For a while, I’ve been making a concerted effort to read more broadly about race in everyday lived experience. I made the decision after reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015). I had an exceptionally powerful and visceral response to this work, partly because I encountered it during a period of immense frustration with endemic discrimination around me. The book’s raw anger resonated and, unexpectedly, renewed my commitment to writing history.
Right away, I felt as if Coates had articulated more clearly than I ever had, either to myself or my colleagues, why I write the history I do. ‘The question is not whether Lincoln truly meant “government of the people” but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term “people” to actually mean. In 1863, it did not mean your mother or your grandmother, and it did not mean you and me. Thus America’s problem is not its betrayal of “government of the people,” but the means by which “the people” acquired their names’. When I first read these sentences, only six pages in, I had to put the book down and come back several days later. I could have finished the book in a single sitting but I decided to take my time and read it over several days slowly absorbing the words.
I soon found myself poring over Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (2015). If only I could have read this when I first went to university. I can’t articulate how uncannily familiar Rankine’s observations felt, especially on the toll of racism. Everyday experiences often confirm patterns of social injustice. Sometimes, the harm is obvious but, more often, it becomes barely visible through historical erasure and gaslighting. ‘Hold up, did you just hear, did you just say, did you just see, did you just do that? Then the voice in your head silently tells you to take your foot off your throat because just getting along shouldn’t be an ambition’. As Rankine notes, achievement can be deadly and the physiological cost of trying to outrun the ‘buildup of erasure’ even has a name: John Henryism, coined by Professor Sherman James.
Soon after, I came across The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla (2016). The book was conceived in response to a Guardian article featuring writers of colour, including Shukla. An anonymous commentator ‘wondered why there wasn’t a more prominent author interviewed’. For Shukla, the ‘constant anxiety’ people of colour face to ‘show that we have earned our place at the table’ is a tiresome burden. I know that Coates and Rankine will have a lasting impact on me: even so, reading something about racialization in contemporary Britain hit home with unexpected force. I’m especially excited that Shukla is editing a new collection of essays, Rife: Twenty Stories from Britain’s Youth, that you can help crowdfund.
I felt renewed by the exquisitely unapologetic tone of the essays. Struggles to break free of awkward and limiting expectations unite numerous voices in the book. The very notion of a ‘good’ immigrant is rooted in the fear of ‘bad’ immigrants stealing jobs and taking advantage. The good immigrant wins gold medals at the Olympics, bakes cakes for the Queen’s birthday, assimilates to a pleasing degree, shrugs off discrimination and is forever grateful. The burden does not end with success. ‘Integrate well. Move upwards in society. Be praised – until people worry that you’re doing too well, and then they remember that you’re foreign’, observes Wei Ming Kam, founder of BAME in Publishing. Without exceptional achievements belonging is never granted but, even with glittering accomplishments, it remains conditional.
Importantly, the book illuminates the labour of racialization. Racialized classifications are not inherently natural or obvious. We all learn to use them through social learning. Once learnt, they can seem obvious but this is an illusion that requires conscious effort to unlearn. People of colour become aware of the historical and social baggage of their skins because racism can thrive on the cumulative impact of unremarkable acts.
Even the simplest of questions pose dilemmas for people of colour: what to wear, whether on the head or body; whether to use given names and honour the genealogies they trace or acquiesce to Anglicized substitutes; whether to bear salutations such as namaste being misused or offer corrections; how to identify one’s heritage, particularly when complexions create dissonant expectations: these are all quotidian conundrums that must be solved in split seconds only to be worried over in hours of private reflection.
I would never consent to being called by an Anglicized nickname. When people don’t even try to get a name right, they’re prioritizing their own comfort over another’s dignity. I refuse to allow that. I also love my name and would never change it, both because of its religious significance and meaning – I am a blessed little (tiger) shark. And yet, I know many people who feel compelled to change their names because they cannot bear the abuse or mockery having a ‘foreign’ name can bring.
Seeing gifted writers of colour articulate the labour of racialization has made me realise that I’ve been reading far too many books of the wrong sort. Too many of the books I read about race do not pay enough attention to lived experience, mental well-being and the hopes and aspirations of their subjects. As I mull over these three books in particular, I hope they help me find a new voice. After all, there is a reason I have a recurring dream that I have written a book called The Unbearable Whiteness of Being. The title is too good not to have been used but, for the moment, it lingers in my thoughts.