I am a member of the community of university-educated, black women who are read as straight. This is privilege: a body that matches my idea of who I am, a “strong” European passport, leaving the “don’t matter” places of the world for countries with social benefit systems and easy, well paid jobs. People are even starting to read what I write. Since there are few black women in the public spaces I live and work in, the system sometimes encourages me to feel special: I call this “Superblack”, like superwoman, only black.
What to do with a second class European identity? Having “papers” is an accident of birth and upbringing. The “strong” passport can be used to get more resources from spaces that are almost exclusively white and wealthy. It can be pleasant and safe for very long periods. But this is a false idea of safety. Integration is a joke with a violent punchline; difference is used as a technique to isolate and threaten people of “non-European appearance”. In the liberal white spaces I inhabit, most people prefer not to see how non-white Europeans are treated in Europe. Dissenting speech is punished with doubt and silence.
While I am visible in a way that protects me from some forms of harassment, such privilege is conditional. As a naturalized European this passport can be taken away at any time. First class Europeans don’t have to behave well. Many behave as if they are beyond the law. They are treated as individuals and keep their status anyway. This is consistent with the idea that a real European is white.
My people are given special names – they are migrants, not expats possibly undocumented, minority, non-white, non-straight. Much of the time we rock. There can be strength and solidarity in communities whose social value is continuously questioned and discussed. We have many moments of pure sweet joy. I would choose to be reborn into Blackness in every single reincarnation. But many people from our communities face state and individual aggression. In a straight-acting, white-passing world where wealth and class are so important, people in the social underclass are not expected to survive. They have to be tough and creative to keep their spirits intact. Sometimes I see the personal cost of getting up every day and facing eyes that question, comment and mark.
In a world where internet is so important, most people in the world simply don’t exist. At least not on social media, in the press, or on catwalks. The poor exist in reality of course. But at the same time they are made invisible in public spaces. Except when they appear on posters underlining their inability to speak for themselves. The Africans I know are not helpless or silent. They have plans, generosity and pride. These personalities are not represented in the stories of AIDS, guns and famine that play over and over in the western media. As a result when Westerners encounter Africans they are often unable to make a difference between the stereotypes they have seen and the person in front of them. In these white spaces Superblacks are often isolated and ineffective. The admission of one individual to privilege doesn’t change the fact that other black people are systematically excluded from social spaces, birthday parties, from getting humane medical services and jobs. In fact, individual black people being in white spaces can mean their whiteness no longer needs to be addressed. And who wants to represent anyone but themself? What to do with privilege apart from consume and accumulate?
“I write what I like” is a line from Steve Biko, a star in the Black consciousness movement. As a writer it’s tempting to dip into the stories of family and friends as a resource. There are so many interesting identities and experiences. Sometimes it’s hard to know what not to write especially when the writing becomes a commercial product. But people in our communities are not research subjects, accessories for personal visibility or building blocks in a career path. Still, these stories need to be told. Not by me since not all experiences should be my stories Privilege can be used to support a wider range of black writers to write what they like. And perhaps that writing will show us as human through stories we recognise. Within a community of consciously Black writers my spirit can survive white supremacy. Because having privilege alone will not help me to thrive.