Extracted from Natives, Race And Class In The Ruins Of The Empire, by Akala
At five, the hip-hop poet was racially abused at school. Could his mother ever really understand?One day in 1988, at the age of five, I returned home from school upset. My mum tried to work out why but I was reluctant to tell her. After some coaxing, I told her that a boy in the playground had called me a particularly nasty name. As I was about to spill the beans, a strange thing occurred. I said, “Mum, the white boy… ” and trailed off before I could complete the sentence. A profound realisation hit me. With a hint of terror and accusation, I said, “But you’re white, aren’t you, Mummy?”
Before this, my mum was just my mum, a flawless superhero, as any loving parent is in a five-year-old’s eyes. I sensed that something about that image was changing in the moment, something we could never take back. I wanted to un-ask the question. My mother’s expression was halfway between shock and resignation: she’d known this day would come, but the directness of the question still took her aback.
She thought for a moment and then, using one of her brilliant if unintentional psychological masterstrokes, replied something to the effect of: “Yes, I’m white, but I’m German and they’re English.” It didn’t matter that my mum was not really German – she was born in Germany but brought up in Hong Kong – or that I was technically English: my mum had created a safety valve for me, so that I could feel comfortable reporting racist abuse to her without having to worry that I was hurting her feelings. Even at five, I knew instinctively that whiteness, like all systems of power, preferred not to be interrogated.
I told my mum that the boy had called me a “Chinese black nigger bastard”. I felt naughty even saying the words. My mum must have had to resist the urge to laugh before the anger set in. What a combination of words! We had to give the lad – or more probably his parents – 10/10 for originality.
From that day, my relationship with my mother was not just that of mother and son, but of a white mother to a black son. Race had intervened and now marked our actions and attitudes, coloured our conversations and heightened the usual conflicts, mapping on to them the loss and suffering of the black world at the hands of “whitey” – and the strange mix of guilt, fear and superiority that a great many white people feel as a result, but rarely talk about. It did not matter that my mother’s family was poor by British standards, that they had their own history of horrendous institutional abuse, or even that she was half Scottish: race overrode those nuances.
Education was not particularly encouraged in my mother’s household when she was growing up, and certainly not for girls. Her father was an ignorant, violent, unapologetically racist man. He was also conditioned by the class and gender relationships of his day, so when my mother got the highest grades of her siblings – she had three brothers – he told her she must have cheated. When her teacher encouraged her to go to university, her response was to laugh uncomfortably and say, “No, sir, that’s for posh people.”
However, she made friends with the only black family where she grew up – the family of Uncle Offs, the man who would become my godfather. Uncle Offs’ own father was a university-educated schoolteacher in his native Guyana, and it was expected that his children would get a good education. My mum was encouraged by the family to attend university, and so she did, pursuing a degree in Caribbean history. Her induction into a radical, anti-colonial black politics fundamentally shaped the way she raised her children.
Now race had made itself known to us, my mum did not hold back: my siblings and I would watch films about the civil rights struggle, slavery and apartheid. She gave me a box of tapes of Malcolm X speeches for my 10th birthday. She did everything she could to make sure I “knew myself”.
Yet for all her education and political activity, she was still white; she could never really “get it”. She could never reach her black son in the way other black people could, and we both became painfully aware of this. As I grew into a young man, our conversations became tinged with racial difference and I became embarrassed by her whiteness, drifting deeper into a half-digested black nationalist politics refracted to me through hip-hop and a couple of books I’d half-read.
I saw the pain and uncertainty in her face as I became a teenager and then a black man, her fears for and of my body; the 6ft-tall adult, the scowling brown face that had once been a naive, smiling five-year-old who didn’t yet know that his mother was not a “sister”, but the oppressor.
For a long time, race threatened to wreck our relationship, combined with the stresses of being poor and the more mundane familial resentments; but we survived and, after many, many struggles, flourished.
By the time I realised my mum was white, she knew only too well. She had been called “nigger lover” enough times; she had watched my dad fight the National Front and assorted bigots almost daily, while her own father had disowned her for “getting with a nigger”. People she had grown up with walked past her when she pushed our prams; others refused to believe we were really her children in the culture of the time.
It wasn’t until my late teens that I started to really think about what whiteness means. I questioned how Celts, Saxons, Corsicans and Nordic people had all come to be defined as “white”. “Whiteness is a metaphor for power,” James Baldwin tells us. “Money whitens,” say the Brazilians. South Africans can be found calling rich black people “white man”, and they mean this as a compliment. Or, as Frantz Fanon tells us, “You are rich because you are white, because you are white you are rich.”
The mental and emotional benefits of whiteness are why my grandad – working class, a soldier who had been tortured in battle, an uneducated alcoholic with few serious accomplishments – could still say, “Well, at least I am not a nigger” as often as he did. What did my grandfather understand about whiteness that so many pretend they cannot?
And it’s also why, though my mum was far from rich and had a great many sufferings of her own, she still shared a degree of racial discomfort when faced with the questioning eyes of her five-year-old son. But she sought and led him to answers, and did her best to rise to the challenge
Natives, Race And Class In The Ruins Of The Empire by Akala is published by Two Roads.