As a woman of colour in the UK
Six women reflect on their experiences with racism, discrimination, media representation, racial and cultural identity and what they love most about being a woman of colour.
All photography by Quynh Gallagher and Devyn Molina. (From left: Danya, Hanan, Simone and Robyn).
Just two months ago, a video of a white police officer kneeling on the neck of an African American man, circulated the internet sending shockwaves and a fury that ignited a global outcry. The world watched George Floyd parish at the hands of law enforcement, which inevitably led to protests against police brutality, oppression, and systematic racism. In a matter of days, social media was flooded with hashtags while the streets were flooded with people, all marching for the Black Lives Matter cause. Rightfully enraged, people continue to protest and donate to bring justice for the black lives lost such as Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Dominique Fells and Belly Mujinga.
Amid the chaos and series of tragic deaths, the international protests have slowly and successfully managed to bring about change, awareness and further the existing conversation on racism and white privilege. While they still have a long way to go, it's a step in the right direction.
While most of the larger protests had taken place in America, they also took place in cities all over the UK, such as London, Oxford, Bath, Manchester and Liverpool.
Known for being unapologetically outspoken, transgender activist and model, Munroe Bergdorf, took to social media to share her experiences with racism and transphobia while working with prominent brands and companies in the past. She also made sure to point out that the UK has had more than its fair share of racism in its past and still continues to now. She wanted to emphasize that even though America's problems with police brutality and racism were making headlines, the UK wasn't immune to such controversies.
Although the UK is home to many diverse cities, filled with people of different races, ethnicities and cultural backgrounds, many are still facing different forms of racism and hate crimes.
In order to continue to keep the conversation on racism going, I sat down with six women from the UK to talk about how they felt about being a woman of colour, especially now, and how it’s changed the way they view the world. Being a woman, let alone a woman of colour definitely has its fair share of trials and tribulations.
Despite growing up in different parts of the UK, they each shared at least one instance where they experienced racism whether it was blatant or through microaggressions. While some of their journey’s haven’t been easy, being a woman of colour has allowed them to feel a sense of empowerment and to take pride in that part of their identity.
I was working as an intern for a British designer around London Fashion Week and for 3 months I was deliberately given all the meaningless tasks compared to the other intern who was white. On the night before the fashion show, I was asked to take out the trash, clean up after others and was even told to buy and set up a birthday cake with Prosecco glasses for this other intern while they were given all the hands on tasks working with the team on the final garments.
As a young and eager student, this was very distressing but also a beneficial learning experience for me. I understand that there will be times where I may not be treated equally or given the same opportunities as others, but instead I will have to work 100 times harder to be able to get where I want. I am also grateful that my experiences have allowed me to become confident enough to speak out when I feel myself or others are being treated unfairly just because of the colour of our skin.
I remember getting on a bus and an old woman was getting on in front of me. [But] I didn’t want to be condescending or pushy by helping her right away. I gave her some time knowing I’d offer help if I see her struggling. A white woman yelled at me, “Well help her then!” I told her that I’m not going to be condescending by pushing her on the bus. And then she proceeds to shout, “This is what happens when your people come here!” Everyone around me shouted back at her and told her to shut up. Me and the old woman got off at the same stop and I felt the need to apologise to her and she was incredibly kind, she told me it’s fine and asked me for directions.
The magazine I worked for was owned by an asian company. A lot of their covers were women of colour which is great but it doesn’t excuse them gaslighting me over my race. They would tell me, “I don’t really think you should identify as Hong Kong Chinese because you haven’t lived there.” You can ask a simple question and get away with it but my entire identity has been based on microaggressions and gaslighting. It’s been based on me trying to force myself to fit into a box that I clearly don’t fit in.
Because I’ve interned in media, you see these things like the fox-eye trend. I would love to wake up and just choose an ethnicity’s face to paint on, but I don’t get that because I grew up with people pulling their eyes back and saying that I have squinty, slanty eyes. Now all of the sudden Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid can do it and it’s hot but still people won’t tell me I have nice eyes but they’ll say it to these girls that have painted it on. I feel like [racism] has changed the way I see things in that I’ve become more cynical.
I realised recently that I shouldn’t have to compromise. If you mess up my name because I’m probably one of two black people in the classroom. If you can remember 20 Emilys and 17 Sarahs, then you can probably remember two different black people that don’t look the same. I just feel like I’m less tolerant of certain things. I will not tolerate blackface or using the n-word. I will not excuse people walking up to me and asking me if I like weed, assuming I’m going to know because I’m Jamaican. It takes a two second Google to know what the right and wrong thing is to say. I’m obviously not perfect but I will learn from it. It’s not hard to know what’s not racist.
It’s who I am, I’m tired of having to explain it. I’m not going to make myself smaller so you can feel better. I will be Simone who is black, British and of Afro-Caribbean descent. That is who I am!
Despite the struggles of growing up as a British Pakistani woman, I love how Pakistani women can bring communities together, especially on my street. Whenever anybody is in need or any neighbour goes hungry, we cook them up a treat or lend them a helping hand, regardless of their race or culture, just so they know they are loved and welcome. Women of colour have so much power, resilience, strength and kindness, I know this as I've experienced it through my mother, grandmother and great grandmother. For me to pass down to the next generation and so fourth.
I also love my Pakistani culture - from the yummy food, to the elegant fashion and style, the beautiful poetry and music and the rich history of our heritage.
I don’t feel as empowered as I should be, mainly because of the reactions I do get when I tell people where I come from. There was a period of time where I just stopped telling people because I was afraid of their responses. It’s quite difficult to be appreciated as a Syrian woman in the UK when most people don’t even know what that means. I do feel guilty because I don’t face the same type of discrimination as other Arabs do, and it’s based off of the fact that I do look white. Unless I tell people that I am Syrian. It eliminates that sense of fear that I’m sure a lot of people in my community must experience. I’ve had to consciously make the decision to validate my own experiences and identity. I’m proud to be a Syrian woman.
*Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, some participants were unable to attend the photoshoot.