If we were able to compare this pandemic to another one in the past, I would say that something different happened in 2020.
Maybe it was because we were stuck at home, eyes on the Internet 24/7, scrolling endlessly with no chance to go outside. Maybe we were more aware of how unfair the world is and how badly we’ve been failed by incompetent politicians. The thing is that when Breonna Taylor and George Floyd died, we took it very personally. It touched us and here in the UK, we finally started to see that racism isn’t this illusion that only happens in America. Covid-19 and how minorities were being affected disproportionately showed us – at last! – that Britain is no paradise for those who aren’t white.
We only had the internet and social media, so that’s where people poured all their energy, anger and, I guess, good intentions into. Support black-owned businesses, support black artists, put a black square on your feed. Did anyone think about how all those actions were being received on the other side?
I have never considered myself black. I am a mixed-race woman with a rocky journey to self-discovery. I grew up thinking that I was white, since I grew up in an environment where there were only white people everywhere, other than my father. No role models, no people of colour on television, magazines or textbooks. So why would I be different? I wasn’t as black as my dad, so… white? I always say that it was in London that I was born as a woman of colour. It was through feminism that I discovered black feminism and my journey started. As it happens, it was in 2020, a month before the death of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, that I launched a project that, for the first time since I started making ceramics, talked about my own identity. It was a project about race, about gender, inequality and my own self. And like any other search for identity, it is a work in progress.
And then, Instagram exploded. For days, I couldn’t go into my account because of the amount of messages from strangers saying ‘I love your work. I cannot believe I haven’t discovered you yet. Where can I buy it? I want it all…’ were endless. Over 1,000 people started following me in a week.
Now, let’s go to the receiver’s end.
Inner dialogue of questions I would have loved to ask all those people:
Well, you haven’t discovered me yet, because maybe you are not that into ceramics? And even if you were, there are a lot of ceramicists out there. So it’s ok. But… do you love my work because you do love it? Or because you have been made to believe that all that is black-owned and has a personal story about race and identity behind it is what you are supposed to love now? Are you following me so that you can put a nice series of stories to show the world that you care? Or do you really love my work?
Inner dialogue with myself:
Why am I in the middle of all this? I am not black… am I? I am brown. I am mixed-race. My experience is very, very different from Breonna Taylor’s, George Floyd’s and the communities of colour in the UK that are being hit hardest by the pandemic. I am rather middle class. I have suffered micro-racisms, plentiful, yes. And maybe I was never chosen to be in the regional basketball team because of the colour of my skin, or maybe boys didn’t fancy me that much compared to my friends in my teenage years because I didn’t fall under certain beauty canons… but I have always been popular and happy. I have got all the opportunities I have wanted in the past years… Do I deserve to profit from someone else’s real suffering?
In her book What White People Can Do Next* Emma Dabiri talks, among many other things, about how the current anti-racist movement doesn’t seem to have a manifesto. It is fixated with ‘visibility’ and ‘representation’ and fed by online performative gestures. Yes, black people want white people to transfer their privilege, but how and then what?
We keep assuming there exists ‘fundamental and immutable separateness between “different” “races”’; keep making sweeping generalisations about how the others behave and “cancel” everyone who disagrees with us. There’s no conversation and thus, no actual exchange of knowledge and views. There’s no collaboration, no plan.
What do we really want to change? How can we, together, dismantle the system that has brought us to this point and suppresses all of us, rather than blaming the individual?
Instead, we google what to do, without thinking, questioning and processing. We post stuff on the Internet to show the world we are saying something, while we do nothing.
It was capitalism that invented the concept of race. And it is capitalism, this individualistic world we live in and the tools, a.k.a. apps, that it has created, that has transformed our activism. Today, it is more about how good we feel with ourselves than how much of an impact our actions have and how we can design a long-term collective plan to bring justice to all.
And thus, last summer, thanks to thousands of people’s performative Instagram activism, I got tons of new followers, I got into magazines and was asked for interviews. As a result, my profile has risen. I am not going to complain and I am not going to decline opportunities because I feel I don’t deserve them. I am going to take up as much space as I can to speak up my truth, to share my own story. Maybe it isn’t a story of pain and bigoted discrimination, but it is the story of someone that, because of my genetic combination, falls into the cracks – the gaps in our societal labelling system. And so, my experience is put into the same bucket of someone else’s who, to me, has suffered more and deserves the visibility more and therefore, undermines my own idea of self, my impostor syndrome is fed and my journey continues.
What can I say? It was a total rollercoaster of a pandemic for me as a maker of colour. I believe in synchronicity and so all I will interpret out of this is that I was meant to have finished Baney Clay: An Unearthed Identity in April 2020. Not because of the social media illusion of growth and fame that followed the sad events in June 2020. But because of the project, those events and what I have experienced in the last year, I have understood better how the world works, how people work and how I want to work. All I know now is that all stories need to be heard so that we all can see the bigger picture, not the limited view that governments and social media are feeding us. So here is mine.
* Disclaimer: while I am obsessed with this book, I haven’t finished it yet.