I am five years old. I am standing there. Bewildered. Confused. What are they saying? Why do they look so angry? Why are they shouting at me with such hate? My five-year-old mind could not comprehend what has going on. I was experiencing my first racist attack. A traumatic experience.
I had been in the country a few months. Freshly arrived from my native country of Zambia, where I hadn’t gone to school but had spent carefree days playing with my friends. My family had struck up a friendship with the neighbours across the road, who were expatriates from the UK. Their son was around my age and we would often be seen playing together. What an interesting sight. This native black girl running around with this blond-haired white boy. He was visibly different. An ethnic minority. I accepted him. He accepted me. My experience of visible difference had been one of kindness, acceptance and playfulness.
And here I was on this cold, wet, dark playground in the UK surrounded by hostile faces, shouting collocations of the word ‘black’ at me for being visibly different. I am confused. Disoriented.
A few months ago I was in Zambia standing on the veranda, watching the sunrise, gazing at the majestic mountains in the distance and enjoying the activity of shouting ‘Muli bwanji’ (How are you? in Nanja) and enjoying hearing the echo of my warm greeting.
But now I am not hearing warm greetings. Instead, I am facing a mountain of rejection and hostility. All because I am visibly different.
This was character forming for me as a five-year-old. It is here I learnt the consequences of being visible. I was in a country where being black was being visible. You attract attention. A lot of the time unwanted attention. I wanted to be invisible again. To be back in Zambia. And so, as I grew, I saw that being invisible was safe. I copied accepted mannerisms. I copied the way invisible people smiled and laughed. I even copied the way they spoke and the way they dressed. I did all this just to be invisible. When I would hear comments such as ,’You’re one of us’ or ‘I don’t see colour, I just see people’ this made me believe that I was succeeding in being invisible. Not true.
As an adult, I had had to recalibrate my brain. Visibility is good. It gets you promoted. Your opinions get heard. But it is scary. I have learnt to overcome this fear of being visible by realising many things. The importance of cultivating resilience, compassion and curiosity. And most importantly, having the courage to be visible. To be me. To have my own signature laugh. To have my own smile. To be comfortable with my visibility. Being visible is to rise to where I want to be. I can only rise if I am visible. To conclude, I will end with the last two stanzas of Maya Angelou’s poem Still I Rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops
Weakened by my soulful cries
You may shoot me with your words
You may cut me with your eyes
You may kill me with your hatefulness
But still like air, I’ll rise.
Here’s my last line, I rise because I am visible and have the courage to be visible.