The sun pours onto the immaculately manicured lawns of Worcester College, Oxford. Seeing the play of shadows on the grass as I peer through the soaring arches, it’s impossible not to be seduced by the ancient majesty of it all. I allow myself to contemplate the idea that maybe I’ve finally made it.
It’s day one of medical school. I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was five years old. More than 20 years later here I am, standing on the threshold of the rest of my life, a long-cherished ambition finally within touching distance.
Introductory drinks, a chance to meet the rest of my classmates, nerves mingle with excitement and wide-eyed curiosity.
Everything feels possible.
I’m finally here…buzzing!
I enter the room, rather pointlessly scanning for any familiar faces. Smile on, let’s do this…
One of my new classmates approaches and I introduce myself. Rather than replying in turn with his name, he goes with:
“How does it feel to be the only black person in the room?”
How do you answer that question…
Do you say ‘I’m really glad you asked me that, actually it feels great! I feel completely at ease. I feel like I belong here’?
Do you try and investigate, in that moment, a feeling that you’ve carried for years almost every day, in every situation?
How do you analyse something that has become so subconscious, so normal, so standard as to be unremarkable…like how does it feel to be a man, or how does it feel to breathe?
These are things that just are, so you never really spend time considering how they feel because it seems redundant and pointless. You just have to accept things like this, there’s very little point deconstructing them.
So, how does it feel to be the only black person in the room?
In my experience as a black person in this country, you can’t achieve anything without also becoming intimately acquainted with being the only black person in the room. Almost invariably, wherever you go, you will be the one that stands out, the one that’s remarked upon, the one that is noticed subconsciously as soon as you move, as soon as you enter or leave, as soon as you step outside the very limited confines that this society has placed upon you.
Speak too loudly - you are noticed and you are categorised.
Move too quickly - you are noticed, you are categorised.
Dress incorrectly - you are noticed, you are categorised.
Be seen with people of a different ethnicity - you are noticed, you are categorised.
Be seen with too many of your own ethnicity - you are noticed, you are categorised.
You are constantly observed, suspected, considered as an issue. You are rarely allowed the privilege of being unremarkable.
So to be me, has always been to feel like this. Being ‘the only black person in the room’ is not a new thing, but thanks for being kind enough to point it out!
As a child you are not aware, enclosed within the safe haven of your family structure. People look like you, people ARE like you, your individuality is celebrated and encouraged and allowed.
It is accepted.
You can be who you are and your skin colour is not relevant to an assessment of your personality or your merits. It does not prejudice a determination of your potential. You can just be you. And if you’re lucky, your wider family or community also offer that safe haven…at church, or in the football team, or when you walk down the road to go to the shops.
Unfortunately that wasn’t my experience.
My experience was decided for me, my understanding of myself, of my position in the world, of my place, was thrust upon me. My naive blissful ignorance was not tolerated by the wider world. I was forced to confront the reality of my situation by others, people who wanted me to know that I did not belong.
That I was not like them.
That I would never be the same as them.
Crashing into my naivety, my happiness, my contentment, my childhood optimism, came the reality of bitter, vitriolic and inexplicable aggression that was just incredibly hurtful, because it didn’t make any sense to me.
Why do these people hate me? What have I done to them? I’ve not even met this person before…why does he seem to hate me?
It was impossible to understand as a child.
And yet you have to. If not understand it at least accept it. Because as you come to realise, some things just are.
Some things just are.
And trying to deconstruct these things is pointless.
Some people just hate me. Simply for being alive. I don’t need to have met them. I don’t need to have offended them. I don’t need to have said something hurtful to them to cause them to lash out in retaliation.
I just need to be alive. I just need to have been born.
You quickly realise that that’s the situation.
The first time you are physically threatened by a stranger with whom you have no grievance, no beef, you are awoken to the sense of threat. The sense that actually, it might not be safe for you. It might not be safe for you to be out here.
You realise that the places that other people go, unthinkingly without restriction, the places that people enjoy, are just not going to be for you. You can go there, but having to look over your shoulder, having to watch your back at all times, having to tiptoe around for fear of alerting someone to your presence is a sure way to ruin a good holiday!
So you grow up…
You learn to ignore being racially abused on the street, or at school by your ‘friends’ or your teachers.
You learn to logically convince yourself that the things you want to achieve in life can be achieved despite external obstacles.
You learn that your value is not dependent on someone else’s assessment of your potential, or of your ability.
You learn that your value is not dependent on someone else’s decision to dismiss you out of hand before ever knowing you.
You learn that your value is not dependent on the fact that no one in any position of influence, power or prominence ever looks like you.
You learn those things…
You teach those things to yourself, hoping that one day they will be obviously true to everyone else.
You figure out your way to navigate the world.
Everyone has a different method.
Some choose denial, a stubborn refusal to even see that they are not wanted or accepted. Some choose victimhood and find a strange comfort in deciding that everything is someone else’s fault. Others, like myself, choose to crack on, to acknowledge the prevailing circumstances and carry on regardless.
But it takes its toll. There’s no need to pretend that it doesn’t.
It’s easy to lose pieces of yourself, to find yourself in bits…
Every time that you’re forced to keep the peace when under attack for being alive, just so that you don’t make other people feel uncomfortable.
Every time you’re forced to smile along with a ‘joke’ or comment that completely dehumanises you.
You lose something of yourself, the very sense of who you are, each time you're silent when all you want to do is scream, to cry, to ask it to stop.
These moments are countless, because when you’re the only black person in the room that’s just how it is.
No one shares your perspective or your story.
No one's offering you a platform to express things that might be at odds with the status quo, the accepted wisdom, the way we do things around here.
No one else seems able to even conceptualise the idea that people might be different, might have a different perspective, or might do things differently. That’s your problem.
Everyone else is doing the same thing, so they’re totally fine thank you.
How does one feel that they belong, how does that happen? What’s the mechanism?
Is it something internal, is it something you decide? I belong here, I’ve just decided!
Is it something that’s conferred upon you by a benevolent insider, who grants you the same status as themselves and allows you to join their ranks?
Is it something that you work for and after a period of demonstrable efficacy and good behaviour you gain admission?
It could be all of those things I suppose. Either way it’s something that’s never felt truly available to me.
So belonging is a dream.
It’s a fantasy. It’s a target to aim for.
It’s pie in the sky.
I hope that’s not true. I truly hope that one day I’ll be able to look around me and feel that I’ve arrived, that I’ve ended up in a place that I do belong. Where I’m accepted. Where I can be me. Where in doing so I’ll be afforded the same space and tolerance that many other people enjoy without question.
I hope I get there, I really do.
It’s hard to imagine when that time will be, because the things I experienced in the 80s and 90s seem to be echoing through the present day. These moments of aggression, of entitled outburst that attract no consequence, seem so frequent now, so unremarkable.
It’s difficult to understand how things will be better.
But I’ll keep dreaming I guess, I’ll keep looking upwards hoping to see that pie.