicked off towards a manager about being ‘mistreated’. The woman raised her voice, stating: “You’re being racist.”
That statement immediately caught the attention of everyone within the store.
The woman was elderly and Black. As security guards, we have a radio line with each other and whilst the incident was going on, I heard that the manager who was handling the situation called us in for support. Security is only supposed to intervene when the safety of colleagues, customers, and the store is at risk. Watching the situation live, it was clear that this incident didn’t present that level of danger.
You’re probably thinking: “Then why did the manager call us in for support?”
I was pretty relaxed about the situation and left it to one of the senior colleagues to deal with the matter. The colleague handling the issue radioed in, stating, “It’s the usual, nothing to worry about.”
The incident itself never struck me, as most people have probably witnessed a situation like this unfold with a department store. But one thing that did, was a comment the colleague who I was initially speaking to made.
“They always bring up race, like not everything is about race,” he said.
Who are they?
The colleague who said that was an Englishman in his late twenties.
The moment those words came out of his mouth, two options sprung to mind. The first was “Should I school this brother about race?” Or “should I just let it slide because I don’t want to exert the energy that would be needed once I say what is required to?”
I was at a point in my life where I felt confident to articulate the intricacies of race. At the time, I was studying for my masters, and my brain was on instant reflex regarding the topic.
I ended up just leaving it.
Based on previous interactions with this guy, I knew it would just be long, and I just wanted to enjoy my afternoon.
In this essay though, I hope to respond to that statement and conceptualise race for young children who may find it challenging to deal with real-life racism. As well as highlight the role of race in all its facets, I also hope to give you an insight into how this has impacted my journey to understanding my own identity.
“Race is one of the key organising principles in human interaction and the idea behind the cause of genocide, murder, enslavement, inequality and injustice. Understanding how the myth is sustained is crucial for moving towards an equitable and sustainable future”, says Dr Lisa Kingstone.
The invention of race
Many historians point to Bacon’s rebellion as the point in history when race was formed. Bacon’s rebellion saw the union of indentured white and black servants and white and black slaves against the colony of Virginia. This union amongst the different groups alarmed the white elites of its substantial economic and political ramifications. Hence, as a divide and conquer strategy, the ruling class gave white indentured servants the privilege of whiteness to identify themselves with the ruling class.
Rather than improve the livelihood of the underclass white people, they chose to debase the life of black people.
However, this is not to say that race never existed before this point in history.
Prophet Muhammed (SAW) hadith proves this.
“There is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab, or of a non-Arab over an Arab, and no superiority of a white person over a black person or of a black person over a white person, except on the basis of personal piety and righteousness.”
I would argue that Bacon’s rebellion was the point in which the white ruling class used race to sustain superiority and gain power within all spheres of life at the expense of black people.
To manifest whiteness and blackness into reality, the ruling class encoded the races into law:
- The State of Virginia forbid black people and slaves from bearing arms
- The introduction of a law that prohibits black people from congregating in large numbers
- The introduction of law mandates harsh punishment for slaves who assault Christians or attempt escape.
- Anti-miscegenation law
- Virginia declares that all imported black servants are slaves for life.
As clearly highlighted, race in itself is an artificial construct. For that very reason, it is clear to see the perpetual existence of injustices based upon race in all different aspects of society.
Pseudo-Science, which proposed a natural hierarchy of the races, was used in the 19th Century to justify exploiting black people and their lands. This is clear in Josiah Clark Nott Indigenous Races of the Earth book. This further manifested itself into the existence of Human Zoos. Furthermore, we have Eugenics which still holds credibility in some scientific circles.
Black women in the UK are four times more likely to die in pregnancy and childbirth than white women. This is not a mere coincidence; this most likely lies in the historical myth of black matriarchy. The myth of the black matriarch professes that black women can endure anything, are silent in their suffering, and have superhuman strength.
With 78% of NHS employees being white, it’s not hard to deduce why the statistic is what it is.
The UK has a long history of purposely subjecting black children to poor educational situations, resulting in long-term neglect from society. As Akala mentions in Natives, during the 1960s, the UK faced a conundrum of educating Black-British children they never intended to educate, nor wanted to acknowledge as British citizens. So they designed eugenics-based schools outside the official educational system, which were intended for students who were apparently too difficult to handle in ordinary schools.
The UK government rebranded these schools from ‘Mentally Subnormal’ to ‘Educationally Sub Normal’. To no surprise, black children were massively over-represented in these schools when seen through their population size in the country.
We currently live in a neoliberal capitalist system that has resulted in an extraordinary concentration of wealth and power amongst a few. But through international institutions, the IMF and World Bank, such concentration of power has been at the expense of countries having black people and people of colour. The IMF and World Bank enforcement of neoliberal orthodoxy through the infamous structural adjustment policy has resulted in a policy of accumulation by dispossession.
In summary, it has seen Global South countries being forced to implement institutional reform, which lays the groundwork for the Global North conglomerates to further concentrate their power by dispossessing the wealth and the land of these countries, in turn, placing the countries in a vicious cycle of debt and impoverishment. This ultimately strips Global South countries of their agency.
These are not coincidences either; these are purposely thought actions that those in power take to maintain dominance at the expense of those classed as inferior.
Such factors mentioned above have had a significant impact on how I then identified myself.
Between the ages of thirteen and fifteen, I began to conform to the racialised definition of a Black person; kissing my teeth, having a slight attitude and attempting to look thuggish, which inevitably got me into trouble. I was going with the flow, and I accepted that I was a product of the environment around me. However, what relinquished me from such conformity was when people questioned why I would say ‘isn’t it’ rather than ‘innit’. Once I recognised that the reason I said ‘isn’t it’ was because my mum ensured we spoke correctly and pushed us away from believing that black people acted and behaved in a particular way. Hence, I realised that such behaviour was not me, and I am somewhat unique despite what people may think or expect of me.
As Aklala eloquently puts it:
“Through school and the different treatment and assumptions of teachers, encounters with the police, and portrayals of ethnic groups in print and TV, by thirteen, we have learned the meanings and implications of our racial identities quite well and have bonded over common experiences and perceptions.
“For black children, encounters with the state and its agents, outright interpersonal racism, and much else teach you a sense of shared blackness, and by thirteen, this black identity is usually solidified. Ironically, this sense of shared blackness creates two completely contradictory behaviours.
“First, it creates a fierce loyalty to your ‘man dem’, a sense that you are taking on the world together, and so you become willing to die to defend your friends as if you were at war.
“Yet this very shared blackening also begets fear and thus aggressiveness towards other young black boys who are not familiar. You internalise both a sense of black unity and common struggle, and at the same time a sense of self-hatred, a belief that other young black boys are a danger to you, and both possibilities wrestle one another constantly.”
Therefore, once I broke free from the shackles of social conformity, I began to get closer to my religion and understand its importance in my identity and culture. Also, I was starting to understand better who I was.
Therefore, from the age of sixteen onwards, I found some semblance of inner peace about my identity. I was no longer at the loss of whom I was. Actually, gaining a sense of security and comfort resulted in me being confident enough to confront those who attempted to racialise me. As I began to delve deeper into Islam and its intertwined history with my culture, I decided that my identity was first and foremost my religion.
I was a Muslim since it encompassed everything within my culture and more. Islam enabled me to trust Allah and gave me a holistic understanding of who I was and what I could become. However, this recognition was not that high you get when you just found God; it was more of a subtle awakening and internalisation of the teachings of Islam and now beginning to look at life through that lens.
Second, I understood that my culture lay underneath my religion in forming my identity, but I was not just Tanzanian. I was also a Londoner, in the sense that London lay as a separate entity to the rest of England, due to the city being an epicentre of cultural integration and evolution. I grew up in a city where my view of the world was forged from multiple ethnicities, races, and values thus meaning London was an essential part of forming my overall identity.
One difficulty that I’ve had to face since getting married is understanding my father’s Burundi side. My father passed away when I was nine, so I’ve always had a closer affinity to my Mother Tanzanian side. But whilst in the process of getting married, I reconnected and grew closer to my father’s side of the family. This is not to say it never existed before this, but once a crucial figurehead connecting you to other people leaves you, it results in some initial connection loss.
I now begin to embrace both my Tanzanian and Burundi side. My hope is that this month, I’m able to go to Tanzania and uncover my mother’s family history and then go to Burundi to discover my father’s.
This is how I currently see my identity.
Through my experiences, I’ve understood that diversity is beautiful, intricate, and complex. There is no prototypical definition of any race, ethnicity, or group, hence building this inner peace within me. Furthermore, with Islam, there lies excellent simplicity but significant complexity; the further I delve, the more questions appear, the more confused I am.
Therefore, it is clear to see that while “race continues to shape and define our prospects, opportunities, life chances, and dreams,” ultimately, we determine how we want race to shape our personal identity. It is a challenging journey that seems never-ending, but by sheer persistence and the guidance of Allah, we can gain that sense of comfort and peace within ourselves that we all long for.
And that’s all I’ve got to say.
By Fahd Ndanghwa
Read more pieces written by Fahd via his blog: https://www.fahdndanghwa.com