I used to leave home for school in the mornings dreading the moment I walked through those gates. I was new and, as one of two black African kids in the class, my classmates had certain ideas of what I’d be like and how would I act.
And so, I did my best to create a false persona, trying to act they way they wanted me to, even going so far as to change my Facebook name. No longer Ahmed Yussuf, from then on I would be known as Biggie Yussuf.
Why? Well, being a well-rounded teen, the only prominent black person my “friends” thought I could pass for was the ironically named late rapper Biggie Smalls. As for talent, let’s just say my rapping exploits started and ended with a pretty unimpressive rap from That’s So Raven I thoughtlessly claimed for myself.
You feel sort of trapped in a box, not allowed to express something other than what they expect of you.
In hindsight, like many things in hindsight, that was ridiculous. But then, the pressure of others expectations can often lead to some bad decisions. Be it in a romantic relationship where you’re indulging someone’s very strange racial fetishes, or just trying to co-exist in a social space among those you thought were friends, the feeling is the same. You feel sort of trapped in a box, not allowed to express something other than what they expect of you. Soon enough, you become little more than a mirror to their imaginations.
Social situations force you to think about certain things, not necessarily always negative but certainly always rather strange. Imagine, for instance, you’re talking about what you’d like to eat for lunch and at that moment the person you’re talking to about sandwiches or falafel or whatever, suddenly feels the need to assure you of how very anti-racist they are. Or perhaps they simply treat you with a rather strange, calculated level of niceness – pleasant but not entirely convincing.
It’s the friends who treat you as social currency, the token black person on the list of diverse friends they collect like rare butterflies.
It’s a feeling my friend Magan Magan knows all too well. “We live in a culture where all you have to do is say the right things, and that’s it,” he tells me in frustration. “It's like ticking boxes and I wish people saw through that. Because there’s so much performance to that.”
Magan is a Melbourne-based poet whose work focuses on the experiences of being “in-between”, of not fitting into those boxes we are allocated based on our “identity.” He told me about the “extra baggage” he’s had to carry in life because of the reactions and emphasis others put on his black complexion.
For instance, there was the woman who, heavily into race politics and being “woke,” wanted to date Magan because his blackness would make her look open-minded in her circle. “For her it would be ticking all the boxes,” he shakes his head.
But it’s not just one date or one person. It’s the strangers on the street who clutch their belongings just that little bit closer to them as you pass. It’s the friends who treat you as social currency, the token black person on the list of diverse friends they collect like rare butterflies.
Everyone, both inside and outside black communities, has a perception about black men. Even as a teenager, I was expected to be loud, dominant, and above all, sexually promiscuous. For me, high school was a time of strange looks on the faces of my classmates when I didn’t immediately nod my head and respond in great and gory detail when asked what I’d like to “do” to Rihanna, or some other famous attractive woman.
It wasn’t only me. Magan also remembers as a teen having to constantly talk about sex in a way that made him sound domineering. “Because if you weren’t talking the talk and walking the walk to meet those expectations (then) everyone is confused.”
For me, high school was a time of strange looks on the faces of my classmates when I didn’t immediately nod my head and respond in great and gory detail when asked what I’d like to “do” to Rihanna, or some other famous attractive woman.
Most of us would be familiar with the tropes and fetishisation of the black male body so prevalent in pop culture. What many wouldn’t know, however, is how invasive and dehumanising it feels when people who don’t even know you project these tropes onto your body.
Last year, New York Times writer Wesley Morris, in a piece titled “Why Pop Culture Can’t Deal With Black Male Sexuality”, shared a story of when he took a white man home, only for his would-be lover to give Morris’ crotch “a long, perplexed look,” before putting his clothes back on and bidding a hasty retreat because what he saw didn’t live up to his – ahem – big expectations.
“That hurt,” Morris wrote. “But I remember being amused that, for him, all our attraction came down to was what someone had told him my dick should look like. I remember standing there, half-dressed in my living room, and actually saying out loud, ‘Why does he know that?’”
Imagine for a moment, you are standing where Morris was. Now, you know that your body is fine the way it is, but you still have to live up to some unnatural, lofty expectations to possess something that’s been so mythologised, reality can not hope to meet it.
Ultimately, no stereotype is good, be it positive or negative. Even the “harmless” black-people-are-all-good-dancers-and-athletes stereotypes can hurt those who fail to live up to them. Because, as Magan asks, if you happen not to be what other people think black men should be, “then what are you?”
Forcing people into boxes, making them feel that they need to perform this fixed identity, denies them the opportunity to do what so many of us seem to take for granted – develop identity of their own and be whoever they want to be.
Love the story? Follow the author here: @ahmedyussef10.
Face Up To Racism #FU2Racism with a season of stories and programs challenging preconceptions around race and prejudice. Tune in to watch Is Australia Racist? (airs on Sunday 26 February at 8.30pm), Date My Race (airs Monday 27 February at 8.30pm) and The Truth About Racism (airs Wednesday 1 March at 8.30pm).
Watch all the documentaries online after they air on SBS On Demand.