Exploring cultural belonging for Somali diaspora through writing and fashion
Opinion

2018: The Rise of Scoring Identity By Popularity

From Love Island and Hollywood to the World Cup, it has been a strong year for scoring the identity of people of colour by popularity. Here's why I think it's a deeply problematic approach to identity.

I am not sure exactly what a “black card” is or when my one was issued but apparently, along with my Britishness, it is something that can be summarily revoked by people who are unhappy with me. From Love Island and Hollywood to the World Cup, ethnic minorities in the West have been increasingly subjected to a toxic “carrot and stick” approach to identity that rewards popular behaviours while punishing difference. As a black Brit who has experienced this first hand, I want to call time on this troubling trend.

The first time someone suggested that I “talk like a white woman” I was more than slightly perplexed because I had thought being black is something I am rather than something I have to continually maintain, say, through my voice or mannerisms.  But it seems I was mistaken – accent is just one of many bizarre ways in which people measure the authenticity of my identity.

accent is just one of many bizarre ways in which people measure the authenticity of my identity

And you do not have to look far to see wider examples of this typecasting. For instance, compare the recent treatment of Jack and Samira on ITV’s hit show Love Island over the summer. Jack Fowler is a white-passing man who was affectionately renamed “Black Jack” when the internet discovered he has a black father, but Black Jack’s welcome into the UK’s black community was not solely based on this discovery. In truth, he had a way of speaking that was more commonly associated with predominantly black, London neighbourhoods, leading many black people to feel a bit of an affinity with him. Additional black bonus points were awarded to Jack for his ability to dance (well) and his love for Caribbean food. His warm welcome home by Stormzy and ‘Man’s Not Hot’ star Michael Dapaah only served to cement his place as an honorary member of the UK’s black community.

Contrast this with the treatment of black contestant Samira who received quite a hard time from some black viewers for showing little to no interest in any of the black or mixed-race men that the villa had to offer (note: a criticism not extended to Wes, Josh or Black Jack’s). In fact, the time she described her type as a man with “green eyes” in response to the advances of a black contestant who did not have green eyes prompted some in the Twittersphere to “cancel” her blackness altogether.

To put it in identity police terminology, Jack was rewarded with an honorary “black card” because some people liked his behaviour while Samira’s “black card” was suspended because some people did not like her behaviour.

And this is an issue affecting black people outside the UK too. In the US, the authenticity of black celebrities is routinely called into question based on their choice of partner. This list includes Black Panther star Michael B Jordan, who took to social media earlier this year to defend himself against critics of a photograph he posted with (yet another) not black love interest, and Donald “Childish Gambino” Glover, who is proof that penning woke hits like ‘Redbone’ and ‘This is America’ mean nothing to the ID police when you do not have a black woman on your arm.

As a matter of fact, a person’s dating preferences, political views or manner of speaking have absolutely no effect on their skin colour.

And while on the subject of being woke, political dissent counts as grounds for revoking blackness too, something American footballer Dak Prescott discovered in August when he expressed a personal preference against “taking a knee” during the national anthem, complete with colourful mural depicting him as a “sunken-place” sell-out.

At this point, it is worth acknowledging that identity police sometimes seek to use their powers for good by welcoming a popular new member, like Black Jack. Nevertheless, whether positively intended or not, Jack’s approval rating comes from the same place as the criticism levelled at Samira: a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be black.

As a matter of fact, a person’s dating preferences, political views or manner of speaking have absolutely no effect on their skin colour. Love Island’s Samira could choose to exclusively date white men until she takes her very last breath and, still, her black identity would remain unchanged. It may seem an obvious point but it is one worth repeating in the current climate because the identity brigade are progressively normalising their discourse and, constantly, gaining new ground.

As a Brit of Somali heritage, I have always been acutely aware that some people (inexplicably) view my Britishness as something they can give or take away.

For example, if we take a broader look at the issue, we see that the nationality of non-white people has also fallen victim to identity tampering. In July this year South African comedian Trevor Noah controversially framed France’s World Cup win as an “African” victory and German footballer of Turkish heritage Mesut Özil quit the German team because he was tired of his identity being tethered to his international football performances. What did these stories have in common? They were both instances of glory hunters dictating the identity of non-white men based on their performance in a football tournament.

As a Brit of Somali heritage, I have always been acutely aware that some people (inexplicably) view my Britishness as something they can give or take away. Nowhere has this been clearer than the media’s contrasting descriptions of people who share my background. Case in point: Somalia-born Olympic champ Sir Mo Farah is a British hero whereas someone like convicted British rapist Mowleed Omar Yussaaf is exclusively described as “Somali”. There are too many examples of this coverage to list them all but the selective application of Britishness is all too pervasive.

This sense of identity as a system of reward and punishment… is best captured by Özil in his written resignation from the German football team: “I am German when we win but an immigrant when we lose.”

This sense of identity as a system of reward and punishment for non-white Europeans of dual heritage is best captured by Özil in his written resignation from the German football team: “I am German when we win but an immigrant when we lose.”

Again, it may seem unfair to lump Noah in the same category as Özil’s detractors. After all, the two approaches are clearly not equally bad; Noah was celebrating the players’ African heritage while the German press treated Özil’s Turkish heritage as a stick with which to beat him. But both reveal an entitlement to cherry-pick aspects of an individual’s identity based on whether you like them or not.

By this logic, the French team are now exclusively African because Africans are proud that a majority black team won the World Cup whereas Özil is no longer German enough because some Germans are not proud of his World Cup performance. Love Island’s Jack Fowler deserves an honorary “black card” while Samira’s is called into question. What links these things is the reduction of identity to a crude “thumbs up or down” system that is deeply problematic.

what message is being sent to young people who find themselves at odds with the views of the identity-determining majority? They are not black enough? Not British enough?

So why is it such an issue? For one, it perpetuates the falsehood that identity can be determined by other people when, in reality, no opinion counts other than that of the person it directly concerns. Whether German football fans love Özil in times of victory or hate him in defeat, both times he went home German. Likewise, a person’s race cannot be “cancelled” because you do not approve of their decisions in some way.

Taking it further, the more insidious effect of treating people this way is the crisis of belonging and disillusionment it can induce; what message is being sent to young people who find themselves at odds with the views of the identity-determining majority? They are not black enough? Not British enough? “Are there criteria for being German that I don’t fit?” Özil asked in his statement, contrasting himself with German players of white, Eastern European heritage that were not subjected to the same treatment. “Is it because I’m Turkish? Or is it that I’m Muslim?” he adds, framing the answer to his own question.

Noah’s joke suggesting black French players are not really French because of their skin tone may seem harmless, but this reasoning was not so funny when a stranger at a party once told me “yeah, but you’re not really British, are you.” The experience, when added to past similar encounters, made me wonder whether I was foolish to think of myself as British at all.

And the seed of this thought, if left unchecked, is where social cohesion begins to unravel, because no one can feel truly part of a society that treats some of its members in such a throwaway fashion.

So, what can we do about it? We can start 2019 by taking back control of the narrative to remind everyone that the many facets of a non-white person’s identity are not up for debate based on whether you like us or not. Assuming the people guilty of treating identity like a reward system only do so because they derive some sort of power from it, then it is our responsibility to take that power away. Because no matter who I date, how I speak, what political views I hold, or how well I play football (not very well, as it happens), I’ll always be a black Brit regardless of what anyone else thinks.

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