“Where are you really from” is a question asked with such ease it seems as if no thought is given to just how uncomfortable it can make a person feel. Despite being born and raised in London, this answer never seems to be enough to satisfy the curiosity of me as the ‘visible other’. When I finally go through my family origins, I finally receive an “oh, I see,” a relieved response to have finally figured me out and where I fit as a black person in the U.K. and in Europe. It is a question that serves as a constant reminder that as a person of colour — the visible other — I am not viewed as a Brit or a European.
As the child of an immigrant growing up in the U.K., I was constantly reminded that I was not really British. From my primary school teacher saying that my name was too difficult to pronounce and should be more “British sounding,” or the time my white friend’s mum was hesitant for her daughter to come to my house because she knew “what you Nigerians can be like,” these acted as gentle reminders of the ingrained negative perceptions and reactions towards the visible other.
Our obsession to categorise the visible other so they neatly fit into existing perceptions is palpable. The overt intolerance towards Muslims, black people and other ethnic minorities in Europe is a prime example of this practise. From debates about burkinis to the perception that ‘European values’ are under threat, the ‘us and them’ idea seems to be applied to almost everyone who does not visibly fall into the category of European.
Humans are social beings and we have a multi-faceted character, yet the intolerance that exists within the U.K. and generally across Europe strips people of colour of this privilege.
Instead, existing negative assumptions of the visible other are allowed to thrive, and backhanded compliments are a prime example of the monolithic perceptions that are often reserved for the visible other. “You speak so well!” or “The people dress so smart in Nigeria!” As people who are visibly different to what is considered ‘British’ or ‘European,’ we constantly have to show that we are different from the existing negative assumption that is placed on us.
In my adult life, I also notice how I try to avoid making white people feel uncomfortable about discussing racism. This draws attention to the psychological impact of being ‘othered’ — where you feel it is expected that as an ethnic minority you should leave most of your ‘culture’ at the door, smile through the racial micro-aggressions and ignorant comments, and just be happy about the fact that you are allowed to stay in the U.K. The desire to touch my hair, make jokes about just how dark I get in the sun, say that I am pretty for a black woman, and make ignorant comments about my traditional Nigerian clothes serve as a regular reminder of my ‘otherness’ to the white gaze. When I have reacted to how easily I am exotified, I am quick to be labelled as rude and uptight, which triggers more general assumptions of the ‘angry black woman’ who causes trouble.
By homogenising and applying single traits to the visible other, this creates an opportunity for negative assumptions to become normalised and used as an example for failed integration. Consequently, these practices lead to the popular assumption that we are the ones who do not want to integrate.
There is a sentiment in Europe that the presence of non-white people is a concern. This was highlighted in the U.K. referendum campaign where images of the U.K. being flooded by refugees and the fear of Turkey joining the EU dominated the ‘leave’ campaign. Reservations about multiculturalism, and the belief it has indeed failed, stem from the argument that the values and character of the visible ‘other’ are too different for traditional British values and culture. Yet the argument that ‘multiculturalism has failed,’ and the sentiment that ethnic minorities need to assimilate in order to integrate, ignore the fact that there is no real effort or commitment to promote integration.
Integration is a two-way process; we cannot claim multiculturalism has failed if people of colour are constantly reminded that they are not part of a society. The steady rise of the far right across Europe clearly indicates that subtle racism and the lukewarm acceptance of the visible other are being replaced in favour of greater intolerance, which is being normalised in the media and political discourse. These factors have consequently exacerbated the overt negative reaction towards ethnic minorities on the continent.
Looking forward, improving integration first starts with an acknowledgement that it has been unsupported. There also needs to be a real commitment amongst the media and in political discourse to refrain from following negative assumptions and homogenising the character of the visible other.