Last summer, my husband and I went to an outdoor jazz festival in Birmingham. The event, dubbed “Europe’s largest free jazz party”, was a truly immersive and thrilling celebration of the musical genre. The stunning light displays and larger-than-life art installations, the aroma of delicious street food, and the melodic brilliance of some of the city’s best singers made for a multi-sensory paradise.
After meandering through the stalls for a few hours, we needed a break, so we purchased some food and made our way to some vacant benches near the back of the park. It was the ideal spot; we still had a great view of the main stage, but it wasn’t as crowded as other areas. We were able to see The Old Jelly Rollers, a fantastic local band, perform jazz-style renditions of popular R&B songs. It was the perfect soundtrack as we basked in the July sun and ate delicious grilled prawns with coconut rice.
As we sat on the weathered grey A-frame benches, nodding our heads both to the music and the delectable flavours in the food, a middle-aged White woman came over and took a seat on the other side of us. Since there were usually more attendees than available seats at outdoor festivals and there was no other option but to sit on the grass, it was common for people to share tables with strangers.
“I am so in love with your hair!” she exclaimed, still settling into her seat. One would think that she came over to specifically tell me that. At the time, I had thin, honey-blond box braids that were 30 inches long.
“It looks so cool, absolutely stunning!” She continued fawningly, but almost immediately after, a look of discomfort swept across her face, as though she had just tasted something bitter. Her face showed a mixture of regret and uncertainty as she shifted slightly in her seat. As I watched her, I was unable to ignore the change in her demeanour. Her expression had changed from one of gleeful admiration to one of obvious tension. If I could have read her mind, I would have assumed something along the lines of, “Jesus, what social gaffe did I just commit?
I was mindful of the cultural climate at the time because it coincided with the sentencing of the final two officers charged with the murder of George Floyd; a Welsh school had been temporarily closed after a young boy lost a finger in a racially charged attack; and a teacher had been fired for calling the police on a 15-year old Black schoolgirl earlier in the year.
The issue of race was at the forefront of everyone’s consciousness, with members of the “dominant culture” being asked to acknowledge privileges, do the work, and educate themselves on the systemic factors that contributed to the existence of so many obstacles faced by those from more disadvantaged backgrounds.
“Oh, thank you so much,” I replied warmly. “I do them myself, and sometimes it takes so long that my arms ache… but beauty over pain, right?” We laughed synchronously.
Before we continued to enjoy the performance, she apologised for her awkwardness and explained that she had participated in an anti-racism seminar at work many years prior. She revealed that the four-hour workshop had a profound impact on her. She read the case studies, watched the videos, and listened to the testimonies of her “colleagues of colour” regarding workplace microaggressions. By the time she left the session, the weight of direct responsibility and guilt bore down upon her. She contributed to a problem despite not knowing or intending to. The thoughts consumed her, and she became excessively cautious with her words and actions when engaging with individuals of non-White racial backgrounds.
During the “training”, participants were informed, among other things, that White people had to “work through their Whiteness”. They were also given sermon-like instructions on how to evaluate and confront the ways that implicit bias and White supremacy showed up in their actions.
She continued, this time shaking her head, that they were strongly advised to “deeply reflect on” a statement made by a philosophy professor, James Coursey, who said in one of his classes that “to be White is to be racist”.
I was perplexed as to why such a random quote– one that received valid criticism from students and parents – had been chosen for reflection. But then I remembered that these types of messages are neither random nor rare, even if racial justice champions frequently try to pretend otherwise when confronted.
So the fact that a White woman felt confident enough to approach me and casually initiate a conversation about my hair, an aspect of my body that has significant historical connotations of survival, resistance, and celebration, may be viewed by some as a major social faux pas. Others may even see it as an opportunity to whip out their smartphones in an attempt to capture the next viral sensation. The selective footage then spreads all over the world, unfurling like a relentless storm, fomenting mobs to unite with the sole purpose of condemning, doxxing, and digitally ambushing the woman.
It is therefore understandable why some people, especially White people, feel compelled to question or second-guess their actions. Simple gestures or words are frequently interpreted as violent or harmful. And social and economic repercussions await those who disobey the ever-expanding and frequently contradictory rules.
It’s unfortunate that certain “racist” incidents widely publicised by the media have become some kind of standard for what people of colour find offensive. But not everyone has the same reaction to the same event. If Ngozi Fulani, for example, felt traumatised when someone expressed interest in her on-display heritage, it does not mean that another Black woman in her position would experience the same trauma. Another person may see a question like “Where are you from?” as the perfect opening to speak about the culture they adore and are proud of, especially if they went to great and deliberate lengths to present that culture to the rest of the world.
The high level of subjectivity involved in these encounters leaves a lot of room for inconsistencies, and such inconsistencies are transforming our intergroup interactions into dangerous minefields that require us to tread carefully with politically correct language. This fear of causing offence, especially to those with “protected characteristics”, can lead to the isolation and gradual avoidance of ethnic minorities, which undermines diversity and inclusion efforts.
Working together is one of the most effective ways to achieve social change, which is why anti-racist organisations place a strong emphasis on allyship. If trust and connection are the foundation for effective collaboration, a culture of hesitation will act as a stumbling block. People will be reluctant to freely express themselves, ask questions, or engage in meaningful conversation for fear of coming across as inconsiderate, intolerable, or downright racist.
Very few people want to be the next topic of worldwide discussion. The preoccupation with the oppressor vs. oppressed paradigm will cement a culture of suspicion and paranoia, and no one wins in this kind of world.
Ada Akpala is the founder of Different Voice Initiative. It is a space for learning to help people navigate in this world of uncertainty and disorder.