A NIGERIAN WORLD TRAVELER LIVING IN THE U.K. SETS THE RECORD STRAIGHT.
by Omoruyi (Omo) Osagiede | Photography by Eulanda Shead-Osagiede
The George Floyd video (the one with the Minnesota police officer’s knee on his neck as Floyd gasped for breath and plead for his life- That re-ignited the Black Lives Matter movement.) continues to haunt me. May Floyd find the justice in death that he was so brutally denied in life. I’m inspired to write this first as a way to process my feelings about this sad event. Secondly, I’m writing because some of my non-black friends have reached out privately to check up on me and express solidarity in the face of this latest flashpoint in the United States’ terrible interpretation of race relations. Thank you for checking in. Nigerian world traveler George Floyd Black Lives Matter flash justice Nonblack friends solidarity and allies
Some have asked how they can be better at promoting positive images of black men and supporting black causes. Thank you for asking. I am a naturalized British West African married to a black American. As a result, I have a range of life experiences that connect me to black cultures and causes — including those of the U.S. — in more ways than one, being followed in shops by store security. That’s just the reality of a black man in predominantly white spaces. I typically shrug my shoulders and move on. Nigerian world traveler George Floyd Black Lives Matter flash justice Nonblack friends solidarity and allies
It was early afternoon when I arrived in the town centre. Not being high tourist season, the town square was filled with mostly locals shopping, relaxing on park benches, drinking, playing games and socializing. I was aware of their stares as soon as I entered their space. In those circumstances, I instinctively switch on what I call my “Overcompensation Mode,” the one where I smile a bit more, slow some movements and exaggerate others so as to appear as unthreatening as possible.
LET ME TELL YOU A STORY…
Some months ago, while on a work trip in Europe with a group of fellow digital content creators, I had gone off on my own to photograph around the town centre. I was in a little town in a part of this particular European country where black men are a rarity. In my extensive travels across the world, by now I’m used to standing out as a black man. I’m used to being stared at. I’m used to folks clutching their personal belongings just a little closer when I approach. I’m used to it.
I set up my camera and began taking photos, recording videos, speaking to the camera, etc. I was drawing attention to myself with my activity so, naturally, it was normal to expect stares. However, a police van soon pulled up and parked in the square a few feet from where I was standing. The policemen got out and looked at me. We made eye contact briefly before they turned to talk with some locals sitting on a park bench who were still staring at me.
Coming from a monoracial society like Nigeria, I was slow to recognize racial stereotyping. The U.S. version is well played out on our TV screens and in popular culture. The European version is more covert. My “black-man-in-a-strange place” radar engaged and suddenly, I didn’t feel so relaxed. The police didn’t bother me, but that was it for me. I decided it was time to move on. I packed my gear and headed to our hotel. I re-joined my travel group in the foyer. We traded stories about our morning. Like me, everyone had gone off to do some last-minute photography.
THIS IS WHERE THE STORY GETS EVEN MORE PERSONAL…
As we chatted, I half-jokingly, half-seriously said something like this:
“You know what happened to me this morning? I caused quite the stir in the town square. It seems the locals haven’t seen too many black people in their town. I got a lot of stares while I was filming and shortly after, a police van showed up!”
I’m laughing as I’m saying this, trying to make light of the situation but at the same time trying to share my truth. A white colleague in the group stopped me mid-narrative and said something like: “Noooo! How can you imply that the locals were staring at you because you’re black? How can you think that the police turned up just because you were there? Noooo, don’t be silly.”
Inwardly I felt myself cringe. My eyes narrowed and goosebumps covered my skin. Instinctively, the group fell silent, waiting for my reaction. I locked eyes for a brief instant with the only other person of colour in the group. Instinctively, I understood that she KNEW what I was REALLY saying.
I did not complete my story. I sensed that no matter how I tried to explain my experience or how I felt, he wouldn’t get it. He was clueless about my lived experience as a black man and nothing I could say would convey my suppressed anxiety about being a black man in a predominately white society.
It was a brief, simple and innocuous exchange but with that one “innocent” remark, he was unconsciously diluting and explaining away my truth — probably without even realizing it.
Dear Non-Black People, I know you probably feel uncomfortable when black people or ethnic minorities in your friendship circles and societies talk about being stereotyped and marginalized. I know you want to show empathy. You want to be our ally. You want to be an advocate. However, I understand that you may not always know the right words to say or how to use your positions or platforms to be vocal about your advocacy and to champion causes of racial equality and fairness. I get it.
WHICH BRINGS ME TO MY POINT…
Let me keep this simple: You can start by NOT dismissing what we feel as being NOTHING.
The fears and anxieties we feel and the micro-aggressions we face are not simply “in our heads.” We’re not simply “overreacting” or “looking at things all wrong,” “making a fuss when there is no need,” or “screaming racial profiling for no reason.”I’m not being melodramatic when I say that as a black man, I’m more anxious than others about being stereotyped and followed by security when I enter a store wearing a face mask and a cap (PS: that happened to me today in London).
I ’m not being over-sensitive when I fear I am being profiled by immigration in some countries. In one example, while arriving in another country with a group of journalists (I was the only black person in the group), I was briefly detained by local immigration and asked all manner of questions — even though I was traveling with a group and we were ALL carrying British passports. I’m not being a “diva” when I observe that I am getting passed over for service in some restaurants in some countries while non-black guests around me who arrived at the same time are getting served.
I may never be in a position where I’ve got the knee of a police officer on my neck but with the way some societies treat people of colour, we carry a weight on our shoulders every day.
I and your other black friends can probably give many more examples but I think I’ve made my point. I’m guessing that anyone reading this who is classed as minoritized in whatever society you live may find this story relatable. This is why statements like, “I don’t see colour” are problematic. It is a failure to acknowledge your privilege and that another person’s lived experience based on their race or minority position might be different from yours.
You may never hear this from another person of colour so I’m saying it: If you can’t be an ally, if you can’t be an advocate if you can’t stand up for minoritized peoples when they’re being disadvantaged, DO NOT dismiss, dilute or explain away their pain, fear or anxieties. We all want to see more racial tolerance and peaceful coexistence among races in our societies. I think it starts by listening.
- Omoruyi (Omo) Osagiede is Third Culture Adult who originally hails from West Africa. An Information security and data privacy professional based in London, United Kingdom (U.K.), he’s worked for companies in the financial services, retail, telecoms, energy, and utilities industries across Nigeria, U.K. and Europe. A writer, who has been published in Lonely Planet, Culturs Magazine, and House of Coco Magazine. A digital content creator, his work can be found on heydipyourtoesin. com (travel and lifestyle) and protectme.blog (digital security).