Why talking about race is ‘like going to the dentist’

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Media caption“We have schools in Africa!” – Elijah Lawal

Author Elijah Lawal wants readers to think about race and “call out stereotypes”.

“I like to use the metaphor of talking about race as going to the dentist – it’s unpleasant, but you have to go, otherwise, things will just get worse,” he says.

His new book The Clapback explores the origins of prejudice and stereotypes, and how to overcome them.

Lawal, a PR manager at Google, told BBC News he’s not a spokesman for the whole community, adding his experience is just one of a multitude of BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) perspectives.

Why did you feel the need to write this?

“For me it was to try and look at what the stereotypes aimed at the black community are, but to also understand their origin. Where did they come from? Why do they exist? And why haven’t they gone away in such a very long time?

“But then it’s also important to ask, is there any truth to them? Because before you can clap back on any assertions, you need to know whether or not they’re true.

“And so I really wanted to examine how true these stereotypes are, if at all, but then to also understand the potential for damage. It’s very easy to say “you shouldn’t say that”. But it’s a it takes a little bit more to say “you shouldn’t say that because this is how it hurts me, this is how it affects my community”.

“And that’s a more powerful message – I wanted to arm people within the black community with the right knowledge to clap back on these assertions, but also to explain to people from other communities why these stereotypes can be harmful.”

Can you think of a particular incident that made you sit up and say “I really need to talk about this”?

“I mean, any person of colour, anyone from an underrepresented background, could probably give you several examples. For me, I think the one that still sticks out in my mind was when I was living in Ireland and there was a census, and the census analyst came to my door, and we were talking, chatting.

“I filled in the form, I gave it to him, and he said, ‘where are you from?’ I said I was from England. And he said: “I just have to tell you, your English is very good.” And I was like, yeah, I’m from England!

“So you know, it’s just this whole idea of, because I’m black. He was expecting me to be from somewhere maybe in Africa or the Caribbean, which I have no problem kind of explaining. It’s just that natural assumption that I can’t speak English or that my English is very good just because of the colour of my skin.

“And to kind of clap back on that sort of assertion, lots of people in Africa speak very, very good English, not only just because of the history of colonisation, but because it’s such a developing economy, doing business with lots of different countries, and educational programs, immigration, so with all of that, it’s important to learn other languages. So lots of people in just West Africa, for instance, speak English, you know, French, Portuguese, Spanish.”

Do you have any concerns about and some of the examples that you’ve used in the book bringing out other stereotypes that people might know about?

“The problem is that talking about race is so difficult. The novelist Toni Morrison said, and this is not verbatim, that the problem about talking about race is it’s exhausting, you constantly have to prove that you’re as smart as someone else, or as deserving of an opportunity. It’s constantly hard, and there’s always going to be another thing.

“And also, it’s very difficult, because, for instance, me as a black person talking about race to some people who are white, I might come across as the angry black person, but to other black people I might come across as someone who hasn’t gone far enough. “

In the book, do you identify how the experience as an African black man can be different to that of, say, a Jamaican black man?

“I haven’t, but one of the things that I acknowledge is, for a black person, I am extremely privileged. I work at Google, I have what Brits would describe as a middle class upbringing. I didn’t want for anything, you know, growing up, and now I work for a big tech company. So I’m actually quite privileged.

“And so that was so important for me to mention that this experience will not be reflective of every experience. So no-one should sort of read it and go, “what’s he complaining about? He’s got a good life”. And the reality of the situation is, I don’t know what it’s like to be a Jamaican black man.

“In the same way, I don’t know what it’s like to be a black woman, or a black member of the LGBT community. So I tried as much as possible to use experiences from other people as research. But I am just not going to be able to do it justice. So one of the things that I would love for readers to do is to understand this is a perspective, and not see as the summary of the black perspective.”

The Clapback is published by Hodder and is available from 20 June.

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