Black, Muslim and female; a discussion of privilege and isms
My name is Muhaimina Tahir Sheikh Said. I was born and grew up in Mombasa, Kenya. My father was of Somali heritage, my mother a Yemeni Arab with some Indian blood thrown in for good measure. My father was a self-made millionaire, who was born a goat herder in Northern Kenya. My mother’s grandfather left Yemen in his teens to seek a better life on the Kenyan coast, only to find himself shipwrecked off the coast. He spent days at sea clinging onto flotsam, with his younger brother clamped to his back, before they got rescued by fishermen and brought back to a tiny village in the Lamu Archipelago. Despite having arrived in Kenya with nothing more than the clothes on their back, by the time my Great Grandfather passed away, he was a wealthy man. Sadly, his wealth was lost with him and my mother grew up surrounded by love but not much else. She left school when she was young so that she could work as a seamstress to find fees for her younger siblings to go to school and make a better life for themselves.
Education was always incredibly important to my parents. My father who had no formal education spent his life reinventing himself as a Great Man. But there was always that little voice of doubt that made him wonder what his life would have been if he HAD gone to school. While nobody judged him or thought less of him for not having a piece of paper saying he’d been to school, part of him always did. So when he had children, the one thing he never got in the way of was our education, which is the reason why I am where I am today.
In many ways, my life has been one of firsts. I was the first local Kenyan person to be enrolled at my school full of White people and Indians. I was also the first Muslim. I was the first person to win the right to wear a head scarf in a school so removed from it’s physical location that the speaking of Swahili was banned in the school grounds in favour of the ‘superior’ English language. As a result, while my mother tongue is Swahili, my first language is English. That was the only language I was allowed to think in at school, and it sunk in. I was ‘good enough’ to be in the school because my father could afford the fees. But my African-ness was never ‘good enough’. I enrolled as Muhaimina, but 15 years later, graduated as Mina, who had grown tired of people butchering her name for 15 years.
When I was about 15, I remember being sat at the school gates waiting to be picked up. I was sat with some of the groundskeepers and we were talking about religion. I remember saying that Islam wasn’t just a religion for Arabs or Swahili people, but one for everyone, and one of the groundskeepers totally lost it. Islam wasn’t for everyone, he said. It was the religion of the slave traders who had sold his people. I couldn’t understand why he was so angry with me. I had done nothing wrong. My family wasn’t even in Kenya when the slave trade was going on. It was nothing to do with me, I said. Nothing I said to try and defend myself made him any less angry with me. I don’t remember much about my childhood, but I remember that conversation. That was the first time that someone had ever pointed out my privilege to me. The first time that someone told me that, because of that privilege, I was not one of them.
I have always had difficulty knowing where I belonged. I am Black, yes, but I wasn’t black enough for him. So did I have a right to stake a claim to my blackness? I would fill in those ethnic background questionnaires and always checked “Black – Other”. Because I didn’t know what I was.
The second conversation I had about race was with a Black woman on a train platform in Bristol. We were talking about racism and I used the term “People of colour” to describe myself. That seemed to fit as well as any other term. I was definitely not white, I couldn’t claim the term ‘Black’, but coloured seemed safe. She asked me why I called myself that. I replied that it was because I was a person of colour. And she said “No. That is a term created by Whites to take away our power. You are Black”. It was a conversation that reverberated in me for years in which I was I was still too scared to refer to myself as a Black woman. Because that Black man when I was a child told me I wasn’t one of them, and because being Black wasn’t just about the colour of your skin. For me, the term was wrapped up in a history of politics, power, oppression, slavery and racism that I had been told I was responsible for.
But while I may not have seen myself as Black, that was never how the world saw me. My Blackness is a cloak that I could never take off. One of the things that makes me, me, is my ability to compartmentalise problems and deal with them when I am ready. It’s what makes me the business woman I am today. It’s also the reason why I spent years erasing small bits of my identity, of who I was, putting them into a box and locking it all away. It was easier that way. My Name, my Language, my Heritage, my Blackness. It all got locked away.
When I married a White man, I was happy to take his name. It meant that I would never need to spell my name or answer people’s comments about how it wouldn’t fit onto a form, or pretend that Tahir was my middle name because I didn’t have one. When I had a mixed race daughter, I jokingly called her my Zebra baby. Half White, half Black, neither here, nor there. Like me. I gave her and her sisters racially ambigious names to try and hide their identity too, so they could access the privilege afforded to them as the white-passing children of a white man. Then, while doing my PhD, I started foraging, and then teaching wild food skills to people. It was time for another first. The first Muslim and the first Black professional forager in the UK (that I could find anyway). But my blackness was still in that box, being ignored by me but nobody else. It was only when I went into business with a White woman that the lock on that box, broke. That lock had been chipped away when, at a family funeral, people assumed I was the help because I was helping my White mother-in-law put out the food at the wake. When door-to-door salespeople would knock at my door and assume that I was renting the house I owned. When people shouted at me from moving vehicles to “go home”. When as a teenager a friend laughingly told me about how his mother had shouted at him for hanging out with a Golo.
Every time someone walked into our bakery, I would make a point of saying how I was the one who had started Wildcraft. Sam thought it was to put her in her place and make it clear that she was the johnny-come-lately. But to me, the fact that she hadn’t been there at the very beginning of the journey was completely irrelevant. I told people that I was the first because I knew that unconscious bias would mean that as soon as anyone new walked through those big blue doors and saw a white woman standing next to a black one, they would assume that the business was hers, and I was the help. That is the thing about racism. Some white people seem to have this idea that, because they don’t use racial epithets to describe people, or they have black friends or black partners, or mixed race children, that they are somehow absolved of racism. Just because you have black friends, it doesn’t mean you can’t be guilty of unconscious bias, or that you don’t benefit every day from the privilege afforded to you as someone who is white. This isn’t to say that white people don’t deal with poverty, classism, sex discrimination, or homophobia or any of those other horrible things that people deal with regardless of their race. But the fact of the matter is that in the UK, more than half of fans have witnessed racist abuse at a football match, over 70% of ethnic minority workers say that they have experienced racial harassment at work in the last five years, and around 60% say that they have been subjected to unfair treatment by their employer because of their race. Racist stereotypes are still rife on UK TV screens. Despite making up just 14% of the population, BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) men and women make up 25% of prisoners, while over 40% of young people in custody are from BAME backgrounds. If our prison population reflected the make-up of England and Wales, we would have over 9,000 fewer people in prison – the equivalent of 12 average-sized prisons. There is greater disproportionality in the number of Black people in prisons here than in the United States. In the UK, BAME people die disproportionately as a result of use of force or restraint by the police, raising serious questions of institutional racism as a contributory factor in their deaths. Pakistani, Black Caribbean and Black African babies (6.7, 6.6 and 6.3 deaths per 1,000 live births respectively) have the highest infant mortality rates in the UK, where Black women are 5 times as likely to die during childbirth. And now, thanks to Covid-19, Britain’s minority racial groups appear to be dying at a 27% higher rate than you’d expect from our representation in the general population.
When Black people talk about racism, do not try to silence us by saying that racism isn’t a problem in the UK, or that there are worse places to be Black or there are other, more appropriate platforms to discuss ‘that stuff’. Don’t tell us how racism may be bad but the people who are rioting “Had it coming“. Don’t get defensive and angry when people talk about Privilege. Listen to what they have to say, and above all, educate yourself. The excuse that you don’t know what to say is no longer good enough. Being a good ally means holding yourself accountable and doing the work yourself to better understand what’s going on. That does not mean asking people of colour what you should say or post on social media. It’s not the job of the oppressed to teach you how to stop oppressing them, and it’s a huge emotional burden to expect your friends or family to unpack the injustices they deal with daily for your own benefit. Read about White Fragility and what you can do about it. Read “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” by Reni Eddo-Lodge. And above all, stand with us. Fight with us. Because we’ve been doing it on our own for centuries and its clearly not working. Together, we are strong.
Some of you might be asking what does this have to do with Wildcraft. At Wildcraft Bakery, we are acutely aware of the power and privilege that we have as employers, to help even the playing field for those who are under-represented in society. I have to date worked alongside 12 people in the bakery who were either employed by us or with us on work experience. Some are still with us, and some have left. But out of those 12, 4 of them were Black people who, while at college, were regarded as the “problem student” of their class or were the only people of colour in their cohorts. The first Black person we employed graduated many years ago and is an experienced baker, but our new apprentice is still at college now, surrounded by people who look nothing like her. We don’t know why black people are so few and far between in the professional baking world. But we know that by mentoring and working alongside people like them, that we can help make our little corner of Leeds that little bit brighter.
You might also be wondering, what does this have to do with you? The vast majority of our customers are White, and you are all such wonderful people. There is an idiom that has been bandied around a lot in the last few weeks, that is all driven by the actions of “a few bad apples”. It is worth remembering is that the full idiom is that “a few bad apples spoils the whole barrel”. So we are calling on you, our customers to be anti-racist. Being a silent ally is no longer enough. Call people out on their racist behaviours when you see them. Don’t be afraid to rock the boat, or use your privilege for the benefit of those who do not have it. Because life is not a zero-sum game. Just because somebody is winning, it doesn’t mean somebody else has to lose. And changing your view doesn’t make you a hypocrite.