Saturday, 27 June 2020

My Experience With White Silence

The past few weeks have been emotionally exhausting. As a black life is lost the trauma felt is global. It brings to the surface all those racial experiences we've experienced both personally and those that have impacted our community. This story I'm going to share has been at the forefront of my mind as society begins to address White silence. Black people carry these injustices around with us daily as we try to navigate in a world which often chooses to turn away, ignore and belittle the problem of racism - I hope in sharing this it provokes real change, continues the important conversation being had and highlights a young, Black female experience.

Let us rewind to August 2018, a very belated birthday surprise organised by two past friends of mine, two white friends. A plan made with me in mind, hence bottomless brunch being the starting point for a day of celebration. Towards the end of brunch as the tables were cleared and the final refills of Prosecco were made a white man approached my table, at which point I was alone. He asked me what I was doing sitting by myself, even though I'm sure he'd noted my friends earlier. My friends, who at this point were freshening up in the bathroom. He asked to sit until my friends returned and then proceeded to invite us to join himself and his friends (a group of white men) for drinks at a local bar. Although we had a reservation for after brunch, brunch had finished earlier than expected so we said we'd join them before continuing with our day. I wasn't keen on the idea, however, not one to kick up a fuss and knowing it was a temporary situation, I went along with it as my friends wanted to. 

A short walk away and we ended up in a local pub which we were immediately turned away from as we were such a large group of people and it was only midday. I don't think the group of men being rowdy particularly helped the situation. We settled in a different pub just around the corner and everyone headed straight to the bar. I hung back as I wasn't interested in having another drink at this stage. One of the men asked me what I was drinking and I politely declined numerous times. He continued to insist and started asking my friends what I was drinking. After declining again, it became obvious that he wasn't going to take no for an answer. I interrupted before my friends replied and said a bit more sternly "I just said I didn't want one. If I did, its the 21st century, I would get it myself". His reply then set the tone for the rest of our evening;

"Why don't you just go back to whatever country you came from"

Silence followed. It took me a few moments after the disbelief to respond to what he said, all I managed was "what did you just say to me?" knowing full well what he had said. His friends began questioning where his comment came from, stating how it wasn't necessary, all looking equally as horrified as myself but equally anticipating my response. I looked at my two friends who had said nothing and watched them for a few seconds just standing there. I could feel the lump in my throat, the tears gathered in my eyes as I made my way to the bathroom my whole-body trembling. Closing the door behind me I sobbed, not because of what he'd said, unfortunately, it was something I had heard before but the due to the lack of response from my friends. It also wasn't the first time me saying no to a man meant that he felt the need to respond with an insult to soften the blow to his ego. It's not the most hurtful racist thing I've ever had said to me but it is still one of the memories that sticks out to me the most. Repeatedly over the past few days, I've seen the famous Martin Luther King quote "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends" plastered across social media and my mind flicks back to those exact moments.

Pacing back and forth, replaying the event over and over in my head my two friends later joined me asking what that was all about like they weren't there, choosing not to acknowledge the racism we had all just witnessed, yet able to ask questions like "Are you okay?'. I clearly wasn't as I stood there with tears rolling down my cheeks. At the time I could barely respond still wondering how they just stood there. I made it clear I wanted to leave immediately. They nodded and said they would wait outside. I took a few moments to gather my thoughts and although still upset this was a second chance for my friends be there for me with their actions rather than just words which at the time would have brought me some comfort. I took a deep breath as I opened the door only to find my friends sitting with the group of men I had just fled from. The second wave of disappointment was overwhelming, like a second blow to my gut. I continued walking towards the door eager to remove myself from the environment altogether, my two friends and one of the men from the group following shortly after. The guy started calling after me, apologising on behalf of his friend, joking about how he doesn't take rejection well and how he'd had too much to drink. Which he assumed made it all okay. For me, it was the beginning of them blaming me for overreacting and not accepting his drink offer in the first place. Dismissing it as a 'misunderstanding' or a 'joke' trying to make me doubt myself. He then used the scapegoat of alcohol to excuse his behaviour. 

With all of my belongings at my friends house, I pleaded for us to go home as I was no longer in the mood despite his friends apology on his behalf. The nods of agreement when we were alone soon morphed into them telling me how they were enjoying themselves and how they didn't want to go. I began to zone out checking my bag which thankfully had all the essentials for me to make my way home alone. I then made my way towards the closest tube station. I was disgusted. Not only had my friends witnessed racism and not said anything to support or defend me, but when presented with a second opportunity to be there they chose to stay following the incident with no regard for my feelings. I have never in my life been made to feel so small, vulnerable, insecure, degraded and powerless. My head spiralling with negative thoughts, I worried about needing to collect my things still at their house, what I'd say to them when I saw them again and torturing myself with the inability to stop replaying what happened over and over in my head. 

I woke up to nothing. Not one message or call to check I was home safe, ask how I was or an apology. Nothing. It was then I called my mum, questioning whether she agreed that I had a right to be upset, that their actions were wrong and that all the doubt they'd filled me with was to only appease their conscience. I then asked for a second opinion from another friend, I asked her what would she have done. All unified in their response, I felt less unreasonable and more attacked. The more I reflected the more I saw manipulation and gaslighting, more of which would follow. 

I had numerous calls and voicemails from them once they had woken up. I ignored them riddled with anxiety and the thought of confrontation. I finally answered, knowing at some point I would need to get my belongings, only to hear the group of men laughing in the background. I felt violated - had they gone through my stuff, were they laughing at me? All the possible worst-case scenarios were speeding through my head. That nauseous feeling rising all over again. We agreed to meet at Waterloo - halfway between the three of us to collect my suitcase and return home.

Following this, I hadn't heard or spoken to them for months, so I was shocked to arrive home one day from work to one of them waiting on my doorstep. My privacy invaded with no pre-warning, flowers in her hand asking for me to hear her out. She stated she was sorry only for 'ditching me' and that they didn't stick to the original plan for my birthday surprise that they had organised. She began to cry saying she missed having me around, and I felt uncomfortable knowing full well this is what is referred to as "White fragility". I didn't want to see her upset, even after everything they put me through so I comforted her, only for her to say she didn't want my pity. She pushed me away now catching the attention of my flatmate as she asked me how I was willing to throw away 5 years of friendship over a drunken mistake. She explained she didn't know or understand fully what had happened because of that. At this point, I had heard and done enough. I know who I am and I was not going to be blamed for having boundaries, enforcing the respect I deserve or made to feel guilty for protecting/defending myself. I am always asked by others why I even gave her a chance and how they would've lost it. I am often met with confusion on why my decision to unfriend took time and how I maintained a state of calm throughout this.

Honestly, my reaction was not impulsive and this hindsight meant I had time to sit with my feelings and question what I wanted my response to achieve when the time came. For me I gained closure, being able to walk away knowing that I did the right thing, with no regrets for my words or actions. I was the better/bigger person my parents raised me to be. Part of me is conscious of my emotions being labelled as aggressive, opinionated, loud or difficult. A stereotype. I am forever stuck in the mindset that what I choose to do now impacts their next black friend, their next black colleague, their next black neighbour or the next black person they come in to contact with. All painted with the same brush. What I did was choose the lesson over my feelings of anger, frustration and stress because there was nothing to gain from releasing that on her. It's choosing to go high when they go low like Michelle Obama taught us.

As you get older it affects your self-esteem, you tire of people who treat you unfairly and subconsciously shrink yourself as a way to not draw attention or be profiled but just blend in with the hope of being accepted. As a white person, I want you to take this story as an opportunity to think about your words, actions or lack of and think about the consequences and impact. Reading this, placing yourself momentarily in the opposing point of view, my perspective - I ask will you continue to be silent?

Photography by SkyeInFilm


1 comment

  1. Wow! You handled that better than most people I know would have, including me. Thank God for your parents guidance. Things might have turned out differently if you were brought up otherwise. I had a horrible experience in Heidelberg, Germany years ago but at least my white friends had my back and we all left that establishment. I won't detract from your story here by trying to tell mine. Just know that you are strong and no one can change that unless you let them. I hope your "friendnemies" read your story and go blind after. Yes, I'm that mean. One love, my sister.


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