Woman Explains What It’s Like Growing Up Black Somewhere That’s 98% White
Cheveay Oakley had never experienced racism when she moved from London to Cornwall at six years old with her mother.
It was at that point the now 20-year-old began to face prejudice based on the colour of her skin as one of very few non-White people living in England’s least diverse region, where White people account for 98.2% of the population.
From having racial slurs directed at her and her family as a child, to being verbally abused by people in passing cars, Cheveay has told UNILAD what it was like growing up as a Black person in one of England’s whitest places.
To me Cornwall is a beautiful place, filled with beautiful beaches, countryside and beautiful culture. I miss it a lot now, living in London. I made lifelong friends that I’m still in touch with now, that show me so much support and love. I’ve met amazing people over the years and have amazing memories from growing up there.
Despite this, growing up in Cornwall as a mixed-race child, when the population is predominantly white (98.2% to be exact) didn’t come without its obstacles. My family and I have experienced prejudice and hostility on a couple of occasions when my family would come to visit, people would stop their conversations to stare making us feel uncomfortable.
There was a time when racial slurs were muttered at us when someone called us ‘monkeys’ in public. I was disgusted by the fact that we were perceived as animals and told so, without any provocation. Growing up, I often felt I was either too dark or not dark enough.
Cheveay said she was ‘dark enough to receive racism, but not dark enough to call it out’, and was told she was too White or not Black enough. She added that she ‘learnt to not act in certain ways to avoid persecution’.
She described how she had stopped speaking up, and fell silent when people felt comfortable using racist terms around her because they thought they were close enough to think it acceptable to disrespect her.
I often wondered why it was desirable to want to use certain words that were so derogatory; was it because these words were so controversial that people people confused them for cool, rather than offensive?
I made the mistake of allowing people to use certain terms not only around me but about me. Through fear of not being accepted, pushed out or told my feelings are not valid, I tolerated the intolerable, which was wrong on my part. I feel I should have stood my ground and tried to educate others but when you’re young, impressionable and just wanting acceptance yourself, it’s difficult enough trying to fight your own battle.
Cheveay went on:
Some of the “harmless banter” my friends perceived as acceptable can often open doorways to more extreme examples of racism that are more easily identifiable than casual racism. Excusing it as banter leads to closed-minded views and allows people to abdicate themselves of any responsibility for what harm their views, words or actions may induce, all because ‘I have friends who are Black’.
I learnt the hard way that getting upset got me nowhere. I became desensitised after a boy called me a ‘n****’ in school because he found out I liked him. This didn’t just humiliate me because he was a crush of mine; it destroyed me because I found out that the colour of my skin came into it when deciding how likeable I was. I was only 13 or 14 years old at the time.
Although that boy was punished with detention and given a good telling-off by the adults in charge, I was still hurt. Little was done to help me realise this was not acceptable or to make sure I was okay. I was devastated that once again the colour of my skin had caused a negative reaction, completely unprovoked.
Cheveay explained how students in her class wanted her to ‘get over it’, because they didn’t understand and could never possibly relate. Now, she says, she realises ‘not even attempting to do either was unacceptable’.
Addressing those who shout racial slurs at people of colour, she asked why they feel the need to shout at somebody they don’t know and why it makes them feel good. ‘I’m sure if you felt the pain and violence that came with those words, you’d think again before using them to describe anyone,’ she added.
What people might see as innocent or even complimentary by making passing comments like ‘I wish I was Black sometimes’, I wonder, do they consider in that moment what that would mean for their life? Prejudicial first impressions before I even introduce myself, ignorant comments about my culture, personality or even my mannerisms?
To often be one of, if not the only person of colour in a room, especially in a classroom. To have racist slurs hurled at you from strangers – and people you know – in passing cars. To be told to ‘go back to where you came from’, as though my mere existence is causing harm to anyone. Do they consider their own privilege in making those innocent comments about wishing to be Black?
I’m not exotic, nor am I a trophy to be won. I’m not ghetto, aggressive, loud or sassy; I’m passionate because my experiences have made me who I am today. I want to be understanding and without ignorance towards all races, genders and religions, and I wish the same for other people too. Understanding other perspectives is what brings people together and ignorance is what separates and divides us.
I have two sides of me: my White side, which I want to educate and encourage understanding, and my Black side, which I want to empower and unify. I want people to feel they can use their voice to speak out on their own experiences, without fear of them being invalidated or silenced.
The colour of my skin does not determine the person I am. However, I’d like to think my actions do. I’d rather people see my actions and the words I speak and let that speak for me.
If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article and wish to speak to someone in confidence, contact Stop Hate UK by visiting their website www.stophateuk.org/talk