Race can be a tricky subject to broach in daily conversation. People’s reactions can range from the defensive to the ignorant, and often results in people wishing they’d never brought up the topic in the first place. But Badass Women’s Hour presenter, Natalie Campbell, has decided enough is enough. Here, she explains why – at the age of 33 – she is going to start talking about race.
“But Miss, what’s the point in trying? I have three big things that count against me in life, so I might as well give up now.”
My teacher, Ms. Saunders, stops, turns to me and says, “What do you mean?”
“Well, I’m black, I’m a woman and I’m not rich. That means I’ll never become anything important.”
I was 14.
I learned these ideas at a young age, and it was something that I – and all of my black female friends – understood to be true. I reflect sometimes that it was the thing that bound our friendships together so tightly. We didn’t mean much to the world but we meant everything to each other.
The following day, Ms. Saunders sat me down and explained that I could be whoever and whatever I wanted. From that moment -from the age of 15 to about 30 - I never again considered my ‘triple jeopardy’ as something that could or indeed would hold me back.
This was both a blessing and a curse.
Even with all of the platforms I had, I rarely spoke about race. After a while I learnt that to get ahead in life, I should actively avoid it. Talking about race is tiring and leads to a lot of frustration – and often people simply don’t understand things they cannot see – which I realised when I attempted to speak to some of my white friends about it one night, and it went down like a lead balloon. Our night-out ended early following a heated debate. I had wanted to share my experiences with people I’ve known for more than a decade, but they weren’t interested.
I learnt that to get ahead in life, I should actively avoid talking about race.
Black women, especially the ones I know leading in their sectors, have spent a long time trying to not make their work and achievements about race. To ensure that they are sitting at the table based on merit and working hard - twice as hard to be seen as equal. As a result, the easiest way for me to keep going was by not mentioning my blackness on a public platform.
That was until neighbourhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman was acquitted for the shooting of black teen, Trayvon Martin, in Florida in 2013. The event kicked off the Black Lives Matter movement. Then we saw Brexit. Then Trump. Those three moments have changed everything. Everything I know and feel about being black, being and woman and having a voice.
Seeing black people being gunned down in the street by the police, listening to the vitriolic conversations about people of colour and immigrants and continually walking into a room and being the only black woman, it slapped me in the face that we need to talk about race. I need to talk about race as much as I do gender and socio-economics.
The politically correct nature of never talking about race has come back to bite us in the butt
The politically correct nature of never talking about race has come back to bite us - and I say a collective us - in the butt. Where I would challenge a hint of racist behaviour in private I am now willing to do it publicly. Because not addressing these issues leaves room for negative stereotypes to fester. We’ve seen that recently, when a member of the Republican Party outed himself as a white supremacist, and when John Allan, the Chairman of Tesco claimed white men were becoming an “endangered species” in UK boardrooms, where “If you are female and from an ethnic background, and preferably both, then you are in an extremely propitious period.”
But it’s not always as obvious as that. Last week, I had an exchange with a journalist, who was writing a list of ‘empowering films for women’. She’d included films in which the roles of women of colour were those in which they either played stereotypical roles, were abused by the white characters – or only successful as a result of the white characters’ doing. Following our discussion she changed the list.
This is the consequence of not talking about race – the lack of understanding festers. The difficulty is that starting those conversations can be difficult, and fraught with tension. But these conversations need to happen – to understand why the gender pay gap is so much worse for women of colour, to understand why make-up for black skin is so difficult to find, to understand why a woman of colour holding an Academy Award is such a rare sight. And to understand why Michelle Obama gets described as ‘an angry black woman’ for simply speaking out.
Discussions of race are everywhere at the moment, but it’s a thorny, uncomfortable issue that people struggle to talk about it, including me. But without having addressing these issues, it’s almost impossible to build a solid women’s movement – it’s a large part of why Women’s Lib failed to be a success.
If we want to see women triumph during such uncertain times, we need to talk about it.
Catch Natalie Campbell at Stylist Live. Pitch Perfect: Learn the Lingo, Win the Gig on Friday 10 November at 3pm.
Images: Badass Women’s Hour, Rex Features