I wish growing up that someone had told me that it is okay that I will never be the norm. That in my half hearted attempts to be part of the norm the inevitable “failure” of looking, acting, thinking and behaving like the norm was not in actual fact a failure. I wish, growing up in a “post racial” society, I was not told that my daily dealings with racism were fictional or due to my “obsession” with race. I wish someone had told my parents that my daily experience with racism and with a widely ignorant, dominant culture would affect me differently from how it affected them. I wish that I, at a younger age, had the words to explain that I could not disengage or remain unaffected from the only reality I knew: a reality in which I was in constant conflict. I wish I could have made them understand that I never had the privilege of constructing my identity on anything else, but as reaction to the dominant identity; the white identity. But what I wish most of all is not to be seen as an angry black female – but simply a black female navigating hostile waters.
For me, growing up black in Sweden has been a fight for my right to myself. I still find myself having to fight for that basic right.
I arrived in Sweden as a two year old together with my mother. I have thus gone through my entire schooling in Sweden up until University, for which I moved to England. My younger brother and sister have not (yet) had the privilege of living anywhere else but in the country and city where they were born, but we are all adults now and often reflect on our experience growing up black in Sweden. What I have realized is that as much as I struggled through it all, I never actively reassured them of their own black identity. I am deeply saddened by that. My parents did not know better, but I did because I lived it before them. And even though there is a seven year gap between myself and my closest sibling, our experiences are almost identical, but in some cases their experiences are worse.
During our discussions about teachers touching our skins to see if the colour would rub off, or about fellow students calling us racially insensitive slurs with no consequence, we have come to the conclusion that, for us, the most hurtful aspect about growing up black in Sweden was the process of dehumanization. From a very young age, adults and other children alike, would probe and question our black bodies as if it was separate from our consciousness. They would speak of it and touch it as if it was not an integral part of us but just another “thing” for them to explore. From a very young age it was clear that my body was not mine. My hair could be touched by anybody at any time because it was different and exciting. My skin, face and my features could be commented on without any regard to my feelings. Personal questions could be asked (is your blood red? You are African, do you have AIDS?) without any regard to my integrity. The right of the dominant society to appease their curiosity was greater than my right to myself.
Of course none of this was intentional. Nobody intended to harm my siblings or me. It was all in good faith. But intent is irrelevant, there was harm. And little black children are being harmed in this way all over the country. Why? Because people want to believe we live in a post racial society – some even claim that we live in a society with no history of racial tension. The mere denial of my colour, the refusal to see and acknowledge my blackness and all that it brings with it, is what caused me harm as a child. Not seeing colour allowed grown men and women to not see a child who deserved protection from others and themselves. Not seeing injustice is a privilege held by those lucky enough not to face the injustice. If everyone were forced to acknowledge my colour –forced to see my colour – they would be forced to pause and see the whole being. They would be forced to question their intent before they reached out to probe, before they opened their mouths to question my very existence. They would be forced to see my humanity and how their actions or inactions robbed me of it.
For me, growing up black in Sweden has been a fight for my right to myself. I still find myself having to fight for that basic right. But now, as a grown woman, I have the words to explain to my parents and others why the actions of the dominant society affect me deeply. It is the only societal reference I have and it is one in which my children will probably grow up in. But I will not allow them to be similarly affected.
Everything I wished someone told me, I will tell my future children. The protection I did not get from my teachers, I will demand from theirs. And for all the other little brown and black children who are not seen and acknowledged as full human beings: I see and acknowledge you. And for all grown and almost grown brown and black boys and girls: I see and acknowledge you too.
We are beautiful and powerful.