Writer Amera Johnson discusses how Brighton’s predominantly white surroundings make it hard to find spaces and events in which one can express their black and queer identities simultaneously without it being an ‘either-or’.
As a black person, attending a PWI (Predominantly White Institution) is an automatically alienating experience. As a black queer woman, it’s even harder to find spaces – social and mental – where I can parade these important facets of my identity. This is a particular experience felt by many queer people from ethnic minority backgrounds in PWIs, the feeling of either-or, that you must choose one marginalised category and stick with it, as there are not enough people in this niche demographic of black/brown and queer.
Brighton is known to be a very accepting and LGBTQ+ friendly town. Homophobia and transphobia are still rife everywhere, as with any place in this world, but one of the more ‘protected’ queer spaces here is Revenge club.
For us queer folk of colour sometimes it feels like we have to pick and choose different aspects of our identity to expose in different social environments
The caricaturisation of black bodies – of black movement, of black language and of black culture is a social epidemic that has been found prevalent in white, cis-male, gay communities. The co-opting of AAVE (African American Vernacular English) terms like “shade”, “yass”, “wig”, “tea”, “drag” and so on that were in fact created by black queer folk in NYC, is one example of this. You may also find some white gays on stan twitter performing digital blackface through meme gifs, or clearly imitating stereotypes of black women in videos for views (see: Landon Romano).
For these reasons, therefore, being a black/brown person in these spaces can feel uncomfortable. Sometimes I just want to enjoy myself without receiving a “yass queen”, or being told that sometimes a *white gay* person feels like a “black woman on the inside”. It often feels like my black woman-ness is a spectacle to be marvelled at.
This is not even to mention the hyper sexualisation that all queer people of colour, but especially black gay men are subjected to. On apps like Grindr, or in nightclub spaces like Revenge, black gay men are either highly fetishised or completely disregarded – this polarisation evident in Grindr profiles that say “looking for BBC” or going to gay clubs and not getting any attention unless to ask if their white friend is single. These frequent microaggressions and benevolent racism from white folk that occur under the guise of our existence in a colour-blind, post-racial society since events like the emancipation of slaves and the civil rights movement, makes ‘queer’ spaces feel exclusive and inaccessible for many black queers, and these experiences are overwhelming and uncomfortable.
Where predominantly white queer spaces can feel unsafe and unaccommodating for ethnic minority queers, black and brown cis-het spaces can feel equally as alienating. One of these main spaces is family and the home. Homophobia and transphobia are not limited to families of colour, but specifically, with ethnic and immigrant parents, the likelihood and reality for most queer POC is that they will not accept you for who you are. A lot of BAME parents practice religions which, due to white supremacy and colonialism, prohibit same-sex relations. Even with changes in legislation in countries such as India, the stigma around homosexuality continues to linger with the legacy of the British Empire. This is not to say all ethnic minority families are unaccepting, but that the likelihood is still high and many queer folk end up repressing this side of their personality so as not to ostracise themselves from the heterosexual black/brown community. Therefore, as you can see, for us queer folk of colour sometimes it feels like we may have to pick and choose different aspects of our identity to expose in different social environments.
My experience of studying at the University of Sussex over the past three years has been disillusioning. I came here believing in the rhetoric of inclusivity and diversity that this institution claims to adopt only to realise it was just that: rhetoric. Attempts to truly decolonise this PWI have proven inadequate, as only last year was the policy in the School of English on saying the n-word changed. And after I saw a lecturer kept their job after arguably making publicly transphobic comments, I realised the university’s ideas were performative. This perhaps suggests that the idea of a decolonised PWI is impossible; a paradox, and when institutions like this university are small-scale replicas of the society we live in, it shows that the de-imperialisation of the entire world is unobtainable whilst white supremacist patriarchy continues to hold power over dominant ideology and hegemony.
Sometimes I just want to enjoy myself without recieving a “yass queen”, or being told that sometimes a *white gay* person feels like a “black woman on the inside”. It often feels like my black woman-ness is a spectacle to be marvelled at.
Even with the on-going UCU strikes, the university’s cavalier attitude towards issues of inequality that also affect teachers, such as the BAME and gender pay gap, has become evident with their failure to improve on these issues. There are obvious over-arching structures working against marginalised folk here originating from the top-down; when executive decisions are made by the university board and vice-chancellor Adam Tickell, people further down the hierarchy have little control over these detrimental aspects of their work-life and wellbeing.
A black gay friend of mine who graduated from Sussex last year recounted to me an experience he had in first year: “The first LGBTQ+ coffee and boardgames morning I went to in first year….I discovered a door next to the LGBTQ+ society room that said “black students room” which ended up being a cupboard. That was foreshadowing my time at Sussex/in Brighton”. This pretty much sums the experience of being black and queer or brown and queer not just in a PWI, but also in a predominantly white world.
You are probably wondering: why haven’t I started a black queer society at Sussex myself? Because I don’t want to. It’s as simple as that. It shouldn’t be my responsibility. I look at it this way: if institutional and systemic racism in schools didn’t exist; more black and brown students would not feel discouraged to apply to reputable universities; more students of colour would exist at places like Sussex, and possibly one of these students would feel interested in setting a queer POC society up. It’s unfair that black queer people don’t have the privilege of coming to university and finding a society already in existence that caters to their identity.
Where London has events such as pxssypalace, Lick Events, Queer Bruk and many more that cater specifically to queer people of colour, I feel that it is harder in Brighton to find places in which I can take up space, places made for people like me, by people like me. I can only hope that changes in the future.
Featured Image Credit: Pose – FX