When I was 11, my first piece of English homework at secondary school was to write a book report about what I’d read over the summer. The following week I stood in front of the class with my report in hand and gleefully talked about Lord of the Rings and why I loved fantasy novels. After reading my overly descriptive book report, the teacher announced, ‘Wow, a very impressive report from a smart young lad. Where are you from?’.
I said I was from London and was greeted with, ‘No, where are you really from?’, swiftly followed by, ‘Are you Caribbean or African?’. Embarrassed and perplexed (as any 11-year-old would be), I kindly repeated that I was born in London and awkwardly went back to my seat.
While this familiar encounter is extremely problematic for a number of reasons, what I found most unnerving at the time was not why he’d asked me where I was from, but why a location was of particular interest? And more importantly; what the hell did it have to do with my book report?
It was then that I realised that not only would my blackness be under scrutiny, but the whereabouts of my ethnic origin was also going to play a major part in navigating my identity too.
It wasn’t until starting secondary school that I’d realised the UK had witnessed immigration from both the Carribean and West African countries throughout the 20th-century and that Black British culture was a lot more complex than I’d originally thought.
‘You African booty scratcher’ and ‘you small island people don’t know your own culture’ were common lines thrown about in the playground – a place I mostly stayed away from as an openly gay teen. I often sat and wondered where this underlying animosity came from.
As a child, family gatherings would often centre around food, music and watching television. Films such as Coming to America or comedy specials featuring Mo’Nique, Eddie Murphy or Paul Mooney would always have us in fits of laughter. But it was also clear to me that there was a definite cultural difference between African Americans and Black British people.
Fast forward to 2018, these same differences can be witnessed today. In my opinion, what makes our cultures so different in the diaspora are indicators of what makes us all special, unique and beautiful. However, there still seems to be animosity festering in the underbelly of the African diaspora and the most obvious place where it can be seen is online.
Black Twitter is arguably the most popular social hub for cultural exchange online between Black people, globally. But it’s also been the battleground for the increasingly apparent ‘diaspora wars’, a term that’s peaked over the last few years as we banter amongst ourselves about our cultural differences online.
While most of these discussions are innocent in nature, some conversations go on to uncover some abhorrent and questionable rhetoric.
In 2017, when Samual J Jackson questioned Jordan Peel’s decision to use British Born actor, Daniel Kaluuya, to play the role of an African American, Black Brits swiftly came to Kaluuya’s defence. And as you can imagine, the backlash on Twitter quickly caught the attention of African American audiences.
It also raised important discussions online about who has authorship over one’s own cultural identity, the increase of Black British actors entering the American film industry and the sheer lack of knowledge about Black British culture on the part of Jackson.
While the conversation was an important one to be had, you couldn’t help but feel the cultural pull of the conversation. African Americans demanding the right to tell their own stories and questioning why Black British actors continue to take such prominent roles away from African American actors.
On the other hand, Black British actors have increasingly fewer opportunities in the film and TV industry in the UK. As a result, actors who fail to find work often look for opportunities in the Mecca of the film industry, the USA.
Heated debates on Black Twitter turned into throwing general insults across the virtual pond at one another. In short, it was a fight for the monopoly over struggle rather than a real conversation about the dynamics of the film industry at large and how it affects the African diaspora as a whole.
The same argument was reignited again just a few weeks ago when Cynthia Erivo was criticised for accepting the lead role in the long-awaited biopic of Harriet Tubman. Again, gauntlets were thrown and the to and fro of insults continued on Black Twitter to criticise or defend Erivo’s decision to take the role.
I saw similar criticism from the Caribbean collective when Drake incorporated Dancehall music on his 2016 album, Views, as well as donning a very questionable ‘Jamaican’ accent. While African American Drake fans defended the Canadian-born hip-hop rapper for giving Dancehall artists the ‘Drake co-sign’, Caribbean critics vilified him as a cultural appropriator dubbing him ‘Drake the fake’.
I’m not going to dig into the finer details of the aforementioned arguments (Google is your friend and this article isn’t the one), but what I will say is that we’re very much entitled to have these conversations about our culture, what our culture means to us and how it feels when a particular group of people from the African diaspora benefit from adopting the cultural ‘intellectual property’ of others within the collective.
But what I’m tired of seeing is the constant, unproductive slanging matches between us all in the diaspora. I’m tired of seeing the onslaught of derogatory insults we’ve kept so well hidden in our cultural linguistic arsenal. It makes Twitter an emotionally draining space.
Sure, have a bit of banter, but when I see comments depicting African Americans as ‘ghetto’, Caribbean people as backwards and West Africans and Black Britons as leaching off African American culture, I have to draw the line.
Let’s have genuine discussions to articulate the cultural nuances we have across the collective in order to educate and inform more objective opinions about the real issues at hand.
While tensions between African Americans and Black Britons seem relatively new, these same tensions have been witnessed by West Africans and Black Britons in the UK since the Windrush era. It’s also akin to the conflicts faced by African Americans and West African migrants in the US.
The acquittal of George Zimmerman, after killing Trayvon Martin in 2013, not only received outrage from African Americans, but onlookers from the African diaspora from as far as the UK, France, Germany and the Netherlands took to the internet (and the streets) to show their disgust and exclaim, Black Lives Matter!
Can we not use the compassion we felt for one another then and put that same energy into having conversations about the film and music industry as a whole?
I’m not saying let’s all hold virtual hands and sing Kumbaya – the conversation and dynamics at play don’t make it that easy. But on a practical level, as members of the African diaspora, we have the ability to use Twitter (and the rest of the internet) as a means to gather a powerful fellowship to tackle racism and anti-blackness on a global scale our elders could only dream of.
When having conversations about the intercultural issues within the diaspora, are you bringing anything constructive to the conversation? Are you taking away insights that can help you manifest a more informed view of the conversation at large? Are you able to take away any actionable insights to apply to your daily lives? Because guess who’s really reaping the rewards while we argue amongst each other?
Let’s make our conversations count.