Jacqueline Smith shares her experiences as a Black woman in the United Kingdom
I am the girl who couldn’t wait to go to school. I enjoyed learning, making friends, riding my bike and playing after school. A relatively normal childhood. I remember hot summer days when you could play outside until you were exhausted and picnics in the park. But I was also one of three black families in a small village in Buckinghamshire. So, I was also the girl who read the sign that said ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’ discreetly placed at the back window of our village pub. Who when she called for her friend to play heard “there’s a darkie at the door for you”; who couldn’t go to some class birthday parties because “it’s not you, you’re my friend, but I’m not allowed to invite anyone black”; who sitting in the park with my friend was looked at by an adult passer-by and was told “you’re disgusting”.
I am the girl that you put your arm against to compare the colour; touched my hair; asked me if my colour would “wash off”; what food I eat and what colour my blood is. These are the things I can say out loud. I answered all of your questions – you were my friend, right? I smiled and I held your hand. I didn’t ask you any questions. By the time I left education the question I asked myself was “What would my life be like without prejudice?”
I am the woman who couldn’t wait to go to work. I commuted to the City of London because I thought it would be exciting and I wanted to work in the legal industry. I made friends – some for a season but many for a lifetime. We laughed and cried together; shared secrets; went to pubs, wine bars, restaurants. We shared our lives and were bonded in friendship. I worked hard. I worked harder.
I am the woman you told “you’re different from the others because of the way you speak” and whilst you referenced my “extensive vocabulary” you also told me I should try to be “less forthright” so people “understand me”. You asked me at the Christmas party if I “know anyone who can get me some drugs”; asked me “what do the people of my country wear”; asked me “where are you from … no, really from?” So many questions. These are the ones I can say out loud. I answered all of them – you were my work colleague and friend, right? I smiled; even though you still want to touch my hair. I didn’t ask you any questions. The question I ask myself is “What would my life be like without discrimination?”
I am the woman who listens to the rhetoric that references “their kind”; “if they don’t like it …”; “there is no racism in this country”; “always playing the black card”. These are the things I can say out loud. I am the woman where, everywhere I turn; everyone is talking about race on every platform and I can’t shut it out. I want to feel safe. Don’t you understand – I haven’t asked you any questions. This is how I keep smiling. This is how I have learnt to navigate. You are ready to listen. You want me to talk about everything in my life, but I cannot. I am tired. The question I ask myself is “What can we do to stop racism in the world?”
I am the woman who is now ready to talk. I’ve read that “peer silence is the enabler for all injustices” and that “you cannot be seen unless you are heard” so I am going to begin anew. I will keep smiling but I can no longer sit in silence. It’s going to be uncomfortable for us. It’s going to make us feel vulnerable. It’s going to be challenging for us. We are going to make mistakes. These are the things that make us human.
I don’t know all the answers and I am not speaking for an entire race (nobody can) but I do know I want the world to change. I am the woman who wants to look into a future filled with hope and I will walk in love and light and be ready for you to stand by my side. The question I ask now is … Are you going to join me?
So many questions for which many of us would like straight answers to. One day just one day they maybe answered. Well written Jackie.
Thank you Nina and yes, one day.
Reading your article in August 2022 and finding it so fitting for my childhood in the other side of the Atlantic (Brazil). By reading your profile in Linkedin I can also see that we have much more in common and started to follow you.
Thanks for the great article and for being such a role model for us black women. I will do my best to keep in touch with you as I have a lot to share regarding back women in administrative work. All the best.
Thank you Monica.
I have had so many messages from connections across the world who have resonated with these experiences which has been both sad and empowering. I hope you are navigating this pathway well and are using your experiences to excel in all you do.