Is Your Hairstyle Killing You?

 

I now have very short natural hair. Before this current hair choice I had long dreadlocs for over two decades.

MHM I am not my hair 733815_10152704396910262_1109038281_n

It seems like a long time ago now, but I also recall having perms and enduring the long and painful process of having my hair straightened. When I was a child in the 1960s and 70s I remember my mother using the hot comb to straighten her own and my eldest sisters’ hair: it’s a smell you never forget, it’s a process that is as permanent in memory as the burn from the hot comb if anyone moved unexpectedly.

As a child of a migrant family from the Caribbean I was inadvertently taught that in the UK my family’s natural hair was synonymous with ‘bad hair’ and straightened hair was associated with ‘good hair’. This definition was linked to the pressure of time, the ease of maintenance, the access to hair care products, and the shame that was attached to natural African type hair (now categorised as type 4C).

It was through this familial introduction, and the few negative images available in books and posters of the time, that my initial ingrained concept of beauty was created. To me natural hair was associated with negative stereotypes of being unkempt, unprofessional and rough.

Black women in the UK have a complicated relationship with their hair. For decades weaves, wigs and hair extensions have been used for flexibility and ease of maintenance, while natural hair was seen and used as a political statement from the early 1960s: social assumptions were made from visual appearance.

Raphael Albert archive 1960 -1980

It was almost Hobson’s choice: conform or confront. Either way women have historically been confined with societal hair selections.

Is the desire to change the behaviour and appearance of our hair and skin based on internalised racism which has its roots locked in the nineteenth century?

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie stated, “Relaxing your hair is like being in prison. You’re caged in. Your hair rules you. You didn’t go running with Curt today because you don’t want to sweat out this straightness. You’re always battling to make your hair do what it wasn’t meant to do.” 

Relaxed and processed hair has become an integral part of Black British society, so this may seem like a frivolous question, but it is a serious enquiry: is your hairstyle killing you? 

Black women have historically had a long association with Black hair care and community, many people will remember sitting at their mother’s feet while getting their hair plaited or styled for school. As community extended the hairdressing salons became sacred Black female spaces, in the same way as barber shops act for the male sections of society. There is both community and big business in hair care.

The first Black millionaire in the US was Madam C J Walker (aka Sarah Breedlove) who amassed her wealth through the creation of hair care products, including the first hair straightening formula, in 1905. Black hair care has remained a multi-million pound section of industry for over a century. It is reported that Black women make up to 80% of the total hair product sales in the UK, and Black women spend six times more on cosmetics than their white counterparts. In 2014 Black women in the UK spent £5.25 billion on hair care products, and crème relaxers accounted for 21% of that figure.

In the US, records show that Black consumers spend nine times more on hair and beauty products than their white contemporaries. The 2018 Nielsen report shows that nearly 86% of hair and beauty products sold in the USA were purchased by minority ethnic groups.

A recent study, relating to the effects on general health of the chemicals in hair care products was published online on 25 April 2018 in the Environmental Research Journal by Dr Jessica Helm et al. This study concludes that “Hair products used by Black women and children contained multiple chemicals associated with endocrine disruption and asthma.” Fragrances, phthalates and parabens are some of the products prevalent in Black hair care and beauty products; parabens have been proven to be carcinogenic, and related to breast cancer and infertility. Previous research in the USA has shown that black women have higher urinary levels of phthalates and parabens than their white counterparts and conclude that the use of skin lighteners and hair relaxers may be contributing factors in the recorded health disparities between the two groups of women.

The full list of products tested in the Silent Spring Institute study can be found here. It was discovered that 80% of the tested products contain high levels of chemicals that ‘disrupt’ the endocrine system, which regulates reproduction, metabolism and affects almost every organ and cell in the body; 84% of the “detected chemicals were not listed on the product label” and the highest number of parabens were found in hair lotions. It must be noted that not all chemicals in hair products are dangerous or damaging to health, what is primarily important to understand is the way the products are used and the frequency of use; there are products available without any of the harmful chemicals highlighted in the Silent Springs study.

The Environmental Research Journal report recommended that personal care products should have improved labelling so that women can make better personal health and beauty choices.

The information in this report suggests that the use of chemicals in Black hair care is dangerously impacting women’s health as the parabens-rich products interfere with natural hormone production. Tola Okagwu, a hair coach, discussed the Silent Springs study with Dr Jessica Helm in an interview by BBC World News. Tola Okagwu has almost a decade of history assisting others to improve the health of their hair, she is also an author of books on the subject. Dr. Jessica Helm concluded that her opinion, after examining the study findings, was that it is best to use caution and reduce exposure to products that cause harm to health. The endocrine disrupting chemicals identified in Dr Helm’s report, have been shown to be associated with increased occurrences of uterine fibroids, infertility, early puberty, and cancer in Black females.

What is the future of the African hair industry if the majority of chemical products are abandoned? #TeamNatural #NaturalHair are two contemporary social media hasttags that are aligned with the growth of natural hair product companies such as Modie Hair Care and Afro Deity. Natural hair care is not unusual, and if the demand for the associated products increases the market will respond. As noted earlier over £5 billion pounds a year is already expended in the Black hair care industry, much of this could be redirected to healthier hair care options for natural hair.

MHM Afro Feb 2005 4853_190170345261_7386360_n

After due consideration of the results of this most recent study I find myself again asking if it is time for more Black British women to consider ditching the use of unregulated and dangerous chemicals on their hair and embrace their natural locs and other hairstyles?

It seems like the healthy option, the real Hobson’s choice.

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‘Casual’ racism is not entertainment

 

 

20180510_232656 Casual Racism.jpg‘Casual’ racism is not entertainment

After a long day I decided to relax in the late evening with film, something light and entertaining, maybe even a comedy or a drama. So I flicked through the menu of films on offer and read the accompanying descriptions of new films from my streaming provider. My attention was arrested when I saw one film described thus: a young boy “gets lessons in the American way … However, with a disapproving father and casual racism, it’s tough to make it in the Land of the Free.” Hold up. There’s so much wrong with this description but I’ll start here: “Casual racism”?

When is racism ever casual?

Isn’t racism just racism? Like the behaviour of the KKK and white supremacists? Overt, obvious, plain for all to see.

Apparently, it has become trendy to refer to racist microaggressions as casual racism or everyday racism. They are used as humorous interactions and in familiar settings. However, I repeat, there is nothing casual about racism.

Here’s a handy guide to microaggressions that are accepted in some places as ‘just a joke’ or normal behaviour:

You didn’t sound Black / you speak so well / you have great diction.

No matter how you form this, it is not a compliment.

Where do you really come from?

Translation: you’re not white so you don’t belong here. Another option would be to ask the question you really want to know: “What is your cultural heritage or background?”.

Oh, you have a chip on your shoulder.

Because you express your dissatisfaction at racism and unfair treatment you may be pathologised as ‘the angry Black person’.

But, I don’t see colour, I see … you.

Theoretically wanting to see only the humanity in a person is wonderful, but not realistic or practical. Not seeing colour is only possible if you are colour blind.

It’s a joke! Don’t get offended.

I can’t say your name, it’s too … difficult.

You mean like Tchaikovsky, Dostoevsky, Rachmanioff, Puccini, Mendelssohn, Salieri, and Bach?

I have Black, Asian friends, I’m not racist.

I’m not racist but … (then the racist statement)

People like you

What? What aspect of my personality are you referring to?

I’d rather not live / sit / travel near a Muslim / Hindu / Rastafarian

You’re really pretty … for a Black / Chinese (insert colour or nationality here) person

You’re so … exotic!

I’ve had ex-partners refer to me as exotic. As yet all my research skills have failed to find anything exotic about life in the county of Wiltshire. Maybe it was just their white privilege showing …

That’s reverse racism!

This statement is often used by people who are reluctant to acknowledge racism to minority groups, yet as soon as policies are introduced to reduce the inequality in society this trump card is pulled out as white people (generally) get affronted and defensive.

This type of discrimination aka ‘casual racism’ normalises racial stereotypes and emboldens bullies by offering them everyday validation of their views, this in turn perpetuates societal discrimination. Presenting people of colour as different (code word for inferior in this context) entrenches the problem – even amongst people who consider themselves enlightened and liberal.

Language is filled with antiquated references to ethnicities and race: e.g. the phrase “Indian giver” that is used to denote a person who gives and then takes back a gift, whilst in fact the saying arose because gift giving between Native Americans and European colonisers of the Americas was based on cultural misunderstandings. It is time to question the use of these phrases and to refuse to use them or accept them in conversations.

‘But I don’t mean any harm’ and ‘I haven’t got a racist bone in my body’ are regular responses that I have heard when I question people on their phraseology. The comeback is usually ‘I didn’t intend to offend’ – but you did. What you said and did was offensive. What are you going to do about it now?

Not many people react well to being called a racist, because a racist is someone who belongs to a far right group like the KKK, Britain First, or the National Front, aren’t they? Someone being overtly violent and discriminatory, surely? They’re not a regular person having a laugh and joke with words and common phrases, are they?

How did those phrases become common? They are part of the systemic and often institutional forms of oppression that are the backbone of many societies. They need to be questioned. For example, the ONS census data categories for ethnic group and nationality still does not have a category for Black English, Welsh, Scottish or Irish, whereas you can be white and English, Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish, Irish, Gypsy, Irish Traveller, any other white background.

I’ve always wondered if ‘Black’ is also a nationality as well as a political term.

It is systems like this that portray white as right, as standard, that are the root of the problem. ‘White is right’ is the concept that white English / European / American culture is always right, pre-eminent, ‘normal’ and the standard by which the ‘other’ is judged: this is an Eurocentric world view. This is where racist terminology has its roots.

Just a final note to the unwitting performer of ‘casual’ racism – racism is never casual to the person you are discriminating against. Never. The racist words and behaviour has a direct impact on people’s lives every day. Racism is not a joke.

Neither is sexism, or homophobia.

Mostly people do not like to be identified a racist. The usually react with either guilt or anger. Professor Robin DiAngelo said, “If you call me a murderer, I’ll just laugh, because I’m not a murderer. But if you call me a racist, I’ll lose my s***. … ‘It’s like the N-word for white people.” Really? Why is it so hard for white people to talk about racism? A case of white fragility or white privilege? It appears that most conversations about racism are started by POC. This needs to change.

Here is a Harvard test to check implicit bias. Just in case you’re not sure where you stand. We need to call out ‘casual racism’.

All I wanted to do was watch a film.

© Marjorie H Morgan 2018

Why the Windrush scandal is a portend for Brexit under the leadership of Theresa May.

2000-t-may-downing

Amber Rudd, has resigned following the Windrush scandal in the UK, although her resignation letter states her reason for stepping down is because she ‘inadvertently mislead Parliament’. Rudd was Home Secretary from 13 July 2016 until 29 April 2018. Her predecessor in the Home Office is Theresa May, the current Prime Minister. May was Home Secretary from12 May 2010 until her appointment as Prime Minister in 2016.

It was Theresa May who, during her six years as Home Secretary, introduced and designed the ‘hostile environment’ that became Amber Rudd’s legacy. Theresa May has yet to take responsibility for her design and creation of this system that has, seemingly intentionally and systematically targeted and harassed British citizens who originally migrated to the UK from parts of the Commonwealth.

Immigration control is essential to any nation, however the central concern in Britain is how the Home Office implements its immigration policy. The Windrush generation, who have been incorrectly and cruelly targeted by Home Office officials, have had the misfortune to be victims of a system that has failed to protect them as British Citizens. Specific legal protection for the Windrush generation was removed from the statute books in the 2014 Immigration Act when the specific clause was omitted without consultation or debate.

Amber Rudd can be viewed as a sacrificial lamb for Theresa May; Rudd now has to consider her options as a Conservative backbencher, where before the Windrush Scandal the main option she was considering was when would she become Prime Minister – as happened to the two previous incumbents of the post of Home Secretary: David Cameron and Theresa May.

Theresa May was the longest serving Home Secretary since WWII (James Chuter Ede, (Labour) was the longest serving Home Secretary of the 20th century, he served from 03 Aug 1945 – 26 Oct 1951); in modern political history May is the single person who has had the longest period of time in post to make her policy’s political mark on a department.

May’s approach to immigration is well documented, in 2016 she noted that her preference was to lock people up, not let them out. Also, her approach to civil liberties was noted as ‘careless’. One of May’s initial steps in office as Home Secretary was to torpedo the national identity scheme proposed by the previous Labour government, her statement in 2010 was “first step of many that this government is taking to reduce the control of the state over decent, law-abiding people”. A Windrush debacle question is whether the implementation of that scheme would have saved the distress caused to thousands of Windrush generation British subjects. We will never know, but we can speculate that having a national identity card would have prevented predominately Caribbean elders being incorrectly identified as illegal immigrants – despite Government held data that proved their status as British citizens.

May, as Home Secretary, frequently conceived strategies and policies to cut net migration figures – that reached a high of 330,000 in June 2015 – including splitting up families, enforcing English language use requirements, and removing overseas students from the figure

George Osborne, the then Chancellor of the Executor, said of Theresa May’s migration reduction plans, “They’re not government proposals. I’m not aware that there has been any agreement in the government or any hard and fast proposals that have been discussed. As I say, these are not government policy; we are not advancing them.” In 2015 it was reported that Osborne had plans to increase net immigration to achieve a budget surplus at the end of the parliament. These plans were in opposition to the policies and proposals of Home Secretary Theresa May – who was determined to fulfil the Conservative party pledge to reduce net immigration figures to tens of thousands.

The Conservative and Unionist Party Manifesto (2017) reaffirmed Theresa May’s commitment to the ‘strong and stable leadership’ set out at the previous election’s manifesto (2015)  – May confirmed that she would “stick to the plan that has delivered stability and certainty”, “reduce and control immigration” from the annual net migration figures of around 273,000 to “annual net migration in the tens of thousands, rather than the hundreds of thousands we have seen over the last two decades. We will, therefore, continue to bear down on immigration from outside the European Union.

This coded statement is, I believe, the root of the issues that focused on people who were not seen as white British. In 2015 the Tory Government promised to extend their ‘deport first, appeal later’ rule – that was initially applied solely to foreign national offenders – to all immigration appeals and judicial reviews. These are the promises that were the foundation stones for discriminatory practices against British citizens, mainly elderly people of colour, who were former Commonwealth citizens. David Cameron, as Home Secretary, then Theresa May, constructed and built this system and ignored the diversity of the British population as implemented laws that directly opposed their promise to “build a[n immigration] system that truly puts you, your family and the British people first.” All I can deduce from the treatment of the Caribbean elders is that they Conservative Government did not view this cohort as British. Ignoring and erasing Black British communities is an act of representational violence when there should be representational equity in contemporary British society.

At the beginning of the media outcry of the Windrush scandal, the Home Office issued a statement confirming that the Government continues to implement its ‘compliant environment’ whilst making “no apologies for our commitment to build an immigration system which works in the best interest of the country and prevents vulnerable people from finding themselves at risk of exploitation.” (12 April 2018)

If Britain can treat its legal, law abiding citizens in this inhumane, horrendous and cruel manner, then I wonder if there is any hope for humane treatment of fellow European citizens, especially as the Conservative’s manifesto (2017) gleefully states that leaving “the European Union means, for the first time in decades, that we will be able to control immigration from the European Union too.” This far-right rhetoric was also used by UKIP in the successful effort to persuade the general British public that immigration was the cause of all the country’s problems. Theresa May, has also stated that the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) “can bind the hands of parliament [and] … makes us less secure by preventing the deportation of dangerous foreign nationals,” like retired Caribbean elders? The actions and records of all the Tory Home Secretaries needs to be examined in detail, from David Cameron through to Amber Rudd, and also the newly appointed replacement.

The appointment of Sajid Javid as the new Home Secretary (30 Apr 2018) is, in my opinion, an attempt to stave off the cries of colour discrimination policies against the majority white Conservative party. What needs to be remembered is that class is as great a division in British society as culture. Managing directors of investment banks do not get treated in the same way as NHS employees – no matter what their colour.

© Marjorie H Morgan 2018

Cruelty by design towards British Caribbean elders

windrush flags 70 years

 

Information about the cases of the Caribbean British elders being systematically targeted and often deported from their British homes has been widely circulated in the past few weeks. Many members of British society, included the affected British elders, were unaware that they were a part of a group of people who were not officially categorised as British until they tried to access health care or were required to provide additional documentation for their employers in line with the online Employers’ Checking Service for Biometric Residence Permits (BRP) that began in June 2012.

This anomaly has arisen because the Government system has failed to correctly file papers relating to the adults and children of Windrush generation – the British subjects who migrated to the UK from the Caribbean and other parts of the Commonwealth in the late 1940s and 1950s to help to rebuild the Mother Country.

As the shock of this situation reached across the British nation public figures such as David Lammy MP, and celebrities, including David Harewood, and Sir Lenny Henry – who is himself descended from Caribbean British parents – have called for the public to sign a petition created by Patrick Vernon OBE, requesting an amnesty for anyone who was a minor that arrived in Britain between 1948 and 1971.

To be considered for a debate in parliament, petitions have to obtain at least 100,000 signatures, this petition, created on the 6 October 2018, has already exceeded this amount of signatories. The Government is also required to respond to all petitions once they obtain more than 10,000 signatures. As a response to this public outcry, the Government has finally, on 13 April 2018, published some guidance around this matter. This appears to be the first Government response to repeated requests for guidance and information around the process that has targeted this group of British citizens.

The information on the Government website has been produced by the UK Visas and Immigration department that is part of the Home Office. The Government provides information for this group of Caribbean British elders that they are now referring to as ‘Undocumented Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK.’ The page is careful to note that the information therein is not a substitute for immigration advice, although it does note that if “you entered the UK before 1 Jan 1973 then the chances are you are entitled to live here permanently. Your status is only broken following a long period outside of the UK (2 years).

There are a number of steps that these Caribbean British elders will now have to undertake in order to verify their status as British citizens and prove they have right of abode in the UK. The first step is to apply for a “no-time limit” biometric resident permit (BRP), followed by applying for British Citizenship if they are successful with the initial step.

The “no-time limit” biometric permit application is for someone who already has indefinite leave to enter or remain in the UK. There is a standard associated cost of £229 per person, and applications can also be made at Premium Service Centres for same day consideration of the application – at the premium cost of £610 per person. A mobile super premium service is also available at the cost of £10,500 per visit – this final service tier means that you will usually get your decision with 24 hours, as you can decided the location and time of the visit (between midday and 3pm, Monday to Friday) when the premium service staff will visit you to get your biometric information (fingerprint and photo), and your signature. This last service option may have to be used in a desperate final effort to stop impending deportation because the process of challenging the Home Office decisions increases in complexity and cost when a person has been forcibly removed from their British homes and relocated to a different country.

BRPs were introduced in the UK in 2008 and have automatically been distributed to members of the British public when they have replaced old documents; these cards are used to confirm identity, the right to work and study in the UK, and the entitlement to access any public services or benefits. The BRP is a card issued by the Home Office that contains evidence of immigration permissions (also known as leave to enter or remain), and includes a microchip with two of the resident’s fingerprints and a digital photograph. The BRP is required documentation if the resident does not have indefinite leave to remain (ILR) endorsed in a current passport.

The current procedure for obtaining permanent British residency dictates that once a resident gets ILR they cannot apply for British Citizenship for at least 12 months and have to have been in the UK for five years preceding application for citizenship. Therefore when these Caribbean British elders, who have been living and working in the UK for their entire lives, do obtain their official ILR they will still be faced with another delayed wait for a year before their British Citizenship is confirmed. British Citizenship is now dependent on where you were born (in the UK or a qualifying British overseas territory), when you were born (before or after 1 January 1983) and your parents’ circumstances at the time of your birth.

The Government website states that, “All citizens of Commonwealth countries were British subjects until January 1983,” therefore this should be a straightforward matter for those Caribbean British elders who have been subjected to extensive questioning regarding their status. Yet, a raft of recent cases have proved that this has not been the situation that many, like Elwaldo Romeo, Sarah O’Connor, and Albert Thompson have found themselves in.

The Home Office have also published a blog to say that Government policy around the rights of Commonwealth citizens has not changed, however because of the introduction of the hostile environment towards migrants in the UK who wish to work, live and use public services, there have been new laws implemented to ensure that these migrants have the correct documents to demonstrate their right to be in the UK and entitlement to use public services.

On the same fact sheet page the Home Office claims that there are existing solutions available to obtain the correct documentation for settled status, and that they “have no intention of making people leave who have the right to remain here.” These solutions all involve hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of pounds in application fees, forms and tests for people who have been British citizens for their entire adult lives.

The facts of the cases already listed above and in previous posts seem to contradict the statement that the Government made saying it has no intention of making people leave because many Caribbean British elders have already been detained, deported or refused entry back into the country after a lifetime’s work here.

The Home Office also states that the government makes “no apologies for our commitment to build an immigration system which works in the best interest of the country and prevents vulnerable people from finding themselves at risk of exploitation.”

These newly implemented laws have highlighted an error in the Government system relating to the right of abode for long-term British residents from the Commonwealth. These people, have somehow mysteriously remained undocumented and ignored in central government systems – despite paying taxes, having National Insurance numbers, and decades of employment records – and they are now being unfairly treated and labeled as people with ‘no status’ and therefore categorised as not being the British Citizens the 1983 law identifies them as.

As Gary Younge, from the Guardian newspaper, succinctly states, this is cruelty by design as people like Michael Braithwaite have violated no law; it’s the law that is violating themTherefore  all financial charges relating to proving British citizenship should be waived for Caribbean British elders who have been long term residents in the UK – that’s justice. They should not have to pay for an error that has been created by the Government systems that are supposed to be in place to protect them.

National Geographic continues to fail

Nat Geo cover 1

April 2018 cover – “Black and White: These twin sisters make us rethink everything we know about race”  – the National Geographic (Nat Geo) says it’s covering and addressing its past racist coverage, yet in the article associated with the cover photo of the April 2018 issue, Patricia Edmonds continues the form of reporting that Nat Geo says it’s moving away from.

The fraternal twin girls shown on the cover, Millie and Marcia Biggs, are described thus: “From a young age the girls had similar features but very different color schemes. Marcia had light brown hair and fair skin like her English-born mother. Millie had black hair and brown skin like her father, who’s of Jamaican descent.” Therein lies the continuing problem of discriminatory reporting.

“English-born mother … and … father, who’s of Jamaican descent.”

As an English-born person who is of Jamaican descent this description is problematic for me because Edmonds’ article insinuates, in standard Nat Geo racist tones, that the white mother equates to the English-born descriptor and the Jamaican descent father is the black hair and brown skin ‘other’ in the equation.

Nat Geo is still reinforcing the idea that to be English-born you are automatically viewed as white, whilst Jamaicans are generalised as black; this diametric opposition is what was the root of Nat Geo’s historical reporting, and this issue, as well meaning as it is supposed to be, has failed to reposition itself away from stereotypical statements, photographs and phrases like ‘very different color schemes’.

Some of the questions that arose for me when reading this article were: from what nationality does the English-born mother, Amanda Wanklin, descend? Where was the black hair and brown skin father, Michael Biggs, born? If it is important to describe the birth place of one parent and the descent of the other parent, then in an effort to reduce racial stereotypes and promote equality surely the same conditions should be applied to both parents?

Isn’t the tone of this article reinforcing the same stereotypes ingrained in white American culture that the editor-in-chief, Susan Goldberg, suggests that this issue is supposed to be pushing its readers beyond? To me, this article resets the tone as one of continued racial divisions based on both birth location and heritage.

Or have I completely missed the point?

In the Nat Geo “Black and White” essay Alicia Martin, a statistical geneticist is referenced as stating that the traits of fraternal twins that emerge in each child depends on numerous variables, including “where the parents’ ancestors are from and complex pigment genetics.” As this article does not directly address where the twins’ maternal ancestors are from, the reader of the article is left with the assumption that ‘English-born’ relates to an unending line of similarly born ancestors who will be categorised as white and therefore quintessentially British.

Afua Hirsch has an essay in the same issue that continues the analysis on what it means to be British – Hirsch investigated this concept in her recent book: Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging. Hirsch notes that, “Britishness, as an identity, is in crisis. It is still linked in the imagination of people of all races to the concept of whiteness.”

Nat Geo may have had good intentions, but from my reading of this issue they have faltered and failed on the first steps to explore race and diversity in America. I know that many people have lauded the publication of this issue as a wonderful event, yet I still see it as a P.R. exercise to excuse a back catalogue of discriminatory reporting, and to feed the American white supremacist’s and far-right’s angst about them again becoming a minority in the country they invaded: “In two years, for the first time in U.S. history, less than half the children in the nation will be white.” (From the editorial by Susan Goldberg).

National Geographic, you cannot correct past mistakes by perpetuating them.

Maybe Marcia and Millie should be left to define themselves in line with the Nat Geo’s hashtag: #IDefineMe

© Marjorie H Morgan 2018

Travelling while Black

Travelling while Black N'shire

I do this every day, I walk the local streets, I drive and often take taxis, buses, trains and airplanes to destinations all around the world – I travel while Black.

I chose not to notice it at first, wishing that it was an aberration of my mind, but it’s not: I have an (in)visible label stuck to me that identifies me as different – my skin. But it’s not only my skin, it is also my hair – especially when I had dreadlocks.

Driving around the UK as me (I cannot change myself, you see) is problematic for others, especially the police. Here is a typical example – sadly non-fiction – that occurred more than once, imagine me (late 90s) dressed in my Burberry coat, with my Samsonite briefcase next to me on the passenger seat, driving my brand new VW Golf GTi. I am on my way home from the local train station, after working in London for the day as a computer consultant. As I near my home I am pulled over by the police for … for nothing, it transpires, apart from driving while Black.

“Can I help you, officer?”
I am tired of the stops but used to them. The weariness is evident in my voice.

“I stopped you …”

“Yes?”

“I stopped you to see what you are doing in this area?”

“Pardon?” Although I am well used to this type of enquiry I have no desire to make things easy for people who approach me with discrimination plans clearly shining from their foreheads.

“What are you doing in this area?”

This has to be one of my favourite questions from police officers, especially as this is a public road, and as far as I am aware apartheid pass laws have not been implemented in Oxfordshire, or any other part of the UK.  I really can’t wait to see where this scenario will lead.

“I’m going home.”

“Where do you live?”

“Why do you want to know that?

“I’m trying to ascertain what you are doing in this area?”

“Is there something wrong?”

“I’m not sure, I’m asking the questions.”

“Are you stopping all vehicles or just me?” I say this as other cars, my neighbours in fact, drive pass without hinderance.

“Please confirm where you live.”

“For what reason? Why have you stopped me and why do you want to know where I live?”

“Just answer the questions!” The irritation level is spiking in the police officer because I do not roll over and show my belly.

I exhale a deep sigh and say, “I live just around the corner … do you want to come and see?”

“Whose vehicle is this?

“Mine.”

“Oh. Do you have the papers?”

“Of course.”

“Alright then. Carry on.”

“So what did you stop me for?”

“You can go now.”

Long days sandwiched by ignorance do not make a tasty mental snack.

First the skin: this is a passport to discrimination from ignorant beings. The negativities encountered when in one’s own private vehicle are contrasted when in public. Having black skin proves useful when on crowded buses to trains because the seat next to me, or opposite me is always the last one to be occupied, gingerly, by some desperate passenger who has scoured the whole of the transport for an alternative. Some people choose to stand for the entire journey rather than sit next to me. I still point out the vacant seat, and sometimes they respond saying, “Thanks, but no thanks. I’m not going far.” They may still be standing when I leave the seat and alight at my destination, or they suddenly change their mind about sitting when another seat, elsewhere in the carriage, becomes free.

I’ll replace my bag on the chair and carry on. Comfortable with space around me. Uncomfortable with the ignorance or hatred around me – from people who do not know me at all.

However, it does feel like I have a communicable disease when there is a quarantine-like space around me. I am not contagious, but they think they can get something undesirable from coming in close contact with me. It saddens me more than it amuses me.

I am a signifier to people – they appear to have applied value to my blackness and my cultural appearance. To them my dreadlocks mean I am a drug-dealer and always in possession of vast quantities of marijuana or, at the very least knowledge of where to readily get some if my ‘personal supply’ has run out. This is pure ignorance as I have never smoked or taken drugs in my life. My dreadlocks are the best way of maintaining my hair as well as a connection to the culture of my fore-bearers. This became a regular occurrence, so much so that I had to start making a joke out of it because my frustration at the frequency of the inquiries was mounting as much as my hair grew.

If a conversation was started, it usually contained the ubiquitous question, “Where are you from?” in the dialogue. 

“I live in Abingdon, Oxfordshire”

“No, I mean where are you from.”

“Oh, Wiltshire.”

“No, I mean where are you from.”

“Trowbridge, Wiltshire in the West Country.”

“No, that’s not what I mean.”

“What do you mean?”

“Where do you come from.”

“I told you. The only other detail I can give you is graphic – my mother’s vag…..”

“You don’t get me … “

(I understand them completely but I’m not entertaining this vague question again.)

“What precisely do you want to know?”

“What nationality are you?”

“English.”

“No, you’re not.”

“Yes, I am. I was born in Wiltshire. I’m English.”

“Can’t you just answer the question …”

“If you ask the question you really want the answer to, then I will answer it, if I can. What do you want to know?”

“What are your parents?”

“British.”

“This is silly.”

“Yes, you’re right. It is silly.”

“You can’t be British. You’re Black!”

“I am British, in fact I’m English. The same way a person born in Wales is Welsh, and a person born in Scotland is Scottish, and a person born in Ireland is Irish. I’m English, but like so many people I sometimes say I’m British. My parents are British, too.”

“How can your parents be British? They’re black too, right?”

“Yes, they are British citizens.”

“But where are they from? They’re not from here, are they?”

“No, they’re not from Oxfordshire, our family home is in Wiltshire. That’s where we’re from. But I see the question you want to ask is what’s our family heritage. Is that right?”

“Yes, where are you from?”

“My parents came to England from Jamaica in the Caribbean. But our family heritage goes back further. My name is Morgan, a Welsh name, my maternal name is Sutherland, a Scottish name, and my genetic roots are also from West Africa, and the Indian subcontinent. So, the answer to ‘Where am I from?’ is all over the world. I guess my family has roots everywhere, a bit like the Queen who has German ancestry: in 1917 they changed their family name from ‘Saxe-Coburg-Gotha’ to ‘Windsor’ to sound less German – especially as the country was at war with Germany. Did you know that Queen Victoria’s first language was German? But she also learnt to speak English? She married her German cousin, Albert and they both tried to assimilate into the country where they lived: England. In fact, Queen Victoria became more Scottish the longer she lived.”

“Oh. I didn’t know some of that.”

“Because I am constantly asked that question based on, I suppose, the colour of my skin, and the style of my hair, I like to share facts about where people are from. Especially people who are seen as quintessentially English as the British Royal Family, who are seen as being as English as fish and chips, or a cup of tea. So where are you from?”

“Here.”

“Where’s here? Where are your parents and grandparents from?”

“My parents are from here as well, I think. I don’t know about my grandparents.”

“Maybe you should have more answers before you ask so many questions.”

So, I continue to travel whilst Black armed with answers that people often do not expect and I wonder how long will it be until I can just travel and declare, “I’m English,”  to any enquiries about where I’m from; to have that accepted without being grilled about the ten generations that preceded me would be a lovely journey down the road, across town, on holiday or just across the back fence.

I’m English and I’m Black. It’s not unusual.

Marjorie H Morgan © 2018

Breaking the silence surrounding Black female infertility


Diagnosis - Infertility. Medical Concept. 3D Render.by Marjorie H Morgan © 2018

How often have you had a conversation about infertility amongst Black women? Not very often, I would suspect. Or never. There appears to be a silence surrounding Black female infertility, although white female infertility is frequently discussed and treated. Infertility is often viewed through a colour-coded prism.

Historically myths surrounding Black women, and the image of the Black female body, are associated with constant reproduction, so when a Black woman realises she is not able to conceive there are usually feelings of inadequacy and failure. In many cultures motherhood is associated with social status, therefore being childless can mean that a woman feels shame to be seen as barren.

Since the start of recorded time there has been infertility amongst women, it is not new. The Bible refers to Sarah and Rebekah who remained ‘childless’ for decades. Many contemporary Black women resort to religious behaviour when they believe they are cursed by God, and some women may implement acts of superstition, like sleeping with baby clothes under their pillows, to increase their chances of conception. The National Health Statistics Reports (2006-2010) show that Black women are 1.5 times more likely to experience infertility than their white counterparts. So, why the silence?

There are many health and genetic reasons for this higher level of infertility in Black women, including the prevalence of fibroids, dysfunctional ovaries, endometriosis, and PCOS. Premature ovarian failure is also a condition that affects the infertility of Black women: this is also known as primary ovarian insufficiency and it is a condition where ovulation times are uncertain because there is a loss of eggs associated with premature menopause. A woman’s ability to conceive naturally each month declines as she gets older.

According to the WHO (1993) the clinical definition of infertility is the absence of conception after 24 months of regular unprotected intercourse. For many women the realisation that they may be infertile is a shock that may lead to isolation and embarrassment.

In 2016 a study into the experiences of nine Black and minority ethnic women living in Wales was undertaken at Cardiff University; this study shares the views and experience of this group who had current or previous experiences of infertility. The women talked about the pressure they felt to become mothers, the negative impact of not being able to conceive, and their ongoing concerns and hope for the future.

When any woman who wants to reproduce finds that her personal biology has denied her the opportunity to do so, there are often feelings of failure because fertility is frequently equated to womanhood in pronatalist societies. Each time the conception cycle passes unfulfilled the potential mothers may enter into a pattern of grief for the loss of the unborn, unknown child they were preparing for, and grief for their own body’s inability to conceive; this is often repeated for months and years.

When personal reproduction proves impossible some Black women may choose to foster or adopt to experience motherhood. This can occur after the high costs and expenses of many rounds of IVF, artificial insemination, and possibly miscarriages and recurrent pregnancy loss (RPL).

Between the moment that a Black woman discovers she is infertile, and the time she chooses to either embrace the state of childlessness or to foster or adopt, there is the desert time when she is alone with her body. During these stages, women can undergo a wide rage of emotions directly related to the cycle of procreation; this may include self imposed isolation from family and friends because she may feel ostracised from the normality of their worlds, and periods where she may spend much time crying in silence behind closed doors. This  can be a time when some women may find themselves experiencing suicidal thoughts and episodes of mental illness because of the social stigma and the stress of repeated failures to conceive.

Infertility can remain undiscussed in the wider community unless there is more publicity around the issue. It has helped when people like Beyoncé, Tyra Banks and Chrissy Tiegen also raise the emotional aspect of the issue.

It is important to get more Black women to talk about infertility to demystify it and to break the silence and isolation of those who experience involuntary childlessness. 

Figures show that nearly 60% of people in America do not undertake fertility treatment because they are unaware of the options available. It is vital that Black women realise that infertility is a common problem experienced by 1 in 6 women between the ages of 15 and 44, in Britain these women should have full access to the NHS fertility treatment which, according to a 2006 survey, shows that there was unequal access to treatment and no clear criteria for who should receive this NHS-funded fertility treatment.

  

It’s time to talk.

Useful links:

https://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Fertility/Pages/Fertilityhome.aspx

https://britishfertilitysociety.org.uk/

http://www.nfaw.org.uk/raising-awareness/

https://infertilityawareness.org/

WHO – World Health Organisation (Rowe et al., 1993)

http://apps.who.int/iris/handle/10665/36983

https://resolve.org/

https://www.bwhi.org/

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/06/150604162636.htm