28 March 2012

Culture Shock: Being Black in England

I’ve never defined myself by my skin colour. I came from a place where I never had to. Toronto is one of the most multi-cultural cities in the world, and race never seemed to be a big issue. Everyone managed to blend into the mosaic without compromising their own identities, and I feel like I may have taken this for granted. When I moved to England, I expected things to be similar, since I was under the impression that it was an equally-multicultural country – but that has not been my experience.
I live in a small town called Long Eaton, about a half hour away from the Nottingham city centre. On occasion, I see one or two people of colour, but I’m basically the only Black person around. When I go out in public, I’ve never been made to feel so out of place. People passing me in the street stare me straight in the face, silently interrogating me, trying to figure me out. When I try to start a friendly conversation or ask for help in a store, I am dismissed immediately. A woman clutched her purse as I walked past the other day.

I was under the impression things would be different in the city centre, where there are more people of colour. However, this doesn’t actually seem to be the case. This weekend, I purchased an item in a deli and was in line after two young, Black men. An employee took my item to ring it in, and asked “is this everything?”. I assumed that he was asking if this was all I required, but he handed my box of olives to the man ringing in the two males in front of me. He said, “don’t forget these”, handing my item to the clerk, assuming that all three of us were together. 

Obviously, it’s an honest mistake, and he seemed really embarrassed. However, I’ve never really been subjected to that sort of prejudice. It was neither malicious nor intentional; it was accidental – inherent. It was the same kind of prejudiced that occurs when a women protects her purse when I walk past. It just seems to be a natural instinct. 

When you add being a woman to the ‘Black + Canadian = strange’ equation, things get even worse. On my first night out in the city, I had my ass grabbed by a young man who was intoxicated. I buried the urge to sock him and chalked it up to him being obliterated, but it was just the start of a trend. 

Whenever I go out, I’m approached by British men and the conversation begins with such charming ice breakers as: 

“Wow, you’re so exotic”

“You know, I love Black girls/brown skin/curvy women”
“What’s your background?”
“Let me just feel your hair” (yes, seriously)

On the odd occasion, they will get so bold as to touch my hair or grab me by the hips. Now, I go to some classy places (for Nottingham, at least), and I wouldn’t expect this type of behaviour from anyone – but the fascination of seeing a Black woman seems to transcend decorum and etiquette. I’m not flattered anymore, just offended.

I’m aware that this does happen to people of all races in places like Asia and Africa, where Blacks and Caucasians are visible minorities. However, I was under the impression that the big cities in England (of which Nottingham is the smallest) would be more multi-cultural, diverse, accepting. 

But, I’m reminded everyday that I’m different. That I don’t blend in and – most importantly – that I don’t belong. It’s a bit painful, since it seems like everyone in Toronto just belongs there. People of all races could identify and socialize with me, and my skin colour was never an issue.

It’s just a bit of culture shock, I guess, but it seems to work both ways. 


  1. I wouldn't take those things personally. I would just chalk it up to ignorance, Some of those people obviously don't have tv's or don't get out much. This is the 21st century for goodness sake "get a clue".
    As far as Longeaton goes, you get the same reaction in small towns in Canada and the US ( I won't name them,don't want to embarass anyone lol)So myse;f, if I were you I would just continue my travels and the heck with the "jerks" and if it gets to intolerable... come home.

  2. I understand your feeling of culture shock. I lived in Cambridge during my high school years (from 2004 to 2007). As an American, no wait- as a Texan, people automatically heard my voice and equated me with a Bible-loving, George Bush fanatic who was supposed to wear cowboy boots and have horses back home. Although I was not subject to discrimination on sight, I did feel it when I opened my mouth... so much so that I put on an English accent in public just to avoid people making comments to me. At that point in time when I lived there, people had such an aversion to the US because of George Bush. This even resulted in people hearing my voice and deciding I'm an American (even though I could easily be Canadian), and thus should sit there and listen to their rants about all the things wrong with my country... I even received different attention from the service industry. Coming from Houston, which is an immigration center and extremely multi-cultural city, (similar to Toronto in that way), I never thought about the differences between people as something which required harassment in any way, and was really challenged when I first arrived. However, I learned to live with the experiences, and eventually stopped noticing them. It helps that I was embraced by a few school mates who took me under their wing to help me through the transition.

    I'm sorry that your initial experiences in the UK have proven difficult. I have a few really good friends in Nottingham that I'm sure would make you feel right at home- as they did for me when I lived there :) (Let me know if you'd like to get in contact with them!)