I’ve never defined myself by my skin colour. I came from a place where I never had to. Toronto is one of the most multi-cultural cities in the world, and race never seemed to be a big issue. Everyone managed to blend into the mosaic without compromising their own identities, and I feel like I may have taken this for granted. When I moved to England, I expected things to be similar, since I was under the impression that it was an equally-multicultural country – but that has not been my experience.
I live in a small town called Long Eaton, about a half hour away from the Nottingham city centre. On occasion, I see one or two people of colour, but I’m basically the only Black person around. When I go out in public, I’ve never been made to feel so out of place. People passing me in the street stare me straight in the face, silently interrogating me, trying to figure me out. When I try to start a friendly conversation or ask for help in a store, I am dismissed immediately. A woman clutched her purse as I walked past the other day.
I was under the impression things would be different in the city centre, where there are more people of colour. However, this doesn’t actually seem to be the case. This weekend, I purchased an item in a deli and was in line after two young, Black men. An employee took my item to ring it in, and asked “is this everything?”. I assumed that he was asking if this was all I required, but he handed my box of olives to the man ringing in the two males in front of me. He said, “don’t forget these”, handing my item to the clerk, assuming that all three of us were together.
Obviously, it’s an honest mistake, and he seemed really embarrassed. However, I’ve never really been subjected to that sort of prejudice. It was neither malicious nor intentional; it was accidental – inherent. It was the same kind of prejudiced that occurs when a women protects her purse when I walk past. It just seems to be a natural instinct.
When you add being a woman to the ‘Black + Canadian = strange’ equation, things get even worse. On my first night out in the city, I had my ass grabbed by a young man who was intoxicated. I buried the urge to sock him and chalked it up to him being obliterated, but it was just the start of a trend.
Whenever I go out, I’m approached by British men and the conversation begins with such charming ice breakers as:
“Wow, you’re so exotic”
“You know, I love Black girls/brown skin/curvy women”
“What’s your background?”
“Let me just feel your hair” (yes, seriously)
On the odd occasion, they will get so bold as to touch my hair or grab me by the hips. Now, I go to some classy places (for Nottingham, at least), and I wouldn’t expect this type of behaviour from anyone – but the fascination of seeing a Black woman seems to transcend decorum and etiquette. I’m not flattered anymore, just offended.
I’m aware that this does happen to people of all races in places like Asia and Africa, where Blacks and Caucasians are visible minorities. However, I was under the impression that the big cities in England (of which Nottingham is the smallest) would be more multi-cultural, diverse, accepting.
But, I’m reminded everyday that I’m different. That I don’t blend in and – most importantly – that I don’t belong. It’s a bit painful, since it seems like everyone in Toronto just belongs there. People of all races could identify and socialize with me, and my skin colour was never an issue.
It’s just a bit of culture shock, I guess, but it seems to work both ways.